Collaboration - Journal of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother

Summer 1995, Vol. 21, No. 1

The Grateful Dead:
A special quality of energy

June 1995 was the 30th anniversary of the Grateful Dead, a rock and roll band from the San Francisco Bay area. The following excerpts describe the spiritual power of their music.
On August 9, Jerry Garcia, the band's lead guitarist, died. The Internet and print media were swamped with eulogies, reminiscences, and messages of condolence. Some of these are included in the sidebar, "Fare you well, Jerry Garcia,"on p. 26.

The Grateful Dead embody not only the cultic potentials historically inherent in rock 'n' roll, but the entire submerged linkage between rock and religion. . . . The Dead are, in short, the most complete amalgamation of music and mysticism in modern times and, perhaps, of all time. . . .

"Rolling thunder," was what critic Ralph Gleason, an early supporter of San Francisco rock, would call their sound. "A picture window onto the true landscape of the worlds hidden just behind the real one," wrote one reviewer. "Mammoth epiphanies," stammered another. What was obvious immediately about this particular rock 'n' roll band was that it wasn't a rock 'n' roll band. Not really. . . . "The Dead," remarked Musician magazine, "are a living, evolving phenomenon . . . capable of acting as channels for the special quality of energy that can transform an ordinary concert into a transcendent event." --from Stairway to Heaven: The Spiritual Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, David Seay and Mary Neely (New York: Ballatine Books, 1986)

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Sandy Troy, attorney: . . . there's a notion that when the Grateful Dead's music is in sync that you feel that you're being transported to a different place or different level of consciousness.

Nicky Scully, involved with the Grateful Dead scene since the 60s: I don't think so much that we're transported but that we expand to include much more of the possibilities and potential of life. After those experiences, one is no longer content with the ordinary or mundane. One wants to learn how to move through life with that level of consciousness, with that awareness that there is more. And my struggle was how to bring that into my ordinary reality. At concerts I would have these incredible, won derful, intense experiences of knowing, of being at one with the whole of creation, of being awakened, of tickling areas of the universe that have never been explored by human consciousness. Now how do I bring that into my daily life? How do I keep from having to be like a yo-yo, struggling with the materialism and the conflicts of day-to-day actions . . . and still maintain the memory of those experiences which are so far from the ordinary?--from One More Saturday Night, Sandy Troy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991)

Mickey Hart, one of two Grateful Dead drummers, on seeing the band for the first time in 1968 and wanting to join: It was magnificent . . . The feeling was incredible. I couldn't tell where they were going; it was so unusual. . . . I thought it had great spiritual content. Whatever hit me at that moment wasn't within the realm of logic or understanding . . . It felt like some kind of force field from another planet, some incredible energy that was driving the band and pulling you in at the same time. This was what music should be like. I knew that it was very special--not your normal entertainment fare.

Show business was no consideration. When you see something good and you know it's good, you don't have to be told in any ways but the ways that you value things.

It was prayer-like music; it wasn't music that was going into the music business.--from Conversations with the Dead, David Gans (New York: Citadel Press, 1991)

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Phil Lesh, Grateful Dead bass player: I've always felt, from the very beginning . . . that we could do something that was, not necessarily extramusical, but something where music would be only the first step. Something maybe even close to religion . . . in the sense of the actual communing. We used to say that every place we play is church.--from Conversations with the Dead , David Gans (New York: Citadel Press, 1991)

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Bob Weir, Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist: With the Dead onstage there are those moments of electricity . . . and the audience is very much a part of those moments . . . it's maybe even beyond electricity . . . just moments when everybody hears the same thing instantaneously and it becomes something very transcendental. It goes beyond emotion or intellect at that point . . . actually it's a marriage between emotion and intellect. I liken it to the Divine--really, a moment of divineness. It's real inspirational, real palpable inspiration . . . with us we strive for that moment a lot onstage. --from The Aquarian magazine, April 1978

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Jerry Garcia: When we get onstage, what we really want to happen is, we want to be transformed from ordinary players into extraordinary ones, like forces of a larger consciousness. And the audi ence wants to be transformed from whatever ordinary reality they may be in to something that enlarges them. So maybe it's that notion of transformation, a seat-of-the-pants shamanism, that has something to do with why the Grateful Dead keep pulling them in. --from Rolling Stone magazine

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David Gans, radio producer: All the other bands just turned into bands. . . . This one turned into something else . . .

Who can stop what must arrive now?
Something new is waiting to be born.

--Grateful Dead lyric by Robert Hunter

Tony Serra, attorney (model for the James Woods character in the film True Believer): The Dead are still paving new paths. That's the beauty of them. . . . Some of the riffs are musical genius, obviously. I could get into that and that would be sufficient and that would last forever. But what they are doing is something much bigger than that. What I like most is about halfway through the second set where they'll get into what I'll call non-representational content, abstract sounds, space sounds, metaphysical sounds, and I like that most of all. That's open-ended. . . . I'm totally in awe, a lost pilgrim of metaphysical realms. They guide you where you need guidance. You are taking your consciousness and handing it over, and it's shattered, like a thousand feathers and it's floating there, little pieces of your mind, feelings, sensations, and understanding. And whatever crystallizes, explodes, and it carries back to some linear form and you remember where you are, who you are, and what you are.

They are still space traveling, on the hot lip of creation in terms of musical awareness. They're doing something that no one has done before. You get the feeling that you're going into areas with them, what I would call non-representational sound, metaphoric noise, cacophony which is open in harmony. You're traveling with them and going new ways and on new paths. That's what I like.

I enjoy the sentiment and the old familiar refrains; they bring tears to your eyes, you think about old places you've been, all the people you've known, and things you've done in instant flashback. I love that, and that would be enough, but the point to be made is why they're enduring, why they're vital, why they're significant, why they're growing, why greater honors are being bestowed on them. It's because they are still paving the future direction of music . . . That's what really draws my consciousness in.--from One More Saturday Night, Sandy Troy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991)

Jerry Garcia on consciousness

The change has already happened, and it's a matter of swirling out . . . unfortunately, it's very slow, amazingly slow and amazingly difficult . . . although it's going faster now than it has ever before . . . That is to say that the news that there has been a change of consciousness on the planet and that everybody is going to get into it eventually, is slow in getting out. That's essentially it. It's still trying to get out . . . it's getting out, just here and there, just real slow.--from Garcia: A Signpost to New Space, Charles Reich and Jann Wenner (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972)

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There are bigger and better things as far as human consciousness is concerned. There's someplace to go, something to look for. I think of our audience as people who are out looking for something. We've sort of gamely stuck to those initial possibilities and maybe they pick up on that and it gives us some kind of validity . . .--from New West magazine, December 1979

My way is music. Music is me being me and trying to get higher. I've been into music so long that I'm dripping with it . . . music is a yoga, something you really do when you're doing it. Thinking about what it means comes after the fact and isn't very interesting. Truth is something you stumble into when you think you're going someplace else, like those moments when you're playing and the whole room becomes one being, precious moments, man.--Ibid.

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David Gans: . . . [This] brings to mind the book Altered States [by Paddy Chayefsky]. . . . the book was much more involved than the movie in the union of theology and science. It raises the possibility that there is much information about our history encoded in our genes.

Jerry Garcia: That's one of the things I'm interested in . . . there's been an interesting book by Michael Murphy, the Esalen guy. Jacob Atabet has to do with . . . you know how yogis are reputed to have control over their nervous system? That idea is expanded to where you have control over your whole physical shape, and that is the next moment in evolution, or whatever: that consciousness wants to be able to freely make decisions about your body. It's interesting.--from Conversations with the Dead, David Gans (New York: Citadel Press, 1991)

Fare you well, Jerry Garcia:
Friends and fans remember

The magic was real. I've gone to about 50 or 60 shows in the past eight years and watched, listened, and felt the forces which held us all together in awe. . . . Besides peace, love, and unity, the Grateful Dead stood for higher consciousness. Something Jerry taught us through the music was that there exists a higher consciousness, and his music used to bring us closer to this.--Mark Guzzardo

Favorite memory. March, 1983. The old Compton Terrace, outdoors in Tempe Arizona. The sky had been cloudy all day, and as showtime approached, a light mist began to fall, threatening to grow. The band came out, Jerry stepped up to the mike, looked at the sky, and said, "I don't know whether we're gonna get wet or not, but we're gonna try this anyway." With the first chords, the sky began to clear rapidlytill only a single cloud was left, shaped like a question mark, with the full moon as the dot. . . . We looked at that cloud, and we looked at one another, and the goose bumps raised, and we knew we were in the presence of a power. It turned out to be one of the most powerful nights of our lives.--Michael Bartlett

He could play an audience, I can tell you that for nothing. He could get all those souls rippling like waves and for a moment, a slice of heaven, we were all one. We all knew love as one, and as a million different souls. For me it was love at first . . . connection.--Les Abernathy

What Jerry knew throughout his life, and expressed through his music, is that there is a tangible, joyful, subtle, electrical energy behind this physical world that we can listen to if we try . . . This large, wonderful, gray-haired, black-shirted man in a rock-n-roll band has always been to me some one who has constantly listened to and tried to imitate in this limited world a higher "astral" music a music full of "iridescent joy" and "liquid peace."--Michael Coombs

If some part of that music
is heard in deepest dream,
or on some breeze of summer
a snatch of golden theme,
we'll know you live inside us
with love that never parts
our good old Jack O' Diamonds
become the King of Hearts.

from "An Elegy for Jerry,"

by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter