A Conversation with Jerry Garcia
I found a tape of a brief interview with Jerry Garcia, made backstage between sets at a Grateful Dead concert in Irvine Meadows, California, on Easter weekend 1987. I was a 24-year-old reporter for Forbes, on assignment with Allan Dodds Frank, the brilliant financial journalist who got shitcanned by CNN last week. We wrote what I think was the first article about the economics of the Dead’s unusual strategy of allowing fans to tape its shows—an idea that would later be applied to the Internet and software businesses.
Also on the tape are other band members and Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter who would die in a 1991 helicopter crash. For a Deadhead like me, the job was a dream come true--getting paid to watch the show while leaning on Jerry’s amp with a longneck in my hand, hanging out with the band at the hotel and backstage. Plus, our story was fact-checked by a really cute Forbes reporter named Lisa Scheer, to whom I have now been married for 13.5 years.
Allan Frank was less enthusiastic about the music—after one show at the Meadowlands he insisted that we go to Bradley’s and listen to jazz until last call—but he brought his usual manic energy to the job. On the same trip to LA we interviewed David Geffen and Clive Davis and came back with a then-hot story about the big impact of CDs on catalog sales; oblivious to jet-lag, ADF had us out late, then up early to play tennis with some guys he met in the hotel lobby.
Garcia was 44, in good health and mood after recovering from a diabetic coma the previous year. The quick backstage interview was a precursor to a much longer conversation, the tapes of which Allan probably still has, stowed away with a prized walrus penis and other treasures. This transcript omits some of the banter by Graham and the band as we got started, joking about plans for the future (“a suicide pact,” says Garcia-- “human sacrifice will juicy up the show a little bit”) and how to spend the money from a newly-focused business (Jerry: “Build a little wall around the house,” “Buy alligators for my alligator cart.”)
Forbes: Is there any toy you wanted that you haven’t bought?
Garcia: “No. I mean I’m not a toy person in a big way. If a car starts and stops, that’s good enough. My kind of greed is the kind of greed where I like to have stuff that’s fun to do. So it isn’t tied up in stuff. It more has to do with, give me a hot project and I’ll be happy.”
Forbes: What projects are you working on?
Garcia: “We just finished a video, and we have a record that is almost in the can. A video that goes with the record, with full-sized skeleton puppets, it’s nifty. Big time special effects. [ed. note: this was the “Touch of Gray” video that ran on MTV.]
“For me it’s like, the thing is, having something come up and having me be able to love it. A project comes up that is something I love, something that I don’t mind spending a lot of time at. Each one of those things represents a certain percentage of your life, so it’s got to be something you really love, otherwise it really is a terrible burden.
“If you don’t love it, fuck it, it’s not worth doing.
“The money part is not the important part, the important part is the opportunity to get your hands wet, to go out there to jump around, fuck around, make mistakes. Try weird stuff, see what works.
“Our audience is almost willing to support anything we try. If we try in good conscience, if we don’t burn ourselves, work as hard as we can....”
[Garcia cites the ability to pick and choose projects as an advantage of longevity.]
Forbes: Do you think you’ve seen everything before?
Garcia: “I can’t say I’ve seen everything before, but certainly a lot of cycles come by, and you say, Oh yeah, this is kind of like the last time, but it changes each time. Nothing is repetitious. Making this record is not making our old records; this is now that was then.
"Existentially, that’s the reality of the situation, that the band has changed. Everybody has changed a little bit. I’m not a whole new me but pretty new, not a new me but an extrapolation of the old me.
“There was a long time there when I didn’t’ want to do anything much, now I’m ready to do stuff.”
Forbes: Is that related to your health and the coma?
Garcia: “Yeah. There is this Borges story, [ed.note: he mispronounced it as ‘Borjis’; the story is almost certainly “The South”], this great Borges story about this guy who is in a hospital, and he’s dying, he thinks, now I’m dying, geez I wish I’d done something far out, then miraculously he’s cured, he goes to Argentina, he goes to this bar in Argentina, and gets in this knife fight. He has no experience in this. The guy is going to kill him, and he thinks, when I was in the hospital, if I’d been able to choose my death, this is the one I would have chosen, the one that has an adventure attached to it.
“That’s how I feel.”
Unidentified voice: “Time, ladies and gentlemen.”