Jerry Garcia suffers fatal heart attack -- A nation of Grateful Dead fans mourns

A collective groan went up from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Brokers on the periphery figured the Federal Reserve had raised the discount rate. But the audible despair of Aug. 9 belonged to followers of the Dead, not the Fed: The Dow Jones tape had just broken the news that at 53, Jerry Garcia, the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead, had died.

That the rock patriarch’s passing from an apparent heart attack should reverberate as strongly on Wall Street as around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury shouldn’t have surprised anyone. More dramatically than any rock act in history, the Dead had cultivated and kept disciples from successive rock epochs, all of them destined to take the news about Uncle Jer hard. For first-generation fans — the boomers whom Gail Sheehy had neglected to prep for this passage — the demise of one more ’60s icon added rather unnecessarily to the mounting evidence for the ephemerality of life.

Getting a life, meanwhile, was the abrupt prospect for the nouveau nomads who had made it their gain fully unemployed business to trail the Dead cross-country. Though it was the source of a few, this was no joke. ”My life is ruined,” said one twentysomething devotee to a VH1 camera at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park vigil, contemplating the end of the tribe’s gatherings. Never again would disenfranchised children be able to run off and join the Dead; for future generations, the circus — or maybe Phish — would have to do.

Contemporaries were quick to remember Garcia’s sweet alchemy of rock, blues, and bluegrass. Bruce Hornsby, the honorary Dead member who filled in as keyboardist for 20 months after Brent Mydland’s drug overdose in 1990, says he fell in love with Garcia’s loose, nimble improvisational sense, a willingness to stretch that he found ”rare in today’s rock world. He spoke to my jazz consciousness.” Conversely, Elvis Costello says the Dead’s alternately revered and reviled penchant for jamming ”never interested me as much as the songs. He wrote lots of really great melodies, and some times that gets overlooked.”

In the public square, reaction was nearly as reverent — with the exception of Rush Limbaugh, who characterized Garcia as ”a dead doper.” Most of the rest of the ”straight” world eschewed demonization, seeming to recognize that, whatever his lifestyle, Garcia was a gentleman. San Francisco mayor Frank M. Jordan ordered city flags to half-mast and gamely, if lamely, suggested the world ”keep on truckin’ to [his] unconquerable spirit.” Massachusetts governor William Weld not only mourned the ”loss to both my generation and my children’s” but added that he had tickets for a scheduled Sept. 16 show and would still go if the band opted to soldier on. On MTV President Clinton chimed in with postmortem kudos too, though he evidenced more familiarity with the neckties than the music and tempered his sympathy with a just-say-no caveat.

Was Garcia indeed a drug casualty? Not directly, according to initial pre-autopsy reports, which attributed the death to natural causes — most likely a heart attack — suffered at the Marin County rehab center he’d checked into two days before. Yet, narcotics or no narcotics, few bodies were more likely candidates for meltdown than his. Particularly in the years since his near-fatal diabetic coma of 1986, Garcia had yo-yoed between health-and-nutrition kicks and milkshake-and-cheeseburger binges. Even when he exercised dietary and drug restraint, his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit remained an unfortunate given.