retrospect, the Grateful Dead experience, circa 1969 and later, was
nothing shy of a contemporary revival of the ancient Gnostic Mystery
School tradition. The roots of the western mystery tradition were
evidenced in the occult movements of Late Antiquity,
Roman-Hellenistic religions which in turn claimed to originate in
ancient Egypt, Chaldea, Persia or other parts of the ancient world.
Through their use of ancient archetypical symbols such as the scull
and the rose, their improvisational musical sensibilities and their
poetic lyrical genius, the Dead were the heir apparent to these
archaic traditions. In this sense, the Dead could best… and quite possibly only… be
explained through direct, first-hand knowledge or Gnosis.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell had
this to say concerning the Grateful Dead…
“And what is it?
The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of
course. This energy and these terrific instruments with electric
things that zoom in... 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.”
The Dionysian Mysteries were a
ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other
trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove
inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to
return to a natural state. This description of the ancient
mysteries, which were observed from as early as 500 BCE, is
exceedingly consistent with the experience of a Grateful Dead
concert of the late 20th century.
The groundwork for the mystical
component that was a Grateful Dead concert had been laid in the
1960s, as the band (then known as The Warlocks) performed as the
house band for LSD-fueled parties hosted by Oregon author Ken Kesey,
which would later evolve into prototypical multimedia shows known as
the Acid Tests. Kesey was made famous by authoring One Flew over
the Cuckoo’s Nest, in 1962 and Sometimes a Great Notion
in 1964. Kesey was made infamous by travelling cross-country in a
day-glow painted school bus named “Furthur” on expedition from the
west coast to the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC.
Kesey’s “trip” to New York and
back was instrumental in developing the mythos of the Merry
Pranksters, Kesey’s cohorts or “partners in crime” of the era. The
Pranksters created the Acid Tests to further expand the
experimentation that began while on Furthur. In the vernacular of
Kesey and the Pranksters, you were either on the bus, or off the
bus. Although the Dead remained close friends with Kesey et
al, they soon developed their own unique and epic scene that was
best described to the uninitiated by using the simple statement
(code)... "there's nothing like a Grateful Dead show."
As the 70's disco fury faded,
the Dead's stage performances evolved into Rock-n-Roll ritual.
Patterns emerged in the chaos. First sets were typically comprised
of what might be described as "standard" tunes, where the form or
structure of each song was handled in a traditional manner. First
sets were fun, but they were not what the audience came to
experience. Second sets were improvisational free-for-alls where one
tune would segue... melt might be a more precise term... into the
next, in a seamless, masterful, seemingly effortless movement.
And right smack in the middle of
the jam... rising up... rattling one's rib-cage... like a primordial
neolithic Shamanic rite... menacing, yet inviting... intoxicating...
rising up... the great Pan emerging from Arcadia to the drum beat
that was... The Rhythm Devils. Yeah that was
If this is sounding a little too
crazy... for those of you not familiar
with the Grateful Dead... some perspective. Here is a very short history of the band...
Considered by many to
be the heart and soul of the band, Jerry Garcia played with a
number of acts between 1960 and 1965 before finding musicians
Bill Kreutzman, Bob Weir, Ron Mckernan and Phil Lesh, who would
become the Warlocks original lineup. They finally stumbled on
the phrase Grateful Dead in a randomly opened dictionary. The
words referred to a genre of folktales in which a Good Samaritan
arranges for the burial of a penniless stranger. At some point
later, the Samaritan encounters life-threatening peril and is,
himself, aided by the spirit of the man he helped bury, hence
Dead lived at 710 Ashbury Street, and became synonymous with the
1967 Summer of Love cultural movement centered in the San
Francisco Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The group took influences
from all over -- rock, country, folk and blues -- and forged a
The group's mission
statement as voiced by Garcia in 1967: "We're trying to make
music in such a way that it doesn't have a message for anybody.
We don't have anything to tell anybody. We don't want to change
anybody. We want people to have the chance to feel a little
better. That's the absolute most we want to do with our music.
The music that we make is an act of love and act of joy...we're
not telling [anybody] to go get stoned, or drop out.... We are
trying to make things groovier for everybody so more people can
feel better more often, to advance the trip, to get higher -
however you want to say it - but we're musicians and there's
just no way to put the idea 'save the world' into music."
As the band, and its
sound, matured over thirty years of touring, playing, and
recording, each member's stylistic contribution became more
defined, consistent, and identifiable. Lesh, who was originally
a classically-trained trumpet player with an extensive
background in music theory, did not tend to play traditional
blues-based bass forms, but opted for more melodic, symphonic
and complex lines, often sounding like a second lead guitar.
Weir, too, was not a traditional rhythm guitarist, but tended to
play jazz-influenced, unique inversions at the upper end of the
Dead's sound. The two drummers, Mickey Hart and Kreutzman,
developed a unique, complex interplay, balancing Kreutzman's
steady beat with Hart's interest in percussion styles outside
the rock tradition. Hart incorporated an 11-count measure to his
drumming, bringing a new dimension to the band's sound that
became an important part of its emerging style. Garcia's lead
lines were fluid, supple and spare, owing a great deal of their
character to his training in fingerpicking and banjo. His
improvisational lead guitar style, in the tradition of jazz
pioneers such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, opened up the
Band's overall expressive presentation, allowing for extensive
Of historical note is the Band's
practice of allowing fans to tape performances. Over the years, as
the Dead's touring protocol evolved, the Band provided a "tapers
section" at concerts where industrious individuals set up
elaborate, state-of-the-art recording equipment. This allowed fans
the opportunity to "capture the magic" that was a Grateful Dead
performance... on tape... and distribute the recordings free of any
royalty fee. This practice pre-dated and pioneered the "peer to
peer" state of our modern day music industry.
For thirty years, the Grateful
Dead created a musical space that transcended entertainment. The
Dead's concerts became a traveling tabernacle for the Deadheads, as
the band's followers were known. The dynamic songwriting team of
Hunter (lyrics) & Garcia (music) as well as Barlow & Weir provided
fans with a wonderful musical tapestry of imagery and emotion that
imparted reflection and contemplation... and hence expanding the
opportunity for internal processing. The experience of attending a
Deadshow provided context to the crazy world that was the final
third of the twentieth century.
And now... on to selected
excerpts from the Book of the Dead...
of the Dead according to Phil
Blue light rain, whoa, unbroken chain.
Looking for familiar faces in an empty window pane.
Listening for the secret, searching for the sound...
But I could only hear the preacher and the baying of his hounds.
Willow sky, whoa, I walk and wonder why?
love your brother but you will catch it when you try.
Roll you down the line boy, drop you for a loss...
Ride out on a cold railroad and nail you to a cross.
"Unbroken Chain" - B. Peterson & P. Lesh
What do you want me to do? To do for
you… To see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through.
box of rain… wind and water…
Believe it if you need it, if you don't just pass it on.
Sun and shower… Wind and rain…
In and out the window like a moth before a flame.
It's just a box of rain… I don't
know who put it there…
Believe it if you need it or leave it if you dare…
But it's just a box of rain or a ribbon for your hair…
Such a long-long time to be gone and a short time to be there.
"Box of Rain" - R. Hunter & P. Lesh
Passenger... Don't you hear
Destination... seen unclearly...
What is a man...
Deep down inside?
But a raging beast... with nothing to hide!
Upside out... or inside down.
False alarm... the only game in town.
No man's land... the only game in town.
The only game in town.
from "Passenger" -
Phil Lesh & Peter Monk
of the Dead according to Bobbie
My time coming, any day... don't worry
bout me, no...
It's gonna be just like they say... them voices tell me so.
Seems so long I felt this way and time sure passin' slow...
My time coming, any day, don't worry about me, no...
Don't worry about me... no, no... don't
worry about me, no...
California!.. A prophet on the burning
California... I'll be knocking on the golden door.
Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light... rising up to
paradise... I know I'm gonna shine...
You've all been asleep! You would not
Them voices telling me... you will soon receive me!
We're standing on the beach,
will part before me!
(Fire wheel burning in the air)
And you will follow me... and we will rise to glory!
(Way up the middle of the air)
And I'll call down thunder and speak
And my word fills the sky with flame!
And might and glory gonna be my name!
And men gonna light my way...
J.P. Barlow & R. Weir
Then God way up in heaven,
for whatever it was worth,
Thought He'd have a
big old party, thought He'd call it planet
Don't worry about tomorrow, Lord, you'll know it
when it comes,
When the rock and rollin' music meets the risin'
Hey, u-huh... One more
more Saturday night" -
When that wind
blows... And the darkness starts to fall... I can hear the sirens
It's a certain sort of sound... In the rain fallin' down...
Rain fallin down...
Holes in what's left of my reason... Holes in the knees of my blues,
Odds against me been increasin'... But I'll pull through.
Never could read no road map... And I don't know what the weather might
But hear that witch wind whinin'... See that
Dog Star shinin'... I've got a feelin' there's no time to lose...
No time to lose!
J.P. Barlow & R. Weir
Yet sometimes at night I dream…
He's still that hairy man.
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse and wandering the land.
Apocalypse... and wandering the land.
Esau holds a
Brother Esau bears a curse.
I would say that the blame is mine, but I suspect it's
The more my brother looks like me, the less I understand...
The silent war that bloodied both our hands.
Sometimes at night, I think I understand.
It's brother to brother and it's man to man
And it's face to face and it's hand to hand...
We shadow-dance... the silent war within.
The shadow-dance, it
Never ends, never ends.
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse, yet again...
And wandering the land.
"My Brother Esau" -
J.P. Barlow & R. Weir
Some folks trust in
Reason…others trust in might.
I don't trust in nothing... but I know it comes out right.
Say it once again now... Whoa, I hope you understand.
When it's done and over... lord, a man is just a man.
Playin... playin in
Daybreak... daybreak on the land...
And if a man among you... got no sin
upon his hand.
Let him cast a stone at me for playing in the band.
"Playin' in the Band" -
J.P. Barlow & R. Weir
Shipping powders back and
forth... black goes south and white comes north.
In a whole world full of petty wars... Singing I
got mine and you got yours.
And the current fashion sets the pace... Lose
your step, fall out of grace.
the radical, he rant and rage... Singing
someone's got to turn the page.
And the rich man in his summer home... Singing
just leave well enough alone.
But his pants are down, his cover's blown...
And the politicians throwin'
So the kids they dance and shake their bones...
cause it's all too clear we're on our own.
Singing ashes, ashes... all fall down.
Ashes, ashes, all fall
"Throwing Stones" -
J.P. Barlow & R. Weir
of the Dead according to
Well the first days are the hardest
don't you worry anymore.
Cause when life looks like easy street...
there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me.
Let me know your mind.
Wo-oah, what I want to know...
is... are you kind?
from "Uncle John's
Band" - R. Hunter & J. Garcia
Let my inspiration flow in token lines suggesting rhythm...
that will not forsake me till my tale is told and done.
While the firelight's aglow... strange shadows in the
flames will grow...
till things we've never seen will seem familiar...
~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Move me brightly.
Light the song with sense and
color, hold away despair.
More than this I will not ask... faced with mysteries dark and vast.
Statements just seem vain at last.
Some rise... some fall... some climb... to get to
from "Terrapin Station" - R.
Hunter & J. Garcia
There is a road, no simple highway.
Between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.
In still water.
When there is no pebble tossed Nor wind to blow.
You who choose to lead must follow.
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.
from "Ripple" - R. Hunter &
Stephen with a
rose... In and out of the garden he goes.
Country garland in the
wind and the rain... Wherever he goes the people
Stephen prosper in his time... Well he may
and he may decline.
Did it matter? does it now? Stephen would answer
if he only knew how.
Wishing well with a golden
bell... Bucket hanging clear to
Hell halfway twixt now and then... Stephen fill
it up and lower down...
And lower down again.
Stephen" - R. Hunter & J. Garcia
In another time's forgotten space...
your eyes looked through your mother's face.
Wildflower seed on the sand and stone... may the four winds
blow you safely home.
Roll away... the dew . . .
Some come to laugh their past away... Some come to
make it just one more day.
Whichever way your pleasure tends... if you plant ice, you're going to
Roll away... the dew . . .
Tower" - R. Hunter & J. Garcia
Went to see the captain, strangest I
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggars pay, likewise
gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to
ship of fools.
It was later than I thought when I
first believed you,
Now I cannot share your laughter, ship of fools.
~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The bottles stand as empty, as they
were filled before.
Time there was and plenty, but from that cup no more.
Though I could not caution all, I still might warn a few:
lend your hand to raise no
flag atop no ship of fools.
Ship of fools... on a cruel sea, ship
of fools... sail away from me.
It was later than I thought, when I first believed you,
Now I cannot share your laughter,
ship of fools...
"Ship of Fools" - R. Hunter & J. Garcia
There comes a
redeemer... and he slowly too fades away.
There follows a wagon behind him that's loaded with clay.
and the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom and decay
The night comes so quiet... and it's close on the heels of the
Wake up to find out that you are the
eyes of the World.
Sometimes we live no particular way
but our own.
Sometimes we visit your country and live in your home.
Sometimes we ride on your horses... Sometimes we walk alone.
Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.
from "Eyes of
the World" - R. Hunter & J. Garcia
See here how everything... lead up to
and it's just like any other day
that's... ever been
Sun goin up and then... the sun it goin down
Shine through my window... and my friends they come
come around... come
Peter" - R. Hunter & J. Garcia
Haiku of the