Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #3

by | Aug 3, 2013

You have to learn the rules before you can begin to artfully deconstruct them. Of course, all serious artists and thinkers do learn the rules first, it’s the artful deconstruction that eludes so many.

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #3: Defy Convention

Jerry Garcia grew up in the 1950s–a time of mass conformity in America, San Francisco included. So, where did he acquire the gigantic nut sack it took to dream his own dreams, think his own thoughts and live his own life? I can’t say for sure, but this kind of inner confidence is typically the result of strong parenting.

Jerry also grew up in the Mission District, and while he was a very affable and generous soul, he was also a relatively tough guy from a tough part of town. And tough guys from tough parts of town don’t exactly flock to art school, but Jerry did. He defied convention and the odds, time and again.


I remember driving from Salt Lake City to Tahoe and seeing Jerry Garcia Band perform at Squaw Valley in 1991. Jerry announced from the stage on the first day that he and David Grisman, who were slated to headline the next day would instead play earlier in the day. Jerry felt that The Neville Brothers ought to headline the Sunday festivities, so he defied convention and Bill Graham Presents by rearranging the schedule on the fly, much to everyone in the audience’s liking.

The Neville Brothers are a high energy dance band from New Orleans and they belonged in the headliner’s slot. Jerry’s humility and respect for his fellow musicians put the Neville’s in the spotlight that day on the mountain. His willingness to let his conscience guide him and his readiness to speak up to right a wrong, showcased his personal integrity in an unforgettable way for me that day, and again it speaks to his inner confidence. A lesser man would have never volunteered his headlining spot on the ticket — that’s simply not how show business works.

And frankly how show business works was never much of concern for Jerry and Grateful Dead. They formed their own record label, designed their own sound systems, sold their own concert tickets via mail order, made their own feature film, and so on. Grateful Dead also played concerts at the Pyramids in Egypt during a full eclipse of the moon. They did it themselves, and it was all a great big adventure. Not everything went as planned all the time, but that’s a price you pay for taking risks, for going your own way, for defying convention.

Oddly enough, defying convention has proven one of the more difficult lessons from Jerry’s life, and one many of his fans fail to understand or practice. Deadheads are followers, not just of a band but of one another. It’s a tribal culture, as are all sub-cultures, but there’s a BIG issue with tribalism as practiced by white neophytes with no grounding in the realities of living in a tribe. The problem is group think and group do. When everyone wears the same clothes, likes the same drugs, listens to the same music, lives in the same cities, drives the same cars and adopts the same look, I am sorry to say it’s a convention of non-conformists, which kind of defeats the point.

Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #2: Improvise