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!

The Legacy of Joseph Campbell on

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell filmed a groundbreaking series that opened the world of myth, story, and folklore to a large audience.   The Power of Myth series was completed in 1987, shortly before Campbell died at the age of 83.  It aired the following year on PBS, and you still sometimes find it replayed during pledge drives.  The companion DVD set and book are still in print.

To commemorate this anniversary, Moyers has loaded podcasts of the first two sessions – “The Hero’s Adventure,” and “The Message of Myth” on his website.

If you’ve never seen this series – or even if you have – grab some popcorn and fire it up on your largest monitor.  This wonderful introduction to key stories from around the world was filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.  Lucas was a serious student of Campbell, who structured the first Starwars trilogy around the hero myth.

Almost anything I have to say about myth and folklore is influenced by Campbell.  In these final interviews, he distills a lifetime of study into a clear but powerful series of tales and observations that forever changes one’s view of the great stories of humankind.

The Wasteland

One of the books I treasure is a battered old trade paperback with yellowing pages.  I value the book,  Creative Mythology, because of the author’s inscription: “For Morgan with all my good wishes. Joseph Campbell, 3/13/79.”  

Joseph Cambell

You could say Campbell’s  four day lecture series that spring did much to open the path my imagination has followed ever since.  None of the stories Campbell unpacked in his lectures or books affected me more than Parzifal (or Parsifal) and his quest for the holy grail. The version of the grail story Campbell recounts is by Wolfram Von Eshenbach (1170 – 1220).  Wolfram was a German knight and poet, and his Parzivalis regarded as one of the finest medieval German epics.  Campbell looks to this version because it’s roots reach deeper than later Christianized versions where only the pious and chaste Galahad can attain the grail.  What matters for this post are those echoes we can see in the tale of the ancient legends of sacred kingship, and the ways an unfit or weakened king can blight the land.

Wolfram Von Eshenbach from Codex Manasse

Sometimes in youth we receive a vision or powerful experience that shapes much of the rest of our lives.  So it is with Parzival who finds his way to the mystical Grail Castle and meets its wounded king, Anfortas,  who is also known as The Fisher King.  As a young knight, a spear pierced the Fisher King’s “thighs” – a euphemism for testicles according to Campbell.  In ancient times, the virility of the king and the fertility of the land were one.  In the grail stories, Fisher King could not be healed and couldn’t die.  All the realm was barren.

Robin Williams as the Fisher King in the 1991 movie of that name, a contemporary retelling of the story

While in the castle, during a mysterious ritual, Parzival has a vision of the grail, which is described as a stone, though its shape isn’t fixed, and it brings everyone “what their heart most desires.”  Though he is intensely curious, Parzival does not ask the meaning of what he sees.  In the morning, the castle is empty.  All traces of life are gone.  He rides away, and when he tells his story, listeners turn away in disgust.  If Parzival had asked the right question, he would have healed the king and restored the land.    The young knight wanders the blighted realm for 20 year, enduring hardships and contemplating his failure.  Just like us, he watches time turn his youthful dreams of glory to ashes.

“Parsifal” by Odilon Redon

At last, one cold Christmas Eve, Parzival encounters a hermit, tells his tale, and learns the question he should have asked. After that, he achieves the castle again.  When the ritual ends, Parzival asks, “Whom does the grail serve?”   Everything hinges on asking the right question.  Anfortas is healed, spring returns, and Parzival becomes the new Grail King.


Hearing this old tale, we have to ask how the story plays forward.  “Wasteland” clearly describes the state of the world we read about in the papers, and “impotent” seems an apt description of most of the world’s governments.  This perception is not even new, for T.S. Eliot named it ninety years ago in his poem, The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.

Giving mythical weight to our latest headlines, storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade says: “Like Parsifal, the modern world has awakened from a deep sleep to find that the castle of abundance has disappeared, that the financial markets are in ruins, that blind religious beliefs are once again producing mindless crusades, and that great nature itself threatens to become a barren wilderness. Like Parsifal, we failed to ask the right questions when surrounded by abundance.” From “Parsifal, the Pathless Path, and the Secret of Abundance,” first published in Parabola, Fall 2009.

This has happened before, again and again, Meade reminds us – beginnings and endings, decay and renewal.  The castle of abundance waits for us, individually and collectively, somewhere in the wilderness, but old pathways won’t take us there.  There’s a time to do as Parsifal did – drop the reins and let the horse, an image of our instinctive wisdom, pick its way through the forest. The old stories were told in the winter, when the nights were long and the fires warm.  This winter, I am drawn to look at some of these tales, to see what they are still whispering to our souls, for they are wiser than the daily ephemera that passes for wisdom but is really the source of our confusion.

As Michael Meade puts it: “Despite the current confusions of dogmatic religions and the literalism common to modern attitudes, the earthly world has always been a manifestation of the divine. Call it the Grail Castle, the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana, the Otherworld; it has many names and each is a representation of the eternal realm that secretly sustains the visible world. When time seems to be running out it is not simply more time that is needed, rather it is the touch of the eternal that can heal all time’s wounds and renew life from its source.”

“The Grail Quest Begins” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry