Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8

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.


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 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

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #3

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #3

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