THE ONLY SONG OF GOD
This morning, I walked past the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in
From 1979 to 1989, the Grateful Dead held forth there 56 times, and I probably saw 40 of those shows.
I had never seen the grass in front of the arena deserted before, with no Deadheads kibitzing on blankets or waiting in line at booths, no wet dogs in bandanas snapping Frisbees out of the air and galloping down to lap from the muddy creek.
Instead of the high archways carved with scenes from Romantic mythology, I remembered milling craziness spilling into the street, and the lines winding around back where the limos came in, growing thicker at the doors near show time as Willie in his blue security suit kept everyone honest by preaching the gospel of soul through a megaphone.
I knocked on the front door and a custodian let me in for a few minutes to look around. I walked through the tiled lobby into the main arena, barely longer than it is wide, the light tan planks on the floor marked with black tape, an antique scoreboard dangling from the ceiling.
From the bleachers to the back wall, I counted only 11 rows of wooden flip-up seats. I was so happy to be in that room again.
In the 1950s, gospel groups like the Swan Silvertones, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Soul Stirrers, and the James Cleveland Choir used to sing in that room. Smartly dressed ushers walked the aisles wearing white gloves, so that someone who got the spirit in the middle of a number - who might stand up in their Sunday finest, testifying in tongues, and faint dead over - could be carried out into the lobby, fanned back to consciousness, and ushered back in.
In the 1980s - the golden years of my life as a Deadhead - I used to think of Kaiser as the living room of the tribe.
The Dead's annual open-air jubilees, in
drenching sun, at the Greek Theatre in
If you weren't from the Bay Area, after three or four shows at Kaiser, eventually, you'd move here. Kaiser was for lifers. It felt like home.
At shows in those years, up at the front on "the rail" where you could observe the musicians at work, the crowds could get so dense on a Saturday night that you would lose your footing. But if you relaxed, you could nearly float, like a cell in a bath of nutrient, the rhythms coming to you as a gentle push in one direction, then another.
If you left your backpack under the bleachers before the lights went out, it would still be there when the applause ended. When the lights came up again, you might see a couple in the middle of the floor who had just made love in the swirling dark, laughing, exhausted, fixing each other's hair.
It was one of the safest places in the world.
I was a suburban kid, the son of agnostic parents who believed in a healing of the world by political, rather than spiritual, means. Still, wherever I looked, the universe seemed animate and mysterious.
The Martian Chronicles, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and The Outer Limits widened the horizons of my everyday life to include the infinite. In the sixth grade, I found a copy of Richard Hittleman's 21-Day Yoga Plan in the library, lit a candle, and gazed earnestly into the flame.
I remember one afternoon when I was in high school, sitting on my best
friend's bed, listening to
After the last verse of "China Cat Sunflower," Weir took a lead over Kreutzmann's breathing, elastic time, with Godchaux's piano cascading down like droplets of silver. But it was Garcia - even out of the spotlight - who added incisive punctuations that stitched the music into a tale unfolding, and I suddenly had the sensation of riding on a locomotive, surging forward on the track.
As I grew older, the music of the Dead - especially the restless, exploratory jams that were Garcia's trademark - often provided the soundtrack for my introspection.
While the rest of the world was asleep or watching television, I'd shut my door and put on headphones, and hear seemingly ancient voices broadcast their truths, listen to each other, and respond; delighted to be part of an intimate conversation beyond what could be said in words - like eavesdropping on God's thoughts.
After I started going to see the band in places like Roosevelt Stadium and the Capitol Theatre, I learned that at Dead shows, you could allow the music to go as deeply inside you as it did when you were alone; and you could do it with those who understood, in their own way, how the music felt to you.
Sometimes I liked to turn away from the stage, so I could see how others received it. Some would listen with their eyes shut, swaying; others would gaze toward the men onstage as you would toward your oldest friend - who was about to attempt something marvelous and difficult - with a blessing look.
If Deadheads were a tribe that sought collective experience, we were also an aggregation of loners who had learned how not to bruise each other's solitude: that place where our souls, and the music, communed.
If you were tripping, the music would pour forth celestial architectures, quicksilver glistening with might-be's, cities of light at the edge of a sea of chaos, monumental forms that could be partially recollected in tranquility, and turned into designs in fabric or clay, golden sentences, streams of bits.
And some nights, the hair on the back of your neck would stand on end as a presence came into the room, given a body by the magnificent sound system. In the hallways, the Dead's own dervishes, the Spinners, would bow toward the stage, their long hair brushing the floor. Dancers raised one another up like kids in punk clubs, laughing like babies in their father's arms, or weeping.
Startled out of my reflection by some grace note of primordial majesty, I'd look up and see his fingers -
That furrow of deliberation where all else was left to drift, in the secret place where everything was waiting to be born.
days after Garcia's death, my friend Raymond Foye
and I picked up a young man hitchhiking by the roadside near Raymond's house
We wound up the road to an enormous gate, painted red, and carved with lions.
The monks knew our passenger. "You back for good this time?" one asked.
When the young man offered to guide us to the shrine room, we eagerly accepted. The rooms and hallways leading there had the orderliness of sacred space. There was a rack for shoes, so you'd enter the room barefoot.
Along the walls, bodhisattvas glowed in the shadows. I walked slowly, with my hands clasped over my heart, as my old Zen teacher had taught me. With each step, I felt the cool floor against the soles of my feet.
I turned toward the front of the room. There in the dim light, an enormous Buddha, painted gold, sat in the erect, relaxed posture of contemplative alertness, like a mountain in a dream.
I walked up and made a full prostration, my forehead touching the floor, my palms upraised.
On the altar, there was an oil lamp lit, with a white card beside it. It read:
Sometimes it seems we have little greatness left to us to praise. Our leaders are liar or comedians, and our priests, like teenagers, have a hard time interpreting their own desires, much less the Passion of Christ.
Yet I'm confident that the Grateful Dead were truly great, by which I mean, were able to abide some portion of mystery, and allow it to come through them without naming it or taking too much pride in it, or appropriating its surface aspects as a pose or strategy.
Look at the shaman, standing in his once-living robe, holding up a drum, blazed on the walls of caves all over the Earth. The rock and roll fop, pursing his lips under the pastel lights, is a bare flicker over this image, graven in the back of our minds as surely as if it had been carved in the skull-cup of bone by a hand.
The image says: Drums are doors or vehicles, voices bear messages to the threshold of Heaven, and sliding or flatted notes are blue highways between this world and the other.
I once asked Garcia how it came to be that a young bluegrass banjo and guitar player with a taste for the blues and R&B had found, in the company of kindred spirits, a road back to the collective experience of music as mystery.
We didn't plan it out that way, he said, it just happened, like an escalator appearing in front of our eyes. We had a choice at the beginning, to get on, or not.
That was all.
I remember standing on a train platform after a show, when I heard a freight pass heavy on the rails, the couplings and wheels clattering with a lurching, quirky grandeur that was familiar.
Then I remembered: it was the rhythm of "Ramble on Rose."
For all I know, Garcia might have had the ghost of another tune in mind when he wrote it, or pulled it out of the air - but it was the American air, of boxcars passing (with Jack Kerouac's little St. Theresa hobo shivering inside) through towns with names like Gaviota, Las Cruces and Wichita.
No pomp and circumstance for us Yankees, but hard luck and a little grace - our own raw melodies sent up with the drafts of a campfire - rippling the moon in the corner of a fiddler's eye.
One night at Kaiser, after a delicate, shimmering jam that threaded out of "Estimated Prophet," Willie Green of the Neville Brothers joined the drummers onstage.
Mickey Hart moved from the traps to the berimbau to the Beam, an instrument he helped invent: a ten-foot aluminum girder strung with piano wire tuned to extremely low pitches, designed to launch huge standing waves into very large rooms, to shiver bones and make the walls of a coliseum tremble.
As the drummers faced one another, the tidal resonances of the Beam rippled through the floorboards, ebbing in a series of descending pitches that sounded then, to me, like the root of all music.
I felt my knees weaken under me. My palms came together as if of their own volition, and I dropped to the floor.
I didn't need to know or name what called me to make that full prostration. I only needed a place to do it that was safe, a place where I felt at liberty, so that inner life and outer life could come together.
The root of the verb "to heal" means "to make whole."
That's why the Grateful Dead were medicine men: the music, and the collective energy of Deadheads, together, helped heal the sickness of existence. To those blinded by habit was conveyed sight, and the lame were made - a little less lame.
A black muddy river of amrita flowed through Grateful Dead land.
Though from the outside, Garcia had an enviable life, he - like all of us - had to learn to make himself at home among many contradictions. (He once said, "I live in a world without a Grateful Dead.")
An intensely humble and private man, his art earned him the kind of fame that plastered his face on bumper stickers. Branded for the duration of his career in the media by the decade in which he came of age, he sometimes seemed most at home picking the tunes of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and Clarence Ashley played for decades before anyone had heard of the Haight-Ashbury. For someone whose craft helped so many people rediscover the pleasures of having a body, Garcia seemed to only grudgingly acknowledge his own.
And while Deadheads tapped a seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of good news in his music, Garcia himself had endured several of life's great tragedies, including witnessing the death of his father by drowning, and the loss of a finger. (The luminous tracks on American Beauty were recorded during a period of daily trips with his brother Tiff to San Francisco General, to visit their mother, Ruth, who had sustained injuries in a car accident that turned out to be fatal.)
A witty and engaging conversationalist, of cosmopolitan interests and encyclopedic reference, Garcia must have realized that his social contacts were becoming increasingly circumscribed by his heroin habit, which he once referred to as a "buffer."
Garcia had made of his instrument a means for direct expression of his soul. In the last year of his life - as his buffer became an adversary to his art, his nimbleness became a thing lost, and the lyrics no longer arrived - the pain was audible in his music.
Last spring, when I asked a mutual friend how the sessions for the new album were going, he said that Jerry was uncommunicative, unkempt, and not playing well. I asked him if Garcia's behavior had any emotional coloration.
"Yeah," he said - "Do Not Disturb."
For the last year, I'd been reassuring panicky young Deadheads online that the rumors were suddenly everywhere - that the Summer Tour would be the Dead's last - were untrue.
The venues for '96, I'd been told, had already been booked.
But the mind at large knew better. The universe that set Garcia up as a medicine man in an age thirsting for mystery would not let him exit without the thunderclaps, lighting and palls of doom that Shakespeare brought down on the heads of a tattered kings and his clown.
At four in the morning on August 9th , Maureen Hunter stirred sleepless beside her husband, Robert. Garcia had telephoned the Hunters a day or so earlier, to thank Robert for all the songs they'd written together, and also to say, with unusual explicitness, that he loved him.
Maureen got up and walked into the kitchen where a breeze was blowing through an open window. She bolted the window, looked in on her daughter, and returned to bed.
A few miles away, a staffer at Serenity Knolls paused outside Garcia's room, not hearing the snoring she'd heard earlier. He entered the room, and found Garcia in bed, his heart stopped, smiling.
Part of the joy in being a Deadhead was in wedding yourself to a story that was longer than your life.
When I was writing my essay "Who Was Cowboy Neal?" I began to think of the surging improvised section of "Cassidy" as a place where Neal Cassady's spirit was invited to visit the living. Like Garcia, Neal had been a hero to many, but to himself, a man - fighting a man's struggles beside the titans whose footsteps echoed in those jams that I never wanted to end.
When the chords said look within, we trusted Garcia to ride point for us, to be the headlight on the northbound train, behind which we were grateful to follow. Each of his discoveries was greeted with recognition. He'd taken us someplace new again, but a place we felt we were fated to go, because Jack's words in On the Road - about burning "like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars" - had spoken directly to us, the lucky ones; the ones who found the stone, the old stone in the American wilderness that marks the way.
And when we arrived in that place we were born to seek, all our brothers and sisters were there.
So now, the story is over.
As prophesied, Soon you will not hear his voice.
But it is not so.
There's an old Zen tale of two patch-robed monks, students of the same master, who meet, years after his death, on a footbridge over a foaming river.
Seeing one another again, the two old friends laugh aloud.
"Do you miss our old teacher?" asks the one.
"No, now I see him everywhere," answers the other.
For it was our love that wedded us to the ancient story, our love the music called to in the words of a poet, Scheherazade's tale of the Many Thousand Nights that included us, in which real moonlight fell on imaginary waters.
The same moon that Neal Cassady saw in the
The last time the Dead played at Cal Expo - a small outdoor venue outside
It was hot and still, but I knew that at the end of the path that runs behind the stage, there was a swimming pool, where you could still hear the music perfectly.
There was no one else there. I stripped, lowered myself into the water, and looked up at the stars, my mind roaming in the constellations as I floated on the music.
Onstage, Garcia had come home to that little place that he and Hunter made, that he loved so much, "Stella Blue." How slowly the world seemed to turn around us in the night as he played it, night after night.
When he came to the line, "I've stayed in every blue-light cheap hotel, can't win for tryin'," I took a breath and plunged, down into the silence, the drifting where I once heard my mother's heart beat.
And back up, breaking the surface just as the moon and stars shone through the strings of a broken angel's guitar.
Friend, when I meet you on the bridge in 10,000 years, please remind me that our teacher's voice is in the wash of muddy river water over the ancient stones, and in the dancing light at the edge, where a fiddler calls the tune and we rejoin the great circle.
For the universe is full of secrets that gradually reveal themselves, but there is not enough time. Barely time for a song to praise this place where we found each other, and pass back into the "transitive nightfall of diamonds," the beautiful melodies and suffering in the meat yearning for transformation - the only song of God.
[This essay originally appeared in Dupree's Diamond News, 1995. Design by Jurgen Fauth. Used by permission of the author]