It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns.
By The Deadhead Cyclist
As we reach the week following the “Days Between” (the period from Jerry Garcia’s August 1st birthday through his August 9th passing), one can’t help but be struck by the enduring nature of the Grateful Dead. More than 50 years have passed since the band’s first performance under the name, “Grateful Dead,” and almost half of that period has passed since their final performance on July 9th, 1995. And yet, quite literally, the “music never stopped.” What is it about the Grateful Dead that has captivated millions the world over from multiple generations over the course of more than a half-century?
As hard a question as that is to answer, my selection for T.W.I.G.D.H. was the easiest of the entire year: August 13, 1975 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Not only is this show arguably the best performance of the Dead’s 30-year history, it was the first complete concert recording released by the band, in 1991 as “One From the Vault.” This unannounced, by-invitation-only concert at a venue that holds less than 500 people, remains at the top of my wish list for a time-travel destination, should I ever have the opportunity. Short of that, the outstanding recording by legendary sound engineer Dan Healy, which was widely distributed at the time, due to it being broadcast in its entirety on San Francisco’s KSAN FM radio, will have to suffice. (Note: Healy was a co-designer of the famous “Wall of Sound” P.A. system the band used during ’73 and ’74, a pioneer of the unique “tapers section,” and was instrumental in the design of the “ultra-matrix” soundboard setup used to record Dead shows during the late ’80s).
A cassette tape of the Great American Music Hall show was the soundtrack to the longest ride of my 1976 cross-country hitchhiking trip, an all-night affair that began at sunset in Bismarck, North Dakota and ended at sunrise 718 miles down the road at Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana. Fittingly, driving duties were shared (while the owner of the VW Squareback sedan slept in the back seat) with my hitching partner and Grateful Dead mentor, Richard Handel, who happened to be celebrating his 22nd birthday that day. We commemorated the event by refreshing ourselves with a breathtaking dip in the icy glacial waters of Lake McDonald upon our arrival at Glacier.
Explaining the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead’s legendary status is no simple task, but I would dare say that it is not an overreach to state that there’s something that profoundly and fundamentally penetrates the human experience in their music and message. I recently saw a meme that claimed: “Everything important in life I learned from Star Trek, the Three Stooges, and the Grateful Dead.” This resonated with me to the point of reflection on this seemingly odd trifecta. The lessons to be gleaned from these superficially unrelated sources are many and varied, but I’ve distilled them down to their essential elements.
A primary theme in Star Trek (and I hasten to clarify that I’m referring to the original Star Trek series and the series of feature length movies that followed with the same cast) is the friction and partnership between passion and logic, and how achieving a balance between these two outwardly incongruent approaches leads to a successful outcome in problem solving. Hurtling through space, whether on the Starship Enterprise or on a “shining ball of blue” involves plenty of thrills – let’s call them “fireworks” – but even the best fireworks show must be tempered with careful planning and execution in order to avoid disastrous consequences. Such is the lesson of Star Trek.
The Three Stooges – Larry, Curly and Moe – got themselves in every manner of trouble, but managed to find their way to the other side by thinking outside the box and working together as a team, albeit a dysfunctional one at times. Regardless of the situations they found themselves mired within, the Stooges – let’s call them “clowns” – never lost their sense of humor, relying on it as a useful tool. Most importantly, these were three grown men (in their 30s and 40s during their heyday) who never lost their adolescent sense of humor, irrespective of their age. Thinking creatively, maintaining a sense of humor, and being willing to act like a clown is the enduring lesson of the Three Stooges.
The possibility of having a life overflowing with the things you love and having a “pretty good time” along the way goes a long way toward explaining why “this song it ain’t never gonna end.”
The opening line from the Shakespearean comedy, “Twelfth Night,” reveals much about the Grateful Dead’s legacy and the timelessness of their body of work: “If music be the food of love, play on.” To put a finer point on that, I would submit that it is not merely the love of another, but the love of life itself that is nurtured by the Dead’s music. Fundamental to the countercultural Grateful Dead experience is a reminder that there are individuals and institutions in our midst that seek to rob us of our individuality and sense of joie de vivre (enjoyment of life). Most Deadheads, the Deadhead Cyclist included, embrace the notion that steering clear of the mainstream, while keeping close enough to maintain (or even create) relevance is the balancing act of a lifetime, but well worth the effort.
Life can be a merry-go-round with its tedious ups and downs and elusive brass rings. But with songs – let’s call them “calliopes” – to “fill the air” we can keep our balance and never lose sight of the imperative to fill our lives with as many good times as possible. In a 1988 interview, Jerry Garcia was asked how he would like to be remembered: “I think I would like to be known as a guy who had a pretty good time while I was here. You never know; you could go at any moment, so you might as well just try to crowd as much as you could possibly get into your life.”
Among the many lessons we can learn from the Grateful Dead, the possibility of having a life overflowing with the things you love and having a “pretty good time” along the way goes a long way toward explaining why “this song it ain’t never gonna end.”
On August 13, 1975, at the Great American Music Hall, the Grateful Dead performed every song from what many feel was their finest studio album, Blues For Allah. The 4th song of the concert was, The Music Never Stopped, which includes the phrase, “fireworks, calliopes and clowns.” These elements are the earth, wind and fire of life, and whether you find them in Star Trek, the Grateful Dead and the Three Stooges, or somewhere else, you are wise to seek them out and include them as the supporting cast in a life that features you in a starring role.
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