a death in the family
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
This is one of my brother’s early bands, The Eels, circa 1975. That’s brother Nick, doing a Harpo Marx kinda thing, second from left. He played the drums back then. (He can play about any instrument you put in his hands now.) Next to him on the couch is Chris the bass player, who was so laid back he was inside out. Last I heard, he was in some kind of metal band. And then another Chris, the temperamental genius guitarist and my ersatz brother. He and Nick were friends since elementary school and Chris spent a lot of time at our house. Sometimes I would get up late in the morning and there would be nobody in the house but Chris, sitting at our kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
And on the far left, holding the inert warhead in what is known among those who know it as the “Warhead Picture” is Jerry Garcia. The other Jerry Garcia.
Jerry died last week and it’s given a lot of people a lot to think about. A lot of ambivalence surrounds his death, from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. As you might imagine, with those particular causes, his death is not entirely surprising but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
Jerry was charismatic, charming, talented and a drug addict. Gosh, that’s a cliché, isn’t it? After the Eels, he played with a couple of important bands in the NY punk scene—Richard Hell and the Voidoids and James White and the Blacks.
My friend Dave, who was close friends with Jerry from childhood, told me that when Jerry learned that he’d made it into the Voidoids, he went straight to Dave’s house and they jumped up and down and squealed like little girls.
But Jerry was a vortex of dissolution and over the years, he sabotaged himself—stealing from friends, band mates and professional associates, for example—and many (most? all?) of his friends dropped him.
One friend one time left a room leaving his wallet and Jerry alone. In the wallet was money and a note that said, “Take the money and never come back.”
At his best, Jerry was social, garrulous and a raconteur but that may be why he tried so hard to bring his friends into his drug-driven life. He liked people and didn’t want to do stuff alone. We all like friends around who share our interests. My family holds Jerry partly responsible for my brother Oliver’s descent into addiction and his ultimate death. I don’t think I ever saw Jerry again, after Oliver died in 1987, though I heard news of him now and then, none very good.
Jerry lived with his parents when he died. There was no funeral, just a viewing of the body. Dave went and a few other people. Just a handful. A small handful. After seeing what was left of Jerry, they all went out together and reminisced about Jerry’s good days, about the Jerry who charmed everyone around before he allowed himself to freefall.
Jerry was not an intimate of mine, although he was certainly part of a gang with which I ran. I still laugh to think of him telling me, when we were both older teenagers, that he likes Jewish girls “because they put out” –which is tawdry but funny anyway. (Jerry was Cuban.) I never put out for him though he once expressed a fleeting interest.
Drug addiction is so sad, so sad, so sad. It steals people away from us, sucks them into a cesspool from which many never emerge. Oliver was sucked down quickly. Jerry spun around and around into middle age before his body gave out.
Maybe Jerry was a bad person. I don’t know. He did a lot of bad things. But I think he was just broken, like Oliver. Now that he’s gone, his friends are mourning the person he once was and could have been. It’s a complicated sadness.
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