December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

How does a bloated, middle-age hippie guitarist make a big commercial splash in rock ‘n’ roll 22 years after he started? Jerry Garcia did it the old-fashioned Zen way. He arrived without ever having left; found success without seeking it. The 45-year-old Grateful Dead head was once a high priest of Haight-Ashbury, the legendary “Captain Trips” who helped inspire the tuned-in to turn on to psychedelia. But that was then, this is now and everything’s different—except Garcia. Without changing musical styles or even—it seems—his clothes, Garcia suddenly found himself in tune with the times. Or vice versa.

Mind boggling as it may seem to the legion of Dead Heads, those die-hard fans who’ve been drawn to the Grateful Dead through two decades of wavering fortunes and shifting musical trends, the band this year may have achieved total trendosity with Touch of Grey, the group’s first Top 40 hit ever. A wistful tune about growing old, the song’s “I will get by/ I will survive” chorus, sung by Garcia in his laconic Western twang, touched a generation of graying war babies chilled by the lowering boom of middle age. The band’s 17th album, In the Dark, went platinum, and Garcia—in addition to inspiring an ice cream maker to create a flavor called Cherry Garcia—starred in a sold-out series of solo concerts on Broadway. “Relaxed and amiable as always,” wrote a New York Times critic, “[Garcia] soared through spiraling lyrical solos, full of bright, ringing harmonics.”

Heady praise for a man recently returned from the dead for real. In 1985 he was arrested for suspicion of cocaine and heroin possession and allowed to enter a drug rehab program rather than face jail. In July 1986 he fell into a near fatal five-day coma brought on by a diabetic condition aggravated by exhaustion and past drug use. When Garcia regained his health, he termed that close call “a boon. It made me want to dig in more.” The three months it took to restore his playing ability and confidence, he says, “was like learning music again.”

Garcia learned the first time around from his late father, Jose, a San Francisco swing-band leader who emigrated from Spain at 16 and named his only son after Broadway’s Jerome Kern. A high school dropout and avid bluegrass picker, Garcia performed with Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks before the Dead came to life in San Francisco in 1965. In the two decades since, the now six-member band has survived drug problems, management fiascos, middle age and disco. The perils of Top 40 success should be a snap—and as much a source of wonderment as the growing army of newly minted, teenage Dead Heads. As Garcia sings in the Dead classic Truckin’, “Lately it occurs to me/ What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

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