Like his band the Grateful Dead, which was still going strong three decades after its formation, Jerry Garcia defied his life-expectancy not merely by surviving, but by thriving creatively and commercially into the 1990s—far longer than most of his peers. His long, strange trip came to an end, however, on August 9, 1995, when he died of a heart attack in a residential drug-treatment facility in Forest Knolls, California. A legendary guitarist and cultural icon, Jerry Garcia was 53 years old.
Jerome John Garcia was born on August 1, 1942 and raised primarily in San Francisco’s Excelsior District, about five miles south of his and his band’s famous future residence at 710 Ashbury Street. Trained formally on the piano as a child, Garcia picked up the instrument he’d make his living with at the age of 15, when he convinced his mother to replace the accordion she’d bought him as a birthday gift with a Danelectro electric guitar. Five years later, after brief stints in art school and the Army, and after surviving a deadly automobile accident in 1961, Jerry Garcia began to pursue a musical career in earnest, playing with various groups that were part of San Francisco’s bluegrass and folk scene. By 1965, he had joined up with bassist Phil Lesh, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and drummer Bill Kreutzman in a group originally called the Warlocks and later renamed “the Grateful Dead.”
From their early gig as the house band at Ken Kesey’s famous Acid Tests, the Dead was a defining part of San Francisco’s burgeoning hippie counterculture scene. They would go on to play at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969, but as big as they were in the 60s and 70s, the Grateful Dead grew even more popular and successful as the decade they helped to define slipped further into the past. Indeed, during the final decade of Jerry Garcia’s life, following his recovery from a five-day diabetic coma in 1986, the Dead played an average of 100 to 150 live shows per year, frequently to sold-out audiences that included a significant proportion of tie-dye-wearing college students who were not yet alive when the Grateful Dead first made their name.