Monday, June 8, 2015

We'll Get There, Vol. 6: Close Encounters

50 Years Dead

In the divisive world of the Grateful Dead, nothing is likely more controversial than one Robert Hall Weir. And while I've for the most part stood on the other side of the fence, by now I've more or less made my peace with Bobby. So I enjoyed the recent documentary on his life, The Other One. I didn't expect anything revelatory, though I felt it did a pretty good job capturing the man within the confines of the medium. But it should be no surprise that others were less satisfied, feeling the movie should've emphasized certain aspects they feel are more essential, based on their perspective or preference. They're not wrong, but the filmmakers wanted to tell a different story, focusing on his search for family among other things. 

The most significant tidbits I took from the film were Bobby's comments on Neal Cassady, and subsequent ponderings on the impact he had on the band's music. Cassady is a slippery character, the hero of On the Road, a Merry Prankster, and inspiration for the song the Other One. Without knowing much about him, he seemed like a charismatic trickster type, a guy who lived life on the edge until he went over it. In the film Bobby characterizes Cassady as having a "multi-dimensional" quality, which he describes as the ability to be in multiple places at the same time, or to live multiple lives simultaneously. What the hell does that mean? He also discusses Cassady's unique communication abilities, which I've heard others describe similarly. According to Bobby, Cassady had the ability to carry out multiple conversations within a group of people simultaneously. That is to say, he would speak one sentence to a group, and it would mean something different to each person, carrying on unique conversations with each person at the same time. Each phrase was received in a unique way by each person. If it's hard to conceive, that's because it's hard to describe. I can't imagine a single sentence that would have multiple significant meanings to each person within a group. 

Let's compare Cassady's communication style to music in general, and the music of the Grateful Dead in particular. If we can agree that music is a type of language, you may say that it is less specific than actual syntax, but that is arguable. Languages and words may speak to the cognitive parts of our minds, but music may communicate specific messages to the emotional, spiritual, creative, etc, parts of our self. Much like Cassady, the musicians in the Grateful Dead, at least when they accessed certain states of consciousness, were each having multiple conversations with one another simultaneously. Jerry was saying something unique to each one of the other members of the band with every note he played, and they were as well to him and each other. Multiple simultaneous conversations within the music. At times, it sounded like cacophony, but when it all clicked together a pattern would appear in the chaos, with all the instruments weaving around each other in a musical fractal.

 And the music would come together as a whole, undoubtedly with particular instruments sticking out more than others depending on each listeners' perception. At these times, the music would communicate something very specific to me, send me a message, trigger a memory, take me on a journey through my psyche. Meanwhile, in a stadium, there would be thousands of other people simultaneously having a similar experience. During these moments, there may be a spontaneous eruption in the audience. "The music is speaking directly to me!" Well, it is, but it isn't. Or it is, but it is also doing the same thing to many other people at the same time. Much like Cassady.

If you've been there, maybe you have some inkling of what I'm talking about. The moments when the band breaks through, and seems to be speaking some ultimate truth that connects us through the ages, helps us access a deeper part of ourselves, feel a connection with humanity or a higher power, and be fully present in the moment. If you think this sounds delusional, consider what else Bobby said regarding hallucinating while playing at the Acid Tests: (paraphrasing) 'it was beyond ESP, we were seeing through each others eyes, hearing through their ears.' I'll have what he's having.

As for "multi-dimensionality," Bobby seems to be describing the concept I understand to be non-duality. In mystic spiritual traditions, non-duality is the state most practitioners aspire to. Basically it entails a loss of individual consciousness or separation from all that is other. There is no distinction between self and other, all are one. Non-duality is a pretty fancy way of saying oneness, isn't it? It can also be described as overcoming the distinction between the spiritual world and the physical world, between the Individual and God.

It sounds similar to what mythologist Joseph Campbell had to say after attending his first Grateful Dead concert: "It doesn't matter what the name of the God is, or whether its 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."

So did Cassady function in a non-dual state? He didn't seem to be a particularly spiritually oriented being, but that itself is not a requirement for access to non-dual consciousness. In fact, spiritual practice may be an obstacle to overcome in achieving non-duality. For example, Kashmir Shavism believes there are three misconceptions to overcome to access non-duality. The first is the illusion that each person occupies a specific point in space - that one is located only "here" rather than being simultaneously "everywhere." The second misconception is that there are objects and beings separate from oneself - there is a self and there is everything else outside the self. The third misconception is that one must do something to fix the first two problems, such as meditate, pray, etc. The first two are illusions, as we have never actually been separated from the true nature of reality, so there is no need to do anything about it. We are already there, but just don't know it. Did Cassady somehow awaken to this ultimate reality, and find himself functioning in a non-dual state? And is this why people spoke of him with such awe inspiring yet ambiguous terms? Similarly in describing the Dead's music, it has an incredible power that is difficult to describe without falling into cliche. But once in a while, cliches are reality if we look at them right.

I've said more than I've wanted to say in attempting to address a subject that is beyond the scope of this space. Enjoy the latest volume of WGT. Previous volumes are available on the blog.
We're half-way there, yet peering over the edge. See you all on the other side. Let's wrap this intro up with Jerry singing the Maker:

Disc Six: Close Encounters

The band's sound just continues to get bigger, and here they are in full on arena rock band mode.  The amps are all turned up to 11, mounds of coke backstage have been plundered, groupies have been groped, TV's have been thrown off balconies, and why not?  Sure Jerry, go ahead, have another corn dog.  The band was on top of the world, what could go wrong?...  This disc plays nicely as a second set and encore from the era.  I'd recommend putting it on at sunset.

1.       Take a Step Back – Dick's Picks 33.  The Take a Step Back chant appears frequently throughout Grateful Dead history, usually good fun, except for those getting crushed up front.  I would be remiss to not include a version in this set. Take a step back! Take a step back! Take a step back from what? From your mind, man. Check it out.

2.       Samson & Delilah – Dick's Picks 33.  This version has got everything you're looking for with this song.  It starts with the thunderous dual drummers.  Then there's that triumphant, wailing Garcia guitar riff, similar to the one heard previously in St. Stephen, and later in Throwing Stones.  I can't say if this is one of the best versions of the song, but it gets cookin'.

3.       Meet the Jones Gang – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  Just some fun banter from Phil.  A shame they stopped speaking to the crowd much in later years, as it's fun to hear their personalities, and the looseness of it all.

4.       Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  Yes, this is the classic version from the most notorious show in Grateful Dead lore, Cornell '77.  The band is locked in, throwing the gauntlet down from the get go.  But it's Phil's bass, and whatever effect he is using, that really puts this version over the edge.  Both of these tunes are also great examples of the Grateful Dead sound/bounce.  Jerry said he based Scarlet on Paul Simon's Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard, and you can hear some rhythmic and melodic similarities, but it doesn't have the crispness that Julio has.  As for Fire, it's the Grateful Dead take on reggae: bright and bubbly.  Put them together and you've got, along with China>Rider, a quintessential Grateful Dead duo. It's 26 minutes of pure ecstasy.  Strap your headphones on, dim the lights, light some incense, take your pants off, and push play

5.       Stella Blue – So Many Roads.  This version, from 4/28/78, does a good job of showing how the Dead's sound changed since the previous version of this song on disc 4, recorded in '73.  They sound more like an arena rock band here.  A significant difference is likely that Mickey was back in the fold.  In addition, they probably were a more popular band, playing larger venues.  Something is lost, but something also is gained.  The mellow subtleties have been turned up a few notches.  At the beginning, the band is not all quite on the same page.  But later, when the intensity is ratcheted up, holy shit.  The jam at the end is just rapturous.  The lonesome campfire song of the cosmic cowboy riding the psychedelic freeway out west.

6.       King Solomon's Marbles Jam – Blues for Allah Outtakes.  Just a quick little jam of the Dead working out this complex Phil-penned tune.

7.       Close Encounters – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  This is just Jerry noodling away, solo, from January '78.  The movie had just been released a few months prior, and the band and audience were surely big fans.  Imagine being in the audience tripping your face off, hearing Jerry riff on this piece of inter-species communication.  You'd be pretty sure he was an alien.  Maybe he was.  There really is no better explanation for his genius.

8.       St. Stephen – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  Seamlessly segueing out of Close Encounters, St. Stephen comes slamming along with Jerry rockin' the main riff solo rather than playing the delicate intro.  The rest of the band eventually joins in unison.  The first time I heard the transition into St. Stephen I remember saying "wow" out loud.  It was probably 1992 or 1993, and I was driving in my parents' station wagon down Sheridan Road north of Evanston, IL, listening to the Grateful Dead hour with David Gans.  What a kind motherfucker.  It still is one of the most stunning things I've ever heard the Dead do.  The rest of this version of St. Stephen is unremarkable, maybe a little sloppy, loose at the edges, but fun nonetheless.

9.       Sugar Magnolia – Good Ole Grateful Dead.  A fun and well extended version, clocking in at over 11 minutes.  One of Bob's finest tunes.  Like China Cat, another song that makes me feel like tripping balls out in the sweet summer sun.  They really let this one build, until they're fully locked and loaded, Bob not starting the first verse until after three minutes.  This was both Duane Allman's and Bill Graham's favorite Dead tune.  Who would I be to tell them they're wrong?  Some grooving country rock, with big peaks at the end.  Rock star Bob in full effect, spitting on the crowd, spinning around, strutting to the edge of the stage, doing his little leg kicks.  If you put your pants back on after the Scarlet>Fire, take them off.   Fuck yeah, boogie on!

10.   Brokedown Palace – Garcia Tapes.   This version is from 5/18/77, 10 days after the Cornell Scarlet>Fire.  Just a kind fuckin' tune played really well.  The whole band is restrained and in sync.  Even Donna tones things down for some nice harmonizing.  A perfect encore after a long night of tripping, an organic landing pad, and a chance to catch your breath before stepping back into the "real world."  But certainly a song that could also be of comfort to anyone staring at the walls, living out the dark night of the soul.  A tune to let you know that you are not alone, others have been through this too, you are part of this mystifying cycle of nature that will keep on spinning, and that music can help get you through the pain.  A song of redemption.  Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.

I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone. - Vonnegut