By The Deadhead Cyclist
Over the course of their 30-year history, there were many faces of the Grateful Dead. Like the changes that take place within most institutions that boast longevity, the band morphed from one version of itself to another, show by show, year by year. Such is the immutable law of the universe, even better evidenced by far more notable, glacially paced changes, like biological evolution or the formation of geological wonders, such as the Grand Canyon.
While inestimably less significant in the overall scheme of things than a 277-mile long, one-plus mile deep canyon that represents some six million years of the Earth’s history, the ten years that passed between the Dead’s two performances at the Oregon County Fair, in 1972 and 1982, illustrate the same principle of change so undetectable that it can only be witnessed through the lens of comparison. Fortunately, we have access to outstanding recordings – both audio and video – of the 8/27/72 and 8/28/82 performances, which I have selected for T.W.I.G.D.H.
In listening to these two recordings, the transformation from the raw, garage band feel of the band’s early years, to the more polished, mature sound and presentation that evolved during the band’s middle years is quite evident. With significant overlap in material – both shows feature China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider and Playin’ in the Band, for example – you can easily witness this transformation for yourself.
The same principle applies to us as individuals. Over the course of a lifetime, we are inescapably subject to changes in our appearance, needs, desires and capabilities. But because these changes are not noticeable from one day to the next, it’s easy to dwell under the misconception that our lives are static. Indeed, we are “hard wired” to live in this illusion, as it is literally necessary for our survival. Just imagine how unproductive our lives would be if we remain focused on the notion that we are doomed to grow old and die one day, rather than being motivated to follow our creative energies and strive toward our destiny, our inevitable demise notwithstanding.
In the Academy Award-winning film, Annie Hall, a 40-year-old Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, has a flashback to a time during his childhood when he learns that the universe is expanding. His über-concerned mother has taken him to a cigarette-smoking doctor, to whom he explains: “Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” When his mother complains to the doctor that the boy has stopped doing his homework, the boy comments, “What’s the point?”
While the illusion of staticity is an integral part of a successful life, it’s equally true that we must recognize the ever-changing nature of our lives and act in accordance with it. The Grass Roots tune, Let’s Live for Today (“Sha la la la la la live for today/And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, hey”), covers one side of this equation, but in the 8/28/82 show the song, Black Peter, offers us the requisite counterpoint. In this story, the protagonist, Peter, is dying and exploring the paradoxical nature of his final days:
See here how everything lead up to this day.
And it’s just like any other day that’s ever been:
Sun goin’ up and then the sun it goin’ down.
Just imagine how unproductive our lives would be if we were focused on the notion that we were doomed to grow old and die one day, rather than being motivated to follow our creative energies and strive toward our destiny.
Within these musings of a man on his deathbed lies one of the most fundamental truths of the time we have been gifted in this life: As individuals we are simultaneously utterly expendable (my dying day is “just like any other day”) and absolutely essential (everything I have done in my life has helped “lead [humanity] up to this day”).
With this perplexing dichotomy in mind, think back over the course of your life and conceive of yourself as both ever-changing and fundamentally, well, you. Which parts of you fall into which category? I’ll give you a hint: My hair has a “touch of grey” now (okay, maybe more than a touch), but my essential nature has remained fixed throughout my life. Generally speaking, it is that which falls into the physical realm that is mutable, while your emotional and spiritual characteristics are more definitive.
Returning to Black Peter, it’s his body that’s dying and won’t be missed, but his soul will live on in the collective wisdom of humanity. To rephrase:
You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
But it’s not quite that simple. After all, our body and soul are inextricably connected. Fast forwarding another ten years from the Oregon County Fair show in 1982, we come to the year 1992, a year in which the Grateful Dead had continued to evolve, but in a downward direction. The “polished, professional sound and presentation” that was present in their show ten years earlier had largely been lost, and it appeared that they were going through the motions during most of their final years. Poignantly, the Dead had scheduled a third appearance at the Oregon County Fair, on August 22nd and 23rd of that year, but the concerts were canceled (along with three shows at Shoreline Amphitheater on August 25-27), when doctors determined that Jerry Garcia was suffering from exhaustion.
The lesson here is clear: Failure to care for the body will necessarily have an effect on the soul, and in the human form it is essential to balance the body-soul equation to truly fulfill your destiny. The Grateful Dead lost that balance prematurely (Jerry was only 50 years old in 1992) and, sadly, were only able to regain it on occasion during their last few years.
Regardless of what stage of life you’re in, understanding that you are both insignificant and invaluable, allowing the corresponding humility and sense of self esteem to occupy their proper place, are essential ingredients in the recipe for a fulfilling life. This balance is a moving target that requires regular fine tuning as the circumstances in our lives unfold. A lot can change over the course of 30 years, and failure to balance illusion with reality can lead to disastrous consequences. Such is the legacy of the Grateful Dead’s three appearances at the Oregon County Fair, most notably the one that never came to pass.
Subscribe and stay in touch.