Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Death and the Dead

Jerry Stratton, August 12, 1995

Whenever I think of Death, I think of my grandmother. She died almost five years ago now. It isn’t a long time.

All of my family lives right around the same area of Michigan. I’m the only one who moved away, all the way to the west coast and southern California. I’m the oldest. I hit thirty-one this year.

The night before flying back to Michigan for the sister’s wedding—which happened to be my brother’s birthday, but of course we pretty much forgot about it. I think we did manage to get him a card—anyway, the night before flying back, my dad called. Grandma was in the hospital, and they didn’t think she was going to make it.

When I arrived in Michigan, dad picked me up at the airport, and we went straight to the hospital. Many of my uncles and aunts and cousins were there. Four or five would hold a vigil while the rest slept, and then others would take over. Grandma was loved, and she was old; intellectually, we’d been preparing for this. But she’d been active up to the end, and emotionally, I think we didn’t expect it. I know I didn’t. I still expect that she’ll be there if I just call home.

I was told that she was fading in and out, mentally, but when I went in to talk to her she was coherent. Very tired, and I had to come in close for her to see me, but she knew who I was and she knew what she wanted to say to me. It was the standard stuff, really: take care of yourself. Stay away from alcohol. Find a nice girl.

I’m not doing too badly. I’m taking care of myself fairly well, and I rarely drink. Although I like to buy microbrews and stouts, I buy them and they keep collecting dust. Alcohol isn’t really my style, and I can count the number of times I’ve been actually drunk on my left hand. I haven’t settled down with a nice girl yet, but two out of three isn’t bad. She wouldn’t want me to settle down in California anyway, although she was never as insistent about my moving home as the rest of the family is. “Do what you need to do,” she’d say.

We had a good talk. Whenever I was with her, I always felt like I was one of her “favorites”, but I think that was just the way she treated all of us. I’m reminded of Dick Allgire’s story, about Jerry Garcia’s glance throwing him a lifeline during a trip going bad. Meeting Garcia years later on a fishing trip, Dick told him the story. Was it true? Or was it just another part of the trip?

“Sure it happened. It’s a good story.”

Or, as Tom Kenney said: “I get the feeling he really had every one of us at heart when he wrote.”

Grandma died early the next morning. We had the funeral on Thursday, and Mary and Duke were married on Saturday. Things might have been a little subdued on our side of the family, but we were happy. She’d lived, and died, well-loved.

It’s a good story.

The Usenet newsgroup rec.music.gdead is exploding over Jerry Garcia’s death. Always a high-traffic newsgroup, it has mushroomed to a thousand articles a day, almost all of them talking about Jerry Garcia as a friend, father, or savior. With subjects such as “Farewell, Jerry”, “So long, Captain Trips”, “Where were you?”, and “Thanks”. And throughout, the plaintive question, “What now?”. “What next?” for the Grateful Dead, and “What next?” for the extended family that went to shows as much to see each other as to see the band. Candle-light vigils and jams are appearing nightly throughout the United States and as far away as Hong Kong.

A dozen or more reporters have also descended on the net, asking for feelings, memories, one even asking for a Deadhead businessman to come forward so they could film him for a news spot. Some of the reporters are there for themselves, others truly want to make sure no one forgets who Jerry Garcia was. Be kind to them. They’re all redundant. Thirty years as a musician has made sure no one will forget Jerry Garcia.

And of course, there are the prohibitionists coming out of the woodwork: “see what ‘drugs’ do?” As if ‘drugs’ were some kind of demonic force, and ignoring the fact that prohibition certainly didn’t help Jerry Garcia. If it really was a heroin addiction that killed him, it was abstinence and the center’s inability to use any technique except for ‘cold turkey’ that brought on the heart attack. That’s the law. But then, “the law” has never been very kind to Jerry Garcia or to Deadheads in general.

I’m rambling. That’s a topic for another time, and it is not a good story.

I learned about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead through Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and a roommate from Virginia with California on her mind. I haven’t thanked her yet for introducing me to the Dead, because I don’t really know what to say. I’ll probably just forward her this article. If so, Thanks. Thanks for introducing me to the People who like the Dead.

One of the strangest things was that, for the first day, none of those people were saying what happened. I received an e-mail message with the subject “Thanks”, and, inside, condolences and praise of music—but no mention of whose music, or why the message was sent. Biking home from the office, lots of “Did you hear?” and everyone seemed to know what was being talked about. Deadheads on the net reported answering machines filled with cryptic, or empty, messages. Only news reporters and non-Deadheads were able to say right out, “Jerry Garcia is dead.” Parents and lovers and bosses.

It’s an old joke—“They’re Dead, Jim”—and many people didn’t believe it. For many people, it only sunk in with the sudden appearance of Grateful Dead songs on radio stations. Jeremyf from online1.magnus1.com said:

I turned on the radio and heard “what a long strange trip it’s been”—fitting, eh? Since they never play dead on the radio, I had to accept it...

Peacelis from AOL said, after her boss told her the news:

I didn’t believe it, I thought it was one of those nasty rumors and I didn’t know how to react so I just looked right at him and said “Well I’m going to have to go get some more information on that.” I ran to my office and turned on the radio, and every single station was playing the Dead. So I started crying very hard, and got up and walked out, and I haven’t been back yet.

Nathan Karnes said:

Heading out to lunch I heard Touch of Grey and Estimated Prophet. Getting back in my car, they were playing Wharf Rat, and I knew it had happened.

The Dead have never been a radio or an album phenomenon, except for the tapes of shows traded among fans. The Dead allows fans to tape concerts. The Dead make their name and money by touring with Deadheads.

My neighbor was gardening when I biked into the driveway. She’d just heard about it on the news, ten minutes earlier.

“There’ll be a lot of people out there tonight with candles,” she said.

Deadheads gathered that night at Ocean Beach here in San Diego, and at beaches, centers, parks, and squares around the United States. Another vigil was held at Balboa Park on Friday, and the gatherings have likewise continued elsewhere. The vigils have been mini-Dead concerts, with tie-dye, drums, balloons, and dancing. But they also have the sadness. “What do we do now?”

There’s been an attempt by the band recently to move away from the scene. It’s been a half-hearted attempt, because the scene is really the people, and how can you move away from your audience without losing them? They’re going to have to come to grips with that contradiction now. The Grateful Dead may continue without Jerry Garcia, but they won’t continue without the Deadhead scene. Who knows? The scene may even find a way to continue without the band.

But that’s for the future, and right now we’re talking about the death of a musician. I don’t think I can say much more than hasn’t been said in at least ten thousand articles already, so I’ll steal two more subjects from Usenet:

So long, old friend. Ramble on, Jerry.

  1. <- WCCE 1995
  2. My Friend Sarah ->