August 21, 1995 12:01 AM EDT

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The flags were at half staff in San Francisco, and on one, a riot of colors replaced the traditional red, white and blue. It was the first tie-dyed flag to fly in front of city hall. The Bay Area was mourning the loss of its Papa Bear. Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, had died Wednesday morning at 53, reportedly of heart failure, after three decades of tunes and trips.

Thousands milled pensively at the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, in the district where in 1965 the Dead first kicked open the doors of perception with its perky anthems to the Hippie Nation. The sweet sting of reefer smoke drifted from doorways, as Jerry’s kids paid the revered pothead a small toke of their esteem. A tree outside Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor (where a flavor is named Cherry Garcia) was adorned with photos, scarves and roses, many roses.

At this impromptu shrine, a griever named Creek left a rock he had found on a nearby beach. “I hope Jerry’s happy,” he said. Creek, who has attended nearly 200 Dead concerts, is four years old. The boy’s mother, Kathy, 23, watched over him through her dreadlocks. “I hope he remembers this day,” she murmured. “It’s a special thing–to feel all the love.”

In cities all over the U.S., this gentle elegy was replicated. More than 4,000 people massed in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, passing out LONG LIVE THE DEAD bumper stickers in Merry Prankster green and creating a huge circle of drum players and mourner-celebrants. One sign read, “Fare thee well, fare thee well, we miss you more than words can tell.” In Manhattan’s Central Park, 700 Deadheads gathered under the full moon at the memorial to another fallen idol, John Lennon. In Washington, where more than 300 souls converged on the Lincoln Memorial, Rush Jones, 25, spoke his anxiety in prime Dead style. Garcia’s death marked “the end of a chapter of my life,” he said. “Not with a dot, a period, but slammed shut, the ink still dribbling from the page.”

Why all this lamentation, at Lennon or Presley volume, for the leader of a group that in 30 years had exactly one Top 10 single (1987’s acerbic but hummy Touch of Grey)? Well, for a few reasons. One is that the Dead was a phenomenon as a road band: it played before more people for more years than any combo in history. Another is that it was a time capsule for the elan of the ’60s, hopeful and engaged, melodious and raucous. It was also the ragged champs of the art of improvisation. If rock musicians prove their wits by vamping, the Dead were Mensa masters. A single song, in its myriad tonal variations, could go on for the better part of an hour–or the worse part, if inspiration was lacking that night. Deadheads came for that inspiration, and found it in the roly-poly guitarist with a missing middle finger on his strumming hand. Garcia was the soul, the sound–by common consent, the head Dead.

“I can’t remember anything like it,” says Ken Kesey, the post-hipster novelist (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and legendary ingester of psychedelic substances, who paints his old friend in heroic strokes. “Not Elvis, not John Lennon. The Beatles were great, but they were a studio band. And Elvis was great, but he was a good ole boy, not a revolutionary. Jerry has been a revolutionary, a warrior, as long as I’ve known him. He battled for the American soul, out there on the edge of a dangerous frontier–battling the forces of the Grinch, the forces of darkness. It was a typical old flower-child battle for the forces of good and mercy and gentleness and mischief. You can’t work that frontier without getting into some danger now and then. The dire wolf finally got him.”

Garcia’s influence spanned generations and social strata. This veteran of the counterculture had plenty of friends in high places. Vice President Al Gore gave the Garcia gang a White House tour, and Tipper Gore hung out backstage at a Dead concert. Bill Weld, Massachusetts’ Republican Governor, last week wore a black armband in memory of his favorite guitarist. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was a fan and a friend; last summer Leahy invited the Dead to the Senate Dining Room, where the band met that noted groupie Strom Thurmond. “Boy, Ah heah you’re a rock star,” the orange-haired solon said, pulling Garcia out of his chair with a jerking handshake and a whap on the arm. According to an observer, Garcia was nonplussed. “Even back when I dropped acid,” he remarked, “I never had an experience like that.”

Though he often treated his body as a laboratory for exotic pharmacological experiments, Garcia was admired–with sensible reservations–by the nation’s most famous noninhaler, Bill Clinton. In an MTV interview last week the President called him “a great talent.” Referring to Garcia’s heroin addiction, Clinton added, “He also had a terrible problem that was a legacy of the life he lived and the demons he dealt with . You don’t have to have a destructive life-style to be a genius.”

This is a lesson learned too late by many rock stars. They get high on the double dream of being a sensitive poet and a swaggering stud–Rimbaud and Rambo. Garcia, who was no friend of the Soloflex, nonetheless fitted the mold of iconoblaster. In his drug taking he was a role model to some, a sacrificial totem to others. Wasn’t he killing himself to create more beautiful music? That music was often swell, and as leader of the most fan-friendly band in rock, Garcia was a sort of secular saint of pop culture. But he stuffed himself with seductive toxins–and the myth of the bohemian king–until he burst. His epitaph could be three words: Great. Full. Dead.

Jerome John Garcia was born in San Francisco to a Spanish immigrant jazz musician and a nurse; they named the boy for songwriter Jerome Kern. When Jerry was nine, Joe Garcia died in a fishing accident. “He watched his father drown,” Kesey notes. “That has always been in his music–the darkness, the next life. It reaches out, squeezes your shoulder, holds you close, and gives you strength to go on when you’re grieving.”

Except for painting, which he loved and worked at until his death, Garcia found any studies intolerable. He didn’t bother finishing high school, enlisting in the Army at 17. Eight AWOLs and two courts-martial later, he was back on the San Francisco streets and hooked up with Robert Hunter, a coffeehouse habitua and, within a few years, the lyricist for Garcia’s songs. He also met Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, who would become the Dead stalwarts on rhythm guitar and drums. They formed a jug band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, and when they went electric in 1965–Bob Dylan having proved it was permissible for folkies to get plugged–they changed their name to the Warlocks. The year after, they were the Grateful Dead, from a folktale cycle about a reluctant corpse.

At first the Dead was simply the nth band in San Francisco’s rock scene. But the group could write catchy songs with irony and sidewise angst–jingles for jangled nerves. Ripple, Sugar Magnolia, Uncle John’s Band, lots of others offer sophisticated pleasures in a simple form. (Other pieces, played in eccentric signatures, are closer to cool jazz.) To the lyrics Garcia lent humanity with his frail tenor. “His voice was a picture of the American past,” says singer-composer Elvis Costello. “You could call it sepia-tinted. It’s like one of those great old Civil War pictures that is so sharp it shocks you how much detail it holds, yet at the same time it’s not in color.” As for Garcia’s guitar playing, Costello says it “wasn’t a question of virtuosity for its own sake, dazzling with millions of notes. It had a lovely tone and touch, and even when he played steel guitar, he added his personality and humor to it.”

But mere musicianship doesn’t make a band a legend. The Dead had this: Like no other group in the era of megamoney rock, Garcia’s gang fused with its fondest listeners. In 1965 the group’s first fan club, with all of three members, called itself the Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion–a name that the Dead gratefully took as the title of the first song on its first album. Over time, Deadheads improvised their own vocabulary, infrastructure and code of honor. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said they were the most recently developed tribe on the planet.

Sometimes the tribe acts like Attila’s. Last month violence erupted in Indianapolis, Indiana, when ticketless Heads stormed a fence around the venue. A few old hands say the culture has become more dissolute and meanspirited. But for every thug, there are a dozen Deadheads ripe for a religious experience. Hey, everyone has to believe in something. And in this woozy age–when the spiritual and the secular often blend, and born-again Christians are rivaled in fervor by devotees of Elvis, Mr. Spock and Crow T. Robot–it was no surprise to see signs announcing that JERRY IS GOD.

One group of fans, the Church of Unlimited Devotion, had members, known as “Spinners,” who performed dervish maneuvers at Dead shows, took vows of celibacy and purported to worship Garcia as a divinity. He tepidly indulged the Spinners, once telling Magical Blend magazine, “I’ll put up with it until they come for me with the cross and nails.”

Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow, in a foreword to the indispensable handbook Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads, describes the fans’ playful ardor as “a religion without beliefs.” That sounds about right. For most Deadheads, a concert was a church they attended not so much for the gospel as for the communion and community, the hymns and the incense. A giant mushroom cloud of hallucinogenics would lay over the crowd like a fuzzy blanket.

Once, Dead was God; now God is dead. With rock stars, such news is a shock but not a surprise. Garcia, whose private funeral service was held Friday (the guest of honor attired in black T shirt and sweats), was the fourth Dead member to die. Three keyboard players preceded him: Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, in 1973 of cirrhosis of the liver; Keith Godchaux, in 1980 after a car crash; and Brent Mydland, in 1990 after shooting a speedball–cocaine and morphine.

Garcia too was a suicidal adventurer. He did coke the way some people drink the stuff, and romanced heroin to the end. He was in and out of hospitals and rehab centers; in 1986 he fell into a coma. Last year he collapsed at his home and promised to reform. But that was not in his nature. “You’re out there on the edge,” Kesey says, “where it’s beyond dangerous to your life–it’s dangerous to your soul. And Garcia was on that edge for 30 years. It’s like when the King asked Mozart why he drank so much, and Wolfgang said, ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is hot, dry work.’ Who are we to argue with such an artist? It’s like arguing with Picasso because he was horny.”

It is the mundane task of the living to bury and praise the dead, and to keep on living. Weir, the Dead’s pro tem leader, has not said whether the band will tour as scheduled this fall. Their fans hope they do, if only as the best of all possible wakes.

And what will true Deadheads do? “These are people who’ve dedicated their lives to the nomadic existence of following the Dead,” says Andrew Behar, whose Deadhead docufilm Tie-Died opens in theaters next month. “A lot of them have raised and taught their children in the back of school buses. With Garcia’s death they may become like the Travellers in England, or Gypsies. But I don’t think they’ll just say goodbye to this spirit.”

Most Dead fans have not turned themselves into career pilgrims. They go to Dead shows for good music and a great time. The older among them were kids of Garcia’s generation, and in the ’60s they enjoyed watching him living out their adolescent dream of cool: playing guitar, traveling the world, doing dope. Then, as these Boomers faced up to middle age–working hard and working out, with only the occasional nostalgic joint at a Dead show–they could also see Garcia mature and decay. They were Dorian Gray, and he was the picture. His belly ballooned; his skin was looser; his hair turned a ratty touch of gray. He looked as if he existed on peanut butter and peyote buttons.

If life is indeed a song, then Garcia and most of his older fans played it in different styles: studio version and free-form concert improv. Because the fans learned to play life straight, they will get by. Because he saw life as a long jam session leading to harmony or anarchy, he died–long after he might have, long before he should have. But as a force for good music and good vibes, Garcia can go to heaven and keep on truckin’. Like the song says, he will survive.

–Reported by Allison Andrews/San Francisco, Danielle Durkin and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Tamala M. Edwards/Washington and David E. Thigpen/New York

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