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Jerry Garcia’s death helped popularize the Internet

(Photo credit: Rolling Stone)

When news broke of Jerry Garcia’s death on Aug. 9, 1995, my Toronto Star editor Lou Clancy said to me, then the paper’s rock critic, “Hey, why don’t you go onto the Internet and see what Deadheads are saying about him?” This was a novel idea at the time, since many people didn’t really know what the Internet was. I did as Lou asked and found a world of Grateful Dead fans grieving their departed hero. Some of them were unhappy about being quoted in a newspaper. They thought of the Internet as a private realm. Little did they know how public it would soon become. Here’s my story from that sad day that rippled across cyberspace:

Deadheads grieve for Garcia on Internet

Peter Howell

Toronto Star

Aug. 10, 1995

What a weird, strange 30-year trip it's been for the Grateful Dead and their fans.

And what a sad day for them yesterday, as word spread that band leader and guitarist Jerry Garcia, the gray-bearded embodiment of the 1960s hippie dream, had died of a heart attack in a Marin County, Calif., drug rehab centre. He was 53.

Fans in Canada and around the world shared their sorrow and memories via the Internet, the global computer network that didn't exist when Garcia and his bandmates first started making music together in 1965, at the dawn of the San Francisco-led psychedelic love era.

"Today is the day all Grateful Dead fans have been fearing for many years," Toronto fan Richard Davis wrote yesterday in a post to the Internet news group.

"I hope everyone will commemorate this day as Jerry Day, and light up a doob for the man. I know he would have liked it that way."

Garcia's death shocked but, ultimately, didn't surprise his vast legion of fans, known as Deadheads, who met electronically (including a cyberwake on America Online last night) and in person to discuss his passing.

Garcia lived up to his band's image as the American forefathers of acid rock, and his various chemical experiments, unhealthy lifestyle and chronic diabetes landed him repeatedly in hospital, even as he continued to help forge a tradition of epic concert jams that influenced rock groups from the '60s through the '90s, from the bands of Woodstock (the first one) to such newer groups as Phish, Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors.

But like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Garcia was accorded mythic status and considered indestructible, as he led the hippie-dressed Deadheads from sold-out show to sold-out show, the most reliable rock act on the road — and among the most profitable.

The Dead were planning two Toronto concerts for the SkyDome, Oct. 3-4. It would have been their first show in the city proper since a Seneca College gig in 1977, although the band played Hamilton's Copps Coliseum in 1992 and the Kingswood Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughan in 1984 and 1987.

The shows hadn't been officially announced yet, but fans knew of them via the Internet. Tickets were to have gone on sale in about two weeks, said a spokesperson for promoter Concert Productions International, but that's all changed with Garcia's death.

Within an hour of his death, the WELL computer bulletin board in Sausalito, Calif., posted a notice that it was clogged by fans sharing their grief:

"The WELL is currently experiencing a system slowdown. There is an influx to discuss the passing of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia."

"Please tell me this isn't true, " wrote one American fan. "God help us all."

On CompuServe, it didn't take long for fans around the world to connect.

"I can't believe it. I think I am going to leave work, " said one fan.

"I have so many regrets, " said Kirsten Beck. "Never took my son to see a show, didn't get to see the last show with my very best deadhead friend because she had other — not so important — plans. We just kept saying there will always be next time.

"Another lesson in life — sometimes there is no next time."

In mourning Garcia's death, fans were also mourning the end of an era. Most think there's no way the band can go on without him.

"I think it's safe to say this truly is the end of the Grateful Dead, " a University of Guelph correspondent named "M. Lahey" posted on the Internet.

"It is a very dark day for all deadheads and music lovers."

Toronto Deadhead Jonathan Rosenberg, 28, has seen the group perform more than 20 times, and he doesn't want to see it without Jerry Garcia.

"I don't think the group can or will go on, " he said in an interview. "It's a sincere feeling they play with their music, and they each write and play their own songs. Jerry writes his songs and (rhythm guitarist) Bob Weir writes some songs. It wouldn't be right to have Bob playing Jerry's songs."

To Toronto musician Steve Himel, the Deadhead spirit (their motto: "Practise random kindness and senseless acts of beauty") had all but slipped away forever, and Garcia's death seems timely.

"It almost makes me feel happy in some sense to see Jerry go, " said Himel, 28, bassist for the Dead-influenced Days Of You.

"Here you had something that was so great and worked so well and was self-contained, and all of a sudden it was starting to go bad. The idealism isn't really there any more.

"All good things come to an end, and as difficult and upsetting as this is, it also seems the perfect way to have it end. But I know the next time I throw on Terrapin Station (the band's 1977 album), there will be a tear in my eye." — With files from CP, Reuters.

(This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on Aug. 10, 1995.)

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