Salzburg has Mozart, New Orleans has Louis Armstrong and San Francisco has Jerry Garcia.
With his bushy beard and kind smile, the late troubadour was the soul of the Grateful Dead, the group he co-founded in 1965 with guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, bassist and vocalist Phil Lesh, keyboardist and vocalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and drummer Bill Kreutzmann. Along with the Steal Your Face “Stealie” skull and cheerful Dancing Bear, “Uncle Jerry’s” warm visage and full figure were icons for the band, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995 while living at a residential drug-treatment facility in the North Bay.
“Back in 1965, when the Grateful Dead came into existence, they really put San Francisco on the map,” said Mayor London Breed at a Monday morning press conference to mark what would have been the 80th birthday of the late Garcia. “They put Haight-Ashbury on the map. They put tie-dye on the map. They really created music for everyone.”
At the event—held in the Excelsior District, just a few blocks from where Garcia grew up—Breed issued a proclamation declaring that Aug. 1 will henceforth be known as “Jerry Garcia Day” in San Francisco.
It was not the first time San Francisco has honored its favorite psych-rocker. He has an amphitheater named after him in McLaren Park, and the San Francisco Giants pay tribute to the pioneering musician annually with a themed game on or around his Aug. 1 birthday. Later this month, on Aug. 13, the 20th annual Jerry Day concert will be held at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater.
In 1987, Garcia became the first celebrity honored with a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (As of last year, Cherry Garcia was the No. 2 fan favorite for the eighth year in a row, five spots ahead of Phish Food, named for the band that carries the Dead’s torch like no other.)
Before Garcia became a pop culture icon, he and the Dead made serious musical and societal impacts. The Haight-Ashbury home that the band members shared in the late ’60s became ground zero for the Summer of Love. The Grateful Dead is credited with fostering a fan scene where the small transactions and interpersonal interactions in the parking lot were as much part of the experience as the concert itself, arguably giving birth to one of the signature elements of modern festival culture.
With its mixing of folk, rock, blues and jazz sensibilities, he and the Dead are credited with birthing the jam band genre and accompanying scene. And by encouraging audiences to record bootleg tapes of their concerts, they helped foster an ethos of music-sharing that predated Napster and streaming services by decades.
As a musician, Garcia’s legacy is mighty, too. A skilled guitarist and curious musicologist, he penned or co-wrote a number of campfire standards, including “St. Stephen,” “Touch of Grey” and “Ripple.” His non-Grateful Dead projects, including the bluegrass of Old & In the Way and the country rock of New Riders of the Purple Sage, gave him further creative outlets.
Tom Murphy, one of the organizers of the long-running Jerry Day in McLaren Park, attended the mayor’s commemoration and noted how the legacy of the Grateful Dead continues decades after Garcia’s death.
“We now have Jerry Days all over the place,” Murphy said. “There was even a Jerry Day in Australia, and I don’t think the Grateful Dead ever went to Australia. It shows that this scene is growing and taking off tremendously.”
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