03/10/09

Reflections on the Grateful Dead: Saying Yes to Fun

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I was moved by the conversation with Sandy that started over coffee and prompted her to share her reflections here. So, I’m taking her up on the invitation to share my thoughts, too. I hope to read yours soon!

“Thought he’d have a big ol’ party; thought he’d call it planet Earth.”

In the early ‘80s, I was a prep school student in Westchester County, New York, on track for an Ivy-caliber college and a predictable path to success: doctor, lawyer, executive with a house in the ‘burbs. Like many of my classmates, I was envious of the people who lived in the 1960s. It seemed things had been much more exciting then, and that there had been more opportunity for adventure and a focus on making a difference – socially, artistically, politically, and personally.

Rock ‘n’ roll music tied us to that “energy” but underscored that we’d missed the boat: the deaths of the Who’s Keith Moon (in 1978), Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham (in 1980), the Rolling Stones’ ventures into disco, and, of course, the shooting of John Lennon (in 1980) amplified our sense of being stuck in not-so-interesting times.

Then there were the Dead, who were just … different. The Dead’s music—and the tour milieu—conjured up the possibility of world, and a country, that was still very exciting. Intellectually, I found the synthesis of so many different kinds of music –“American” spirituals, jazz, country, blue grass, with symphonic infrastructure, “global” drums, and Eastern European folk music – fascinating and promising in the way that Walt Whitman’s poetry was. Emotionally, though, it was as much about the people as the music.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “The Deadheads are doing the dance of life, and this, I would say, is the answer to the atom bomb.” That sounded like a pretty weighty assignment! Perhaps he was right, though, and the dance of life isn’t a solution – just a healing response: the best moments at shows gave a glimpse of what it would feel like if the world were right, and confirmed that regardless of the many things to worry about, the path to right should be (and, in fact, is) fun.

While I was involved with a variety of political and social activities and experiments, from apartheid protests to organic farming, these organized endeavors did not provide the level of community or the little doses of magic that appeared spontaneously among the Deadheads. The best part … once brought to life among those people, that version of reality has stayed with me; it is part of my inspiration for staying involved through the Rex Foundation in general, and in the capacity of social networking in particular. I want to help spread the human wealth.

You see, I’m not quite ready to give up on getting those out-of-the blue reminders of the dance of life: from a guy who greeted me in a parking lot on Easter morning 20 years ago with a quartz crystal and the announcement that, “Christ has risen, sister!” to a new, online friend who told me he’d encountered a 17 year-old “just turned onto the Dead” and introduced him to the charitable works of the Rex Foundation. If we’re all here for the same party, we may as well dance together.