Gathering of the Tribe
The death of Jerry Garcia received more front-page coverage in this town than anything since, well, the retirement of Joe Montana. By now, we've all seeen the colorful shrines coverinh Haight Street, read the heartfelt commentary, prayed or feared that this means the demise of the Deadhead phenonmenon, heard the beating of the bongos. Last Sunday, as nearly 20,000 people mourned Garcia with a mixture of New Orleans pomp and hippie hedonism inthe Polo Fields at Golden Gate Park, it was a ritualistic end to a cycle of spectacle beyond any acid freak's wildest dreams. Back in the '60s, Garcia would probably have been shocked to learn that Herb Caen would compare him to Coit Tower, that city officials would fly a Grateful Dead flag above City Hall, or that Mayor Frank Jordan would advise the city to “Keep on truckin'.” Then there's the giant makeshift monument in front of Ben & Jerry's on the corner of Haight and Ashbury – the griever's hot spot – which says more about the long, strange trajectory of hippie culture than we'd care to admit. Accodingly, shoppers at Macy's laid flowers on the displays of the entrepreneurial Garcia's custom-designed necktie line. And they call San Francisco cynical.
Editorialists analyzed all things Dead, touting the 30-year-old subculture's “joyful community of all ages,” recaptured after a recent Dead tour beset by fan violence and bad accidents, at the impromtu memorial that started in the park just hours after Garcia's Aug. 9 death was made public. In the mass of press, though, one stone was left unturned: Garcia's substance abuse. Cautionary tales and moralistic tongue-wagging routinely accompany even remotely drug-related rock deaths, but what we got instead was an anemic “…he died while trying to heal himself” in a Chronicle editorial. Not that anyone wants another cycle of “the return heroin” stories, but it's disheartening that the media so easily translates the addictions of a Kurt or Courtney into signs of generational decay, while their elders – who supposedly ushered in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, after all – aren't even expected to “teach you children well.”
It was more than a city's good graces toward a hometown hero, or the boomer monopoly of the press. An earthbound god to hundreds of thousands of Jerry's kids, Garcia managed to be both omnipresent and reclusive. His privacy seemed impenetrable: He avoided confessional interviews or introspective lyrics, even as his music spoke so personally and transcendently to many. Like any teflon icon, Garcia was a distant screen onto which fans could project idealized images, whether of their youth, their futures, or the '60s themselves. Who else could have maintained his countercultural cachet in the face of such celebrity and wealth?
San Francisco is a city built on myths, and Jerry Garcia was the figurehead of the biggest one of all: The Summer of Love, a distant time when the Bay Area led pop culture on a leash. Behind all the fanfare is the question: When will it happen again? What will fill the void?