SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Jerry Garcia’s death certainly might have felt like the end of the story for Deadheads in 1995, but it has not worked out that way. The movement that followed the band may even have grown in the subsequent years, much to the surprise of fans and the man who had to tell the world Garcia died 25 years ago.
“I felt, out of my – dare I say – out of my love for Garcia, that I didn’t want anybody else doing that job,” says Dennis McNally, the former Grateful Dead publicist who announced Garcia’s death to the media in 1995.
Beyond the press, McNally was really breaking the news to the fans, shattering the accidental community that had grown around the band.
“I had been a Deadhead since I was 14,” says Steve Silberman, bestselling author of “NeuroTribes” and noted Dead fan. “That community was my community for decades, and so I knew that that was over. It was going to be a profound moment in my life very much similar to the death of a parent which I’ve also been through.”
Silberman was one of the fans trying to make sense of Garcia’s death. Current Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux was another.
“I called my dad from his pay phone and he said,’ oh did you hear the news.'” Lemieux said. “It was the biggest thing in my life, and you kind of had the sense of ‘well, what is next?’”
“It never occurred to me that the phenomenon would, in fact, grow,” McNally said.
Garcia was gone, but his fans had something built to last. That was the music, and they never let it go.
“We were just saying our kids will definitely be listening to them, and we will play them for them and everything,” one fan told KPIX after Garcia’s death in 1995.
“And they did,” McNally laughs. “They did. And those kids, you know. There are more deadheads in 2020 than there were in 1995. By far.”
“I agree,” Lemieux says. “I think the cultural relevance, if you want to call it that, of the Grateful Dead, it’s stronger now than it was 25 years ago.”
“One of the things has really lifted my spirit in quarantine and lock down is that I’ve become friends with a couple of dead heads in their 20s,” Silberman says of the fanbase that now includes a subsequent generation.
“That’s what I’m grateful for every day,” Lemieux says. “That, as you said earlier, we all thought it was over.”
“500 years from now, if humanity survives climate change,” Silberman says, “there will be very passionate deadheads who love the music the way that me and my friends did.”