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While Graham Nash says that he never got to know Jerry Garcia all that well, their first meeting is a part of rock history: It happened in the fall of 1969, when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were recording their classic “Déjà Vu” album, which included what is probably Nash’s best-known song, “Teach Your Children.” At that first meeting, Garcia added an iconic, bluegrass-flavored pedal steel guitar solo — incredibly, he had only been playing the instrument for a few weeks — which it’s virtually impossible to imagine the song without. Here, as part of Variety’s remembrance of Garcia on the 25th anniversary of his death, Nash shares his first and last meetings with Garcia, as told to Jem Aswad. 

CSN&Y were doing “Déjà Vu” up at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco. The four of us were at a very funky motel called the Caravan Lodge Motel, which was only a two-minute walk to the studio. Neil [Young] had two bush babies staying in his room with him, Harriet and Speedy. [Laughs.] It was a crazy time.

We had done the track to “Teach Your Children,” and Stephen thought because he and Neil played guitar all the time that we should have something different. David [Crosby] said, “You know, Garcia’s in the next studio and he’s been playing steel guitar for a couple of months, let me ask him.” “Sure!” The Dead were next door recording… “American Beauty,” was it? And David asked him and he loved the idea; he had never played pedal steel on record before. So he set up his pedal steel and we played him the track, and as I do with most musicians, I said, “I’m not gonna tell you what to do. Feel it and play it.” So he played the first [take] and I said “Fantastic! That was just stunning. I’m shocked that that someone who’s only been playing pedal steel for less than half a year could play so beautifully,” because it was heartfelt and well thought-out in a very spontaneous way.

He said, “I kinda f—ed up a little in a couple of places, can I do a second take?” “Go right ahead” — I would never stop him from trying to make it better. So he played it and we got to the end, and I said “Yeah, it’s perfect, but it doesn’t feel like the first track you played, when you didn’t have any f—ing idea what you were gonna do!” So he laughed and said fine. I knew that “Teach Your Children” had a chance of being a hit, but when Jerry put his pedal steel on there I was convinced it was gonna be a hit. [The song peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, but its impact reaches far beyond charts.]

I never paid him money for his part on “Teach Your Children,” but I did give him a vintage Fender Strat, which he immediately stuck an alligator decal on and that became his “Alligator guitar” for many years. I’d bought it in ’67, I believe, when I was on tour with the Hollies. We stopped in a pawn shop in Tucson, Arizona and it was cheap and I bought it — and it just sold for $470,000! [Laughs.]

So that was the first time I met Jerry. We didn’t become real close friends; he was mainly friends with Crosby, because Crosby lived up in Mill Valley, and besides we were traveling all over the world at that time. But he was always incredibly nice and gentlemanly, and he was obviously very wise.

The last time I saw him was kinda sad, really. It was in Buffalo, New York [in 1990] when CSN opened for the Grateful Dead. While we were setting up our instruments for our set, I was standing on this little carpet, and that was a no-no — that was Jerry’s place! It was just a carpet on the stage; I mean, what the f—? It was a little sad that the Grateful Dead had gone from an all-inclusive, everybody-is-important kind of band to “Don’t step on Jerry’s rug.” It was a different scene entirely: “Everybody stay away from the Grateful Dead, don’t talk to him.” It was weird, because they were our friends, y’know? And with all f—ing due respect, we were us!

So I didn’t know him that well, but I’ll tell you, the world is as not as good a place without Jerry as it would have been with him for all these years.