On July 10, 1986 Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia lapsed into a diabetic coma that nearly killed him. The band’s upcoming shows were cancelled as Garcia spent weeks and months recovering with help from old friend Merl Saunders. While Garcia played a number of Jerry Garcia Band shows in the Fall of 1986, the Grateful Dead finally returned to the stage on December 15, 1986 to begin a series of three performances at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
Scribe Blair Jackson described Merl’s role in getting Jerry back into shape for a Dead.net article:
When Jerry nearly died in the summer of 1986 after slipping into a diabetic coma, it was Merl more than anyone else, who literally sat by Jerry’s side and helped him regain his musical gifts—which had become scrambled and elusive following the coma—by patiently re-teaching him the fundamentals, rebuilding his skills a little at a time. And even before he was ready to attempt to play, Merl helped him get some of his strength back: “I’d take him for a walk. We’d take 10 steps, then take 10 steps back. His attitude was great. He wanted to get better, but he was scared, too. He got tired very easily, but he never really got discouraged. The most he’d say would be, ‘Oh man, this is harder than it looks!’”
Once Garcia picked up a guitar, “It came back very slowly,” Merl said. “He had to learn chords all over again and he had a lot of trouble remembering how to do even the simplest stuff. And I didn’t want to push him. ‘Man, I’m tired.’ He’d been playing for five minutes. ‘OK, that’s fine. Put it down. Let’s go for a walk.’ And we’d do that for a few minutes until he’d get tired. We’d talk about music. I’d tell him about songs I was working on and that would get his mind going. We’d talk in musical terms. And slowly he started to get his strength back. But it sometimes took an hour or two for him to get even a simple chord down. Then, as we got farther into it, some things started to come back to him a little, but it took a lot of work. The first song he wanted to learn again was ‘My Funny Valentine.’”
From all accounts the first Grateful Dead show back, which took place on this date in 1986, was an incredibly emotional affair. There was a time Deadheads thought Jerry may never be back, but not only did Garcia return to the stage he also unveiled new songs. In fitting fashion the Grateful Dead opened with “Touch Of Grey,” which gave fans a chance to scream along with the chorus of “I will survive!” On audience recordings you can hear the capacity crowd go absolutely wild both as the Dead take the stage and throughout “Touch Of Grey.”
The first debut of the evening came early on as Jerry led his mates through “When Push Comes To Shove,” a song the group would record for In The Dark though surprisingly disappeared from the repertoire in 1989. Jerry and Bob switched off fronting the group throughout a first set that included such classics as “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Loser,” “Cassidy,” “Althea” and “Candyman.”
After opening the second set with “Iko Iko” and “Looks Like Rain,” Garcia stepped to the mic to deliver the first ever “Black Muddy River.” Unlike “When Push Comes To Shove,” Jerry and Robert Hunter’s “Black Muddy River” stuck around until the very end of the Grateful Dead’s career and was the penultimate song the group performed at their final concert on July 9, 1995. Weir did most of the heavy lifting in a second set that featured multiple sections of “Playing In The Band” and a raucous “Johnny B. Goode” encore. The Grateful Dead was back and would go to achieve their greatest commercial success the following year with the release of “Touch Of Grey” as a single. Yet the tune never meant as much as it did on December 15, 1986.
Watch video of the show shared by Kevin Tobin:
Grateful Dead at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena
- Touch of Grey
- See See Rider
- When Push Comes to Shove
- Beat It On Down the Line
- Greatest Story Ever Told
- My Brother Esau
- Let It Grow
- Iko Iko
- Looks Like Rain
- Black Muddy River
- Playing in the Band
- Terrapin Station
- Wharf Rat
- Playing in the Band
- Good Lovin'
- Johnny B. Goode
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