It Started With Jerry GarciaOctober 23, 2011
When I was growing up, I never thought of the public figures on the periphery of my life, the artists and athletes, as irreplaceable. A favorite player is traded, but he’s replaced by a rookie with unlimited potential. Authors and bands who spoke to you in unique, surprisingly personal ways, fade away, but new book and albums fill the void.
You can see it how we talk about public figures. Is Kobe or LeBron the next Jordan? Who will be the next Beatles? Is Zuckerburg the next Bill Gates? And from the 2008 campaign, Is Obama this generation’s JFK? It’s almost as if they’re products, destined to be replaced by new and improved versions.
Then Jerry Garcia died.
It was August 9, 1995. I had been introduced to the Grateful Dead in high school, but became an enthusiastic Deadhead during college, borrowing cassettes from the campus hippie outpost and obsessively checking rec.music.gdead via Usenet for the latest rumors and set lists. I attended five shows over the next few years, each a treasured experience. The Dead toured endlessly, so there was always a fall tour or summer tour just around the corner.
Despite Jerry’s ongoing health issues, it had never really occurred to me that a time would come when he would be gone, and with him, the Grateful Dead. It was such a sad moment when I heard the news. It was the first time that the death of a public figure had struck me like that. Over the next few months, I hoped for signs that the Dead would go on (and they would indeed, though appropriately without the name Grateful Dead) or that a band like Phish would take their place for me.
The real sadness came later, when it finally became clear that there would be no replacement, that Jerry and the band and that moment was gone and, as the song goes, nothin’s gonna bring him back.
I’ve had that same experience more often since then, with the eclectic collection of people who have helped shape me: William F. Buckley, Jr., Richard Rorty, Tim Russert and just this month, Steve Jobs.
I don’t know if I have much to contribute to the volumes of things that have been written about Steve, other than to say what he meant to me personally. When he left Apple in the mid-80’s, my loyalties shifted to his new company. I used to sneak into the Engineering lab on campus just to use their new collection of NeXTstations and nearly convinced my father of modest means to come up with $4,995 so I could have one of my own. I wrote Steve a letter and asked if there was a job for me at NeXT HQ, even if it meant starting as a janitor.
So much of what he created was to empower and inspire other people to create. He celebrated artists and then elevated technology to art. He showed that we should not have to settle for shoddy products and lousy experiences. He defended the crazy ones. He spoke often of how Apple exists at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology, which meant a lot to me as a philosophy major working at a startup.
So, Steve Jobs is my latest chance to learn the same lesson that every generation learns. There won’t be another Steve Jobs, everyone knows that. We can celebrate his life, allow his work to inspire our own, and mourn the loss.
Here’s to the irreplaceable ones.