This one comes to us from Luke Roland:

Grateful-Dead-011

Last month, Paul Zahl did a series of talks at Calvary-St. George’s Church about “what happens when you die,” and he asked a question that really struck me. “If you really want to know what is going on with yourself, what kind of music excites you at this point in your life?” In his view, the music that you are drawn to is a window into what’s happening inside you. After the talk, I mentioned to Paul that all I’m listening to is The Grateful Dead and, he responded “There has to be something to that!”

Music has long been a favored means of escape. I have vivid memories of lying on my bed as a child with headphones, listening to my Walkman and going to another world. I’ve been leaning on music more than usual this past year, the hardest one in memory. Over the past six months, a series of unexpected blows have left me wounded. I’ve dealt with personal rejection from loved ones, leaders, and former friends to the point that it has caused a pain that feels like hell. The music that has helped me the most has been The Grateful Dead (with a side of The Band, Bob Dylan, and The Allman Brothers Band).

The Grateful Dead are popularly known for drug use, tragedy, and relentless touring. Personally, I feel their music transcends the stereotypes that have been ascribed to the band. Musically, for instance, it is very hard to pigeonhole them. Jerry Garcia’s solos alone mix blues, bluegrass, and sometimes a little funk.

Of course, their reputation didn’t come out of thin air. At a court appearance in the 1990s, bassist Phil Lesh described the late Jerry Garcia as a “cool dude”, and comically stated “the last thirty years are one big smoky haze.”

I haven’t put my finger completely on why their music has been so comforting this last year, but I’m close. Last Saturday night I was at Madison Square Garden with the new version of the Dead called Dead and Company. As I took in the lights, sound, and haze (I didn’t inhale!), I realized that the Dead have created a culture of freedom and a place where all are welcome, where the possibility of rejection has been diminished to the point of irrelevance.

New York City may be the most densely populated place in the U.S., but as anyone who has lived there knows, it can also be very isolating. But what was happening in Madison Square Garden was different than what was happening outside. MSG was packed with an incredibly eclectic group of people, and we all felt at home (at least I did). In the words of their song “Franklin’s Tower”:

“Some come to laugh their past away
Some come to make it just one more day
Whichever way your pleasure tends
If you plant ice you’re gonna harvest the wind.”

It was at that show that I began to feel more of why this music touches me. In the midst of incredible pain, I came to laugh the past away and try to make it one more day; AKA, absolution and a clean slate!

Their hymnal of songs is rich, provocative, and deeply meaningful. Echoes of law and gospel even intertwine at points:

“Going down the road feel bad, I don’t want to be treated this way.”
“My love is bigger than a Cadillac, I try to show you but you drived it back.”
“The Sun will shine on my back door someday.”
“In the book of love’s own dream, where all the print is blood.
“Let it be known there is a fountain, That was not made by the hands of men.”

And from the song “Wharf Rat”:

“But I’ll get back on my feet again someday,
The good Lord willin’, if He says I may.
I know that the life I’m livin’s no good,
I’ll get a new start, live the life I should.
I’ll get up and fly away, I’ll get up and fly away, fly away.”

500x500We all want that. We all want to be treated a different way, our love to be returned, to get back on our feet. We want a new start. Lines like these (and many more) from the Dead catalog help describe what I’ve been feeling on the inside this past year. I’ve had to learn the hard way that I can’t make people love me, and it doesn’t matter how big the Cadillac of my love is.

Pain is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t matter how strong your faith is, pain will find you, and when it touched me I responded in a myriad of ways: anger, tears, grief. Yet in their music I found solace and a home. The show felt like a “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” It felt like “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!”

I was watching an old interview with Jerry Garcia the other day where he mentioned that he wasn’t here to tell people what to do or how to live or be an advocate for anything except for the music. I think Garcia got to this place because he understood he didn’t have the moral authority to do so because of his own demons. I was reminded that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As one of their more well-known songs puts it:

“If a man among you
Got no sin upon his hand
Let him cast a stone at me
For playing in the band”

The audience is just as much a part of a Dead show as the band members. There are no lines of demarcation because the ground is level at the foot of the stage.

The pain is still with me, but “once in awhile you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right”, even at a Dead show.

P.S. One final way their music has served a prophetic end in my life: This past year, a few people have criticized my six year old son’s reading ability. When they did, I couldn’t help but think about the Dead’s biggest and only hit “Touch of Grey”:

“Kid can’t read at seventeen.
The words he knows are all obscene but it’s alright.
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.”