It’s not a sexy, round-number anniversary, but I bet Deadheads know that July 9 was the date of the last Grateful Dead concert with Jerry Garcia. That was in 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago. With the surviving Dead having celebrated the 50th anniversary with a farewell tour—and then a return of most of them, as Dead & Company—they continue to be in the news.
They are on Qello Concerts, in the Classic Albums series (Anthem to Beauty) and in Festival Express, rocking and partying across Canada by train with Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy and other pals. And they are on my mind since I wrote The Grateful Dead Scrapbook in 2009 and chronicled that last concert.
It came in the middle of a year when the Dead, their staffers, and increasingly more fans were alarmed by the state of Garcia’s health, owing primarily to drug use. But in spring, he appeared to be better, and, as I wrote:
The Dead and their fans enjoyed some excellent shows, including ones featuring guests and opening acts like Bruce Hornsby, Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan, and Chuck Berry.
At too many stops, though, the spirits deserted them, and the road was riddled with gatecrashing incidents and worse. Two people fell from an upper level at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh during a Dead show. The band weathered a death threat against Jerry in Pittsburgh and another in Indiana. A hundred or more people were injured at a campground called the Farm near Dead shows in Maryland Heights, when a veranda around the lodge collapsed.
The Dead’s performances themselves were uneven. As always, the fault lay with their leader. “Garcia had backslid into heroin use,” according to Holly George-Warren in Grateful Dead 365. “The sight of Jerry—clammy and gray, always out of breath, incommunicado onstage as well as off—was frightening to us all,” said Lesh.
The tour ended in Chicago with concerts on July 8 and 9 in Soldier Field. With plenty of media around, looking to capture some of the drama that surrounded Dead concerts, the band pulled off a trouble-free pair of shows, beginning with “Touch of Grey.” The last song Jerry Garcia sang was “Black Muddy River,” a melancholic Robert Hunter composition that the writer said was “about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time.”
Earlier in the concert, he performed “So Many Roads,” repeating the ending refrain, “So many roads to ease my soul.” No one knew that this was the last time Garcia would sing this deeply personal song. “It’s Hunter writing me from my point of view,” he once said. “The song is studded with little references that have to do with me and where I’ve been, what I’ve been involved with, my own musical background, my roots.”
At his post on bass, Lesh was moved to anguish by what he witnessed. “I watched in despair as Jerry—whey-faced, hunched over with chin on chest, fighting for breath before singing every line—struggled his way through an incredibly moving performance of “So Many Roads.”
In the audience, (veteran Dead chronicler) Blair Jackson saw and heard the performance, which stretched out to almost ten minutes, with the Dead providing background vocals in shades of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” “This was Garcia’s soul laid bare,” said Jackson, “and the audience responded by cheering him on, empathizing with him, struggling with him.”
Back in California, Jerry entered the Betty Ford Clinic near Palm Springs, but left a couple of weeks later, saying he didn’t want to spend his birthday, August 1, in rehab. But then he checked into another facility, called Serenity Knolls, in Marin County. There, he died of a heart attack in his sleep. It was very early, August 9, and he had just turned 53.
August 9, 1995: One of the saddest anniversaries in rock.
Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.