The day the music died

“We need magic and bliss, and power and myth, and celebration and religion in our lives, and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.” – Jerry Garcia.

I was carried away in a rapture. And so i am a Deadhead now…” —Joseph Campbell

Jerry Garcia, 1966, by Zooomabooma, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

Jerry Garcia, 1966, by Zooomabooma, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

With all due respect to Don McLean, the music died on August 9, 1995, the day we lost Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and most easily recognized member of the Grateful Dead.  Between 1965 and 1995, the Dead played an average of 77 shows a year.  Though volumes have been written about the experience, it is difficult to put into words.  Joseph Campbell was friends with several members of the band.  In a 1986 symposium with Garcia, drummer Micky Hart, and several Jungian analysts, Campbell said:

“The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… Listen, this is powerful stuff ! And what is it ? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course…This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence…This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about!”

The Dead were always a touring band, and the shows were unique events that people loved or hated – I’ve never met anyone who was indifferent.  When they played Sacramento or Oakland on weekdays, half of the people in my department at work – and we’re talking electrical and software engineers – would arrive in the morning in tie-dye and take the afternoon off to attend.  The other half could not have cared less.

Campbell’s assessment reveals the “innocent joy” I felt after my first few shows, captured by the lyrics of “Scarlet Begonias:”

Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand,
Everybody’s playin in the Heart of Gold Band.

In reality, you don’t get that close to Dionysus without paying a price.  Thirty years on the road took its toll on Garcia.  In the summer of 1995, he checked himself into a rehab facility and died in his sleep of heart failure a week after his 53d birthday.

Jerry and the Dead left us a huge musical legacy, with at least one song, “Truckin,” designated as a National Treasure by the Library of Congress.  Surviving members of the band continue to release the best concert tapes, and everything has just been remastered for iTunes.  You can look at the collection here: Grateful Dead on iTunes.

In the end, maybe Joseph Campbell, with his eyes of innocence, saw it most clearly when he said, “It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether it’s a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”

Rest in peace, Jerry, and thanks for the ride!

Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools, German woodcut, 1549

While sitting with friends the other day, I heard a woman describe her extended family as “all about issues.”  At holidays and picnics, arguments erupt over politics, gender, economics, and all the social concerns du jour – right-to-life vs. right-to-choose, and who can and should get married.  The woman shook her head and said, “I think I want to live a life without issues.”

That phrase really clicked with me, and the more I thought about it, the more it explained certain “issue oriented” posts that I started recently but never finished.  I’d wondered if it was summer laziness, or if I needed a break from blogging, but no – I saw it in a flash – I need a break from issues!  Not an ostrich move, but an issue fast.

A voice in my head objected – “But…but…but…now that the presidential race is really on, aren’t these issues more important than ever?  Doesn’t the future of the Republic and who knows what else hang in the balance?”  One thought led to another, and the phrase, “ship of fools” came to mind.   I found myself humming The Grateful Dead’s, “Ship of Fools.”  I cranked it up when I got home and logged in to explore the theme.  What follows is just a hint of the history of the image and its vast metaphoric possibilities.

And yes, there’s a nice Grateful Dead clip at the end of the post you can listen to while you read…

Hieronymus Bosh, “Ship of Fools,” c. 1490-1500, detail

Wikipedia says, “The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction.

It’s surprising that the Ship of Fools/Ship of State analogy has yet to be picked up this year, with its “deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers,” but there’s more than allegory bound up with the phrase.  The same Wikipedia entry details the origin of the image:

“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then ‘knew’, had an affinity for each other. Thus, ‘Ship of Fools’ crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.” – Jose Barchilon’s introduction to Madness and Civilization, by Michel Foucault.

On the literal level, this “delightful, yet horrible” custom is not entirely a thing of the past.  We can think of New York City in 2009, with it’s offer to homeless people of free one-way tickets to anywhere else.  The same thing happens here, when overworked neighboring social service agencies “dump” their homeless in Sacramento county.

As an imaginal image, The Fool still evokes powerful responses of fear and fascination in the Western psyche.  The Fool is the first card of the Major Arcana in the Tarot, evoking “beginner’s mind,” that mix of wisdom and naiveté with which we begin the spiritual path, or depending on your belief system, each new incarnation in the world (or both).

From his studies of Irish folklore, Yeats learned that among the fairies, the Queen and the Fool each share tremendous power.  A mortal may survive a “stroke” given by one of the other fairies, but nothing in heaven or earth can save you if you get on the wrong side of the Fool or the Queen.

While Europeans consigned them to ships, and later to institutions like Bedlam, some native American tribes considered their “fools” as sacred, for they had clearly been touched by the spirits.  I’m reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poem, In a Dark Time, when he says, “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”

The image of the Ship of Fools turns up in movies, music and books, most recently in Ship of Fools, 2009, by Fintan O’Toole, an Irish journalist who uses the metaphor to describe “the Irish political establishment and their self-deception regarding the economic situation in the country.”

This wanders into dangerous territory for someone on an issue-fast – it cuts too close to certain Americans seeking office – “deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction.”

So let’s adjourn to the Grateful Dead!  “Ship of Fools,” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, was first performed in 1974.  Here is an excellent clip from the 1989 summer solstice show at Shoreline Amphitheater.  Enjoy!

Went to see the captain
strangest I could find
Laid my proposition down
Laid it on the line;
I won’t slave for beggar’s pay
likewise gold and jewels
but I would slave to learn the way
to sink your ship of fools.

R.I.P. Jerry Garcia, Aug. 1, 1942 – Aug. 9, 1995

In February, 1961,, when Jerry Garcia was 18 years old, he was a passenger in a car that flew off a curve at 90 mph.  One passenger died and two others were badly injured.  Garcia was thrown into a field and sustained only a broken collarbone.  He later said, “That’s where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life. It was like a second chance. Then I got serious”

One thing he got very serious about was music, which he had practiced since early childhood.  Two months after the accident, he met Robert Hunter, a musician and poet who would become the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead.  The two of them found a local gig and made $5 each, which helped Garcia, who was living out of his car in Palo Alto.

The story I heard was that several other key members of band met in the parking lot of Palo Alto music store in 1965.  They first played as The Warlocks in a Menlo Park pizza parlor.  After learning that another group called The Warlocks had signed a record contract, Jerry Garcia picked the name, Grateful Dead by flipping open a dictionary.  There are several accounts, but according to Phil Lesh, the bass player, the definition was:  the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.

The Skull and Roses logo

For the next thirty years, the Grateful Dead were a cultural and musical phenomenon.  You pretty much loved them or hated them.  Back when Cal Expo was open, half my department at work would show up in their t-shirts and tie dye and take the afternoon off whenever the band came to town.  The other half of my co-workers would shake their heads.  At its best, a Grateful Dead show was a unique and extravagant celebration of life.

In August, 1995, Garcia, who was overweight, diabetic, and exhausted from touring, checked into rehab to detox from heroin.  Sometime in the early morning of August 9, his heart stopped beating.  He was 53 years old.

This is one of my favorite concert clips, for it hints at the joy the musicians could evoke in a crowd.  It’s from the Bill Graham Memorial Concert in Golden Gate Park in November, 1991.

I know the rent is in arrears,
Dog has not been fed in years,
It’s even worse than it appears,
But it’s all right.

Oh well a touch of gray,
Kinda suits you anyway,
That was all I had to say,
And it’s all right.