Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: March 28, 1981 (Watch and Listen Now)

You know, the one thing we need is a left-hand monkey wrench.

By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


For musicologist Michael Steven Hartman, music is a direct reflection of the rhythms of the universe and the lifeforms that inhabit it. While his interests in polyrhythmic and exotic percussion are plainly evident during the Drums and Space portion of any Dead concert, many Deadheads are unaware of the lifelong dedication Hartman, AKA Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, has shown in exploring the cosmic common thread that music, and particularly drumming, represents in human consciousness.

During a lifetime investigating the inseparable connection between music and life, Mickey Hart has traveled previously uncharted territory as an advocate for the healing power of music and the preservation of endangered global musical traditions. The 1991 World Music album, Planet Drum – recipient of the first ever Best World Music Album Grammy award – incorporated percussionists from the United States, India, Nigeria, Brazil and Puerto Rico, many of whom toured with Hart in an ensemble, also called Planet Drum.

In his post-Grateful Dead years, Mickey Hart has continued his work as an ethnomusicologist, including involvement with the American Folklife Center in the U.S. Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Progressing from preservation to the connection between healing and rhythm, Hart joined the Board of Directors of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in 2000, and continued to create and participate in musical projects that advanced the healing power of music through drumming and percussion. 

Hart’s affinity for the juxtaposition of the rhythms of life and music became personal when he recorded the heartbeat of his son, Taro, in utero, and used the recording as the primary rhythm for his 1988 album, Music to Be Born By. This 70-minute single is soothingly hypnotic in the way that it integrates the human fetal heartbeat with bass harmonics, wooden shakuhachi flute and, of course, drums.

Perhaps the most Grateful Dead-relevant example of Mickey Hart’s proclivity for borrowing from the rhythms of nature in his musical compositions comes from his first solo effort, Rolling Thunder. Ironically, the 1972 album was recorded during Hart’s well-known “sabbatical” from the Grateful Dead, from February ’71 to June ’76. It includes members of the Dead, plus numerous other Bay Area musicians, and features early versions of two tunes that would become staples of the Grateful Dead repertoire – The Main Ten, better known as Playing in the Band, and The Pump Song, renamed The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Pump Song/Greatest Story Ever Told was a collaboration between Bob Weir and Robert Hunter, composed to the rhythm of a pump on Hart’s ranch. As the story goes, Hart recorded the pump in motion, added some drums, and gave a copy of the tape to Weir and challenged him to turn it into a song. Hunter added the lyrics and voila, a song was born. The Rolling Thunder version begins with the actual recording of what is arguably the only pump to ever receive a credit on an album (listed as David Freiberg – piano, water pump).

The best known version of Greatest Story Ever Told is on the Bob Weir “solo” album, Ace (solo is in quotes because Ace is essentially a Grateful Dead album, as all members of the band played on it, except Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan). The tune had already made its way into the Dead’s setlists during the previous year, and was a staple when the band hit the stage in Essen, Germany on 3/28/81 when they appeared on the German music television show, Rockpalast (Rock Palace). This famous concert was broadcast live on German Public Broadcasting station WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), and is the Deadhead Cyclist’s pick for This Week In Grateful Dead History.. 

Greatest Story Ever Told is a confusing amalgam of non-contemporaneous biblical figures – Abraham, Isaak and Moses, with a dash of Gideon? – bewildering American cowboy images – spurs a-jingling, a silver buckle and a gun – and hyperbolic depictions – a six-foot ten-inch Moses riding up on a quasar (or a guitar, as originally penned). But perhaps most mystifying is the penultimate lyric of the first and final choruses:

You know, the one thing we need is a left-hand monkey wrench.

I realized that there was no left-hand monkey wrench, no snipe, and no way to reason with someone who was married to his point of view in classic “don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up” fashion.

It turns out a left-hand monkey wrench is a fictional tool that is referenced as a rite of initiation – one might refer to it as a hazing exercise – for new employees or recent recruits, often in a military setting. For example, a newly assigned sailor might be sent to look for a left-hand monkey wrench as his first assignment, purely as a practical joke, given that there are no hand-specific monkey wrenches. 

Another version of this type of prank, the Snipe Hunt, was common in American summer camps and groups such as the Boy Scouts in the mid-to late-19th Century and early 20th Century. In the case of a Snipe Hunt, the unsuspecting subject is taken to an outdoor setting and given instructions for catching the “snipe,” often replete with an empty bag and a tutorial on specific noises to make to attract the creature.

In either case, these capers are known in modern vernacular as a “wild goose chase” or “fool’s errand,” and they are not limited to the naive or inexperienced. I, myself, was roped into a fool’s errand recently when I received a text from a friendly acquaintance who – gosh, how shall I put this? – tunes in frequently to a certain cable TV news channel that represents the views of those on the opposite side of the political aisle.

Hey. Need some data on the Democrat mind. I want to understand the thinking. No judgment, just facts.

Even now, in full knowledge of the unsatisfying outcome, reading this seemingly sincere missive suggests not only the possibility of understanding, but a strong likelihood. We live in troubled times in which those from disparate perspectives are more likely to throw stones than extend olive branches, and I read this as a rare and welcome peaceful gesture from the “other side.” So, like a kitten with a saucer full of delicious milk placed before me, I lapped it up and went looking for what turned out to be a “left-hand monkey wrench.”

One month later, after numerous conversations and frustrating texts and emails, I realized that there was no left-hand monkey wrench, no Snipe, and no way to reason with someone who was married to his point of view in classic “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up” fashion. I had embarked on a “fool’s errand,” and returned appropriately embarrassed for having been taken in, but more resolute than ever to recognize and refuse to chase “wild geese” in the future.

This experience caused me to feel just a little bit older than before it began, but not because of the hours and weeks that had passed. Aging is not merely a chronological process; it is a spiritual one, and there is no age that guarantees the identification of a fool’s errand. It takes wisdom for that, and wisdom is a complex potion of age, experience and discipline. I lacked the “discipline” leg of that three-legged stool at the outset of this particular episode, and when I sat on it, it fell over. I had wasted my time – and my counterpart’s – leaving me feeling like my “brain was boiling” and my “reason was spent.” Life is too short for that.

This doesn’t mean that we need to abandon our convictions. Nor does it mean that we can’t share them with those who hold different perspectives. It does mean that we’re under no obligation to remain engaged when we recognize that we’ve been sent down a dead end road, and that we need to have the discipline and courage to turn around. Because “now and again these things just got to be done.”

Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: March 28, 1981 (Watch and Listen Now)

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