WHEN I arrived at Middlebury College in 1977, the Grateful Dead had already been around for more than a decade.
But they were news to me - until my freshman roommate walked in the door, a bandana tied around her flowing hair and a Pinto wagon in the parking lot full of bootleg recordings. Her stereo took an honored place in our room, and the strains of "Uncle John's Band" and "Truckin'" poured into the dorm every night.
I was not amused. Neither was the guy I later married, whose own roommate thought the perfect way to pass an evening was to play "Europe '72" over and over. Like it or not, we both lived with our own little slice of the '60s, a Deadhead world that could be both endearing for its devotion to creativity and freedom, and exasperating for its dissoluteness - the experimentation with peyote buttons (and other mind-altering substances), the long games of Ultimate Frisbee even at exam time, the "free love."
The death of Jerry Garcia, the band's lead singer-guitarist, has brought it all back for better or worse - the music, the drugs, the debauchery. Upon reflection, the music wasn't really all that bad, a free-ranging blend of folk, rock, and the blues with a dose of psychedelia. Garcia's guitar-playing was mighty, his vocals warbly. Perhaps most extraordinary was his band's ability to keep drawing in new, young fans, who even this summer piled into old Volkswagen buses and followed the Dead's concert tour around the country - a reminder of the enduring influence of icons of the 1960s.in American culture.
Now that nation of devoted fans - including Vice President Gore and the governor of Massachusetts - is recalling Garcia's legacy. They are flocking to public spaces, and to the Internet, to reminisce about an era that has irrevocably come to a close.
In San Francisco, news of Garcia's death brought scores of followers to 710 Ashbury Street, where the band lived communally in the mid-'60s. Roses, irises, and sunflowers adorned the stairs. People cried. Some left responsible jobs to pay their respects. Some came with kids. Some looked like poster children from the 1960s. "This is the end of an era," said Dayna Albert, a young blond woman in a tie-dyed shirt who just moved to San Francisco. "Jerry and the Dead had an impact on tens of thousands of people.... At a Dead show people came together to be together and to feel the love everyone felt for each other."
Attorney Rick Goldberg came wearing shorts and a Grateful Dead armband. "They were a family, the fans were a family," he said, calling himself a closet Deadhead. Their concerts were "more a gathering of friends than a rock concert. I've heard some people say it's the end of the '60s, but they transcended the '60s. They kept going through the recession years, the Reagan years, they outlasted the cold war, they played at the pyramids."
Andre Carothers of Berkeley considers it the end of a way of life: "For 20 years I saw 10 to 15 shows a year. The Grateful Dead was the single most important social and musical influence on my life."
Most Dead fans believe the group won't continue without its leader. The Dead without Jerry Garcia just wouldn't be the same. Some groupies, though, like George Johnson, writing on Prodigy, hope they'll continue: "So many people's lives center around following the Dead you would think the rest of the members would figure out something."
But other cyber-fans seemed contented just to recall happy Dead moments. Karl Kill remembered a Seattle concert two months ago: "Best memory: Standing in the crowd, watching Jerry through my monocular, chills running through my body at hearing the familiar riffs, and Jerry cracks one of his little smiles."
Lately it has occurred to me, I must admit, that something with this many devoted followers is at least worth trying to figure out. Though Jerry Garcia himself, it is said, claimed not to understand the phenomenon he spawned. To himself, he told interviewers, he was just a guitar player who liked to make his fans happy.
*Staff writer Laurent Belsie in Pittsburgh and Loren Stein in San Francisco contributed to this report.