Fans grateful for Garcia tribute Sculpture: Fans of deceased Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia erect likeness of his guitar in Gallup, N.M., overcoming opposition from residents who felt it sent wrong message.

Sun Journal

October 11, 1998|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

GALLUP, N.M. -- In a land famous for its red rock canyons, sprawling American Indian reservations and blazing neon signs, one of the more humble attractions is the 800-pound guitar that ** stands in the municipal sculpture garden next to Interstate 40.

"It's just about perfect," said attorney Frank Seanez, brushing some wind-blown dust off the statue, which motorists can spot while speeding toward the Arizona border.

The guitar is a memorial to Jerry Garcia, the bearded leader of the Grateful Dead, who died of a heart attack on Aug. 8, 1995. Though they can laugh now, die-hard fans who commissioned the sculpture were surprised when some townspeople tried to stop it -- charging that they were sending the wrong message by memorializing a known drug abuser.

"Are we to tell our children that it is OK to use drugs if you are a well-known band or a fan of the music of the Grateful Dead?" Gerry Domagala, a second-grade teacher who led the opposition, wrote in a letter last year to the Gallup Independent.

The Dead had no particular connection to Gallup, a town that sits between the Navajo and Zuni reservations and boasts a stretch of Route 66 that looks like a postcard from the 1950s. Nonetheless, local Deadheads figured it was a fine place for their tribute.

"Why?" said Jon Martin, a forester who saw the band 75 times. "Because we happen to live here."

Seanez saw the band 96 times. In his mind, he can see the exit ramp where, as a student attending an Ohio college in the 1970s, he hitched rides to concerts on either coast. He sees people who, like him, carried their passion into middle age and showed up no matter where the band performed.

Many critics found their music aimless, but fans were enchanted by their rambling improvisations and by their refusal to bend to musical fashions. Many can recite Dead lyrics and recall concert dates with encyclopedic accuracy. Some lugged recording devices to concerts -- a practice the band encouraged -- and amassed tape libraries that they count among their prized possessions.

Garcia was staying at a drug-treatment center near San Francisco when his heart gave out. He was 53.

Although the band fostered an atmosphere of open drug use at festivals, few fans knew the depths of Garcia's drug problems until he died. Particularly saddening was his long history of heroin addiction, a problem that had alarmed friends and band members over the years.

"There was always a peripheral knowledge," said Seanez, 41, a native of Pittsburgh who works as a lawyer for the Navajo reservation. "From time to time, Jerry would get really bad, but it was nothing that I had any direct contact with."

Garcia's death was "like a kick in the gut," said Seanez. "To me, it was really like a member of your family."

"It was like losing part of yourself, like losing a limb," said Martin, 38. "It wasn't just that Jerry was gone. It was the fact there would probably be no more Grateful Dead shows, see my friends in that setting. It was a joyous time. We'd see the same people, plan some of our vacations around it."

After Garcia died, a few of Gallup's Deadheads met in the city library to consider what to do next. They formed the Jerry Garcia Memorial Foundation, pooled a few hundred dollars and decided to commission a statue.

"We came over here and stood maybe 40 yards that way and said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could do a metal sculpture of Jerry's guitar in a guitar stand, giving an image of him having put the guitar down and walking away?' " said Martin. "It was an image that stood in our mind from going to shows."

The city's beautification director offered a spot next to the chain-link fence that separates the sculpture garden from the westbound lane of Interstate 40. To Seanez, the place was perfect -- next to the highway that reminded him of hitchhiking trips, beside a miniature coal train that suggested lyrics in the Dead's repertoire.

They hired a local artist, Jack Tixier, who grabbed a two-inch-thick hunk of steel off his shelf and went to work.

In the end, the guitar was seven feet long and sat on an undulating stand, its neck pitched slightly skyward. Its tone and volume controls were brass munition shells. Its titanium frets swirled with rainbow colors in the blazing sun. Etched into its surface was a skeleton holding a rose -- a familiar image in Dead iconography.

The statue is called "Rosebud" after the Irwin guitar that Garcia played for many years.

Word of the project didn't filter out until the sculpture was completed and ready to be moved to its resting place last year. Suddenly, it was front-page news. Domagala, the second-grade teacher, and others who considered it a glorification of 1960s drug culture wrote letters to the Independent, and asked the city council to block it.

"I'm in charge of the anti-drug program," said Domagala. "How can you teach kids not to use drugs if they put up a memorial to Jerry Garcia? If you put up a memorial to him, you want your children to be like this guy."

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