High Times Greats: Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia on his childhood in San Francisco, the influence of On the Road, the spirit of Neal Cassady, his brief stint in the Army, and the roots of the Grateful Dead.
High Times Greats: Jerry Garcia
Wikimedia Commons

Legendary rock journalist Al Aronowitz interviewed Jerry Garcia (1942-1995) in 1972. That interview wasn’t published until January, 2001, when it hit the pages of High Times magazine. On the occasion of Jerry’s birthday August 1 and the anniversary of his death August 9, we’re republishing it below.

Jerry Garcia wanted me to write a story about him. That was the deal. It was June of 1972.

There had never been a major magazine piece about him. Jerry wasn’t trendy enough. I didn’t have the faintest idea which magazine would want a story about Jerry. Probably none. Still, I wanted to write one.

“Let’s do an interview,” he said in the control booth at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco. “We’ve got Sunday off. Why don’t you come out to my house for dinner?

“I hope you’re not gonna bring a tape recorder,” Jerry added. “That’s the drag about getting interviewed. The writers sit down and we talk and they tape what I say and then when I go to read what they’ve written, it’s all me talking. I’d like to read what I say in their words. I’d like the perspective of getting somebody else’s angle on me.”

“I’ll bring a notepad,” I said.

I’d met Jerry a couple of years earlier, and we’d been rapping ever since in hotel suites, dressing rooms, recording studios, Chinese restaurants, all the places where rock ‘n’ roll people got their buzz off one another. I liked his guitar. He turned out to be just as mellow. Jerry had been the easiest for me to get to know among the Dead, acid’s house band, the resident musicians of Haight-Ashbury, even before the hippies moved in, one of the founding pillars of flower power.

No matter how stoned we got, Jerry was always alert. It was this kind of awareness that put Jerry in command of the Dead even though he didn’t want the responsibility. Adrift in acid, lost in smoke, floating paranoid through the ether, they all counted on Jerry to lead the way. People’d come up to him for answers whether he had them or not. He wasn’t a pretty boy, but he had a kind of papal charisma. Jerry was in touch with the cosmic consciousness. You could tell that much.

Jerry was living out at Stinson Beach in Marin County. Everything was high in Marin County. High and hip and up to date. PTA pot parties. Carnival supermarkets. Frontier head shops. Space colony playgrounds. Sci-fi civic centers. Marin had turned into America’s hippest suburb, with a cocktail in one hand and a joint in the other.

The heads were beginning to run the local governments, young professionals with beards, the drug culture flexing muscle at the ballot box. The county was so far out that probably the Dead could’ve run for something. This was their turf now.

I got into my Hertz and headed across the Golden Gate, taking the Highway 1 roller coaster to Stinson Beach. Jerry lived on the ocean slope of Mount Tamalpais, his property abutting the government reservation that covered most of the summit. A few radar domes, long cyclone fences and lots of official-looking KEEP OUT signs. The road Jerry lived on ran down the slope, straight through the middle of town, across Highway 1 and right out to the rocky beach and the Pacific Ocean. Jerry didn’t own a palace, but he had a nice view. His grounds were overgrown, an exotic garden of dazzling greenery. The gardener was Mountain Girl, Jerry’s old lady, long famous in the Dope Revolution via her legendary roamings with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

They weren’t fancy at Jerry’s house. That’s one of the things that I always liked about Jerry, his personification of the common slob. The picture of Jerry carried in my mental wallet will always show him going onstage with rumpled baggy jeans, a beer-belly bulge over his belt, a worn blue T-shirt with a hole in the armpit, mussed-up hair and a shaggy black beard with a piece of white lint caught in it. That’s the image which helped make the Dead the workingman’s band, class-conscious philosophers of the egalitarian lifestyle.

Jerry wasn’t rich. The fabled profits of rock ‘n’ roll had yet to filter into his pockets. “I used the advance from my album for a down payment on this place,” Jerry said. He was talking about his first solo album, Garcia, which had just been released.

Mountain Girl’s daughters—Sunshine, about 10, by Ken Kesey, and Annabelle, about 6, by Jerry—chirped like birds flying around their mother while she threw together a salad on a counter dividing the kitchen from the dinning room. With the salad, she dished up steak, corn on the cob and muffins while stirring the dinner conversation like it was another pot on the stove.

After dinner we watched a documentary about smuggling grass from Mexico, mostly via light planes making drops over the border. Toking in front of the TV, Jerry said, “You see the trouble they go through just for us?”

I pulled out my notepad. “I’d like to start at the beginning,” I said. “I’d like to know what it was like for you growing up.”

Like a man lifting a dead weight, Jerry ran off a string of images about growing up in the Excelsior District where he was born, just south of Mission, near Daly City, a working-class neighborhood, mostly Irish and Italian, with wooden houses and kids playing in the street. Jerry talked sure and fast, as if he had been out on a reconnaissance mission and was glad for somebody to report to. I couldn’t write quickly enough.

“What about your father?” I asked.

“He was a musician who ran into a bum scene with the union in the Thirties,” Jerry said. “He got blackballed and opened a bar instead. He died young. I hardly knew him.”

Jerry was five when his father died, leaving Jerry’s mother with two sons and the bar located at First and Harrison, near the sailors’ union hall, an industrial section with gas storage tanks ruling the skyline. “I spent all my time there,” he said. “I spent that time of my life listening to old sailors rap.”

There was a hotel upstairs where the old sailors lived. They’d hang out at the bar, steering Jerry’s fantasies into every port on Earth. When the sailors’ union decided to build a new hall and bought out the corner where the bar was, Jerry’s mother bought out the candy factory across the street and turned that into a bar.

Mountain Girl and the girls sat down at the table to listen. “I’ve never heard some of this,” she said.

“When I was ten, my life got very vague and unsettled,” he said. His mother remarried and moved with her sons and their new stepfather down the peninsula to Menlo Park, outside Palo Alto. “I was used to the streets. Down there they had a complicated social structure. I was never exposed to rich kids before. I felt uncomfortable. There was a whole new ambiance.”

Jerry took the bus from his grandmother’s house in Menlo Park to the sailor’s bar at First and Harrison. He’d sweep the floor, play the jukebox and listen to the sailors. From morning till closing, Jerry would be in the bar. “The nearest kids to play with were miles away,” he said. “The bar was my world.”

Jerry moved back to the city when he was 13. “I was a JD, an incorrigible,” he said. “I got into immense trouble. I got beat up by gangs. If you ever were out by yourself at night you were a target.”

On Jerry’s 15th birthday, his mother bought him an accordion. “I complained and moaned that I didn’t want an accordion,” Jerry said. “I traded it for an electric guitar and amp. The accordion was more valuable. The bass keys had old Neapolitan fancy mother-of-pearl. But I wanted to play funky electric guitar.”

He’d been listening to KWBR, the R&B station in Oakland, KSAN with Jumpin’ George Oxford and the AM Top 40 station, KOBY. “It was my first kind of hype trip, Marty Robbins, rockabilly, Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. “I wanted to play guitar. I was already singing three-part harmonies with my brother and cousin, and I wanted to accompany myself. If not on guitar, something else. But not on accordion!”

The same year Jerry got his electric guitar, he got turned on to pot. “There was a lot of fighting, race riots, all that high-school shit that was so heavy in the ’50s,” he said. “Gangs go out cruising on a Friday night with other hoodlums, drinking wine and having fights. The tops of the hills in the city weren’t built on yet. It was still like going to the country. Trees, ponds, grass, animals. We went up one day and smoked a couple of joints. After that I really got into it. I wasn’t into changing my mood, I was into getting stoned!”

Jerry was a confirmed pothead by the time the Beats pitched their cosmic carnival in North Beach, San Francisco’s tiny bohemia. What kid could resist a carnival? The whole town was talking about the Beatniks. The tube, the DJs, the newspapers, the kids on the tops of the hills, even the old sailors. Then he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road.

On the Road was the turning point in my life,” Jerry said. “It influenced a whole generation, just like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises created the Lost Generation. On the Road changed the way people acted. It changed the way people talked.”

On the Road not only gave him a vision of a new lifestyle, but it also gave him a role model, a hero—Dean Moriarty, the book’s star, the original hipster, the cross-country driving addict, the Johnny Appleseed of marijuana, the Beat Generation’s Cosmic Cowboy.

“After I read the book, I began to hear rumors that it was about real people,” Jerry said, breaking into a grin. “When I heard that, I had to meet them.”

At first, Jerry tracked down a couple of impostors claiming to be the real Dean Moriarty, but they were just North Beach bums. He learned that the real Dean Moriarty was a local legend named Neal Cassady. Jerry finally met Neal when acid gave the scene a new dimension. Neal was there with Ken Kesey, driving the Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic bus.

“It was Neal who taught Kerouac how to write,” Jerry said. “Jack learned from Neal’s manuscripts. I’ve read them. He wrote like he talked. He could keep me spellbound for hours. Nobody could tell a story like Neal. He had the best timing. Someday his manuscripts will all be published and recognized.”

After Neal died in Mexico, where he was found in a coma near a railroad track in 1968, burnt out by years of his body making deals with the devil, Jerry helped found the Neal Cassady Foundation to honor his memory. It was the least he could do. Neal was a martyr.

When Jerry was about 16, he moved up north, past Marin County, to Cazadero, near the Russian River, where California started getting remote. He joined a band, played a high school dance and cut a demo. But after a year he split to Redwood City, where a pal named Laird fixed up a chicken coop for him to live in. Jerry picked fruit, played guitar alone in the chicken coop, hitchhiked around and then, when he was 17, joined the Army.

“It was either go back to school or get into trouble,” he said. “It was 1959. There were a lot of rumors something bad might start in Germany. I thought I’d get to travel. I did my basic at Fort Ord, sixty miles south of San Francisco. Then I was sent up to the Presidio. I just lived at home. I’d go back to the Army every day, like a job. I was AWOL a few weeks. When I got back, they were real pissed. They court-martialed me and I violated probation. Another court-martial. They said, ‘Look, do you want to get out of the Army?’ The Army was fantastically dull.”

With one civvie suit, his discharge and a ’51 Caddie, Jerry drove down to Palo Alto and the Stanford University scene. Laird was there. When Jerry pulled up, his Caddie died. Jerry ripped out the back seat and set up housekeeping in it.

“When I got out of the Army, I got into the same scene I’m in now, with virtually all the same people,” he said. “It’s an offshoot of the Stanford scene—research people, faculty people, the people from Kepler’s bookstore. I met Bob Hunter and Willy Le Gate, big influences on the Dead scene. Kesey was going to Stanford. We were beginning the whole transition into the folk trip. The post-Weavers introduction to folk music on a popular level.”

“I was into folk, the acoustic guitar,” Jerry continued. “I also was putting in a lot of time on the banjo. I even went traveling through the South, learning licks off the records. I haven’t ever in my life been more paranoid. I shaved off my beard to go South. I had a little Corvair with California license plates. They were extremely suspicious about out-of-towners. I traveled around about a summer. The longest I spent in one place was Bloomington, Indiana. Bill Monroe has a place there, a little country music park. I wanted to catch two consecutive weekends. You’d go out to the music park, pay a buck, have a picnic and a generally good time. There were five bands. It was part of the bluegrass circuit, one of the nicest scenes you ever want to fall into. Finally, I just got into a dead-end with the banjo. You were limited essentially to only one set of sounds.”

Back at the Stanford scene, people were huddled around their acid experiment like it was a campfire on a cold night. By the early ’60s, a few of the artists began moving to the cheap rents of the Haight. Beat poet Mike McClure had been living there for years. Phil Lesh, the bass player, was the first of the Palo Alto crowd to get a pad in the Haight. Then the Beatles broke. Folk music was suddenly becoming technologically outmoded.

“When we started playing rock ‘n’ roll, we didn’t have any background at all,” Jerry said. “Certainly I didn’t on the electric guitar. The last music Phil had done was huge orchestral monstrosities. Then he played trumpet in big bands, Stan Kenton type of stuff. He was a high trumpet player. He’s been into the academic thing in music all his life.”

“Playing loud rock ‘n’ roll music was everybody’s dream come true. The Beatles, more than anyone else, brought it home. Electric rock. From jug band through blues band, we were coming from a weird place, but then we moved into playing bars. There were no dance halls then. Here’s a whole new world of music. It’s got its own traditions. For me, it was a freedom from all restrictions I’d been put into and a chance to play a lot.”

My hand was cramped. I couldn’t write any more. I’d filled a whole white-lined pad with dense pages of notes. I was stoned and tired. So was Jerry. It was getting late.

“I’m drained, Al,” Jerry said. “We’ll get together again.”

Jerry had another visitor coming, a friend bringing a refill for his reefer.

Outside the house, in the driveway, the moon was full, but there was something else. A scent. A sweet, heavy, intoxicating scent hanging in the air. I stood sniffing it. The scent was getting me giddy, drunk, romantic, horny. I was already high. Where was this scent coming from?

I saw a figure walking up the driveway, the friend Jerry had been expecting. As the friend came close, I said, “Hi. Excuse me, but could you tell me where that smell is coming from?”

“What smell?” he said.

“That smell. It must be from some vegetation. It’s fantastic! It’s knocking me out!”

He stopped and sniffed. “Must be moon jasmine,” he said. ‘That’s Mountain Girl’s. She planted it.”

“You can only smell if when the moon is out,” he laughed and kept walking up the driveway.

  1. 1972! That was a sweet year. Marin was all a cozy neighborhood! I really like Mr. Aronowitz’s writing style. His metaphors soar! Thanks High Times for far and away the best interviews!

  2. That painted a really nice picture of Jerry and his home and history. If there’s one thing about COVID days that I appreciate,it’s been the chance to return to and appreciate the Dead anew

  3. The best Jerry/ Bay Area article I’ve read. There were several facts about Jerry I never knew. Like Mountain Girl, some of that stuff I never heard before. As a former long time resident of Marin county, I’m grateful. It took me to a very joyous time and place, which like him, “is gone.” Thank you for a much needed Box of Rain!

  4. Thanks for sharing the interview, Al. It reminds me so much of the book “Garcia: A Signpost to New Space” by Jerry, Charles Reich and Jann Wenner, also from 1972. What I wouldn’t give to have been hangin’ out at Jerry’s house during some of those raps.

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