Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion.
By The Deadhead Cyclist
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday that commemorates the lives of beloved friends and family members who have passed on. Originating in ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America prior to the Spanish invasion and conquest in the 16th century), the two-day celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, and is said to reunite the living and dead.
Traditional ofrendas (offerings) are created to honor the departed: altars decorated with flowers, photos, and favorite foods and drinks. It is believed that these ofrendas encourage the deceased to visit and join in the music and dancing that accompany this annual reunion. In this way, death is not portrayed as a cause for mourning but, rather, as part of the journey of life, while suggesting that the dead live on in another realm.
The context provided by the tradition of Dia de los Muertos goes a long way towards reconciling the seemingly paradoxical nature of the name, Grateful Dead. Moreover, the obvious similarities between the imagery connected to the holiday and the band are unmistakable. Most importantly, though, the way in which Deadheads continue to keep the Dead alive – more than a quarter-century after its half-Spanish leader’s death signaled the death of the band itself – is consistent with the spirit of this ancient holiday.
As is so often the case, contemporary culture has borrowed from the native cultures of Mesoamerica in creating the modern holiday of All Hallows Eve, better known as Halloween. Observed at the same time of year as Dia de los Muertos, October 31st is the evening prior to the Western Christian feast of All Hallows Day. Trick-or-treating, costume parties, horror movies and pumpkin carving aside, like Dia de los Muertos, the most faithful meaning of Halloween lies in remembering the departed, particularly those recognized as saints (hallows), and celebrating the lives of our beloved dead.
Speaking of our beloved Dead (with a capital “D”), the Grateful Dead played 13 concerts on Halloween, and T.W.I.G.D.H. features the relatively ancient 10/31/71 performance from the historic Ohio Theater in Columbus OH. Recognizing this as the best of the Dead’s Halloween shows, Saint Dick Latvala and company released a recording of the second set (minus the Johnny B Goode encore) as Dick’s Picks Volume 2 – the only single-disk album in the series. Beginning with a 23-minute version of Dark Star, the set includes a smokin’ version of Sugar Magnolia and a monster, 21-minute Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road > Not Fade Away, with an epic St. Stephen along the way. The entire show offers the opportunity to celebrate the life and times of St. Jerome John Garcia, in the true spirit of Halloween.
It’s a well-accepted premise that much of the Grateful Dead’s music and message was formed within the context of their role as the primary musical act at the Acid Tests of the mid-Sixties.The Acid Tests were a series of “parties,” mostly in the Bay Area, hosted by author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Sometimes a Great Notion”) and the Merry Pranksters. The main focus of these gatherings was the use of and advocacy for the drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, or simply “acid”), the effects of which can cause seismic shifts in consciousness and accompanying bursts of creativity. In the case of the Grateful Dead, the innovative quality of the band’s free-flowing improvisations, coupled with the seemingly incomprehensible but compellingly provocative lyrics to some of their songs, were given flight in the updraft of psychedelics.
The key to unlocking a less judgmental approach to life is found in the understanding that we all see everything – everything – through “the clouds of delusion.”
Interpreting lyrics such as, “What a long strange trip it’s been,” and “When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door,” while intriguing, is child’s play compared to poetry clearly inspired under the influence of LSD, such as this verse from China Cat Sunflower:
Comic book colors on a violin river
Cryin’ leonardo words from out a silk trombone.
I rang a silent bell, beneath a shower of pearls
In the eagle-winged palace of the queen chinee.
But perhaps the most challenging passages in the Dead’s song list come from the hypnotic tune, Dark Star, which Jerry Garcia once seemed to admit was beyond rational comprehension: “Dark Star has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine.” In the 2017 documentary, “Long Strange Trip,” lyricist Robert Hunter was asked to explain the lyrics to Dark Star, the first tune he wrote with the Grateful Dead. He answered by reciting this passage:
Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes.
Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis.
Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion.
Shall we go, you and I while we can,
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
Following which, Hunter returned the volley as if to say that the answer is self-evident: “What is unclear about that? It says what it means.”
Perhaps if you’re tripping on acid, the meaning of these mysteriously poetic words is all too obvious, but otherwise some assembly may be required. I found some step-by-step (or rather, pedal-by-pedal) instructions during a sunset mountain bike ride in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, while listening to the 10/31/71 Dark Star. As I was surveying the stunning landscape within the unique, altered state that I experience when confronted with the awesome power of nature, it came to me that I am a searchlight – that we are all searchlights – and that what distinguishes us from one another is that which is illuminated by the light we project. Some see a stunning sunset in an incomparably beautiful wilderness; others see a threatening cactus in a dry desert wasteland.
Expanding that principle into relationships, where we cast our inner searchlight is particularly revealing. Each of us is like a gorgeous desert sunset – unmistakably perfect and fundamentally flawed. If we are a searchlight that focuses beyond the prickly barbs and barren landscape, vibrant colors and reassuring warmth await us. But the opposite is also true: If we are a “searchlight casting for faults,” we find them in plentiful supply, never availing ourselves of the beauty that exists in even greater abundance. Taking this principle to its inevitable conclusion, it applies equally well to our judgments of ourselves, as it does to those of others. In fact, they are one and the same.
The key to unlocking a less judgmental approach to life lies in understanding that we all see everything – everything – through “the clouds of delusion.” Opening ourselves to the self-deceptions we engage in, and striving towards an understanding of them, enables us to see the world we live in, those we share it with, and, ultimately, ourselves in a way that limits the darkness of our existence and promotes the beauty, magic and mystery that are there for the taking.
The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica identified death as a beautiful part of life and the beginning of a new journey; the Merry Pranksters envisioned a culture of peace, love and equality; Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead invited us to travel “through the transitive nightfall of diamonds” that lives beyond our delusional judgments.
Shall we go, while we can?
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