Most people know that Jerry Garcia was the founder and frontman of Grateful Dead – but not as many realize that his life and death were a testament to the danger of heroin. Released this year, Long Strange Trip is a new Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead documentary that highlights the danger of heroin and the drug culture as a whole.
“[The documentary] clearly shows what a complicated, creatively talented and unconventional Jerry Garcia was. He had an equal proclivity for transcendence and self-destruction.”
~ Barbara Meier, Jerry’s girlfriend
So what is this story all about?
Long Strange Trip: A Documentary on Music and the Impact of Drug Use
Although Jerry Garcia died more than twenty years ago, his musical and cultural legacy continues to live in. Just how much of this legacy is based on the musician’s drug use? Featuring seventeen individual interviews, over a thousand photos, and lots of previously unseen footage, the documentary is a compelling piece. The film documents the rise of the Grateful Dead and the band’s cult-like following. However, Long Strange Trip also dives into the personal. Founded in the 1960s as part of the counterculture, Grateful Dead is inextricably linked with drug culture. It is unsurprising, then, that this new documentary focuses not only on Grateful Dead but also on Jerry Garcia’s relationship with heroin and other drugs.
Who Was Jerry Garcia?
While the documentary Long Strange Trip is about Grateful Dead, it naturally focuses in on Jerry Garcia as an individual. This is because Garcia essentially became – and remained – a cult figure for three decades. This fame came after forming Grateful Dead in 1965 and only ended when he passed away in 1995. Garcia was 53 when he died in the mid-1990s. By that time, well over half of his life had been consumed by Grateful Dead and all of the responsibility that came with the fame. The bandleader was certainly a drug user, and even an addict: this is why the documentary highlights the role of heroin and other drugs in Jerry Garcia’s life. However, there is some disagreement about what role fame played in Garcia’s drug use and whether that drug use actually caused the heart attack that killed the famous musician.
“I don’t think there’s an inherent progression of addiction. He turned to self-medication for a number of reasons. It was the responsibility. Jerry wanted to be Huckleberry Finn – well if Huckleberry Finn was allowed to smoke joints and play guitar and cruise down the river on a raft.”
~ Dennis McNally, the official Grateful Dead biographer
The Grateful Dead & Long Strange Trip
Released earlier this year, the new Grateful Dead documentary focuses on Jerry Garcia – and more specifically on the musician’s relationship with drugs. Naturally, the name of the documentary comes from the band’s most famous lyric: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” The film is four hours long, but only because it takes the time to delve into both the triumphs and the struggles of the band – and of Jerry Garcia himself. More specifically, the music documentary examines how and why Grateful Dead garnered such a committed following over the course of its three decades. Being a fan of the Grateful Dead was not a casual affair. Called Deadheads, fans would follow the band all around the country on tour. This ultimately elevated Jerry Garcia to a cult-like status – a status that many who know him say he never wanted. The focus of Long Strange Trip, then, is as much about the music of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia as it is about the dangers and pitfalls that coincide with fame and drug use. In examining the journey of Grateful Dead, the documentary focuses on drug culture, heroin use, and the pressure that Jerry Garcia felt. This is what makes Long Strange Trip so compelling – it is a personal story of the heavy effects of drug abuse.
Did Deadheads Cause Jerry Garcia’s Heroin Abuse?
There is little agreement about the question of what caused Jerry Garcia’s death. All that is known is that the Grateful Dead bandleader died of a heart attack. What brought on the heart attack is another question altogether. Many people assume that so-called ‘Deadheads’ indirectly caused Garcia to develop drug dependence. The idea is that the pressure of fame and the need to perform caused the musician to self-medicate in response to the stress. The true picture is not as simple. The truth is Jerry Garcia lived a stressful life by any standard. He toured with the band nearly constantly, playing around eighty shows in a year. However, Garcia’s physical health declined slowly over the course of years – due both to his drug use and a generally unhealthy lifestyle.
“He was 53-years-old and a walking candidate for a heart attack. Still, smoked cigarettes had a terrible diet. He was a diabetic who did not take it seriously.”
~ Dennis McNally, the official Grateful Dead biographer
It may be unfair to say that Deadheads and the pressure of touring caused Jerry Garcia’s heroin abuse. After all, Garcia had been using drugs from a young age. However, his unhealthy relationship with heroin and drugs certainly contributed to his physical health condition that led to a heart attack. Heart problems is just one of the long-term effects and dangers of heroin use.
Jerry Garcia’s Relationship with Heroin – and other drugs
It is no secret that Jerry Garcia had a long history of drug use. He started using drugs long before he started Grateful Dead. As a teenager, he started popping pills and smoking weed. His drug use only increased after forming the Grateful Dead, and the band became a psychedelic icon. While Garcia’s major problem was with heroin, he used all kinds of mind-altering and dangerous substances: cocaine, marijuana, morphine, so-called ‘speedballs’ and even LSD.
“Garcia formed the group in 1965 at a time when getting high seemed innocent and user-friendly. His drugging odyssey began with popping pills in his early teens. By the 70s Garcia was heavily into cocaine and the drug that gobbled him up: heroin.”
~ Dorri Olds, writing for The Fix
While Jerry Garcia had a relationship with drugs starting a young age, it was only after starting Grateful Dead that he consistently abused hard and dangerous drugs. After years of seeing Garcia abuse drugs and turn to addiction, the band attempted intervention in 1985. Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead’s lyricist, said that the musician tried to kick everybody out. In the end, however, he said he would do something about his drug abuse. This was ten years before his death, and Garcia continued abusing drugs even after the intervention.
“He was trying to shut the door and we all filed in and did the confrontation. That’s about all you can do, isn’t it? All I can say is it more or less ruined everything, having Jerry be a junkie.”
~ Robert Hunter, lyricist for Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead Loses Its Founder to a Heart Attack – and Heroin Addiction?
Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995 at the age of 53. While some people have speculated that he died of a drug overdose, the true cause of death was a heart attack. In fact, the famous musician was in a heroin rehab facility at the time of his death. Since he was in treatment, he was almost certainly clean of drugs when he passed away. According to medical reports, Garcia’s arteries were 85% blocked – a clear precursor to a heart attack. While Garcia may have been clean for a few days before his heart attack, this does not necessarily mean that his heroin addiction did not contribute to his death. The long-term health effects of heroin abuse can be just as dangerous as a drug overdose.
The Truth About Heroin Addiction and Recovery
Even though he had other health issues, Jerry Garcia’s drug abuse certainly did no favors for his mental, physical and relational health. According to many people close to him, the famous musician was simply depressed in his final years and days. This is what heroin addiction and drug abuse bring.
“Long Strange Trip is the ultimate statement of how addiction, life, and death grow out of a person’s entire repertoire, relationships, connection to the world and each other. This can’t be disentangled and separated into strands that can be repaired individually – addiction and recovery both are life processes.”
~ Stanton Peele, Addiction in Society
Thankfully, drug addiction does not have to be the end of the road. There are recovery options available for those struggling with drug dependence. All you have to do is reach out and ask for help. Long Strange Trip highlights the danger of heroin and its significance in Jerry Garcia’s life – avoid following the same path for yourself.