JG (Jerry Garcia)

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

 

In the wake of the 2017 Sundance premiere of Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s ambitious, stunning documentary about the Grateful Dead, I wanted to provide answers to some questions that have come up:

You say you’re a very private person. Why did you agree to speak on camera?

 

In February of 2014, Dennis McNally emailed me and asked if he could give my contact information to Amir; the remaining members of the Grateful Dead had given him permission to make the band’s official documentary. Later in the month Amir and Ken Dornstein, one of the film’s producers, came to town and took me to dinner. I found them to be smart, funny and have a genuine moral core. I realized they weren’t interested in making a typical rock ‘n’ roll bio-pic; they wanted to understand more deeply what made Jerry Garcia tick and therefore how the Grateful Dead evolved within its cultural context. They were interested in a broad, meta-narrative and their expansive views intrigued me. For several months they emailed and called me, cajoling me to speak but I kept saying no.

 

One day I was in the greenhouse trimming tomatoes and I had an epiphany: what I considered to be my biography didn’t belong to me. People wanted to know about a man I thought of as a past lover but to the world he was a beloved cultural icon. I realized I didn’t have to take my life story so personally; I could afford to offer it up. Ken and Amir and their crew arrived in October of 2014 and I spent several hours answering Ken’s questions and reminiscing on camera.

 

Why are you Jerry’s only significant other in the film?

 

Jerry had three wives and many other lovers. I could be wrong but I believe Carolyn Adams Garcia—MG / Mountain Girl-- declined to be interviewed. Both she and Sara Ruppenthal Katz, Jerry’s other ex-wife, deserve to be in another film about him because they’re both warm, wonderful people with intelligent insights into who he was.

 

Even though Jerry was the driving force behind the Grateful Dead, the documentary is about the phenomena of the band. Although my role in the movie isn’t proportional to my role in Jerry’s life, Ken and Amir felt that I had a unique perspective in that I bookended the story; I was with Jerry at the very beginning of his musical career and again toward the end.

 

What was the actual timeline for you and Jerry Garcia?

 

We met around March of 1961; I was fifteen and Jerry was eighteen. He and Robert Hunter played folk songs and we had a kind of hootenanny for my 16th birthday party, an event my father fortunately recorded on a for then, state of the art reel to reel Wollensak, making it the oldest known recording of Jerry singing and playing. A few months later he and I became sweethearts and were a couple until around Christmas of 1962.

 

In 1990 Jerry read my book of poetry, The Life You Ordered Has Arrived and sent me a letter in care of Parallax Press, the publisher. In 1991 I was in the Bay Area giving readings and he asked Dennis to arrange a meeting. I went to a show at Shoreline and we spent the break together. Despite looking more like Santa Claus than the slender, dark-haired beatnik I had once known, the energy between us was electric; it was as if we picked up right where we left off. We didn’t miss a beat and the unanticipated strength of our connection blew us both away.

 

A month later he came to Denver to play with the Grateful Dead and I interviewed him, a portion of which appeared in Tricycle magazine. After that, we had many talks on the phone and I made several trips to California where we would visit. Getting back together with Jerry Garcia was a huge surprise; our renewed attraction was magnetic, somehow karmic. I flew to California on January 30, 1992 and the next day we went to Hawaii for a month. We returned to Marin County for another month and then I went with him on tour with the Grateful Dead. He left me in Chicago that March, in 1993.

 

Why do you think you split up?

 

The reasons were complex but Jerry’s heroin use was a contributing factor. And I was naïve about who he had become; I had no idea how to cope with his addiction or his fame or the demands of his lifestyle. He had also recently run into Deborah Koons, another prior relationship, and he wanted space to explore where that might lead. I’ve also come to feel that on some level he sent me away to protect me. He knew I was out of my depth.

 

Did you ever meet his kids or his other wives?

 

That was one of the best parts for me. There was the sense that, along with my daughter Esme, we would become one large extended family with a lot of communication and celebration. Everything felt very open. I felt welcomed by Sara and MG and I met his daughters Heather and Annabelle and Trixie whom I found to be remarkable young women. Jerry and Trixie and I once took a life-drawing class and I thought that would be an ongoing activity we’d do together. There was much talk of all of us going on scuba trips around the world, living for weeks at a time on dive boats in Micronesia or in the Caribbean.

 

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Sunshine. And I’ve never met Manasha or her daughter Keelin. I have pangs of regret about Jerry leaving Keelin when she was so young but I’ve seen her Ripple Playing for Change video and she looks like a beautiful, happy young woman.

 

I’ve also never met Deborah but she and I share the same view about organic farming and the perils of Big Ag. I appreciate her films on soil and food. Although it was painful for Jerry to leave me for her—not unlike him leaving Manasha for me—in retrospect it all makes sense. She’s a filmmaker and Jerry was one, too. He was very much into cinema and he owned the movie rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, for instance.

 

The Big Question: what was Jerry really like?

 

I can tell you only who he was with me but I think the film clearly shows what a complicated, creatively talented and unconventional person he was, that he had an equal proclivity for transcendence and self-destruction.

 

My connection with him focused primarily on the exploration of consciousness. We were both into art and literature and science and how the mind works. He read a lot and so do I. Our synaptic structures must have been similar because we punned (and groaned and laughed) all the time. We got off on word play and our idea of fun was to open the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and randomly pick an unknown word and use it continuously throughout the day. I’ve never laughed so much as when we wrote our collaborative sestina in Hawaii.

 

Early on when we reunited he asked me who I wanted to meet, I replied, Alex the African Grey parrot with the 3,000 word vocabulary in Arizona, Rosie the elephant that paints at the Seattle Zoo and Koko the signing gorilla at Stanford. He loved that answer.

 

Although he was intrigued by my Buddhist studies, (“How did you get so smart?”), Jerry wasn’t particularly interested in doing any actual meditation or any real work on his issues. (“You and your psycho-methodologies...”).

 

He did say that he felt we had “invented” each other when we were young in as much as I gave him my acoustic Mexican guitar not long after we met and a few months later I bought him a twelve-string guitar he wanted. Jerry turned me on to the San Francisco Art Institute where I started taking classes while I was still in high school and he would read to me from a little book of Buddhist sayings if I were blue.

 

Jerry was clearly a genius in many regards but he readily admitted that in his personal and interpersonal lives, he “just bumbled along.” For someone so unattached to outcomes, he could be fairly jealous and possessive. He was full of contradictions.

 

I’ve often quoted him saying, “How can you know where the edge is if you don’t fall off once in awhile?”

 

Is there anything you said during your interview that you wished had been kept in the film?

 

Right before I was filmed, I had finished reading Charles Eisenstein’s, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. During the early days in Menlo Park, we all shared that sense of no separation and we knew it long before any of us took psychedelics. And then we recaptured that feeling briefly thirty years later. Any references I made to the book were left on the cutting room floor along with my comment “We each need to be our own Jerry now.” Meaning people can’t look outside themselves for someone to guide them; we have to step into that role for ourselves. Ken and Amir are far too nuanced as artists to include something that didactic.

 

Is there anything you wish you’d mentioned but didn’t?

 

Yes—a lot has been said about Jack Kerouac being a huge influence on Jerry and while that’s true, there’s someone else who I think influenced him even more and that’s the San Francisco artist, Wally Hedrick. Wally was married to the brilliant abstract expressionist painter Jay DeFeo and they both taught at the San Francisco Art Institute where Jerry took a Pre-College Art Course while he was still in high school. Wally’s credo boiled down to: Jazz, Art, Sex and Beer. Kerouac was often solitary and lugubrious, even morose while Wally was a fun loving hedonist. He was the banjo player in the art school’s Studio 13 Dixieland Jazz Band and he made sculptures out of beer cans and painted irreverent Funk Art paintings. Wally was one of my teachers at SFAI as well and in 1964 I lived next door to him and Jay at 2322 Fillmore Street. In 1993 Jerry and I went out to Bodega Bay where Wally was living and hung out with him for an afternoon while they played music and we all caught up on the previous decades. In 1955, Wally was one of the owners of the iconic Six Gallery where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl and Kerouac passed around the infamous jug of red wine and yelled. “Go! Go!” to the poets. There was definitely a connection between Hedrick and the Beats and Jerry absorbed it all while working in a painting class directly under him. Wally, along with Jay and other San Francisco artists, believed in never compromising one’s art for money, an ethos Jerry adopted from them and maintained throughout his career.

 

What are you doing now in 2017?

 

Well. Our social / political lives have just shifted drastically and it remains to be seen how we as a culture will fare, doesn’t it? At almost 72, I’m lucky as well as grateful to be healthy, retired and married to someone I’ve been with for almost 20 years. I have a small organic farm, Tierra Drala, where I host permaculture classes, keep bees and goats. (Didn’t the girls have a great cameo in the film?). I make art and I write and I’m an activist for local, sustainable agriculture. Last, but far from least, I have a grandson I adore with all my heart.

 

I went to Standing Rock this past Thanksgiving and it changed my life. I’m still integrating that experience but I feel as if my compass has been reset by the profundity of the native vision /wisdom embedded in their prayer-filled, nonviolent resistance. Water really IS life. We must do what we can to protect it along with everything else we hold dear.

 

Any last thoughts on your relationship with Jerry Garcia you’d like to share?

 

Yes. All in all, it was really just a love story, a twentieth century, American love story.

All work protected by copyright © 2017 by Brigid Meier