To make it big in the music business you need to know the right people, get several lucky breaks, listen to your producer and your label and generally speaking you need to be willing to be shaped by others. This was true when Jerry Garcia and members of Grateful Dead were growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, and to a large extent it remains true today.

Unless you find another way.

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8: Do It Yourself

Jerry Garcia and friends were masterful at finding a way. I believe, finding a way was in the air in the San Francisco circa 1967. Take the Diggers. They found a way to feed all the hungry kids in Golden Gate Park who showed up for the Summer of Love with no place to stay, little money or food and basically no clue. Sure, the Diggers redistributed other’s wealth to get the job done, but I don’t want to judge their Robin Hoodishness. I just want to acknowledge their “can do” spirit.

Grateful Dead was an ingenious outfit and they were not afraid to go it alone, or do it themselves. Thanks to benefactor Owsley Stanley (a.k.a. Bear), his money from the sale of LSD and his uncanny ability to make complex things, the Dead had a homemade but totally state-of-the-art sound system. The band later created its own record label, produced its own feature film and created its own mail order distribution system for concert tickets.

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The band’s DIY ethos was in part a rejection of mainstream music business culture, but that’s not all it was. It was also about the balls out pursuit of innovative solutions. It meant creating something elegant and better than what existed before. I met Owsley in 1987, and we had a long talk in the car as I drove him from Alpine Valley to the Hilton in Lake Geneva. He didn’t say this, but I am pretty sure he felt the technology that the band relied on had to be good enough to compliment with the LSD people were taking. Put another way, bad sound could easily ruin a perfectly good trip and Owsley wasn’t about to let that happen.

Jerry was also an avid painter and illustrator throughout his life. He did attend art school in San Francisco for a short time, but like he did with most things he figured it out. And then some, as Jerry’s larger canvases were selling for $40,000 while he was alive. Today, his work (including prints) continues to fetch top dollar.

I should note here that Jerry was a super smart guy. He was witty, sharp, a great conversationalist and brilliant in a lot of ways. Jerry had the other essential qualities to go with it: curiosity, passion, charm and a great ear. He’s also a native San Franciscan, and this makes a difference because there’s a pioneering gene common to many residents of the city by the Bay. It’s not known as the “Athens of America” for no reason. In San Francisco so many things are possible, and this wide open approach to things — “if we can dream it we can do it” — was Jerry’s way.

It’s pretty clear to me that this lesson, about self-reliance, innovative thinking and not taking no for an answer, has impacted me in a large way. I didn’t study to become a copywriter. I just became one, by attending the school of hard knocks and by learning on the job. Same with hypertext markup language. I wanted to make websites, so I took an online tutorial in html and started building. That was in 1999 on slow days at the agency. Since that time, I’ve built many client sites, but also established myself as a leading ad industry critic (and champion) thanks to another DIY moment in 2004, when a former colleague and I started AdPulp.com. In 2009 I founded Bonehook, a guide service and bait shop for brands to serve the needs of companies making a difference in their customers’ lives. Clearly, I listened to Jerry on this one!

By the way, doing it yourself doesn’t mean flying solo. When you combine the DIY ethos with superior teamwork, magic happens.

Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #7: Explore

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. A heartfelt ‘thank you’ for these Dber. Your skillz have never been sharper, and I’m clearly biased to this subject.
    Thanks too to Darby, Lady With A Fan…

    Reply
  2. Awe, Ski. Gentle Man with a Fan. Thank YOU, m’dear.

    And on to the grim part of this lovely set of thoughtful and illuminating posts from my sweets and Ski and the Barron (one day, we shall meet, I hope!)

    So, I met Owsley in the lot one night, and he subsequently ended up in our hotel room that evening. He was a business acquaintance of my then boyfriend, and ended up hanging out for a couple of hours. There were 4 other people in the room. I was the only woman.

    Owsley informed my then boyfriend that Owsley would only speak to me through then boyfriend. Owsley was hung up that evening on me being a woman and, basically, being there. Around. Interjecting thoughts and having opinions on things, in the midst of man business.

    I know we all have moments in our lives when we don’t shine, and I try to keep that in mind when Owsley comes up in conversation. I did not know him and he did not know me, but I’ll never forget him and I unfortunately remember him through this dark and less-than-becoming lens.

    I wish is wasn’t this way, but it is. And seriously, it ain’t no thing, except for when stories are shared and he comes up, as he will. Often heroicized. I was not impressed. But the wall of sound and the good acid was cool.

    Reply
    • Thanks babe. Actually, sexist behavior was pretty common in the GD scene and the hippie scene from way back. “The Boys” broke through a lot of barriers, but they seemed to have missed this particular challenge along the way.

      So here’s another WHAT NOT TO DO lesson: Great that you have a dick, but don’t be one.

      Reply

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About David Burn

Writer, strategist and brand builder.

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Grateful Dead, Music

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