Honoring Jerry Garcia's little known past with Jerry Day

Aug 4, 2017


You might expect that a Jerry Garcia-themed event in San Francisco would be founded by a Deadhead. You know, a stereotypical Grateful Dead mega-fan who followed the band around the country for years, dropping acid, wearing tie dye, and talking about world peace.

That’s not Tom Murphy.

He’s got a crew cut, drives a Nissan Altima, and is usually dressed business casual. He’s a loan consultant.

Yet he’s the father of San Francisco’s Jerry Day, which has happened every year in the southeast corner of San Francisco since 2002. But to understand the story of Jerry Day, we have to go back to the 1970s.

Murphy grew up here in the Excelsior—he lived here for almost 25 years. Now he’s in Oakland.

Murphy points out the home of a childhood friend. Her father was Leonard Heinz, and in 1977 he ran against Dan White for city supervisor.

Dan White is infamous for assassinating civil rights activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone. Murphy was only eight at the time, but he tells me the tragedy pulled a dark cloud over the Excelsior. He says that for years that’s all people really knew about the neighborhood.

“When I was going to high school, it would be like in downtown San Francisco with kids from the Marina I would tell ‘em where I was at and I’d get two responses: ‘That’s where Dan White is from’ and ‘Where's that?’”

Tom describes the Excelsior as a working class neighborhood that could be difficult to navigate as a kid.

“It’s hard to explain but the area was going through a lot of toughness at that time.”

He tells me it was almost impossible to walk out the front door without getting caught up in a fight, and there were parts of the neighborhood that you just did not go—like McLaren Park. People dumped dead bodies there, he says.

But one day when Murphy was in his 20s, he read an article in the local newspaper about an effort to clean up McLaren Park. A neighborhood resident wanted to rename a small amphitheater in the park’s center after Jerry Garcia.

 

“When I found out that Jerry Garcia grew up here, it just hit me, that has to be known!”

Many fans know that Garcia was from San Francisco, and often the Grateful Dead is associated with the Haight, where the band started making music. But Garcia was born and raised in the Excelsior. Murphy walks me by his old house.

“See that yellow staircase right there?” We walk a little further down the street until a yellow house comes into view. “That’s where he learned to play guitar!”

Garcia lived on Harrington Street with his grandparents until he was a teen. He even wrote a  book about his childhood called Harrington Street.

 

Jerry Garcia wasn’t on Tom’s radar after his death in 1995— Murphy was working at Candlestick Park for Giants games at the time, and and he was struck by how many people bought Garcia-themed Giants shirts.

“It became the number one seller for three years. And the people that bought it were doctors, accountants, lawyers, entrepreneurs. That was intriguing to me.”

In 2002, Murphy got a chance to harness Garcia's star power. He heard that a group of neighbors were trying to build a play structure for kids, and he suggested they use some space to honor local artists, like Jerry Garcia.

Murphy gets a kick out of re-telling the story: “They're like, ‘He didn't grow up here!’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, he did!’

With the help of the Garcia family, the park supporters sold T-shirts featuring psychedelic visual art that Jerry made. They raised five thousand dollars and built a huge play structure. “That’s what got me started in my civic engagement career, “ Tom says, surveying the park. He shakes his head. “I tell you, San Francisco politics is not for the weak!”

Bolstered by the park’s success, Murphy and a small group of neighbors decided to keep the momentum going. That same year, Murphy organized the first Jerry Day in the McLaren Park Amphitheater. He told people he wanted it to be a civic and cultural event for the city of San Francisco. That’s a pretty high bar for a Grateful Dead concert, and many people didn’t understand his vision.

“People were like what?” Tom says. “I was like, you know, Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Carnivale, Gay Pride—Jerry Day!

But people still doubted it would take. They were wrong.

“It was a crazy thought at that time. I would hear, “You'll never fill the place up, people will never come from across the city to come here, Deadheads will never come from across the country to come here.” He laughs in disbelief. “It’s all happened!”

Tom Murphy holds up a poster for Jerry Day, 2017.
Credit Claire Stremple

Since 2002, thousands of people have gathered each summer at what is now the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater for Jerry Day—a day of jam bands, dancing, and fun.

Tom says it’s more than just a day in the park, though. “What happens is a lot of residents go to the event and they see it and they get empowered. They say to themselves, Okay, we’re gonna get engaged.”

It was neighborhood engagement that led to a $25,000 remodel a couple of years ago, and the amphitheater looks better than it ever has.

This year is Jerry Day’s 15th anniversary. Thousands of people from all over the country will come to the Excelsior to celebrate in McLaren Park. Not your average San Francisco vacation—you might even call it a strange trip.