By Ron Lancia

Vista Cruising XIII: McCartney & Garcia ’67

In June of 1942, James Paul McCartney was born near Penny Lane in Liverpool, and a few months later and 5000 miles away, Jerome John Garcia was born in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, namesake of the great composer Jerome Kern.

By all accounts, Paul beat Jerry to the punch. In 1957, Jerry greeted the accordion he received for his 15th birthday with such disdain that his mother finally agreed to let him swap it for a pawn shop electric. Also around the age of 15, Paul penned lyrics to a melody that became “When I’m Sixty-Four” and met John Lennon at a church fair and joined his band.

“When I’m Sixty-Four” wasn’t released by the Beatles until a decade later when the hokey clarinet number stuck out rather conspicuously on the psychedelic Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. After the seminal album was recorded in London, back in the states Haight-Ashbury ushered in the Summer of Love, with its house band being the good ol’ Grateful Dead who were composing their flagship tune “Dark Star.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

People still wonder, though, what McCartney, a 15-year-old working class kid, would possibly know about growing old and unconditional love.

I often wondered what Robert Hunter was thinking as he finished the lyrics to “Dark Star,” the same year Sergeant Pepper’s was released. Hunter recalls the story of writing the second verse in Golden Gate Park: “…a hippie came up and [asked], ‘What are you writing?’ I said, ‘This is a song called Dark Star. Remember that, it’s gonna be important.’ He said, ‘Far out.’”

Far out, indeed. Jerry himself explained why “Dark Star” is, in fact, so far out: “The reason the music is the way it is, is because those lyrics did suggest that to me…they are saying, ‘This universe truly is far out…great, let’s look around. Let’s see how weird it really gets.”

So now the $64,000 question: what do the two songs have in common? Everything and nothing. While “When I’m Sixty-Four” features folksy phrasings like, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” ‘Dark Star’ has an ephemeral quality, inviting, “Shall we go, you and I while we can?” What connects them is the fact that they are not shackled by temporal limits. McCartney’s number is like a piece of sea glass. The waters of time only seem to shape it and soften it and make it more beautiful. “Dark Star,” like most of Jerry’s tunes, does the same, as time and mortality wash away with the tides.

Hemingway said the truth has a certain ring to it. Jerry, let me say that I never heard anything as truthful, and as timeless, as your guitar. Whether I can jump in the van and head down the highway to see you or not, that transitive nightfall of diamonds still hangs there like a celestial chandelier, and I still want to go through it.

And we go through it with you. A Hunter said: “If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream, or on some breeze of Summer a snatch of golden theme, we’ll know you live inside us with love that never parts.”

As a final note, in Garcia: A Signpost to New Space, Jerry revealed to author Charles Reich: “I have a long continuum of ‘Dark Stars’ which range in character…to real different extremes…there are certain structural poles that we kind of set up in it, and those periodically we do away with. That’s why we came up with such a thing. There are a few things we do that are a vehicle for that openness.”

In one month, when we gather at the storied Ventura County Fairgrounds for Skull & Roses V and unique interpretations of Grateful Dead music, it marks that we are about 58 years into this experiment into openness, musically and otherwise. Let’s face it. We have aged. We have lost loved ones along the way. But we are together. And it is unconditional love that we bring. Like Jerry said, the universe truly is far out. Let’s look around. Let’s see how weird it really gets. Thanks Jer. Yours sincerely wasting away.

Ron Lancia is a school teacher in the San Diego area—as a matter of fact, he was Schoolteacher of the Year recently—and he knows stuff. He’ll be one of WON’s regular contributors.