Few if any guitarists from the 1960s personified the counter-culture nature of the times more than Jerry Garcia.
The late, great, Grateful Dead leader came to symbolize the hazy vibe of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury section, where the billows in the air weren’t coming from gas emissions alone. You get the idea. On many levels, Garcia’s public persona was shaped by his god-like standing in the drug culture of the day. He was, after all, affectionately nicknamed “Captain Trips.”
So mention the word “smoke” in the context of Jerry Garcia and a certain kind of combustible immediately comes to mind―at least it did to mine when I came across a YouTube video of Garcia’s version of the famous American Songbook standard, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
On the surface, it would seem that recording the song was a tongue-in-cheek musical move by Garcia. But was it?
Certainly, he knew his following of fans, most of whom had probably never even heard of the song when Garcia covered it in 1995. Regardless, he knew the cannabis connection would likely be obvious. Yet an interesting fact about Garcia’s background suggests that it wasn’t just a marketing ploy to cover Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, but rather a show of respect through musical expression and exploration.
You see, Garcia―born Jerome John Garcia―was reportedly named after Jerome Kern, the composer of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Kern, as you may know, was among the great songwriters of the 20th Century, penning such standards as All the Things You Are, The Way You Look Tonight, and Ol’ Man River.
Biographies of Garcia attest to the fact that he drew from a wide range of influences in developing his distinctive sound. Elements of jazz, contemporary blues, bluegrass, and country pervade Garcia’s style. Perhaps most interesting, his improvisational technique is said to have been strongly influenced by the legendary John Coltrane―a horn player.
I probably went to six or so Grateful Dead concerts when I was (a lot) younger. One thing was clear to me as a guitarist even back then: Garcia had to have influences beyond basic rock and roll. The Dead’s extended jams and musical explorations were marked by sounds that included―but which transcended―pure rock and country.
Give a listen to Garcia’s cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The intro features rock guitar lines that lead into the chorus, which carries a bossa nova-like beat. Garcia is most likely playing a solid body guitar on the track, but is shown in the video holding what appears to be a vintage Gibson Super 400 archtop. Soaring 1950s era vocals provide the background and recall one of the most popular versions of the song, that of The Platters in 1958.
Garcia’s cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes takes an American standard and applies a unique array of sounds and musical styles, played over sophisticated jazz changes. The end result is a fascinating musical mix that creates one of the more novel renditions of the song. (It’s a fun video too, with a number of well-known Hollywood faces appearing throughout.)
As for the smoke, Garcia is shown in several scenes puffing a cigar―the exact filler contents unknown.
Certainly, it was a long, strange musical trip for Garcia before his death at age 53 in 1995. It ended with his cover of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, one of the last songs he ever recorded. Thankfully, Garcia left us with a perfect example of how a guitarist can take a song from one genre and make it his or her own by adding other influences, effects, or stylistic techniques.
Recording Smoke Gets in Your Eyes seemingly had special significance for Garcia, given his namesake connection with Kern and presumed familiarity with Kern’s other works through Garcia's jazz leanings. No, cutting the track wasn’t a ploy by Garcia to perpetuate a lighthearted pot joke. It was likely a genuine gesture of musical respect.