Few people thought rock 'n' roll would survive, and even fewer had hopes for Jerry Garcia. Despite continued flirtations with extinction, both are alive and well, and today, Jerry Garcia, the gray-bearded, jovial leader of the equally venerable Grateful Dead, turns 50 years old.
Garcia is not the first rocker to reach his golden anniversary. Bob Dylan turned 50 last year, and Paul McCartney hit the half-decade mark in June. Despite carrying every vestige of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle on his portly frame, Garcia has not died before he's gotten old.
"Yeah, somebody is always worrying that I'm going to die," Garcia said in a recent interview, shaking his head at the notion. "Every couple of years somebody worries and they tell me to get checked, and I do, and I'm OK."
From the Summer of Love to the post-Cold War world, Garcia and the Grateful Dead have endured as a traveling road show-cum-cultural phenomenon, spreading music and mirth from the concert halls of San Francisco to the pyramids of Egypt, followed around the world by legions of tie-dyed faithful, the Deadheads.
And along the way, Garcia has become an icon of the post-psychedelic generation. Gourmet ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry's have named a flavor after him, Cherry Garcia, and Garcia, a man whose sartorial trademark is an outsized black T-shirt, recently debuted his own line of neckties.
The San Rafael-based Grateful Dead has made frequent sold-out, multiday appearances at Sacramento's Cal Expo Amphitheatre - most recently in May - and at other venues in the Bay Area and Northern California. In 1991, the band was the top concert draw in the nation, pulling in $34.7 million. Garcia's concerts with the Jerry Garcia Band, such as the July 24 show in Sacramento, also have been well-received.
While drugs, especially LSD and other hallucinogens, have been the hallmark of Dead concerts, music is at the core of the band's continued popularity. The band blends elements from rock 'n' roll to country, and is both mellow and rockin', twangy and jazzy.
But there has been the downside of keeping a musical relationship called the Grateful Dead together through 27 years of good times and bad. Some months back, Garcia fretted over how much longer that could be accomplished in the wake of the 1990 drug overdose death of keyboardist Brent Mydland. (Two other keyboardists have died - Ron "Pigpen" McKernan of liver disease in 1973, and Keith Godchaux in a 1980 car crash after he left the group.)
"I don't know . . . ," he said, staring off into space. "I think if any more guys die, we might just hang it up. I don't think I would have the heart to go on."
Still, Garcia and the band persevered. And Garcia's activity level of the past few years certainly shows no sign of imminent retirement. In fact, since coming out of a diabetic coma that put him near death in June 1986, Garcia has been perhaps busier than ever.
And today, he will celebrate his birthday at an Irvine concert with the Jerry Garcia Band.