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Bruce Hornsby Looks Back on Jerry Garcia’s Last Days: ‘I Miss Him So Much’

The sometime Grateful Dead pianist recalls his final shows with the group and what made Garcia “a great hang”

Twenty five years after Jerry Garcia's death, Grateful Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby looks back on his relationship with the legend.

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Among the many fellow travelers Jerry Garcia met on his musical journey was Bruce Hornsby. The singer, songwriter, and pianist had caught his first Dead show in 1973, at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Thirteen years later, he and his band the Range were opening for the Dead in Salinas, California, the same night the band’s “Touch of Grey” video was shot.

Later, Hornsby, who had once played in a Dead cover band, sat in with the band. In 1990, after Brent Mydland died, it seemed only natural that the Dead would ask Hornsby to replace him. Since his own career was in high gear, Hornsby declined but became a recurring member for the next few years, abetting the newly hired Vince Welnick. In 1994, he inducted the Dead into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

By then, Hornsby hadn’t been a day-to-day part of the scene for several years. So, as he tells Rolling Stone, it was all the more surprising when he heard from the Dead camp in early 1995. Here, Hornsby reflects on his final shows with the Dead, his last conversation with Garcia, and how the news of Garcia’s death (on August 9, 1995) affected him.

The last year-plus of his life, Jerry was really struggling with his addiction. The Dead camp called me up in March of ’95 and said, “Hey, if we get a piano for you, would you fly down here to the Charlotte Coliseum?” I said, “You caught me at a pretty good time, and I can do that.” They thought Jerry was fairly listless and uninvolved, and they thought that maybe I could give him a pickup. They always felt I did that when I was there, but I don’t know what effect it had.

Then they asked me to do it again in the summer, when they were playing RFK Stadium for two nights [June 24th–25th].  I remember the shows being pretty damn strong, and Jerry was pretty much there and engaged. But it was very sad to see him. He looked like he was seriously struggling. He looked really thin and wan. He was very pale.

He could still be energetic. During the soundcheck, I was getting used to the piano, and he comes out from his tent and leans on the piano and started talking to me: It was, “Why don’t you let me play on that song?” We were just bantering and having fun. But he was haggard and always sweaty, and you had a helpless feeling. I think all the guys felt that, that nobody could really help him. I was a tangential part of their scene at that point. I wasn’t around all the time. But that’s the way it seemed to me.

A couple of weeks after their summer tour ended, I called him to see what was going on. Like everyone else in the Grateful Dead universe, I was worried about him. Steve Parish [Garcia’s personal manager] answered the phone and said, “Your timing is pretty good because we’re taking Jerry to Betty Ford. And here’s Jerry.” So we get on the phone and talk for just a little bit because they were pretty much ready to go down the road. He was supposed to be there for a month or five weeks, I think.

Two weeks after that, the end of July, early August, I called out there just to get a progress report. Well, Jerry answers. He’d left the center early, but he was in good spirits. He felt like he had kicked it. Everyone was skeptical, I imagine. But he’s regaling me with stories about his couple weeks at Betty Ford, meeting some guy who knew Django Reinhardt and about the upcoming fall tour. I had just worked with Ornette Coleman and he’d worked with him too, so we were comparing notes about that. He mentioned some projects he had in mind that he wanted me to be on. We had a good, solid talk for about 45 minutes. And then four days later [after Garcia had checked into the Serenity Knolls Treatment Center], he was gone.

I was in Houston that morning and someone from my management called me and said, “Have you heard?” I had not. And of course, it was a shock, but it wasn’t a surprise. You almost couldn’t be less surprised in this situation.

My Hot House record was coming out at the time, and I was on tour, shilling for the record. That day I flew from Houston to Boston and played at a Borders Books in Newton, Massachusetts, which turned into a de facto wake. Because it had just happened, the Grateful Dead world was in complete mourning. Maybe some people saw that this guy who had had a relationship with the group was going to be appearing at this place. So they flooded into the store. I got chills.

They were clearly looking for comfort wherever they could find it. I guess they figured I was a sympathetic kindred spirit and was there for them. And I was, and they were there for me. I played songs and talked to the audience. It was very collegial and very interactive. I might have played my favorite Grateful Dead song, “Wharf Rat.” It seemed appropriate for that moment.

But who knows? You’re still reeling from the news and you’re just winging it. I might have told a couple of funny Garcia stories to lighten it up a little bit. You’re just trying to manage the situation and do what you can to give any comfort to anyone there.

I miss him so much. He was such a deep soul, but also a really funny guy. He ready to laugh and had the sharpest wit and just a great recall. Great memory, great knowledge of the world. He was a great hang.

Garcia’s legacy is that the amazing body of music he created. “Black Muddy River,” “Ramble On Rose,” “Brokedown Palace” — you could keep naming them for the next 20 minutes. Dead & Company are carrying the torch in a beautiful way with these songs, which I consider to be the hymns of the lives of the fans. And the young people who come to those shows now, the uninitiated, sense something very deep and moving. It gets under their skin, and they become fans for life.

From Rolling Stone US