Spiritual teacher and author of the influential book Be Here Now, Ram Dass was also a firm believer in the spiritual power and energy encompassed and shared by the Grateful Dead and, even more specifically, channeled through the soul and spirit of Jerry Garcia, whom Ram Dass considered to be a bodhisattva. Garcia, of course, never saw himself that way. He always had a somewhat less mystical approach to what he was doing, as is referenced in Barbara Meier’s interview with Garcia:
Barbara Meier: I remember reading Ram Dass describe you as a bodhisattva.
Jerry Garcia: He’s very kind, but I don’t deserve that. I’m just a guy trying to play the right notes, that’s all. If I were to think of myself in a spiritual context, however, I’d think of myself as some sort of Buddhist.
Barbara Meier: Well, music is your practice. When I hear you in concert, I feel you want to push the energy further and further, taking the crowd along with you.
Jerry Garcia: I don’t do it consciously.
Barbara Meier: You must be aware of it.
Jerry Garcia: Only because of the feedback, because of the endless reportage. It’s like UFOs: if enough people say “I saw one the other night; they’re spinning around,” even if I haven’t seen one myself, I start thinking there must be something out there.
Barbara Meier: No intentionality?
Jerry Garcia: Not really. From my point of view, it’s all a bead game. My finest moments have been as part of an audience in a musical situation, or as a performer, when things are unfolding in a graceful way. It’s one of those moments of grace that humans get to experience. When that happens, no one enjoys it more than I do. And when it’s just hard work, that works for me, too.
There are times when I feel I’m playing way below what I’m capable of, and I think, “Well, this whole evening is a giveaway. I never played at the edge of my ability.” I used to hear guys like Pablo Cassals say, “If I don’t play for a day I can tell, if I don’t play for a week my wife can tell, if I don’t play for two weeks everybody in the world can tell,” and I used to think “Ah, come on. . . .” But now I recognize what they’re talking about. It’s a purely technical thing—something my muscles do.
Barbara Meier: I remember you practicing the guitar twelve hours a day.
Jerry Garcia: As far as I know that’s the only way you get good. When you play music, you know how good or how bad you are and what you can or cannot do. And I’m still surprised more people stay than leave. That’s totally baffling.
Barbara Meier: Not only stay, but keep arriving. So what is the Grateful Dead all about?
Jerry Garcia: It varies through time. We’re just trying to play music; it really isn’t any more complicated than that.
Barbara Meier: But there’s this other thing happening.
Jerry Garcia: Yeah, and that has a consciousness of its own, and we’re invented by it. It’s really just a continuation of those old days. Everybody’s gotten older and is doing other things in their lives, but we really never decided to go somewhere or become something. As we go along and gain larger and larger illusions of success, it requires more and more preplanning, and we have to spend more time investing consciousness into the fiction of the corporation. Even though we’ve always operated without an agenda, the hardest part is preserving the illusion of spontaneity. It gets to be more complex as it goes along, full of all kinds of complex ethical questions.
Barbara Meier: Like what?
Jerry Garcia: For example, is it fair to charge people $25 a ticket to go into an enormous stadium and see people on the stage this big? (Jerry holds his thumb and forefinger a half of an inch apart.) I don’t think it is, unless you’re able to create a good enough sound and a large enough image to play to the worst seat in the house.
Barbara Meier: But you do do that.
Jerry Garcia: We try. Another issue concerns the safety of the fans and their exposure, because a lot of people still come to our shows thinking it’s kind of a hole in reality where it’s okay to take drugs. But we can’t protect them. We have no control over the world at large. The police are going to do what they want. Some years the newspapers are full of Dead bashing; and yet there are also years when we gain something like respectability.
Barbara Meier: There’s this amazing nomadic tribal culture that has formed around the Dead
Jerry Garcia: “Deadheads” aren’t that easy to pin down. They range from professionals doing hard scholarship to total street weirdos. That keeps it interesting, because the feedback is amusing. At the same time I feel guilty, because I wonder, “Isn’t there something real to think about out there? Aren’t there questions that people could be applying their valuable human energy to?” Getting involved with the Grateful Dead isn’t going anywhere except onward.
Barbara Meier: You don’t impose any political message.
Jerry Garcia: I couldn’t do it. The power is frightening.
Barbara Meier: Are you ever tempted?
Jerry Garcia: No. I thought, if I’m going to be onstage I’m not going to say anything to anybody or address the crowd, because it doesn’t matter what you say, sometimes just the sound of your voice might inadvertently set somebody off. The situation with psychedelics is so highly charged that you never know what’s leaking in. I don’t mind doing it in the music, because that’s where I divest myself of ego. It’s egoless, something I trust. If the band has something to protect, it’s the integrity of the experience, which remains shapeless and formless. As long as it stays that way, everything’s okay.
Despite Garcia’s humble reservations about being seen as anything other than a guy doing the best he could to be happy and make music, Ram Dass knew what he knew and those of us who spent time in Garcia’s presence certainly do have a sense of what Ram Dass was speaking of. There was something special there, something unusual. Flawed, but wholly unique and gifted in a way that transcends so much else that those select few of us have encountered on our own personal journeys. There’s a reason why Garcia’s life and passing had such a profound impact on so many. It’s easy for others to dismiss this connection as being purely fabricated or dependent on drugs to maintain the “illusion,” but I tend to think, from my own personal experience and the combined experiences of others I know and have met and have read, that we had a short window of opportunity to share space with someone who unconsciously and unintentionally tapped into something extremely universal and rare. And, lucky for us, he had the innate ability, humility and vulnerability to embrace it and spread it out to all the rest of us. For that experience, I am eternally grateful.
The following was written by Ram Dass shortly after hearing of Garcia’s passing. I have included it here as a photo in order to preserve its intended formatting. You can click on the image to make it larger: