At the helm of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia was a magnetic guitarist, singer and songwriter—one of the most beloved, enigmatic figures of the American 1960s. Yet Garcia’s life was as complex as one of his many-layered solos: a strange, psychedelic journey through highs and lows. This is our trip through his beautiful brokedown palace.
Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams Garcia:
Garcia was very outgoing and outspoken. Always the first guy there and the last guy to leave. He was fully committed in this funny way to whatever happened. Not only was he fully committed, but he was committed to keeping the door open for spontaneous events and the possibilities. We met a lot of times, but I think we really met at the Watts Acid Test. The Grateful Dead were in LA doing some shows and they lived in a big house. The [Merry] Pranksters wound up going over the border into Mexico for six months and then we returned later that year and caught up with those guys. They had been having their career and it was going pretty well. We were basically living in a bus, so there was a big difference in comfort level. They had no furniture and the refrigerator only had chicken. We hadn’t seen chicken in months, it was like this alien being. We were living on brown rice and veggies.
[At the Acid Tests] they were just willing to play. It didn’t really have that much to do with what they played because we didn’t know what the hell they were playing anyway. They were playing these strange old folk songs turned into blues tunes. They didn’t ever play for very long because it was too chaotic to play long sets and nobody really paid much attention, but they were brave enough to get on stage at an Acid Test. That was pretty exceptional. After the Pranksters came back from Mexico it all kind of split up. I was living at my brother’s [in San Francisco] and Jerry and I started seeing each other. I moved into [the Grateful Dead’s] house [at 710 Ashbury] after a while. It was lighthearted and it wasn’t very clean, but it was delightful. I did a lot of cooking and sort of house maintenance. The company was great, the only downside was that there weren’t enough bedrooms, so there was a lot of people sleeping on chairs. The bathrooms were not big and I had a baby [fathered by Ken Kesey] by this time. We were very much a world unto ourselves. We really formed a solid cohesive pod. It was actually more of a home and less of a public event. [Garcia] had a perverse yearning to learn how to play the pedal steel guitar. The Dead rehearsed for a number of hours a day if they didn’t have a gig, and sometimes even if they did have a gig, but he would get up early and fool around with the pedal steel guitar for a couple hours. It was just a nightmare, it was so hard, so complicated and so utterly different. He wasn’t sure if he was setting it up right, I don’t think he was. He had some pretty strange tunings, but he had a great time with it. It was like his morning yoga.
[710 Ashbury] was getting creepy and the Haight-Ashbury suddenly got really full and it started to spill up. We got busted for pot, and Jerry and I weren’t home, luckily. Of course they arrested Pigpen and [Bob] Weir, even though they didn’t smoke pot. Then nobody wanted to go home for a long time and got paranoid. Everyone went over to Marin in a wave around 1970. It wasn’t groovy in the Haight anymore. It lost its sweetness.
We had a great house in Larkspur and shared it with [Robert] Hunter and his girlfriend Christie [Bourne]. We had a couple of cats and a couple of dogs and Hunter was prolific, so they wrote a lot of stuff together. It was a good, rich time. [For Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty,] they wanted to make classics and they were really wedded to the concept of continuing in a certain tradition.
We had kids so there had to be a fairly calm domestic scene—I was about 28 or 29 with three little kids. We had a really neat house in Stinson Beach. I thought things were fairly blissful, but they didn’t stay blissful. We split up I think in ’75 and things were kind of on edge for a long time after that. We had a bunch of back and forth, but I had to mostly just pay attention to what was going on with family business. I couldn’t really focus on what was going on with the band anymore because they had about all the management they could handle at that time, a lot of people telling them what they ought to do. That’s when [Garcia] developed the realization that he loved to work, so he would work every day if he could. He was sometimes doing two shows a night in San Francisco. It’s what he did best and what he was most comfortable doing, the rest of life was not interesting.
We thought it would be a good idea [to get married]. We thought it would work out and getting a place together in Marin was the plan. I’d been planning to get married for really a long time, it just hadn’t happened. So finally we found a time and a place and I don’t know, it just kind of came together. It was a beautiful ceremony. My friend Peter Zimels was a Tibetan monk. He did the whole thing in full Tibetan regalia with brass bells. It was delightful. We were backstage at the Oakland Auditorium under the stairs. Jerry had this really funny little cramped dressing room so we did it in there. The kids were all there. There was a big party going on outside. It was hard to get privacy for anything like that. It was overwhelmingly difficult to feel like you were separate from the mass, and to maintain that separation was difficult, but we kind of snuck it in.
In 1986 I was back in Oregon and I got a phone call from my friend that ran the camp that my youngest daughter was at, and she wanted to know if she should tell her that Jerry was very ill. I was like, What do you mean? I had been out getting ready for the local Oregon Country Fair. I flew down there and went straight to the hospital. Basically he was in a diabetic coma from high blood sugar. It took them a long time to figure that out—over 24 hours—which I thought was ridiculous. They gave him Valium, I think they were CAT scanning him. If they had just checked his blood sugar it really would have shortcut things. He was starting to wake up a little bit by the time I got there. He obviously had been exhausted for a while. [The Dead] had just come back from doing a tour with extremely high temperatures—it was like 105 degrees at their last gig. It just cooked his head. It took him a long time to recover. I immediately moved back down to deal with it because it was crazy at that point. People were so anxious for him to get well. It was 24 hours a day, people knocking on the door wanting to see how he was. There were people hanging around that I didn’t like, that I wanted to get rid of, so all of that took some doing.
We stayed together for several more years, until 1990. Things were going really good. Eighty-nine was the big year. They did very well financially, it was gratifying as all get out. Then he got a place with a bigger swimming pool. He thought he was going to swim in it, but I don’t know if he ever did.
A friend called the morning [he died]. It was not an unexpected phone call, it was just really shocking. It didn’t seem possible there for a while. Luckily my daughters were with me at the time. The last I heard he was at Betty Ford and apparently he didn’t stay. I went by [the memorial service] briefly. I’m not going to get into that.
Like any celebrity, people didn’t know him very well and honestly, he was pretty much 100% musician and artist. He saw everything in these ways that are hard for other people to understand. He saw music as color, for instance. It was all twisted up in his head. It was a little confusing, his senses of what normal was were just off from other people.
There was an aspect of his playing that kind of reached through the dimensions and affected how people felt about things. There was a certain kind of musical catharsis going on sometimes when he played. At first I didn’t quite get it. After a while things became so fluid and sparkling and sort of gorgeous, I found it very touching and moving and loved it. I still do.
The best thing I could tell you about Jerry was that once when he was a kid he went up to the Randall Museum in San Francisco—the little natural history museum, right near Buena Vista Park—and he set all the snakes loose. He got in a lot of trouble. He was just a little guy. That’s pretty much what he was, he liked to turn that stuff loose.
Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams Garcia was a member of the Merry Pranksters. Her relationship with Jerry Garcia lasted nearly 30 years and they had two daughters together.