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Friday, November 7, 2008

While The Music Plays The Band

What is it about this group? Why is it that they can strike such a resonate chord in the pit of my being? How is it that this then illuminates a spidering out of interconnections with music from all over the globe and all up and down the time continuum? Sometimes the Grateful Dead make too much sense to me.

As one example: Knowing what we know about this group, it’s a fair assumption that they were not intentionally calling upon the sacred music of the 12th century to infuse the deep reaches of their improvisational feedback-induced psychedelia. But while listening to early show feedback compositions where sounds weave together in something not quite chaotic or cacophonous, I hear the melodic lines of haunting and beautiful music composed nearly one thousand years ago. It is no mistake, nor over statement, to say that time and time again, the Dead’s music feels like a sacred, church-like experience.

It is this sacred element which goes a long way in separating the Grateful Dead from being just another rock act. Yet, it can be quite incomprehensible to those who might not otherwise have a Dead-based frame of reference from which to see this characteristic. As one explores this facet of their music, it is not uncommon that its validity takes a kick in the leg because of the social climate which gave rise to the generation of Psychedelic Rock music in the first place. If you aren’t “one of us,” it becomes quite conveniently easy to write off any esoteric philosophizing about the Dead due to their obvious pigeonholing within that “late 60’s rock thing.” I would venture to say, however, that this expression of musical sacredness appears across all music throughout time, and its recognition within the Grateful Dead is no less valid than the form it took centuries earlier. Indeed, it is much more hidden in modern music, and therefore easily missed, or dismissed as the case may be. That said, this is one of the deepest layers of the Dead’s music we can discuss.

This somewhat hidden sacred element of music’s expression is only part of the great many other things we call Grateful Dead music. This speaks, in part, to the rapid evolution of music across the second half of the 1900’s. There was so much going on, so quickly, that music’s own sacred expression found itself woven in as only part of the musical fabric, rather than a single thread easily held apart and recognized. The condensed rapid evolution of music in which the Dead found bedrock-like footing, predicated that we would have a more complex musical form to examine, explore, and discover. Their music was a cauldron of ingredients – Bluegrass, Psychedelic, Rock, Funk, Country, Blues, Gospel, Tribal, Avant-garde – different things to different people. And as much as we sometimes ponder what it would have been like to see the Dead take the stage and play a solid two and a half hours of feedback, this would not have been the Grateful Dead. Even in the earliest years, they were more than one thing, most all the time. Unlike sacred music composers of centuries past who spent lifetimes channeling the rich power of music’s ability to communicate directly to the soul, the music’s power seemed to find new, more complex paths to expression in the pallet of modern-age music. Thereby, it came to reside between notes and lyrics, working at an almost subconscious level. And it took up residence in the quiet still waters of the Grateful Dead.

This sacred element is a descriptive manifestation of a far more indescribable truth lying deep within the Dead’s music – in fact, within music itself. Being a primal and universal language that can affect mood and alter the pulse rate of all listeners, music, when rendering a sense of something “spiritually beautiful,” calls the listener into a serene stillness of being – a truth that blurs all lines between our individuality. As found in the Garcia quote that currently adorns the right-hand sidebar of this blog, Jerry describes truth to be “ those moments when you're playing and the whole room becomes one being -- precious moments..” This describes the fulfillment of music’s highest goal – to bring us to these moments of oneness. That’s what we paint as church-like, and refer to it as feeling sacred. But these words veil the truth of what’s going on with too much of their own connotation. You’ve heard it (or need to hear it) in many of the musical selections featured on these pages. Strip away all the baggage that may accompany your ideas around these words, and recognize nothing more than the feeling you get from the musical experience - drop the description of the feeling. This reduction of a self-editorial backdrop can heighten the experience and foster a deeper connection through the music into Oneness.

It is often at the times when the Dead are *not* deeply exploring the outer reaches of improvisational interplay that they conjure up some of their most serene and sacred moments. In Jerry Garcia’s hypotonic setting to music of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, we find some of the most beautifully quiet contemplations drawing us in. Never trying to force a message, Hunter’s words whisper at concepts both highly personal and widely universal all at once. In performance, these lyrics often find themselves surrounded by the softest sunlight; slight music sparkling in tender tears and lazy breezes.

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me
from "Attics Of My Life"


  1. Absolutely dead-on right. The improvisational adventures acquire extra meaning when they land in the wispy-solid implied truths of a Stella Blue or Black Peter. These "spiritual" moments, I am convinced, harken all the way back to the evolutionary roots of music, when community coherence was built by jamming around the campfire.
    There's the story of when Mickey invited Joseph Campbell to a show and he "got it"--the tribal cohesion/spiritual experience thing--immediately. It's an unbroken chain and the Dead were conduits for universal expressions of human nature in the 20th-Century American context.

  2. Listening to Stella Blue was the first time I caught the ageless quality of the Grateful Dead's music, now I hear it in nearly everything they played.

  3. Very eloquent homily pastor. Great read!

  4. Aw, man, I felt like you were just getting going when the entry ended. Good stuff.


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