Named after the Grateful Dead song of myths and legends, Robert Greenfield’s 1996 book Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia offers an inside look at the life of everyone’s favorite nine-fingered guitar man, Jerome John Garcia. The book consists of interviews with Jerry’s friends, family, and lovers strung together in narrative form, starting from the beginning of Jerry’s life and going right up through his final days. Most of the interviews were conducted in 1996, in the year after Jerry’s death, and there are even a few bits from Greenfield’s 1988 interview with Garcia himself thrown in where relevant.
Greenfield’s book paints a human portrait of Jerry, looking behind the veil of stardom into his personal life and discovering the things that made him tick. The interviews help to illuminate the choices and inclinations that led Jerry down the path to addiction and obesity that ultimately led to his death at the young age of 53, just one month after the band’s 1995 summer tour, or “the tour from hell”.
Dark Star is captivating right from the start for any fan of the Grateful Dead, with Jerry’s childhood roots and the infamous story of his brother Tiff chopping off his finger. We also hear extensively from Jerry’s lifelong friend Laird Grant, who grew up with Jerry and also became the first Grateful Dead roadie. Through these interviews about Jerry’s early days we can see just how dedicated he was to music, even long before the Grateful Dead started, playing bluegrass and jug music and eventually finding his way to electric guitar after listening to the early electric albums from Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
Also heavily featured in Greenfield’s book is Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, whom Jerry was involved with romantically for the better part of his life. Carolyn is one of the original Merry Pranksters and had a daughter with Ken Kesey, Sunshine Kesey. Jerry and Carolyn also had two children together, daughters Annabelle and Trixie. This particular relationship offers a lot of insight into Jerry’s struggles with addictions as well as his problems maintaining healthy romantic relationships, as he was often absent from the lives of his children and avoidant of emotional problems.
The most interesting part of the book for me also came through Carolyn’s portions, when recalling their first experiences with LSD and how that led to the formation of the Grateful Dead as we know it today. Carolyn recalls the days before acid was illegal and they experienced ultimate freedom while exploring the effects of the drug.
This was before many people even knew LSD existed, back when the government had been running experiments on people with psychedelics. The stories here are wild and hilarious and give a great perspective on what it might have felt like to be alive and involved with the counterculture during the early 60s. It’s easy to see how the Dead became so innovative when you get the full picture of what they were doing.
The second half of the book is fairly depressing, though very interesting as it focuses mainly on Jerry’s downward spiral into the depths of heroin and cocaine addiction and the associated health consequences. It includes interviews with the doctors who saw Jerry as well as many of his friends who tried to help him. It is a bit frustrating to read about a person as talented as Jerry struggling so much and making such poor choices, which were amplified by the pressure placed on him by the Grateful Dead machine and all of the Deadheads who loved him so much. This book takes the perspective that the pressure of it all was too much for Jerry to handle and thus he turned to drugs, cigarettes, and unhealthy food as a way to escape.
While Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia is a great book, it does lack in some regards, mainly in the fact that it does not include much from the band members or many other people close to Jerry. I found myself wondering when we would hear from Bob Weir or Phil Lesh on this stuff, but it never really happens. Bob has just one or two quotes, though he did write the introduction in a 2009 reprinting, which is the version I read.
Perhaps some people close to Jerry felt that it was too soon to discuss their friend in this way, since the interviews were conducted right after his death. This is understandable and the book holds a lot of merit on its own, however its easy to imagine how much better it could have been if Greenfield did manage to speak with some more people, especially other members of the band.
Overall I’d give Dark Star a 7.5/10, and I’d definitely recommend it to any Grateful Dead fans looking for a fun, conversational read about Jerry Garcia’s life. I’m sure there are better Jerry biographies out there, but this one is certainly deserving of a spot on your book shelf.