Jerry Garcia was born on this day in 1942. In the years since his death on August 9, 1995, Garcia fans have taken to celebrating “Nine Days of Jerry,’ which covers the span from August 1st (his birthday) to August 9th.
This year, with encouragement from Darby, I am going to share key insights, a.k.a. lessons learned from Jerry — one a day for nine days.
Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #1: Stretch
Stretching is both a physical act and a metaphorical framework.
Top performers stretch to achieve a desired state of limberness, which in turn allows them to reach much further and higher than they otherwise could. Before going on stage, Jerry used to run through scales to prepare himself physically for the challenges of playing a three-to-five hour show. But it was during his shows where his yogic mastery was truly revealed — few artists have stretched their form to its breaking point and survived the journey.
Long before Jerry became the iconic Captain Trips (and unwilling spokesperson for the Haight-Ashbury scene), he worked hard to learn the rigors of folk music. He played acoustic guitar and banjo and got his voice in strong singing shape. Add LSD and an explosion of consciousness (and societal turbulence) to the mix, plug it in and turn it up and you have the beginnings of Grateful Dead.
Let’s use “Viola Lee Blues” to illustrate the point. The song was written in 1928 by Noah Lewis, an American jug band and country blues musician. “Some got six months, some got one solid year.” Viola Lee Blues is a traditional ditty about a man lamenting his prison sentence. In the hands of Grateful Dead, the song gets opened up considerably, thanks to the weaving of jazz idioms into what is a very simple blues construction.
You might say Jerry and friends “stretched the shit” out of this tune. You’d be correct and it’s what made Jerry’s work and the band’s so compelling. When your mind is stretched far and wide it can hold a lot more information, and Jerry’s held a deep reservoir of American roots music, jazz, classical, and more, which he could tap in an instant for just the right effect.
In my own life, I make sure to stretch out daily as a writer. Like Jerry, I am attracted to and capable of working in a variety of forms (journalism, advertising and literature). And like Jerry I have my main gig as a ad writer and several nourishing side-projects. The rewards of cross-pollination are found here. For example, if I write a particularly poetic line for an print advertisement, it makes the ad better and it loads commercial communications with an artfulness it desperately needs.
There’s also a degree of patience woven into the act of stretching, which I like. Stretching is what we do to prepare and that’s the key. We’re too often in a mad rush to succeed or do this or that, but the reality is we must first stretch, breathe and gather ourselves before taking the stage.