Delivered at the Grateful Dead Caucus of the South West/Texas Pop Culture Association Annual Conference; Feb., 2009.
My introduction to the Grateful Dead came in the spring of ’68 when they set up and played next to the main Broadway gate of Columbia University as a show of solidarity for the student strike. As I recall, it was a rather desultory set punctuated by Pigpen’s animated blues numbers. I didn’t see them again until circumstances found me living in San Francisco during the early ’70s. As you probably remember, in those days the Dead presented shows on a regular basis at Winterland, the old ice arena-cum-concert venue where they routinely booked three or four consecutive nights every several months or so, and I went to almost every show from 1972 through 1976. While I never followed the band around on their peripatetic concert tours or hung out on “Shakedown Street,” I saw so many concerts and listened to their recordings so religiously that I suppose I could still be considered a Deadhead, if by now a lapsed one, and I have the proof: my rhinestone-bedecked skull-and-roses t-shirt.
Slide Two: Shadowfax Grammies
My commitment to the Dead diminished somewhat when I moved to New York City for work in 1976 and left many of my hippie trappings behind. I rarely saw the band after that; the last time was at the Ventura Showgrounds in the early ’80s when my late husband, Chuck Greenberg, was performing nearby in Santa Barbara with his band, Shadowfax. I went alone that day because Chuck was busy setting up equipment and doing sound checks, but also because he was never a fan of the Dead, despite some uncanny similarities between Garcia and him as well as between both bands. The most striking synchronicity is their deaths from heart attacks just two weeks apart in 1995, after which their bands never performed again. Another curious similarity is the random selection from books of their band names: The Grateful Dead chose theirs from a dictionary; Shadowfax came from Lord of the Rings. Both bands also defy easy categorization: The Dead played an amalgam of folk, rock, blues, and jazz, while Shadowfax combined rock, blues, jazz, and “world beat” into what was often termed, to the band’s dismay, “new age” music, a moniker that was applied owing largely to their being the first band signed to Windham Hill Records in 1981.
Slide Three: Shadowfax ’74-’94
Problems with category placement notwithstanding, appreciation for what both bands attempted to accomplish continues to grow, despite their absence from the performing stage all these years. Indeed, I hope to demonstrate by analyzing the music of the Grateful Dead and Shadowfax how rock concerts provide a postmodern revisioning of wandering troubadours, whose oral and aural poetry—often with the aid of entheogen-induced altered states of consciousness—was and still is a primary means of transmitting ancient mythic traditions. In so doing, rock concerts may be seen to function as contemporary, if fluid, sacred sites, wherein ritualistic behavior that hearkens back to the Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries of Greek antiquity provides individual and group bonding and healing. For Baby Boomers like me who came of age during the late ’60s, rock concerts are our “Mystery” rites, and I aim to show that the communitas among concert participants—both the performers and their audiences—is achieved through, although not restricted to, the dynamic interplay of three types of descent to the underworld, or nekyia: one that is undertaken via the lyrics of the music; a second that takes place during live performances of the music; and a third that is experienced when entheogenic substances (also known as hallucinogens or psychedelic drugs) are ingested while listening to the music.
Slide Four: “Ripple”
In the music of the Grateful Dead we see a mythic transmission taking place similar to what happened during the mysteries, except that steeped in Dead songs is the folklore of America, rather than of Greece. According to Brent Wood, Dead lyricist Robert Hunter’s work in particular fulfills “many of the roles traditionally played by oral poetry within its community by honoring individuals, documenting contemporary events, acting as a vehicle for social critique, and retelling stories from the culture’s past.” Yet, Hunter’s songs extend this form by functioning “to create a mutable mythology from American folklore [that gives] voice to assumptions common to members of the audience concerning the nature of reality itself.” In so doing, the Dead revision traditional American songs and stories of outlaws, gambling, and death as postmodern hero journeys of the soul to the underworld.
Hunter/Garcia compositions like “Ripple” demonstrate to what extent Dead lyrics “are permeated by archetypal motifs [necrotypes] of the nekyia.” The most obvious necrotype in “Ripple” is that of water, which functions as a place of introspection, where one may see through to the depths of the soul and receive divine inspiration: a “pebble tossed” or “wind to blow.” The myriad forms of water—rivers, springs, and sea—figure prominently in classical nekyiae such as Ovid’s story of Narcissus, whose pond-gazing prompts his descent to the underworld. We may infer from “Ripple” that the singer-poet’s “words”—which become those of the listener in their apprehension—represent the “ripple” of holiness in each of us, confirming our individuality and resonating within the larger pond of life, or what Jung might call the collective unconscious, wherein dwell our primordial souls. Thus, the underlying meaning imparted by the song seems to be that soul-searching—like life itself—is a perilous individual journey along “no simple highway” that nonetheless must be undertaken. Moreover, it is a “road”—as are all nekyiae—which must be traveled in solitude: “no one may follow [for] that path is for your steps alone.”
Stanley Spector points out that in songs like “Ripple,” “the language of lyrical poetry joins with the music of original melody to transport us out of ourselves and beyond the traditional cognitive meanings of individuated objects with which we are most familiar.” It is a realm that Mircea Eliade calls in illo tempore, or mythic time—a place where ordinary time seems to stand still and transformation becomes possible. In this way “Ripple” provides an example of how song lyrics replicate the night-sea-journey.
Slide Five: One of my Blacker Days
Moreover, the composers of the songs undertake nekyiae during the process of songwriting. The collaboration of Hunter and Garcia mirror the Apollinian poet and the Dionysian musician in their respective roles as lyricist and music composer. Although Shadowfax rarely performed vocal songs, Chuck had written several through the years, including one in particular that demonstrated his awareness, if subconscious, of the nekyia:
It was one of my blacker days
with nothing going right.
I looked for inspiration
But there was none in sight.
So I started drinking early
just tryin’ to get right
Some women look their best in bars
It must be lack of light.
Here we see the motif of darkness, which, like water, is a classical necrotype, as numerous Dead songs also illustrate. The meaning of the words, then, reflects the process that all artists experience in the creation of their art. Having observed Chuck composing during the fifteen years we were together, I can attest to his making many journeys to the underworld when writing music! Indeed, he followed the traditional stages of initiation and the hero quest in addition to the nekyia: separation, transition, and return. First, he would hole himself up in his studio. Next, he would hope that the Muse would be kind. She often was not, leading him to berate himself for his perceived failures as a musician and composer until deciding to play his creation for one of his bandmates, who would ultimately determine whether it was something that they’d work up in rehearsal or otherwise consign to the shelf.
So far we have seen how narrative song lyrics and the actual songwriting process replicate the nekyia. Rhythm is another musical element that is linked to altered states of consciousness, especially within the milieu of live performing. One of the more intriguing sources of music in the Eleusinian mysteries was an enormous bronze gong that the head priest banged at specific moments during the ritual, producing what sounded like thunder to many and apparently incited euphoric madness. While it is likely that all the ceremonial instruments—which included harps, lyres, and pipes—combined with lyrics, harmonies, and melodies to enhance and elicit trance-like ASCs, drums, rattles, cymbals, and gongs undoubtedly provided an especially intense event for practitioners.
Slide Six: On the Road
Rhythmic music in particular is believed to have augmented the ecstasy experienced in the Telesterion, the temenos of the Eleusinian mysteries where the most sacred rites occurred. In this way, music enhanced the otherworldliness of a second type of nekyia that took place in the ancient mysteries and is reiterated today in the phenomenon of the rock concert. In the live performance setting, listeners experience separation from their mundane lives, are “initiated” into a group of like-minded revelers, and return once again to their former worlds, often transformed by the experience. Likewise, the musicians undertake a performing nekyia in which they separate from their everyday worlds into a liminal space from which they depart at the end of the show, returning to their former lives. I suggest that within the concert nekyia—as we saw in the song narrative nekyia—the performers and audience form a largely unconscious, collective bond in which a nonlinear, mythic sense of time is entered, and inter- as well as intra-psychic transformation becomes possible.
Neurobiologists posit that rhythmicity probably evolved as a pre-verbal form of communication. Rhythmic stimuli create ASCs, they say, by altering the tuning of two CNS systems: the energy-expending and the energy-conserving. When both systems are intensely stimulated an “ineffable” euphoric / oceanic / harmony-with-the-universe experience is produced. This intensification of rhythmic stimuli produces “increased social cohesion.” This phenomenon is known as entrainment, which allows the listener and musician to “pulse” to the rhythm. Accordingly, we see why rhythm—particularly via drums and rattles—was favored as the most common shamanic technique for controlling ASCs and how its use in rock concerts functions comparably.
Grateful Dead fans have told of rhythm-induced euphoria, especially during the part of the concert that was given over to improvisation and propelled by the drumming duo of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. Known on the set list as “Drums/Space,” this instrumental interlude functioned to link two or more vocal songs together and usually occurred during the second set—often as the last extended piece before the encore—producing some of the most frenzied dancing at their concerts. David Malvinni attributes the “transformational quality” of the Dead’s jamming to their innovative blending of improvisational modes which fired the inimitable bond between band and audience. The key element in such bonding was the live, as opposed to recorded, performance which, in my experience, always produced the far more intense feeling of what Spector and Nietzsche before him call “rapture.” There is something about communing with thousands of others, all vibrating in tandem, which cannot be matched by listening to a recording. The listener may have the best sound system money can buy, but the collective gestalt that occurs in concert simply cannot be duplicated. I found this to be true of both Dead and Shadowfax concerts, despite the high-quality, audiophile recordings Chuck produced of the band.
Slide Seven: Live “Rainforests”
The band Shadowfax, which performed and released eleven albums from 1972 until Chuck’s death in 1995, also featured percussion solos and jamming at their concerts. Their last album, Live at Palookaville, features one such segue called “Rainforests” that sounds just like its name indicates, with rain sticks, cajon, and other assorted esoteric instruments that replicate jungle animal calls and work to link the compositions “Streetnoise” and “Ariki” into an extended jam not unlike the Dead’s “Drums/Space” segment. As did the Dead, Shadowfax added a second percussionist, Ray Yslas, to its lineup, after starting as a five-piece. Play “Rainforests.”
Slide Eight: Chuck Greenberg
We have thus far seen how first, the song lyrics, and second, the rhythms of live performances reenact the primordial underworld journey. A third type of nekyia occurs at rock concerts in the form of chemically-induced “trips,” which recall the vision quests of shamanic traditions. The use of entheogenic plants “goes back so far into prehistory that it has been postulated that perhaps the whole idea of the deity could have arisen as a result of the otherworldly effects of these agents.” Ethnobotanists claim that the psychoactive ingredient of kykeon—the concoction consumed during the Eleusinian mysteries—was likely ergot, a mold that forms naturally on wheat and a type of grass indigenous to the Mediterranean region. Ergot bears the same chemical compound —lysergic acid—as LSD, which seemed to have served the same purpose at Dead concerts as did kykeon at the mysteries: the inducement of an altered state that made those who ingested it more open to suggestion and collective influence.
Many concert-goers who admit to taking acid in conjunction with Dead shows confirm what Leary et al assert in The Psychedelic Experience: that the psychedelic trip parallels the “night-sea journey” in much the same way that the Eleusinian mysteries did. By embodying motifs of death and rebirth through the stages of separation, liminality, and return, both experiences symbolize the quest for enlightenment. Like the Greeks, Deadheads experienced in their ritual-as-nekyia not a physical death but a loss of ego consciousness more akin to psychic death and its concomitant rebirth manifested as a radically altered outlook on life.
Slide Nine: Selected Discography
By examining the nekyiae of Grateful Dead and Shadowfax lyrics, concerts, and entheogens, we come to understand more completely the dynamics that have contributed to the endurance of their musical ethos within contemporary American culture as embodied by the Deadhead collective that persists along with scholarly interest in them despite the band’s demise some thirteen years ago. Such staying power points to the complementary relationship between poetry and music and highlights the significance of oral tradition and ritual in the creation and continuance of a culture’s worldview.
Like the ancient Greek mysteries, “extraordinary states of awareness can be induced with various means and in various ways [which] show us that capacity for mystical experience is innate to every person. It is part of the essence of human spirituality,” says Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD in 1938. As a result, rock concerts may be the most akin to a postmodern religious expression of Eleusinian mysticism that we have. For me, attending Grateful Dead and Shadowfax concerts was tantamount to going to church: The ambiance of a live show initiated my entry into sacred space and the otherworldly, mythic sense of time that pervades all nekyiae, thereby promoting a feeling of oneness with my fellow concert-goers and the performers, allowing us afterwards to appreciate life anew as a long strange trip to the underworld fraught with mini-nekyiae of mythopoeic trips, acid trips, and concert trips.
Slide Ten: “A Pause in the Rain”
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