August 28, 1995 12:00 PM

WHEN THE CHEERS BROKE OUT INSIDE THE TINY hillside chapel in Belvedere, Calif., it suddenly became clear that Jerry Garcia’s family and friends had come not to mourn his death but to celebrate his life. Before the service was done, musicians Bob Dylan and Bruce Hornsby, novelist Ken Kesey, former basketball star Bill Walton and some 250 other guests had joined Garcia’s family and Grateful Dead band-mates in a standing ovation for the guitarist, who had died two days earlier at 53. “It was a wonderful send-off,” said a friend, “for a wonderful man.”

Garcia, the bandleader who had shared his musical epiphanies on concert stages for more than 30 years, was clad for the occasion in trademark black T-shirt and sweatpants. His body, which was later to be cremated and its ashes cast over the Pacific at an undisclosed time and place, was displayed in an open coffin at the altar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, flanked by a large Grateful Dead lightning-bolt logo fashioned from red and white roses. The service included hymns performed by members of the Jerry Garcia Band, one of his several side groups, and eulogies by fellow musicians and family members. Garcia’s third wife and widow, Deborah, 45, who had married the guitarist on Valentine’s Day 1994, asked that he be remembered as a buoyant, though troubled, spirit. “I want everyone to know he died in his sleep with a smile on his face,” she said. “He wanted to make it. He was on an upswing.”

Indeed, Dr. David Smith, founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, who had treated Garcia for cocaine and heroin addiction since 1985, believed he was drug-free when he died from a heart attack on Aug. 9. Garcia, who spent a few weeks at the Betty Ford Center in July, had already undergone painful detoxification by the time Smith referred him to the Serenity Knolls drug-rehab clinic in Forest Knolls, Calif., where he died just days after checking in.

Smith cautioned that he hadn’t yet seen results of Garcia’s autopsy or toxology tests that might reveal if drugs were a factor in his death. He added that Garcia’s poor health, caused in part by past drug use, may have led to the heart attack. “He would clean up and exercise and diet, and then he would relapse,” Smith says of Garcia, who had returned home from a grueling Grateful Dead tour on July 9. “Usually the relapse was on the road, where drugs were available, and that would trigger his drug cravings.”

It wasn’t Garcia’s weaknesses, however, but his musical legacy and spirited good humor that fans honored in memorial services across the U.S. last week. In San Francisco, where Garcia grew up, a tie-dyed Grateful Dead pennant flew at half-mast in front of City Hall last week. An informal vigil was held on the steps of 710 Ashbury Street, the home where Garcia and his bandmates lived during their trippy Haight-Ashbury days before moving to tonier Marin County in the early ’70s. “People have brought flowers and clothing and money and joints,” said the house’s current owner, Francine Filice, describing the makeshift altar that fans had built on her stoop. “I was tempted to smoke one last night when I couldn’t sleep because of the Grateful Dead music playing all night.”

Garcia’s death also triggered runs on record stores and retail outlets carrying his popular line of Jerry Garcia neckties. San Francisco art-gallery owner Roberta Weir (no relation to Dead guitarist Bob Weir) said she expects Garcia’s pen drawings, etchings and watercolors, which have been selling for from $5,000 to $20,000, to soar in value. And Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream began to contribute 50 cents for every order of Cherry Garcia to the Rex Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Garcia in 1984.

Of all the tributes, none surpassed the public memorial held Sunday, Aug. 13, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the Dead first built their following with free concerts in the 1960s. The park’s polo grounds looked like a swirling, psychedelic, tie-dyed sea as 25,000 fans gathered before noon around a stage festooned with balloons, flowers, Grateful Dead totems and a 30-foot painting of Garcia. As two gigantic Chinese paper dragons and a drum line led by Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji wended through the crowd, a Dixieland band performed a rousing, New Orleans-style funeral march. Heartfelt eulogies were delivered by Garcia’s surviving bandmates as well as his widow and daughter Annabelle Garcia, 25. She thanked the band and assembled Deadheads for helping put her and two of her three sisters through college. “And we didn’t have to work at Dairy Queen,” she joked.

Eric Isles, a 35-year-old restaurant manager in Boulder, Colo., left his job without leave to attend the memorial. “I’ve been crying for three days,” he said. “This is closure for the whole community.” Though band spokesman Dennis McNally announced later that the Dead’s scheduled fall tour of the East Coast had been canceled, Isles and his fellow Deadheads were heartened by hints that the band may yet play again. “We feel committed to following the muse, to do something,” said the group’s manager Cameron Sears. “Just what, we have to figure out.”


LAIRD HARRISON in San Francisco

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