"It was the tour from hell": Inside the Grateful Dead's last shows, and Jerry Garcia's final days

Jerry Garcia's health was failing. The music wasn't firing. The crowds were anarchic. The final days of the Dead

Published December 6, 2015 5:25PM (EST)

Jerry Garcia (AP)
Jerry Garcia (AP)

xcerpted from "THIS IS ALL A DREAM WE DREAMED: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead"

CAMERON SEARS, Grateful Dead manager: Once the manifestation of Jerry’s choices were becoming more and more apparent, it was forcing a conversation to happen that got a lot more attention. We did confront him. We did have a lot of meetings internally. People were genuinely concerned from a personal perspective for him and the music was not what people felt it should be, so there were a lot of things being discussed. But the X-factor in the whole thing was really Jerry’s reaction to it and what he wanted to do. Because at the end of the day it was his life to live how he chose.

Initially, he was [dismissive]. Most people in that situation are. It’s the rare person who says, “You’re right. Thank you.” It doesn’t happen that way very often, in my experience.

There were other physical problems. I had taken him to doctors, so we were aware. I took him to a hand specialist in the city and they were doing some treatments with him, to some success. His heart condition was also apparent. His approach to that, of course, was, “I’ll adjust my diet,” and he attempted to do that to some extent.

He wasn’t a fool. He knew he needed to do things, but it’s very hard for anyone—no matter who it is—to stop what you’re accustomed to doing because you have to. Nobody wants to be told they can’t do something ever again. And he had multiple sets of things where he was being told that. “You need to lose forty pounds. You can’t smoke. You can’t eat this. You have to exercise.” At a certain point you’re kind of like: “Fuck this,” which you can picture Jerry saying internally. But because he was an intelligent and thoughtful and considerate person, he did want to take those steps, but they’re huge steps. Anybody who, in the best situation, has to lose twenty pounds, it’s an enormous undertaking. We all wish we worked out more and ate better. It’s not a simple thing. And in his case it was very complicated.

JAN SIMMONS, Assistant to promoter Bill Graham and Sears: It was heartbreaking sometimes, watching Jerry being in such poor health that it was hard for him to walk up and down the stage stairs. And it was very painful to see somebody just loved that much, and respected that much, being in so much trouble. He had his good times and his bad times during the years I was with them. And it was not easy sometimes.

STEVE SILBERMAN, Writer, fan: I went on tour in the fall of ’94 and I said to myself at the end of the tour, “Something is wrong, because I just saw fifteen shows or whatever and I can only think of three or four really transcendent moments.”

ROB KORITZ (Musician): The musical quality declined over time, and I think part of that was having two drummers. There were a lot of other factors. I hate to say it, but we can’t deny what drug use did. Not just drug use, but alcohol as well, because I know some drinking also took place.

I remember one time when I was talking with Billy. He was talking about the nineties in particular, when Jerry was out on the smack again. He said, “Most of that stuff was terrible, but no matter what, even if Jerry was out of his mind, every night there was at least one song—or sometimes it was just three minutes—when the magic would happen. And even when it was bad in the nineties, those three minutes of magic every night were worth it for me to stay there.”

PHIL LESH, Grateful Dead bassist: [Dylan’s] “Visions of Jonhanna” is such a great song, and [Jerry] had such an identity with it. It’s a mystery to me why we didn’t start playing it earlier. Even without the teleprompter, he could usually remember most of it. And his guitar playing is just so moving. I just love the song, and I love his rendition of it. It’s him. It’s really him. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” Whew, yeah.

In 1994 there was a very tentative attempt to make a studio record.

BOB BRALOVE, Musician: Jerry was not in good form, but the band was playing really great, so they were putting down some really good tracks. Things were sounding pretty good, but nothing really gelled, so there weren’t any finished performances with vocals. The energy around it was kind of confusing, because there was this really positive energy coming from the band, but it was missing a key ingredient. He’d come late; he might be pissed off.

DENNIS McNALLY, Grateful Dead publicist: In 1994 we played a gig at this airstrip in Highgate, Vermont [Franklin County Field, July 13, 1994]. It was almost a guerrilla thing. We went in, it was comfortable, we got out. The venue had been pristine, because nobody knew about it. This time [June 15, 1995, with Bob Dylan opening] every piece of land in the immediate vicinity of the venue was rented out—you can’t tell a bunch of Yankee farmers that they can’t make a buck off the passing circus, so they didn’t—and there were nitrous tanks and camping. So all of the people that had to stay moderately sober the previous year because they had to drive back to Burlington didn’t have to stay sober.

There wasn’t a riot there; there would have been if we hadn’t opened the gates, but they made the rational decision that you’re not going to ask security guards making five dollars an hour to defend that gate with their last breath. Thousands of people [without tickets] were massed in front of the gates. They were going to come through the gates no matter what. So they opened the gates and then 10,000 more people were inside than should have been.

So, right away, that’s a bad sign [at the beginning of the tour].

Jerry was in alarming health. [Earlier] that year, Vince and Gloria [DiBiase, who were longtime assistants to Garcia] told me that his blood sugar reading, which is supposed to be in the mid to high 90s if you’re healthy, was at 200. I actually do remember saying to people in January, “If we get to Boston this fall . . .” I knew. His physical health was crumbling.

So he’s out of it in Albany [June 21–22, 1995], kids get hit by lightning at RFK [Stadium in Washington, D.C., June 24, 1995]— that’s where the “tour of doom” thing started.

When we first got to Deer Creek [for shows on July 2–3, 1995— the venue is a lovely amphitheater in Noblesville, Indiana; the band had played every year since 1989], Kenny Viola [tour director of security] takes the band into a back room, then comes out and tells me what he did: he played them tapes of threatening phone calls that the venue had received against Jerry. Threatening to kill him— if I remember correctly, because Jerry had stolen his girlfriend, metaphorically, or literally, or otherwise. Look, we’re talking about a disturbed person. And Jerry’s going, “And?” So Ken asked if they wanted to play the show, and they said, “Of course we’re going to play the show. Don’t be ridiculous.”

CAMERON SEARS: It was Jerry’s choice to play. He was pissed. He was not happy about the whole situation.

Once the fences started coming down, I had to go out and see what was happening. Deer Creek had a big hill you had to climb and a big fence all the way around it, and once they started rushing the fence, security said, “You know what, we’re out!” What could they do?

The most troubling aspect of it was the people inside cheering them on. It was a very twisted sense of entitlement. These were kids that really just didn’t give a shit what anybody said to them. You could say, “I work with Jerry, and no, Jerry doesn’t want you to tear down the fence,” and they’d say, “Fuck you!” They were anarchists, in a sense, and once people are in that place, there’s no reasoning with them. You don’t have a whole lot of alternatives in terms of how do you corral this. It’s crazy. It’s like an altered state. Some of them were these young skate punk hippie kids. A lot of them were Phish kids, too. They would go back and forth. Phish was having all the same problems as we were.

DENNIS McNALLY: It was also really creepy leaving that night. We have this insane scene; people start panicking. We had one bus there, the production bus, [but most of us] had come in vans. So we get another van to take the sound crew home. We put the women and children, whoever were their guests, in a van, and they left in the middle of the second set. [After the show] we put the band in the bus and leave. This is twenty minutes after the show, and you had to go through the parking lot a long way at Deer Creek. There’s no backdoor entrance or exit.

Then there were these people pounding on the side of the bus and there were people deliberately walking in front of the bus; it was basically a “fuck you.” It was really freaky and disconcerting. Then going on these back roads, which are really narrow, with sharp turns, the bus got stuck in a ditch, which actually broke the tension. We got out, and looking at it, all of it was so horrific, it was like it had descended into farce. And everybody sort of relaxed, and this local farmer lent us a miniature tractor. They’re trying to drag a bus out of a ditch, Ram Rod and [fellow roadie Billy] Grillo were digging at the tire, and trying to do this and that. Eventually a tow truck came and pulled us out and we went back to the hotel.

The next day, on the way in, Cameron says to me, “Draft a press release.” The cops had said, “We’ll direct traffic for you outside the venue, but we will not work inside. We’re not going to risk our lives to defend your property.”

So the band decided, “Well, we can’t do a show without the police. That’s it.” So I wrote a very strong press release [from the band to the fans] saying: “If you guys quit on us in terms of ethics, don’t forget we can quit on you,” and Jerry signed it. He was truly shaken. It was appalling.

I did think, “You know, the Grateful Dead’s karma about touring for thirty years was remarkably lucky.” There were some famous moments where their [equipment] truck almost didn’t get through. But I don’t know how many, if any, shows the Grateful Dead ever had to cancel, but surely not many, and certainly not any because of the audience.

JAN SIMMONS: It was the tour from hell, as far as we were concerned. The relationship between the entourage and the Deadheads, as far as I could tell, it was pretty good up until that time. Ticket sales were 100 percent and I really, until that last tour, maybe the last two tours, I wasn’t aware that there was that much bad activity going on.

CAMERON SEARS: I don’t think anyone saw it coming to the extent that it manifested itself. We all were aware of the fragility of the situation. Every gig was kind of like a pressure cooker. But who would predict that someone would phone in a death threat to a show? Who would predict that at a campground a porch would collapse and people would get killed? Who could have predicted a lightning strike [at RFK Stadium]? We were all kind of looking at each other and saying, “Really? Is this all happening now?” It was a culmination of a lot of little things, and in each case it had nothing to do with us.

RICHARD LOREN, Grateful Dead booking agent and manager: That last tour was the metaphor for the end. It really showed the collapse of the thing they tried to keep up for so long. The fact that [the Grateful Dead] weren’t savvy enough to not play that last year they played—they didn’t need the money and they could have served their fans another way. They could have created something, done a show somewhere, telecast it, whatever. They could have taken that collective spirit—that socio-musical spirit—and shared it with the rest of the world.

Excerpted from "This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead." Copyright © 2015 by Blair Jackson and David Gans. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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