Jerry Garcia tended to downplay his solo debut. He shouldn’t have.
Released on Jan. 20, 1972, Garcia ended a lengthy recording draught following Grateful Dead‘s American Beauty. In the meantime, many of the songs Garcia composed for the album with lyricist Robert Hunter had already become Dead concert staples.
“I don’t want anyone to think it’s me being serious or anything like that,” Garcia cautioned back then. “It’s really me goofing around. I’m not trying to have my own career or anything like that.”
Still, Garcia made it clear that he could, becoming a Top 40 Billboard hit while spawning his only charting solo song in “Sugaree.” Unlike Bob Weir‘s soon-to-be-issued Ace, this wasn’t a band record masquerading as a solo project. Garcia played every instrument, save for some contributions on drums from Grateful Dead bandmate Bill Kreutzmann.
They built stripped-down acoustic demos together, then Garcia began a series of overdubs on electric and steel guitar, piano, bass and organ to fill out the songs. The results are properly named.
Listen to Jerry Garcia’s ‘Sugaree’
Still, there are connections with what came before. “The Wheel,” which didn’t make its live band debut until 1976, features the same weeping pedal steel Garcia used on both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
But more often, Garcia seems to be taking the songs back from the main band, making them definitively his own. “Deal,” for instance, began life on stage as a Dead-led shuffle in early 1971, but Garcia added sinewy muscle to his subsequent studio version.
Hunter had burst in on Garcia with the song idea for “Deal,” only to find a notably unwilling partner. “He was reading the paper … and wasn’t at all pleased to be confronted with work, emitting a trademark ‘aaargh’ of displeasure,” Hunter told Rolling Stone. Perhaps that accounts for the addition of a nasty slide riff and that snarling growl from Garcia.
Everything was on the table, even with a song like “Deal” that had been performed more than 30 times before appearing as the opening track on Garcia. He made small but important changes for his takes on “Bird Song” and “To Lay Me Down,” which likewise had also already been performed live with the Grateful Dead.
“Bird Song” was a touching farewell to recently deceased Janis Joplin: “Fly through the night,” Garcia sighs at one point, “sleep in the stars.” “Sugaree” said a kind of goodbye, this time to the promise of the ’60s. “Loser” is shot through with edgy new desperation.
Listen to Jerry Garcia’s ‘The Wheel’
“That man had an agony almost that he had to fight,” Hunter remembered in 2015. “I suppose it had something to do with losing his dad so young and possibly his finger getting chopped off – who knows? – but there was a decided darkness to him. But you know, what great man doesn’t have that? His bright side, his ebullient side, far seemed to outweigh [that]. The darkness came into his music a lot. And without it, what would that music have been?”
Things got a lot more free-form, as Garcia dug into suitably spacey Side Two instrumentals like “Late For Supper” and “An Odd Little Place.” But “The Wheel” snapped everything back into focus – even though it was composed and recorded on the spot while Garcia jammed at the piano. “It wasn’t written,” Garcia later admitted. “I didn’t have anything in mind; I hadn’t sketched it out.”
That pickin’-and-grinnin’ type vibe allowed Garcia to minimize his side projects, beginning with this one. “I’m doing it to be completely self-indulgent musically; I’m just going on a trip,” he argued at the time. “I have curiosity to see what I can do, and I’ve got a desire to get into a 16-track [tape machine] and go on trips that are too weird for me to want to put anybody else I know through – and also I want to pay for this house.”
It’s safe to say the mortgage didn’t fall into arrears. Instead, this project highlighted the rootsy influences that ran underneath – sometimes way, way underneath – everything the main band did moving forward. Garcia also established an approach that would frame Garcia’s solo career, something that was always smaller in scale but far more intimate and revealing than any Grateful Dead session.
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