Dude, Garcia Looked Right At Me—I’m Awesome!

Damn, who's he looking at now?

Long ago, a hundred bad haircuts into my Jurassic past, I regularly attended Grateful Dead concerts. I went to a lot of them, because for me and a zillion other fervid fans, the Dead could get us off, riding a mass-mind and bouncing-body electric-rhythm rocket, unlike any other band. When the the Dead were crackling, they had the audience bonded in an escalating excitement of communal glee. Sure, it might have been the acid, but I actually was courageous enough to occasionally attend Dead concerts where I didn’t take acid, and that you-had-to-be-there effect was still pronounced: a shared sense of good times and collective conviviality that seems completely corny when I try to describe it now.

One of the amusing side notes of being among the ragged clowns that tagged after the Dead train was that during one of Jerry Garcia’s piquant, extended guitar noodlings, there would invariably be among the crowd of bliss kittens a guy who would turn, a Saul at Damascus look in his eyes, and gush to whomever was listening, “Jerry, looked right at me! We connected, man! Did you see it?” And for the rest of the concert, the fellow touched by the divine was just a little higher than anyone else, if that was possible. I directly heard variants of that statement many times, and read the same long years later in concert reviews online, when one of the faithful described the moment that lifted him. (And note: this was always a man that staked this claim—the women seemed content to merely twirl in the tantalizing twists of sound.)

Though I always played on the periphery of the true believers, and was caught up many times in the glow of the groove, I never could climb to the top of that ladder, where Garcia’s gown glimmered—my articles of faith always needed editing. I’ve always marveled at the faith that people have, in a God described to them from pages written lifetimes ago, faith in the depth of their abilities, however limited or constrained by evidence, faith in the certainty that Garcia looked right at them, man. As far as I can remember, I’ve been uncomfortable, or perhaps jealous of, deep expressions of faith and certainty in people and in movements, because there seems so much contingency and randomness in life. And because faith seemed so exclusionary of fact. But that’s the nature of faith, isn’t it?

Keeping the Faith (or Trying to Locate It)
This is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve been particularly lacking in conviction lately, about my writing, and about my place among the faithful and faithless, which is one reason why I haven’t been posting. I’ve become accustomed to the stints of mild depression I’ve experienced for many years, watching them and waiting them out, because they do always lift, though some phases last longer than others. It’s easy to get indulgent with our pains—”No, I couldn’t possibly write that essay today, I’m in a bad mood.” Bad moods can be useful delaying tactics.

Sometimes, when you are deep in your own head, that sense of “what’s the use of writing” can seem like all you’ve got. But the pain of writing disappointment is nothing compared to real emotional pain. A few days ago I was listening to a radio broadcast of interviews with wounded vets who were learning how to ride bicycles after their limbs had been blown off. All of them were expressing such an eagerness to move forward with the difficult therapy and complex equipment that would bring them back to the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Suffering does unite us, but hearing of suffering that seems leagues beyond your own serves as a good reality check. Those soldiers had faith they’d ride the bikes again; they were committed to doing the work to make it happen. It’s a different kind of faith than the intangible one I struggled with as an altar boy, trying to discern just when and how a little bit of flour could be transformed into the body of Christ by a priest’s declaration. I was always more interested in trying some of the sacramental wine.

Sharing the Feeling (the Stains Are Extra)
I said earlier that suffering unites us, but as Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My own way has been to be stuck, faithless in my head, but it’s time to get on the bike, get the kinks out, try and write without too much judgment.

But before the ride, one more concert story: I was at a Hot Tuna concert in L.A. back in my salad days. There was a break between sets where people were milling about in that hive-like concert way. I was sitting down on the floor, a ways from the stage. For some reason, my eyes lit on a fellow who was a fair distance away, wobbling and lurching about like he was very drunk. I idly watched him making a circuitous route through the crowd, probably keeping my eyes on him for several minutes. His wanderings finally took him to a spot directly in front of me, whereupon he unloaded a rich stream of vomit on the floor, with a fair amount landing on my pants. It wasn’t pleasant at the time, but the memory always makes me laugh, because I contrast it with the other concert experience of “Jerry looked at me!”

At least Jerry didn’t vomit on me. Keep the faith.

If Jerry Garcia wrote short stories

Though I am a dinosaur, I do still need to flex the hard, bony plates of my skeletal system now and then, so I listen to the Grateful Dead, prime dinosaur music. The Dead’s repertoire runs through rock, blues, psychedelia, folk, space noodlings and even some jazz stylings. But the notion that Garcia might make a good short story writer comes from the sense that the Dead often do ballad-type songs, where there are characters—canny gamblers, seedy alcoholics, heady prophets, even the devil—who romp or stumble through the songs, coming to a good or bad end. Rumrunners and grifters are chewy elements for many a tale, written or sung.

Of course, Robert Hunter wrote many of the actual lyrics of those tunes, with Garcia as a foil, so it isn’t quite accurate to dub Garcia as the storyteller—more the sense of a writer lending the devil his deck of cards to deal a few hands. However, music is sonic storytelling, where a guitar riff or a piano trill can add storytelling elements of conflict, anger, and yearning that are beyond straight lyrics.

It’s interesting to think of artists stepping a bit out of their genre boundaries. Or perhaps step seven leagues from their profession, as Wallace Stevens from his insurance executive’s office and William Carlos Williams from his physician’s perch, both to the platforms of richly expressive poetry.

Garcia might have made a good candidate to produce a Vook: he could have included his paintings, music and lyrical scribblings. I read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles a little while back, and was quite taken with the interesting phrasings and compositional structures of the work, done by an absolute artist, but not one encapsulated as a writer. Of course as a songwriter, few can touch him. Dylan’s book reminds me of the whimsy of the writing (and the artwork) of John Lennon, in his “John Lennon, In His Own Write” book. (I’ll probably draw the line at seeking out Lady Gaga coloring books.)

I do have a few Garcia ties; I wish they came with some embedded tunes and a USB port because the expressive shapes and colors undoubtedly tell a tuneful tale…