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Life Lessons

What Made Jerry Garcia Great

On the 23rd anniversary of his death, some people are listening to Jerry Garcia’s music.
Not all people, but some people.
And that would have been fine with him.
“We’re like licorice,” Garcia once said of his iconic musical group The Grateful Dead. “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
And that’s what made Garcia great. He didn’t try to make music that everyone would like. He tried to make music that he liked.
And some people really liked it.
“There was nothing he liked more than playing music in a band in front of dancing people,” said writer Blair Jackson. “He didn’t care if the group was acoustic or electric or if the audience was large or small — it was all about hearts and souls coming together through music.”
As a young man, Garcia was an invisible gem, a superstar in plain sight. He got into trouble in school, and his experience in the Army wasn’t much better. He preferred playing the guitar to answering roll call.
In fact, he preferred playing music to almost everything else. Once the the Grateful Dead formed, they developed a loyal group of fans known as Deadheads. They were the ones who liked licorice.
“We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead,” Garcia would say. “We were just in line to see what was going to happen.”
What happened was that the Grateful Dead made history. They toured for decades. Garcia formed or played with other bands along the way. It was always about making music.
“You need music, I don’t know why,” he said. “It’s probably one of those Joseph Campbell questions, why we need ritual. We need magic and bliss, and power and myth, and celebration and religion in our lives and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.”
So on the anniversary of his death, some people will listen to Grateful Dead songs. Like these from their last show.
With lyrics like these from “Black Muddy River,” the last song Garcia sang on stage, just a month before his death:
“I will walk alone by the black muddy river,
And sing me a song of my own.”
It’s a life lesson. Do what you love, and others may love it, too. The song of your own might be just the one that others want (and need) to hear.


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