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David Crosby Remembers Jerry Garcia: ‘He Did Not Play for Money — He Was Chasing the Notes’

In an adoring and emotional interview, Crosby recalls his friend's support, collaborative sprit and thirst to always be playing: "Holy s---, what a f---ing musician."

Jerry Garcia David Crosby grateful dead
Mediapunch/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Rock fans think of David Crosby’s name in so many cases as part of something with commas or ampersands involved — the duo Crosby & Nash, the trio Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the quartet that added Young to make it a foursome — but there was another key collaborator in the late ’60s and early ’70s whose name was never so formally conjoined to Crosby’s: Jerry Garcia. The central figure of the Grateful Dead was clearly grateful to frequently enter into Crosby’s orbit, most especially on “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” the solo debut on which Garcia played so crucial a part, Crosby nearly considers him a co-producer — especially as he thinks back on unspoken bonds of friendship that got cemented during that emotionally rough patch in his life.

In celebrating Garcia 25 years after his passing on Aug. 9, 1995, Variety could think of no greater Jerry booster to speak with than Crosby. As long as he’s alive and has anything to do with it, no one will have a problem remembering Garcia’s name.

VARIETY: At one point on Twitter, someone asked you who you from the music realm you missed the most, and in one word, you said Garcia. Is that still who you’d name, if you had to?

CROSBY: Yeah. Of all of the people that I can think of that I’ve really loved as musicians — and then there are some stunners in there that I miss; I miss (Jimi) Hendrix, I miss Janis (Joplin), I miss my friend Cass (Elliott), I miss a lot of people that I lost — yeah, I probably miss him the most. If I had had to pick somebody to represent musicians to the world and to the universe, I would have picked him. He cared about the right things. I don’t know how to explain it really well, but we’ve got to try. The most valuable thing in the world to him other than his family was the music, and he wanted it all the time. He would walk in the room and, yeah, he would talk to you about regular s— and he could be a regular guy and you could go have a meal or a beer. But what he really wanted to do was pick up the guitar. And the minute he and I started to play anything, it got good, right away, immediately — which is not possible, all the time. But every single time that I sat down with him to play anything, it got magical. And you can’t ignore a thing like that, if it happens right in front of you over and over again. .. I just was entranced by that.

I loved the guy. He was a sweet guy and he was funny as s—. And he was very, very bright and curious and interested in science and in the world and in people. But above all, man, he was a musician. Above all.

When we think of Jerry Garcia, we never really think of him in any kind of isolation, the way we would so many music superstars. We think of him in collaboration, whether with the Dead or playing bluegrass or with other side projects or just playing on albums like yours.

It’s the same thing I do, and of course I loved it. It’s how it should be. That’s how you learn new stuff is cross-pollinating with other musicians. I go and I play with Jason Isbell, and he’s got some s— I haven’t got. I learn something from him. I go play with Bonnie Raitt and I listen to how she sings a song and I learn three new things, because that’s how good she is. I love making music with other human beings. I know that a lot of people really love to do it by themselves and that’s really their thing. They want to play all the instruments and make the whole record themselves. It’s kind of an ego trip, but I understand it, and if you’re capable of doing it, you might as well — it’d be fun. But it’s not my thing. My thing is chemistry with other human beings. And Jerry had that to the max. I never met anybody who was better at it. You played three notes, and he would play number four and five.

We had a blast every time we’d see each other. A smile would blossom on both of our faces. We would reach for a guitar and go get happy. And it was just as dependable as day following the night, you know?

You’ve said, though, that it was challenging playing on stage with the Dead. And I didn’t know if that was because of just the fact that their arrangements were malleable…

“Malleable” — there’s a great word. It’s because the arrangements are long and extremely complex. And trying to learn the Grateful Dead’s music, you better be in the Grateful Dead for life if you want to learn that s—. That is some complex s—, and in odd time signatures and with all kinds of arrangement differences. Because they liked complex s—. It makes it interesting for ‘em. But trying to sit in with the Dead? [Chuckles.] Man, I tried that, and it’s not a real successful thing to do. You know, if you’re a lead guitar player, you can do it. You can sit in on almost anything if you’re a lead player. You know, Jason, for instance, or (Stephen) Stills or anybody that can play lead can sit in with anybody. But I can’t. I’m not a lead player, and I need to be able to contribute something to the song. And so most of the times that I’ve sat in with the Dead, the only part that I was really able to contribute was singing something. I can’t really play along with them. They’ve already got a really good rhythm guitar player, and they don’t need two of them.

Did you ever hear what I think their kind of music is, what Jerry and Phil (Lesh) and them invented? Well, it’s four running streams of melody at the same time. It’s the lead guitar, the second guitar, the bass and the keyboard. They’re all playing a melodic line all at the same time, all the time. That’s Dixieland. The trombone and the clarinet and the trumpet and the sax, they’re all playing melody at the same time. That’s what the Grateful Dead is doing, playing four rambling, running, explosive, inventive lines of melody at the same time. I call it electronic Dixieland. I think nobody else ever invented it. They thought it up, and it works. It’s a kind of jazz. It’s a new kind of American music, same way bluegrass we thought up and jazz we thought up. The singer-songwriter bands expanding and extending themselves into jazz area of improvisation, that’s the thing the Grateful Dead pioneered.

It sounds like the beginnings of the intermingling of the Dead and Crosby, Stills & Nash were when Stills and Mickey Hart were living together briefly, and then you all kind of started intermeshing from there?

No, I don’t know who started that one, but Stills didn’t live with Mickey. I lived right near Mickey in Novato. That may have been where the story got started. Let’s see, how did I meet Jerry? When they were still living in the Haight at that house, that’s when I first met Jerry. (Paul) Kantner took me over there and we hung out a little bit and I liked him a whole s—load, and then I played some music with him, and then I fell head over heels in love with him.

Fans are fascinated by the interaction between the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash individually and collectively, especially over a period of a few crucial years. It’s almost like when people talk about comic book superheroes and their shared cinematic universes, like this universe where you guys are different superheroes who occasionally come in and out of each other’s musical lives.

Well, I don’t feel like a superhero, and I know for sure that Jerry didn’t. [Chuckles.] He had a very realistic view of himself. But we affected each other, man. You know, people started this whole thing about how the Grateful Dead learned how to sing harmony from Crosby, Stills and Nash. Bulls—. We didn’t teach them how to sing harmony. They knew already. What happened was, we listened to their music and it affected us. We realized that we could get a lot looser than we were. They listened to our music and they realized they could get a lot more organized than they were, vocally. They knew they could do the same stuff we were doing — just not quite as well, but they could do it. They’re not as good of singers as we are. But they’re just as inventive as we are, and just as good of musicians. So we affected each other. Airplane affected us. Quicksilver affected us. Janis affected the s— out of us. It was a very alive music scene there, and the Grateful Dead were right at the front of it.

And you have to understand that it looked really good to us because we were from Hollywood, and the Byrds were trying to be a pop band and succeed in the pop world, right? When we started out, we had uniforms; we were wearing little suits and little ties … I mean, we were lucky we didn’t have dance steps! So looking north and seeing this completely unrestrained, completely no-showbiz-at-all, completely music-for-the-people kind of thing was very appealing to me. And Garcia was right smack in the middle of it. He did not play music for money. You can start your list of things about Jerry Garcia with that: he wasn’t there for the money. He didn’t give a s—. He was there chasing the notes. He wanted the music — really, really badly. He would go to great lengths; he would suffer indignities [laughs] to get to the point where he could make some music.

When Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cut “Teach Your Children,” that was your idea to bring him in to play on Graham’s song, right? Even though he wasn’t the world’s most renowned pedal steel player at that point, so the genius of that might not have been apparent before it happened.

Well, it’s not a matter so much of how much chops you have, how long you’ve been playing the instrument, how good your hands are on it, as it is in your head, what melody comes to you. And I knew that a good melody would come to him. Because that’s what he did, every time. So I knew that he might not be the greatest steel player yet, but that what he would play would fit the music really well. And of course it f—ing did.

And then your first solo album, “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” was certainly the most extensive collaboration — he’s on almost every song on that album. When you were making that, did you just think, “I have to have Jerry all over this to make it work for me”?

It was more complex than that. Okay. [Pauses.] I had just gone through a couple of really big things. I had just finished making “Déjà Vu” with CSNY, and in the middle of that, my girlfriend got killed in a car wreck. And I loved her, and I did not know how to handle it, and I was devastated. So Jerry did more than want to play music. He he did not ever say this to me, but he knew that I was in terrible shape, and that I was a lot of time just crying my f—ing eyes out. I’d go up on Mount Tam and just sit at a certain spot that I had up there and just cry, for hours. And he knew. He knew that the one thing that was working in my life was these songs, and that was the only time he saw me smile or get happy or feel like I had a raison d’être, you know, a reason for being. It was when the lights came on, as soon as I touched a guitar or keyboard or sat down and tried to sing something; then, it would get good. He could see that clearly. I do think that Garcia deliberately did me a kindness. I think he knew that I was in terrible shape, and he knew that that the music was the one thing that was working, and he came in and just maxed that right out.

And he showed up almost every night. And I don’t know what he had going on in his life, but he didn’t do it. Whatever else he had going in his life, he didn’t bother with. He came to (Wally) Heider’s (studio) almost every night, and we made that record together. It was a complete, utter joy, and I would do it again in a second if he were alive.

We almost had a group, man. I thought up a group. [Laughs heartily.] I thought up a group with Jerry. Now this is when I was 240 pounds. David Grisman was about the same. We were three big, fat guys, right? So we were going to start a group called Rotunda. [Cackles.]

I’m sorry that didn’t happen.

Yeah, I’m sorry it didn’t happen, too. It would have been a f—ing good group. [Shouting.] “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Ro-tund-a!”

When I was talking to Cameron Crowe last year when the documentary he produced on you was coming out, I was asking him some of his favorite deeper cuts of yours, and he named “Kids and Dogs.” That’s one that took about 35 years to come out. But people were waiting for it. They wanted more of you and Jerry together.

Well, that’s a really classic one. The people that I was making the next album for, when I tried to include that song, they thought it wasn’t good enough. But yeah, everybody that’s ever listened to really loved the feel of it. That was the one (worthy) thing out of the supposed “PERRO” tapes. That was a thing that Paul Kantner just thought up. He invented this band, PERRO, Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, that he wanted to have happen. And it would have included me and Jerry, but I don’t think it was ever anybody’s real idea.

Did Jerry talk much with you about personal things or was it all kind of intuitively channeled into your music making?

No. He knew a lot about personal things, but he didn’t talk about ‘em that much, no. He was a very perceptive guy, man. Never underestimate him. He was extremely bright. Extremely intelligent, and very perceptive of the people around him all the time. He just didn’t let you know. He didn’t show it off.

Do you have a favorite thing musically you did together, as far as the different songs?

I have many, but I’ll tell you the single most favorite thing: At the beginning of “Kids and Dogs,” you will hear us playing a game with each other where we each play a note in a sort of a pulse. One, two, three, play, one, two, three, play. And each time we hit a note, we don’t know what note the other guy’s going to hit. We’re making a chord of two notes, and we have no idea what it’s going to be. We do it, we do it again. It’s really neat. We do it again. It’s really neat. We do it a fourth time and it’s crazy good, and Garcia laughs, and you can hear him laughing from the note that we hit, man, because it was so good. That was my favorite. We used to play that game a lot and it was very, very, very funny.

On Twitter a few years ago, someone asked who had better weed and, in your typical to-the-point Twitter style, you said you did. Then there was the question of who had the better LSD, and you answered just as bluntly that he did. Do you think there’s anything in that that says about your different styles toward life?

Well, no, we both did LSD and we both did weed. Tons. [Laughs.] That was the other first thing we would do is light up a joint. I think all the time that I was ever with Jerry, we were stoned. But no, I didn’t see him as different. The Grateful Dead did more acid than we did, that’s for sure. A lot more. But I did plenty. And they certainly smoked plenty of weed, all the time — all of ‘em did. So no, I don’t think it was different; I think it was pretty much the same. We were just different people.

How was he most different from you?

We were not the same.… I saw who he was, and I would have liked to have been more like him, at least the strong parts. I wish to God I was as good a musician as he was. Holy s—, what a f—ing musician.

Do you remember where you were in 1995 when you heard that he had died?

Yeah, I was at a friend’s house on an island up there in Maine, outside of Portsmouth. And I came back in on a boat from their house to town. One of the networks had brought an uplink to talk to me about it. And I… [Long pause.] Well, I have to stop crying to do the interview.

People had different feelings about whether it was something to be expected, given his health problems and habits, or whether it felt completely out of the blue and shattering, or that strange combination of both.

I don’t think he really was taking care of himself very much, physically. It didn’t seem to be a priority for him. I don’t remember him ever talking about going to a heart doctor and checking out his heart. I don’t think he did. I don’t think he even knew that he had a problem, really. But I don’t know that; I’m just guessing. [Pause.] I wish he hadn’t died.

You talked about how he lived for the music, and certainly some people can be so much about the music that they don’t care about certain other things in life.

Not all of us are meant to be a jock. Not all of us are physically conscious of ourselves to the point where we go out and work out all the time. Jerry didn’t. Ninety-nine percent of his consciousness was on music.

You probably are not at all surprised that the Dead’s legacy now seems to loom as large now as it did 25 years ago.

Well, they invented a whole new kind of music and they played a whole bunch of it really well. I’m surprised that anybody’s surprised. They invented a brand new way of going at it, and they did it really well. They wrote a bunch of good songs. They had a really good time. And the audience loved that they had a really good time, and then went along with them and had a good time themselves. Hard to resist that.

Thank you for sharing these thoughts, so unless there’s anything you wanted to add…

Just that I love him, man. I loved him and I will always love him in my heart. He was a wonderful man. Just say I love him.