Ode to Jerry Garcia



Birdsong 6/30/95






It started out as not a bad day,
here in New York,
here on the other coast.
It started out as more or less an okay day,
and then came the news across the wire –
‘legendary;’ ‘at 53;’ ‘cause of death unknown.’

The cause of death is life.




It’s a dream, I said – once, twice,
more times than I can remember now.
It’s a bad dream –  the news services,
what do they know about these things?
Reuters, Telerate, CNN – what do they know?
Details, facts and figures, photos:  meaning, nothing.

No, it’s too much, I said, a bad dream,
and on top of everything else,
in this, a season of  loss for me –
no, I won’t, I can’t, I won’t do it.
You’ll wake, you’ll wake again, and
there won’t be this pronouncement, this
knowledge, this apprehension, this understanding (never),
this falling of loss and small, blank, white fear
(never), and this recurring
realization:  never – really – never.
Not ever.
There won’t be terror, and
there won’t be this word never.

And I was conscious, and still enough aware
of myself, at least, to be ashamed, of my own
selfishness, my own small self-interest:
no more shows, I thought; no more shows, no more shows.
The cause of death is life,
and, brutal, cruel, vicious –
How dare the sun shine so brightly! –
life continues; and life, more than anything,
was in the shows.
I wanted more – I want more shows – I wasn’t ready!
and I want to not ever know this word never.




What a name, Jerry, what a name:  the Grateful Dead.
What a name!
The apocryphal story of the band
sitting around, stoked to the rafters,
and someone stumbling across it in a dictionary:
is it true?
Does it matter?
Truth.  Truth, Jerry.
Truth is the cause of death, too.

Grateful Dead:  the New York Times defined it as
‘a type of British folk ballad in which a
human being helps a ghost find peace.’
Is that what you were trying to do?
Is that what I’m trying to do here?
But I wouldn’t know your ghost,
as I never knew your person – in fact, in detail –
and I can’t see as how you’d leave a ghost behind anyway:
I expect your karma was pretty cool by the time you went.
Maybe it was just time. You were always an old soul, as they say,
and you knew more about death, and hence beauty,
than most of us will learn in ten lifetimes.
Beauty is the cause of death, too,
and a reflection of it, and an apotheosis
of it, or maybe just the first faint
face of it that we can still bear to look at
(to cop a riff on Rilke).




But what were you thinking about?  Jerry!
What were you thinking?
The feedback had to feed back, you must have known that,
the bent string had to rebound at some point.
What were you thinking?
Did you think you could hold that curent
in your hands, pluck it and play with it as if
you owned it?  Run that juice
through yourself and still not get juiced?
Did you think you could ride the white rush and
not be ridden in turn?
Hubris, Jerry, hubris – an arrogance.
Did you think the gods wouldn’t hear you,
that they wouldn’t hear you and smack you down,
for playing too loud, for making too much beauty,
for stealing from them inside their own kingdom?
And did you think – did you dream, did you fear? –
that no one heard all your beautiful arrogance? – riffs, runs,
trills, triplets, bent notes
moaning and howling against emptiness –
do you think I never heard, never felt,
that arrogance –
the ego of the artist –
in your voice, in your fingers? Or the
rage of angels, or the chuckling of demons,
or the confusions of children, or grown-ups,
or the sudden, unexpected, pure splatter of joy,
like fireworks splashed across a night-time sky?
I heard, Jerry, I heard;
and I heard, too, the sadness, of longing,
or loss; I heard. I was listening. I was listening.

But what were you thinking about? Jerry?
Tell me. I’m still listening.




Pictures from the panoply:  paintings drawn in sand, in sound.
At the end of a China Doll –
don’t call me on the dates and places, Jerry,
I was never after the details, I was only ever looking for essence –
at the end of a China Doll:
notes small and sparse, high, sorrowful, harmonics,
tinged with and steeped in all that sadness,
high, higher, higher, before falling, descending,
and then one, two, a handful more,
flung out into the dark – brave, brave notes! – alone in the dark! –
high, higher, higher, bending to infinity.

And in The Wheel, the song of inevitability –
how could you know, even back then? –
sounds strong and sweet, paced, relaxed, masterful,
climbing steadily to the peak of the
mountaintop, and then, briefly, off it,
into the rarefied air,
before descending gracefully and sure-footedly
down the other side.
A nice place to visit, the mountaintop –
no question, the view is breathtaking –
but you can’t get enough air in to fill your lungs.
Why did you try to live there?

Count the Crazy Fingers, burn all the Scarlet-Fires,
you knew too many Riders to tally,
call it a High Time and Jed has at long last made it
back to Tennessee,
you’ve tracked your So Many Roads
and one has finally brought you home.

One last picture, though – can I? –
from Eyes, Eyes of the World, a long time ago now.
A long and stretched-out ramble – it must have
been an outdoor show, Jerry, I can feel the sun on my face,
I wasn’t there but I can feel it, I’m hearing it –
and you are playing – playing – playing! – oh, isn’t that nice
to feel? – playing, like a child, with the sun on your
face? – lines long and skipping,
trilling, happy, dancing,
like a dust mote in a summer breeze
(you always wanted to get the people dancing, didn’t you, Jerry? –
you used to say that, ‘Just look at all those kids dancing’),
and the music’s sweet, sweet, so sweet (the gods, Jerry,
remember the gods!),
uptempo, fast and relaxed all
at the same time –
all the time in the world now –
as if all you ever knew was to look for fun.

I called my friend with the news the other day now,
and he asked me, What are we gonna do now for fun?

What are we gonna do now? Jerry? For fun?

Still you play on – the music by turns exciting, merry-making,
contemplative, exploratory, rabble-rousing – fun:
and then, there, there, at the very end,
after a long, wandering walk through the woods,
a meander through meadows,
in the sun,
over rivers and off mountaintops,
across the Great Divide,
there is one note, one – there –
that peaks it all out for me;
and I will not insult by attempting to describe.

You’ll wake, I keep wanting to think.
Like Cinderella, the Sleeping Beauty:  this is all just
a fairy tale gone wrong.
Wake up, Jerry.
Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.
I miss you.
I was listening.
It mattered.
You mattered.




So.  The details.
Cause of death:  a heart attack in his sleep.
A stunningly prosaic ending for the big man,
Captain Trips, the rock star:  good.
Give your naysayers nothing in death:  good.
No accidents, no sloppiness at the end,
no mistake, no fumbling overdose:  good.
Your gift was always in making sense,
in giving voice to what was unspoken,
in drawing a thin line out to its
natural end and extending it, without losing it,
playing in the place beyond gravity
and staying connected, and staying fresh;
and bringing it all back home again afterward.
You never forgot about logic and sense,
and feeling, their direct opposite,
and how to lose the first to find the second;
and bringing it all back home again afterward.

I heard a joke today:  ‘The cause of death
was an acute case of acid indigestion.’
I had to laugh, Jerry – it was funny.

Fact, too:  on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
(an arena most inimical to your meanings),
trading came to a stand-still when the news was announced.

So:  the details.
Cause of death was
a heart attack in his sleep.
The cause of death was life.
Life, and truth, and beauty.
Were you awake, Jerry, when it came? I can’t help wondering –
Did you hear a last note, sighing and singing to you, bending to
infinity? Or were you asleep, dreaming
a pleasant dream maybe,
of the big band in the sky,
a good-looking blonde with a walk on her,
a fat slice of cherry pie with ice cream on top?

The details.
Fifty-three years old.
Ran his run, lived his life, played in the band.
Got some things wrong, got more right,
smiled millions, danced many, loved a lot.
Ran his run.




So. We come to this.
No, I don't guess I think now that you’ve left a ghost behind.
And maybe here I’ve been trying to help some ghosts find peace,
but if so they were ghosts of my own:
you have helped me do that before,
and it mattered.
I guess I think now that all the ghosts have been laid down.

No, I guess I think now that you’re something more like
the wind under the nut-thatch’s wings,
or a peal of fragile thunder, in the distance
somewhere, very possibly unheard,
or a ripple on your beloved water,
if I can sing your own songs back to you.

Ran your run, lived your life, played in the band.
Flew off mountaintops,
flailed and fought and flared
in the face of the gods,
and failed, of course, as we all must do,
to make them answer to you.
But still, so beautifully. So very,
very beautifully.

So long then, Jerry. So long. Crank up the amps,
keep ‘em hopping in that big band in the sky.
You are become the music that you made.
So long.

The cause of death was life.

John Richmond

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