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Image: Jerry Garcia
Toby Talbot  /  AP file
There’s enough continuing interest in Jerry Garcia’s fabled long, strange trip that a film about the early part of his life is in the works.
TODAY contributor
updated 8/17/2010 12:00:37 PM ET 2010-08-17T16:00:37

Forget vanilla. Fifteen years after Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995, his namesake ice cream, Cherry Garcia, continues to be the best-selling flavor for the Ben & Jerry’s brand, according to spokesperson Liz Stewart.

This tidbit of information might seem trivial, but it underscores a larger point: the influence of the Grateful Dead’s guiding force continues to be felt in popular culture in ways few people would have imagined when he was a cult figure back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Over the decades, Garcia’s reputation grew as he became a symbol of both the counterculture and a do-your-own-thing aesthetic he exemplified with his music. As chief songwriter and lead guitarist with the Grateful Dead, he expanded the boundaries of rock by incorporating a myriad of influences into his songs and bringing jazz-inspired guitar improvisations to the rock concert stage.

“Anybody who was not afraid to have a song last for 20 minutes early on was influenced by his music,” said Bruce Hornsby, who scored a chart topping hit in the 1980s before becoming an unofficial Grateful Dead member in the 1990s. “(He) spawned Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic and I think also the Allman Brothers.”

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But if you count Garcia only as being the granddaddy of the jam band scene, you’re overlooking his larger legacy, said Joel Selvin, the recently-retired music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, who often wrote about Garcia.

“Jerry turned out to be an enduring American archetype,” Selvin said. “He was one of the few people of his era who stayed true to himself and pursued a steady mission, undeterred by fame, fortune, marital problems, and all that kind of stuff. Jerry was about what Jerry was about in 1965 as he was when he died. And I think that’s the sort of consistent message that you need to have that kind of impact.”

Garcia’s message, said Selvin, was largely one of “music for music’s sake,” which has been “virtually eradicated in the digital era.” Whether playing with the Grateful Dead, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Jerry Garcia Band or his bluegrass ensemble, Old and in the Way, Garcia played on, oblivious to the world of commercial music. Artists who followed him have had to contend, consciously or not, with his musical integrity.

“He was the anti-Britney Spears,” Selvin said. “His symbolism to music is much larger than just some parochial little fragment. He looms over Celine Dion records for everything they’re not.”

An American icon
The Grateful Dead didn’t initially take the world by storm, but instead attracted a cult of fans that became known as Deadheads. When the group achieved widespread success in 1987 with the hit “Touch of Grey,” both the cult and Garcia became objects of media fascination. Garcia became so revered that when he died he made the cover of People magazine, which noted “bad habits had finally silenced the truckin’ troubadour.”

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Garcia is now so much a part of pop culture that his birthday was recently celebrated by the San Francisco Giants at a tribute night, which featured Garcia bobblehead dolls.

“He’s become more iconic as a person throughout the years,” said Blair Jackson, author of the biography “Garcia: An American Life.” “He was always really on his own track and I think that was an inspiration to people.”

There’s enough continuing interest in Garcia’s fabled long, strange trip that a film about the early part of his life is in the works. The project, which will be directed by Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story”) is as-yet-untitled, according to screenwriter Topper Lilien. Entertainment Weekly is already asking readers who they think should play Garcia.

One of the most significant elements of Garcia’s legacy is his fostering of the once-new concept of a “fan community,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who has taught courses about the Grateful Dead. The band’s traveling pack of Deadheads, who followed them from gig to gig, made them unique from other bands in their day, said Adams.

“A lot of the decisions that contributed to the formation of that community I think were decisions Jerry made or at least came from him,” Adams said. “The whole notion that a community can form around a band that moves from place to place was new.

“In my classes, I’ve looked at the elements that contributed to the formation of that community and certainly a lot of it was due to Jerry’s management style,” Adams said. “Deadheads felt acknowledged and it affected how they operated in their personal and professional lives.”

For example, Garcia sanctioned fans taping live concerts and then swapping tapes, which Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh cites in his book, “Searching for the Sound,” as a prototype for Internet song swapping.

The business world has also taken note of Garcia. His fostering of a new kind of band-fan relationship was analyzed in the 1999 book “Radical Marketing: From Harvard to Harley, Lessons From Ten That Broke the Rules and Made It Big.” A new tome, “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History” is devoted in its entirety to the subject.

The music never stopped
But innovative marketing alone won’t help an uninspired product, and it’s ultimately Garcia’s music that continues to draw listeners. His songs, usually co-written with longtime collaborator Robert Hunter, range from classic rock favorites like “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band” to introspective ballads (“Ship of Fools”) to the unique brand of Americana found on most Grateful Dead albums from the 1970s. Said Hornsby: “I think Garcia has 40 songs or so that sound like they could have been written 150 years ago. They sound like classic American music.”

“His songs are living on,” said David Gans, the host and creator of “The Grateful Dead Hour,” a radio program syndicated on 73 stations. “His partners are still playing his songs in various guises. I run into young Deadheads all the time in my travels.”

Those partners include former Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, who lead the group the Rhythm Devils, and former band members Lesh and Bob Weir, who now lead the band Furthur.

Another testament to Garcia is the fact that the market for Grateful Dead concert CDs exploded after his death. There were 36 volumes of the archival “Dick’s Picks;” the subsequent “Road Trips” series now has 11 editions. The live CD set “To Terrapin: Hartford ’77” placed at No. 13 on Billboard’s rock albums chart in 2009.

There are also “more Grateful Dead cover bands in the Bay Area then there were back when Jerry was alive,” said Gans, who as a performer covers Garcia tunes. The Grateful Dead tribute band the Dark Star Orchestra regularly tours nationally, while groups like On the Bus and Uncle John’s Band keep Garcia’s music alive in various regions of the country.

Over a dozen musical artists paid tribute to Garcia on July 29-Aug. 1 at the 25th annual Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash in West Virginia. They included Toni Brown, a former editor of Relix magazine, which started as a Grateful Dead newsletter. Brown said setting up the event with a bunch of twentysomething Deadheads made her appreciate how deep Garcia’s influence runs.

“I realized that not only did Jerry Garcia leave a legacy for me and my generation, but we kept handing it off,” she said. “Now we’re three-four generations in. The people who own this venue could be my grandchildren.”

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