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A Few Notes About Writing This Book

Long before Jerry Garcia died I entertained the notion of one day writing a biography about him. As a few friends can attest, I even had the eventual title — Garcia: An American Life — already picked out. It sounded slightly serious and pretentious, but I liked it for ironic reasons: this is definitely not your normal "American life," but it's a story that couldn't have happened anywhere else. I never quite figured out how I would eventually write the book, but its an idea that appealed to me. I liked and respected Garcia too much to go around interviewing his friends behind his back. Nevertheless, in late 1994 I began assembling a chronological archive of quotes by and about him from already published sources into a database, thinking that at some point I might try my hand at an oral biography (stitched together with my own narrative) along the lines of one I'd written about Pigpen in issue #27 (the 1993 annual) of The Golden Road, only much bigger, of course.

Within a couple of weeks of Garcia's death in 1995 I got a call from my friend Dan Levy in New York telling me that (completely unprompted by me) he had casually suggested my name to an editor at Viking Books as someone who might be qualified to write a biography of Garcia. I was already a known quantity to the editor, David Stanford (who had worked on books with Ken Kesey and Robert Hunter and was also Viking's resident Kerouac guy) — in fact, he had accepted a book proposal from me a year-and-half earlier. At that time I had wanted to write a series of essays about different aspects of the Dead's music and the Dead scene called 30 Years Dead, to come out during what I then envisioned as a triumphant thirtieth anniversary year, 1995. But life doesn't always go the way you plan it (to say the least; I don't work from a set list, do you?) and in between the time I suggested the book in late 1993 and when the proposal was accepted a year later a couple of things happened. First, my daughter, Hayley, was born and all of a sudden the prospect of spending nights and weekends writing instead of being a parent to our newborn, as well as our then-3-year-old son, Kyle, didn't seem like such a good idea. The other thing that happened is I became quite concerned about Garcia during this period, as his playing declined, rumors flew and a certain fatalism cast a shadow over what had been an unending source of light and inspiration for so many years. I'm an optimist through and through — the Pangloss of the Dead scene; probably too sunny for some tastes — but deep down I was worried. I remember in the fall of '94, after hearing great reports about the East Coast tour in progress (this after a horrible summer tour) I flew to New York to catch two shows at Madison Square Garden, thinking it might give me a needed shot of adrenalin to get the essays flowing. The two concerts I saw weren't nearly as disturbing as some I'd seen that year. Still, I came home depressed about the state of the band and decided shortly after that to tell Viking that I would not be signing the contract they'd sent me. What can I say — I wasn't in the right space to write the book I had originally envisioned.

Incredibly enough, Viking didn't hold this against me, so after Garcia's death, when I heard that they were possibly interested in my writing a biography of Garcia I jumped at the chance. I knew it would be a mammoth undertaking, but I figured that with my long history of writing about the group, the connections in the band and organization I'd cultivated through the years, and my passion for the subject, I had an opportunity to create a book that would be enlightening and informative and not have any sort of that Albert Goldman let's-dig-up-the-real-dirt attitude that someone who was from outside the scene would undoubtedly go for. You want dark? There's more than enough in Garcia's/the Dead's story to fill a book much larger than the tome I eventually wrote. But I wanted to write a fond (but not fawning), non-judgmental, factually accurate book that would illuminate Garcia's creative side. It's very fashionable these days to write biographies that psychoanalyze the subject; I have no interest in that approach, and don't have much respect for the writers who step out on those limbs: "Of course X did Y because, as his letters show, he was (choose one) a) gay, b) sexually attracted to his/her mother, or c) trying overcome serious feelings of self-loathing.

I had started thinking seriously about my oral-history-with-a-narrative-thread approach to the book, when one day I got a call from Robert Greenfield: he had signed a deal with William Morrow to put together an oral biography of Garcia along the lines of the fine book he'd written about Bill Graham a few years earlier (This is the book that became Dark Star). He had a strict time limit to complete it — by the end of January 1996, so it could come out on the first anniversary of Garcia's death in August '96 — and he had already interviewed many people in the scene. We talked about possible interview sources, he told me about walls that had been erected in his path, who was nice, who was not; all that sort of stuff. And he even floated the idea that we could work together on the book, a notion I probably would have embraced except the time pressure seemed ridiculous to me. When I hung up the phone my heart sank — there was no way I could do an oral biography if he was going to have one in the stores a year before mine was even half-written. After a few moments of extreme self-pity I accepted my fate: it would be a conventional prose book; a slightly more daunting task, but in retrospect, a more satisfying writing (and, I hope) reading experience.

I began interviewing in earnest in the winter of 1996, criss-crossing paths with Bob Greenfield several times, and finally meeting him one day at the Dead office. Bob's a good guy — smart, funny, and though not a Deadhead, he seemed to understand quite a bit about the Dead scene and about what made some of the principal players in the Garcia saga tick. We shared phone numbers and discussed interviewing strategies and bounced ideas off each other in a way that was truly non-competitive. My view of his project — really, of every project associated with the Dead — is that I wanted it to be good and fair and accurate and to tell me things I didn't know.

The winter and spring of '96 turned out to be a very interesting time to be interviewing people in the Dead world. People were still in shock over Garcia's death, but were starting to be able to verbalize their feelings about Jerry in ways they probably couldn't have a few months earlier. Still, the interviews were often quite emotional and cathartic, both for my interview subjects and for me. I remember a long nighttime session at Bob Bralove's San Francisco pad. We sat in the dark and talked for hours, illuminated only by the city outside. Jerry's brother Tiff shared wonderfully detailed memories of their youth together, and with tears in his eyes, talked about the sad final days. The two look quite a bit alike and even shared some mannerisms, as brothers often do; it was touching and a little bit eerie. I spent a stoney evening with John "Marmaduke" Dawson and his wife Alanna at their Marin County A-Frame reminiscing about the early '70s. And I chatted at lentgh with various picking mates of Garcia's from his folkie days. I was impressed (though hardly surprised) by how fondly Jerry was regarded by his old friends, many of whom had lost touch with him decades ago.

Through a story in a Santa Cruz newspaper I tracked down a woman who turned out to be one of my best early sources: Kris Clifford Crow, one of Jerry's cousins. We spent a fascinating afternoon together during which she showed me the cabin that the Garcias and the Cliffords (Jerry's mom's side of the family) built in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, and the swimming hole where Jerry and his brother Tiff hung out many a summer. Later, Kris also provided several photographs for the book. It was Kris, too, who told me how to get in touch with another great source for the early part of the book, Jerry's cousin Daniel, who is a successful Bay Area optometrist.

Frankly, my favorite part of the entire experience of writing the book was researching Jerry's roots in San Francisco and his pre-Dead days as a folkie in the Palo Alto area. It's the part of his life I knew the least about going into the project, so every new factual nugget I unearthed had the thrill of discovery attached to it. I was amazed at how much information could be obtained from birth and death certificates of various Garcias and Cliffords (home addresses, names and places of birth of the parents of the newly born or deceased, etc.) and I spent hours going through phone books from the '30s through the '60s gathering addresses. I loved driving around week after week trying to locate every school Jerry attended and every apartment or house he lived in. Alas, many of his old Peninsula haunts are now gone, but it was always exciting when I successfully found one of the few that remain. The staff at the Palo Alto Public Library were very helpful; indeed, everywhere I went, people opened up as soon as they heard I was writing a book about Garcia. A Deadhead in the San Francisco public school system managed to sneak me a copy of Jerry's supposedly confidential school file (which actually contained little besides the dates he attended different schools), and even the Army was compliant, sending me some of Jerry's military records. Your tax dollars at work!

During the time I was researching and writing the section of the book about Jerry's folkie days, I listened to almost nothing but the New Lost City Ramblers, the Kentucky Colonels and various Folkways anthologies. I knew comparatively little about that musical world, and I really loved tapping into that incredibly rich storehouse of Americana. All the people I interviewed from the Palo Alto days were so bright and forthcoming with their memories. I was really impressed, too, with how many of them still play music, either professionally or casually. Sandy Rothman, one of Jerry's pickin' buddies from that era (and later, too), was of immeasurable help in helping me navigate through the fairly complicated history of folk and bluegrass in the Bay Area in the late '50s and early '60s.

I wrote the book in strict chronological order, immersing myself in the history and music of the time I was writing about. I still remember the moment, after weeks and weeks researching and writing about Jerry's granparents and parents, when I finally arrived at Jerry's birth. Whew! For a moment or two I thought it would be easy downhill sledding from there. It wasn't of course, but this is the sort of self-deception I regularly engage in as a writer. "OK, that part was really tough to pull together, but this next part is going to be easy." And then, three hours later, it's 11 o'clock at night, I'm dead tired and I've written one and a half paragraphs. That sort of scenario happened often enough to make for some depressing stretches, but there was always such satisfaction attached to crossing off yet another item on the chapter outline that my spirits were never down for long. Still, I can't begin to describe how perversely happy I was when I finally arrived at the last big event of the '60s in the book—Altamont. Another decade down!

All through the writing process I continued to do interviews. It wasn't until May, after many months of back-and-forth discussions that Carolyn Garcia — Mountain Girl — agreed to talk to me. And then it was a spur of the moment thing: she was in the Bay Area for a pretrial motion in her battle with Deborah over Jerry's estate, and suggested I drive back to her house in Oregon with her, interviewing her along the way. So that's what we did. We split the beautiful drive between us and I got more than six hours of fascinating material on tape. I spent the night at her rustic house in Pleasant Hill (next to Eugene; she's since moved into Eugene proper), enjoyed a magnificent lamb barbecue on a warm spring evening, and flew back to the Bay Area the next day.

Of course I had also hoped to interview Deborah Koons Garcia — Jerry's widow — for the book, and it almost happened. At our initial meeting in the spring of '96, we seemed to get along fine and she agreed that we would do a formal interview sometime in the next couple of months as her schedule allowed. Unfortunately, the day we finally nailed down for the interview months later turned out to be the same day she learned of the contents of a Rolling Stone cover story about Jerry that had been culled from some of the darkest and most negative parts of Robert Greenfield's soon-to-be-published book Dark Star. Deborah arrived at her office that morning in a rage and proceeded to yell at me for nearly an hour — my transgression was that I had already interviewed M.G. and others she claimed were liars — and she informed me that there was no way she was going to be part of my book. (This was curious since at our first meeting I had told her who I was interviewing). I was somewhat shaken by the rudeness of her unnecessarily vituperative verbal assault, but hardly surprised — I've never met a person with less awareness of how badly so much of what she says comes off. I thought it was important to have her voice in the book, and I was prepared to let her say her piece — though I told her at the outset I was interested her life with Jerry, not in her inflammatory opinions about other people in Jerry's life. But, alas, the interview was not to be. I went out of my way to find people who might say a few nice things about her, but she blocked me there, too, asking two of her friends not to speak with me because she believed I was writing a book that would biased against her. Even so, I tried to be fair to her, and I think I was.

I was fascinated to read Greenfield's book when it came out that summer of '96. I think he did an outstanding job of showing Garcia's frailities, and though many have criticized his book as being relentlessly bleak, I think there was an underlying compassion for Garcia that came through in most of the voices Greenfield chose to tell the story. My complaint with the book is that there was almost nothing in it about music, which I've always presumed is why most people loved and admired Garcia. In a way, Greenfield's thorough handling of Garcia's personal life relieved me of any obligation I might have felt to delve deeply into that area. It liberated me to concentrate more on Garcia's creative side, which had been my intention all along. Dark Star did have a negative impact on my book in two ways: There were a few people he'd interviewed who were unhappy with his book's focus on Jerry's personal life and as a result declined to be interviewed for mine; and there a few anecdotes I didn't put in my book since they appeared in his first. C'est la guerre.

In the end, it took me almost a year beyond my original due date to complete my manuscript; not pretty, but also, I gather, not unusual. I found that I became very emotional toward the end of the book as I spent week after week writing about the somewhat depressing last few years of Garcia's life. And I'm not ashamed to confess after I completed Chapter 23, which ends with the Garcia's death, I had a good cry. I think it wasn't until that moment that I really let myself be affected by his death; before there was always work to be done!

I handed in the book to Viking in mid-December 1997, but it would be another year before the editing process on it began. This was disappointing, as I had originally hoped the book would be out in the fall of '98. But the book world moves in mysterious ways and there were a number of obstacles too boring to relate here that conspired against the book coming out any earlier than it did. The up side, if there was one, is that because of the delay I had the opportunity to rewrite the epilogue to include the summer '98 tour by The Other Ones — a perfect capper to the story.

It's strange, but in some ways I feel as though I've only scratched the surface of Garcia's life in my book. Five hundred pages sounds like a lot, but when I think about everything I had to leave out along the way — I'm talking about the natural editing process that went on during writing, not the mild evisceration that occurred after the manuscript was completed — I see a much bigger book with a grander sweep and a level of detail this book only occasionally hints at. I wanted to write about it all, and in the end that simply was not possible.

I hope you enjoy (or enjoyed) what ultimately made it to the printed page (as well as the additions here in cyberspace). When I wrote my first book about the Dead, The Music Never Stopped, in the early '80s, the research I did for that book led directly to my starting The Golden Road in early 1984. I have a feeling that Garcia: An American Life isn't the end of this period of research, either. There are more stories to be told, more areas to explore in greater depth. "Will you come with me / Won't you come with me..."?