GARCIA by Blair Jackson


An American Life
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Veteran music writer Blair has fashioned a moving and insightful biography of Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia by focusing on the most important and enduring part of his legacy: his music. For three decades the Dead remained one of the most interesting and daring music ensembles around. Garcia himself over that time sustained a level of artistry and innovation as a musician and composer rare in 20th-century music history. Skillfully weaving these themes within the personal events of Garcia’s life, including his 14 years as a junkie, and the social history that Garcia both witnessed and helped bring to life—from the halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury to the phenomenon of the Deadheads of the 1980s—Jackson produces perhaps as clear an understanding of the man as we are likely to get. Originally a bluegrass banjo player, Garcia brought to the Dead the conversational nature of bluegrass, the need within that music for the instruments to talk to one another. Going electric and joining with sympathetic players allowed for Garcia an infinite expansion of that original “conversational” insight. Playing at LSD-inspired gatherings in San Francisco, and taking plenty of LSD themselves further extended the Dead’s proclivity for improvisation (and Garcia’s proclivity for drug taking) and allowed them to learn how to do it well. Particularly interesting here is the story of Garcia’s relationship with lyricist Robert Hunter (he of the often cryptic lyrics on foreboding and death), of how that relationship developed over a generation, how Hunter could say what Garcia felt. Theirs was a much underappreciated musical collaboration. There are also side trips to Garcia’s many musical explorations outside of the Dead, from country to jazz to R&B. Garcia emerges in the end as a flawed genius, whose personal demons, especially drugs, inspired his music, eventually weakened it, and finally silenced it. Yet the book is an unapologetic celebration of Garcia’s life rather than a lament on his death. Fine reading on a most curious American life. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Aug. 16th, 1999
ISBN: 0-670-88660-2
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999


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