Remembering Jerilyn

I first met Jerilyn Brandelius when she came to San Francisco from Southern California in, I think, 1969. Someone (she told me once, but I forget who) introduced her to Chet Helms who was, of course, in dire need of a personal assistant/factotum to ensure follow up and follow through on all manner of business items, and keep the office on track and focused.

This was right around the time Chet had acquired the lease on the old Beach Pavilion building out on the Great Highway, across the road from Kellys Cove and comfortably tucked between Playland at the Beach and Sutro Heights.

In the weeks before we opened, as we got the building ready to do service to Chester’s vision of creating a space somewhere in between a dance hall and house of worship where people, music, lights, the Pacific Ocean could all come together and create magic(k), I had managed to find enough ways to be useful to create a full-time job for myself as Head Hey You. Did everything from take tickets at the door, to help with stage managing and sound, to cleaning out perennially clogging toilets in the restrooms and sweeping and waxing the dance floor after shows.

So, Jere and I were “work colleagues.” But of course, when you worked for Chet Helms, it was never “just a job.” We were all “family.” Mates in that same ongoing effort to help Chet create something special that might lead—well, who knew where? And I learned things about who I wanted to be in life, and made connections with people that would endure over the years (even when we found ourselves out of contact for decades).

Jerilyn was one of those people. I loved her to the bottom of my heart then, and always have. And she WAS one that I lost contact with for many years. After the Family Dog on the Great Highway went under, I moved on to work for several bands, one of the Bay Area’s few (at the time) sound reinforcement companies that had the equipment and knowledge to work rock and roll shows, and several clubs and other music venues.

Photo: ©Ed Perlstein

She, meanwhile, ended up in Marin County in a relationship with a musician from a well-known band, and got focused on raising her two kids, along with a tribe of other children associated with the “family” that surrounded that band—Oh, I’ll go ahead and say it. It is somewhat integral to the story, and no secret. After the Family Dog family broke up, she was absorbed into that vast amoeba which was the Grateful Dead family in the 1970s.

One of the reasons that becomes important at this point is that part of the legacy she leaves is a whole second generation of “Dead kids,” now in their 40s and 50s, who grew up more or less as a free range pack of young ’uns airing it out across the acres of various ranches and other properties scattered across Northern Marin County. In many ways, Jerelyn had stepped up into the role of fierce mama bear, not just for Creek and Christina, her two children, but for all the kids rattling around. More than one has told me that growing up in that somewhat ‘fluid’ scene, they always felt secure in the knowledge they could seek out Jere for her counsel and guidance; or just to have their backs. She became in some respects the most reliable adult in their world.

We didn’t have much occasion to connect, unless we happened to run into each other backstage at a show. While she had gone North, I had elected, post Dog, to remain in San Francisco and dig in to the more urban scene there.

Eventually I dropped out of the music business and moved down to Santa Cruz County, losing touch with her completely.

I later learned that after her relationship with that band member went the way of so many rock and roll pairings in that era where a good looking guy spent much of his time on the road being the center of the party while his “old lady” kept the home fires burning, Jerelyn easily transitioned into an office manager role for an East Bay chapter of the Hells Angels MC.

Because she was just that centered and secure in being Jerelyn Brandelius that there was never any doubt about her competency to take care of the myriad threads of necessary bank account management, tax reporting, regulatory compliance, and all the other things a fraternal organization that size is accountable for—especially one that’s a highly visible target for every investigator and prosecutor out to make a name for himself.

Photo: © Lilli Heart

Of course, despite the fact her romantic relationship had gone south, her ties to the Dead Family always remained strong. The relationship held value for her, and for them, and she could be found around band (and family) related events right until the end.
Jerelyn’s profile in the broader universe of Deadheads exploded after the publication in late 1989 of the Grateful Dead Family Album, a massive coffee table book with cover art by iconic San Francisco artist Stanley Mouse offering almost 250 pages of photographs, many of them behind-the-scenes candids shot by Jerelyn, accompanied by text of her reminiscences and often droll observations on the scene over the years.

But I’m getting too buried in the biographical minutia here. I need to circle back to how it is that she rests so deep in my heart, a half-century on from our first association.

I guess it was maybe 15 years or so ago that a young friend of mine from down here in Santa Cruz County—a second-generation Deadhead if you will, phoned me filled with excitement after a trip to the Bay Area for a show.
Seems he’s been manning the Wharf Rats table (a subset of Deadheads in drug and alcohol recovery) when Jerilyn stopped by. He’d heard me tell tales of our history when he’d gushed about the Family Album book, and he mentioned to her that he knew me.

Remember that, at this point, we’d probably been out of touch for a couple of decades. Well, she was apparently excited to reconnect, giving him her phone number to pass along to me. So the kid came home feeling like a minor rock star.

That’s how we finally got back in touch, so many years later. We managed to get together a few times over the next couple of years, but I wasn’t at a time in my life when I was getting to the City much and she only occasionally came south, usually to support friends playing a gig somewhere in the Santa Cruz area.
Then the damned liver thing happened. Among other qualifying hoops they make liver transplant candidates jump through is a requirement they abstain from alcohol and drugs. I was able to add my voice to others from within the family in assuring her there is, indeed, life after recovery. That doing this deal clean and sober actually turns out, in a lot of ways, to be the most colorful trip of all.

Scared the hell out of me when word came she was going in for her transplant; I’d had a few other friends receive organ transplants and knew, at least in a general way, what a major deal it was. Of course, if I allowed myself to feel concerned, I wasn’t reckoning with just what a badass Jerilyn has always been.

As expected, it was a long, difficult, post-transplant recovery period. But sooner than you’d think we were making the pilgrimage North, groping around Ft. Baker in the dark, trying to find the Presidio Yacht Club. Once we finally stumbled in, we found the place packed with folks, both famous and obscure, there to celebrate Jerilyn’s first return from the dead.

In recent years, it’s become easier to keep in touch with the rise of social media. And, as my life focus shifted, I began to make it up to San Francisco a bit more often.

Photo: © Rosie McGee

As it turned out, liver failure couldn’t hold a candle to the next gut punch the universe had lined up. In January of 2014, Jere’s daughter Christina (who I’d had the opportunity to amuse from time to time in the Family Dog days when she would hit that fussy spot little kids do when they really need some attention—just at the same moment her mom was engaged in an important long distance phone call nailing down next week’s booking) died far too young, succumbing to an asthma attack.

Possessing the terrible qualifier of having walked through the death of an adult child with my spouse, I like to believe I was able to be there for her in a way few others could be. We didn’t spend a ton of time together, and there wasn’t a lot of conversation. But our connection deepened in a way that’s beyond my ability to find words for.

This past half-dozen years or so, we stayed in consistent touch even though the 90 miles or so that separated us meant we still didn’t manage to get in the same place at the same time more than maybe three or four times a year.

Deborah Grabien, Sam Cutler, Jerilyn Brandilius Photo: Holly Howard

But I believe there remained a level of love and connection between us that continued to deepen, without the need to speak of it, on each and every occasion we spent some time together, whether she had drafted me for chauffeur duty, giving her a ride to or from a gig someplace or we turned up at the same soiree—more often than not one of the legendary get togethers at Chez Grabien, where the company, the food, and the music were always exceptional.

We could usually manage to get ourselves off to the side someplace for a while where we could just sit and share space and unspoken history. Might be 15 minutes; might be a couple of hours. Usually, little was said once the initial check-in business was out of the way. How’s your health? What are you listening to lately?

For several years, there would be the obligatory quick catchup on John Perry Barlow (songwriting partner with Bob Weir, and later in life the visionary who birthed the Electronic Frontier Foundation); she was principally responsible for his caretaking over several years at the end of his life.

Because, you see, that was a thing Jerilyn did. I think I mentioned her being the rock at the center of the world of a whole generation of Dead family kids. She did the same thing for Barlow. She had also spent a period of time back working for Chet Helms again in what turned out (to everyone’s surprise) to be the last few years of his life.

Jerilyn was fierce. Fiercely loyal. Fiercely protective. Fiercely supportive of those she loved. And it one of hers was in trouble she was there to hold steady with them in the storm.

Of course, that fierceness meant she could also be a world-class pain in the ass when she was fighting for something. That could, on occasion, rub ‘outsiders’ the wrong way. And, if I’m totally honest, it would on occasion drive those who loved her up the wall as well.

But it was never born of malice, always passion.

After her stroke a couple years back, Jerilyn once more pulled out all that fight and determination. It pissed her off no end to find herself physically compromised, and she threw herself into all the recommended physical therapy, dietary guidelines, and lifestyle recommendations (at least as best she could make them fit her world) to regain a huge percentage of her capacity.

I think she fatigued quicker. And I’m sure (though we never discussed it in detail) she was finding herself carrying a greater and greater pain load on a daily basis. Hell, we all live with chronic pain at this age; especially those of us who ran our bodies so hard when we were young and heedless.

But, as somebody pointed out the other day, there was a part of Jerilyn that never fully came back after Christina died. There never is really, is there? The death of a child cuts a chunk out of a mother that can’t be healed or filled in. And she loved as fiercely as any mother I’ve ever known.

It’s funny. There’s that word again. Fierce. Absolutely, Jerilyn was one of the most badass, determined women I have ever known. And she walked through enough shit for any three people in her life, with her head up all the way. So, yeah. Fierce.

And yet all my memories of her are tender, sweet, infused with love. No, we didn’t spend a lot of time together. We never had, really. But she has been a part of my life since the earliest days working for Chet, when I was beginning to figure out who I was going to grow up to be. How I would carry myself in this world.

So, going forward from here for as long as I remain, I’ll carry myself in a world now missing one of the touchstones of my life. We were never married; we were never lovers. I don’t think we ever even intentionally got high together. Dosed at a few of the same shows, I’m sure. But that hardly counts around that rolling circus.

I am grateful that the closest inner circles of family were able to be there as her body wound down and her spirit departed. I know that Betty was there. I understand Weir was able to come and sing her home as the machines stopped and it all finished.

I am going to miss the hell out of her. I already do. This has been such a bastard of a year, for everyone. I suppose it even makes a certain amount of sense that this would be when Jerilyn finally reached that point where she had to lay her hammer down.

I will get my head wrapped around accepting it, same as all the rest of this year. Because we have to, don’t we? But I don’t goddamn like it. And I shall, indeed, feel her absence the rest of my days.

“Fare you well. Fare you well. I love you more than words can tell.”

Photo: © Rosie McGee

Plans are in the works for a virtual gathering on line to celebrate the life and memory of Jerilyn. I will post an update here, and on my Facebook page when details become available.