Here’s a story on the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band that we originally ran in November 2010, following the release of their archival album, Ragged But Right.
The recent release of the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s Ragged But Right completes a process initiated with 1988’s Almost Acoustic. Live documents of the JGAB’s coast-to-coast run in the late fall of 1987, these two albums capture some outstanding music, but also provide a look at the kind of formation flying that legends are made of.
The story behind these shows has been well-documented over the years (most recently in Steve Silberman’s wonderful booklet that accompanies the Almost Acoustic/Ragged But Right bundle) but we thought it might be interesting to have two of the men who shared the stage with Jerry – guitarist David Nelson and multi-instrumentalist Sandy Rothman – tell the tale themselves.
Think of this as a concert itself. We’ll begin with a little warm-up and then get into the events that brought three old friends together.
Tuning Up: Sandy Rothman Joins The Black Mountain Boys – 1964
David Nelson: Jerry and I started playing music together in 1962. One of the early bands we were in was the Wildwood Boys, with Robert Hunter on mandolin and bass, Jerry on banjo, and me on guitar. When we formed the Black Mountain Boys in ‘63, Jerry asked me to play mando simply because there wasn’t anybody else around. Jerry was working at a music store and he brought me a mandolin – a Gibson F-12 – and he said, “Here – play it.”
That was Jerry, right? “You’ve got those kind of hands, man – those look like mandolin kind of hands. Play this thing.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah … okay.”
So I tried my hand at mandolin for a couple years. Jerry was on banjo and Eric Thompson was on guitar. When Eric left, we tracked down Sandy Rothman. We’d heard him play and knew he was good.
Sandy Rothman: In 1964, Jerry and David came to me looking for someone to fill Eric Thompson’s place on guitar. Back then, Jerry was focused on the banjo and David was on mandolin.
That very first time we met in Campbell Coe’s guitar shop in Berkeley, we hung out and talked and never played a lick. We got to be pals quickly – but everything happened quickly in the ‘60s. That’s how I came to be one of the Black Mountain Boys.
Drifting Too Far From The Shore: Jerry’s Collapse – 1986
David Nelson: I was at the Grateful Dead’s RFK Stadium gig in July of ’86 – the last show before Jerry’s coma. My wife Maruska was working in the Dead office at the time and she told me, “This is going to be a real big gig – you should go.” So I did, and got to sit in the sound booth for the show. Bob Dylan and Tom Petty open, and then the Dead come out … I’m dancing around, thinking, “This is great, man.”
Afterward, I’m in the van as we’re leaving the gig. The crowd is milling all around us so we’re inching along at less than a mile an hour, you know? Garcia turns and says, “Anybody got anything to drink? My throat feels like it’s gonna stick shut, I’m so dry.”
And – damn it – all I had at the moment was a big plastic cup of beer. I looked around at everybody else – there’s, like, 12 of us in the back of the van: “Anybody got any water? Water? Come on – anybody?” But nobody had any water.
So I leaned forward and said, “Jerry – this is all we got, man … I’m sorry.” And I handed him my beer. He said, “Ahh, thanks …” and tried to wet his whistle with it.
But you know, when you’re totally dry, beer dries you out even more. Jerry went, “Awwkkk! God! Is that all you’ve got?” And I just felt horrible about that – without even realizing what was going on with him physically and how serious his situation was. None of us had any idea.
But typical Jerry, you know: “Thanks, thanks …” and he hands me back the beer. And I just figured when we got to the hotel, he’d get a water. But evidently, he didn’t – he went back to his room, saw that bed, and immediately crashed.
The next morning, he got up and flew home. Mountain Girl says he walked in the house, said “I gotta pee,” and went into the bathroom.
She heard a noise; she walks in and he’d collapsed into a diabetic coma.
Sandy Rothman: The news of what had happened to Jerry came as a big shock. And everybody wanted to do what they could to help.
David Nelson: For a while there it’s like pins and needles for all of us and we’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen. And then we hear, “It’s okay – he’s going to come out of it.” And now that he’s coming out of it, the doctor tells us, he needs “old memories.” He’d been out there in space in that coma and when you come back, what you need is connections; synapse connections with the old stuff, you know?
So Mountain Girl called me and said, “Bring some of those old tapes.” I got a box of tapes together and took them down to the hospital.
Sandy Rothman: Once Jerry was back home, I called MG to see how he was doing. She invited me over and I got David to come along.
Jerry was the recipient of many kinds of therapeutic efforts in those weeks following his return home. Most famous are the sessions with Merl Saunders, of course. Merl spent a lot of time with Jerry, doing everything from going on walks with him to reacquainting him with his music.
I used to see Jerry now and then over the years, both informally at the Grateful Dead office and at shows. We’d been in touch, but we hadn’t actually gotten together to play for a really long time.
Amazingly, though, that very first night that David and I visited with Jerry and played some music wasn’t anything like a teaching situation. In fact, it was exactly as if no time had passed since the last time we’d played together. It really felt like we were picking up where we were before, except we’d all had more musical experience in the years since then. Jerry and Merl had played quite a few sessions together at that point and Jerry was really doing well. He played the banjo that night, just as he had in the Black Mountain Boys.
David Nelson: It was great. Jerry was like himself, but he was his new self, too, you know?
Sandy Rothman: It was magical in the sense that it felt totally natural, as did the Thanksgiving party, which was just shortly thereafter.