Dark Star

Richard Gehr reviews "Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia" by Robert Greenfield.

Published August 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Like Rock Scully's "Living With the Dead," which Robert Greenfield's oral biography partially reprises, "Dark Star" proves that no man is a hero to his drug dealer. Or his ex-wives. But unlike Scully's self-serving (and mistake-peppered) exercise, "Dark Star" is only half about Jerry Garcia's drug problems. The other half offers intermittently fascinating facets of a thoroughly 20th century legend whose full story defies condensation.

It's telling that virtually no one immediately associated over the long haul with the daily life of the Grateful Dead chose to speak with Greenfield, whose previous book was an oral biography of rock entrepreneur Bill Graham. On the other hand, Garcia's first two wives -- Sara Ruppenthal Garcia and Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia -- along with Barbara Meier, an early lover who reappeared in his last years, add a surprisingly detailed emotional context to a life most frequently perceived through the cosmic boys club of the band. We also hear from Jerry's brother, Clifford "Tiff" Garcia, as well as some 60 other friends, colleagues, lovers, hangers-on, health quacks and brief acquaintances. Everyone wanted a piece of the charismatic guitar hero, whose inability to deal with this "unwarranted grace" had much to do with his self-abusive death trip.

Despite brief reminiscences by such musical compatriots as David Grisman, Merl Saunders and a couple of New Riders of the Purple Sage, what's mainly missing from Greenfield's book is any sense of Garcia the musician. Once the shock of rediscovering Garcia as a functioning junkie fades, there is the daunting accumulation of joyous musical hours that exist on record and on countless audience tapes to account for. I suspect most Grateful Dead fans would like to read less about Garcia's preference for Tang over orange juice and more about what it was like to make music with the rock equivalent of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.

By Richard Gehr

Richard Gehr has been writing about music, books, film, television, and other aspects of popular culture for more than two decades. He has contributed to several books and written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, O, the New York Times Book Review, and Spin.

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