An epic new documentary examines the legacy of the Grateful Dead, more than 50 years after the band was born. What do the Dead mean now?
Late in life, Jerry Garcia took up scuba diving. He was introduced to the sport by Vicki Jensen, a friend and former ranch hand of Garcia’s bandmate, Mickey Hart. This was Hawaii, sometime in the late ’80s. Garcia had recently come out of a diabetic coma and was so fat that he had to carry extra weight to help achieve buoyancy, but he loved the water and the water asked nothing in return.
The experience spawned a fixation. Garcia took classes, bought gear, outfitted his goggles with prescription lenses. Later he set a record at the local scuba shop, Jack’s Diving Locker, by staying under for 109 minutes on one tank of air. “I can’t do exercise,” he told Rolling Stone in an interview from 1991. Compared with his music with the Grateful Dead, Garcia’s interviews were refreshingly frank. “I can’t jog,” he went on. “I can’t ride a bicycle. I can’t do any of that shit. And at this stage of my life, I have to do something that’s kind of healthy” — “this stage,” in other words, meaning the end.
The story — about Garcia falling in love with the ocean, about the ocean as a place where Garcia could both reconnect with the world and retreat from it — is told in nearly every account of the Grateful Dead. Bill Kreutzmann, one of the band’s drummers, opens his memoir, Deal, with a scene of him and Garcia diving. Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist, writes about how he and Garcia shared a special bond over their total uninterest in exercise — that is, until Garcia convinced him to dive. You can see footage of the man in the water in The Other One, a documentary about the band’s cofrontman Bob Weir. Garcia glides through the water like he belongs there. He paddles up to an eel cautiously emerging from a coral hut and strokes it under its chin like a housecat. It’s…