Friday, April 10, 2015

The Other One

            I began the journey into the history and the present of the psychedelic movement with On the Road. I'm sure I chose to read it because its on that list of books that make you seem cool if you've read it hahaha. You take that journey with Jack Kerouac and because you’re a novice and because he was writing as a green noob, you start  making the connections of inter-connectivity for the first time with him.  To me, while it was perhaps the easiest to relate to Sal, Dean was the character that captivated. Most are certainly aware going in to the book, that that the main character is Jack the author, and Sal is Neil Cassady. You might have heard legend of this folk song hero of a man who dropped dead counting railroad ties (not actually true). Getting to know him turned out to be my favorite part of On the Road

Kerouac and Cassady
Cassady driving in the 50's. Allen Ginsberg took the photo.
            Slightly before that for me, was One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I chose to read it for a book report as a freshman in High School. I can’t remember how much I knew about Ken Kesey before that but the author and the book were more of these volumes you had to read if wanted to be able to participate in the upper level cultural goings ons. The cool parties, the deep conversations, the  knowing glances shared, possibly with girls. Yeah, I was a dork. Yes I continue to be a dork. I got lost in the world quickly, ensnared by Kesey’s prose, not quite understanding what this book had to do with hippies. I couldn’t recognize at the time how psychedelic his style of writing really was. I wasn’t yet awake in that respect. I simply read about the people in this Oregon Psychiatric Hospital and raged at the injustice of it all in typical teenage fashion. I didn’t know at the time that the book was written while Ken Kesey was working at a similar facility. And was taking LSD. He participated in one of the early and now-famous government experiments with LSD.  Kesey quickly realized how vitally important and world changing this substance/ experience was and “liberated” large quantities of it to bring back to his friends. The Merry Pranksters.
Kesey and the Pranksters (also Chet Helms on his right).
            It was probably while working on that book report I learned a little more about Kesey and his path. As naturally curious about mind-altering substances as I was, information about LSD certainly wouldn’t have gone overlooked. I probably heard at this point about Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I finally now had the document I had been looking for reading those other books, here’s what happened, here’s how they opened the door. The stories were so huge, so beautiful, I almost couldn’t believe it... but man did I want every single word to be true. That people could live together like this, to open their doors completely to each other, to want to share it all with the world! The limitless possibilities of humanity if everyone could just turn on. I was shocked to find out the Neil Cassady had wandered out of the 50’s beat scene and right into the pranksters camp. Is it any wonder though? Things were fated. Meant to be. He carried that torch lit by all those early poets, those beat cats with their Benzedrine and their seedy joints, the preliminary explorers.

Kesey and Cassady with the pranksters.
           Now NeilCassady, hero of one generation still had enough fire in him to inspire, and chauffeur the next. He juggled a sledge-hammer, he drove the bus. He talked very fast. He wasn't just in the flow, he was the flow. Who better to drive the merry pranksters across the country? His resume, descriptions of his driving in On The road made him the perfect conductor for this next leg of the journey. So there’s Cassady, now with Kesey. It’s the early 60’s in California. What other forces of culture were changing the world at this time? The Grateful Dead. Through 1965 and 1966 the Merry Pranksters hosted a series of parties known as the acid tests. At these parties all those attending, who chose to, drank LSD laced punch and were given a safe and twisted environment to experience the trip in. Who better to play than the Grateful Dead?
"Cowboy Neil at the Wheel"  Neil Cassady driving further.
   My dad liked the Grateful Dead. He bought American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead on vinyl when they came out. We had those old white plastic cassettes of those albums in the car and listened to them on trips. My dad loved ripple and always sang along. I always remember the songs my dad sang along to. It was powerful as a kid to see your parents moved to share in the music with the band. Early goose bumps starting to see the power of music. He always sang along to Cecelia by Simon and Garfunkel and Looking out my Backdoor by CCR. So I “borrowed” (he never asked for them back) Workingman's and Beauty from my dad and listened on my headphones. It was the early 90’s and the Grateful Dead couldn’t have been any cooler to a pre-teen/ teenager. I was always drawn to the hip scenes as a terminally unhip kid, whether it was the punks in Op Ivy tee’s and Doc Marten’s or the hippies with their tie dyes and Birkenstock’s or Teva’s (so 90’s, I know). So I bought my overpriced tie dyes and listened to the albums, only understanding the superficial of what the Grateful Dead were.

         My dad gave me some more albums, now on CD, including some live albums. I finally got a bit of taste from releases like the From the Vault series and Without a Net of the Grateful Dead live show. I didn’t get Pigpen tunes yet at all. I didn’t get Without a Net at all. I do remember the Help>Slip>Frank from One from the Vault did catch my ear, especially the iconic Bill Graham introduction. I got that all right. The sound and track selection from spring 1990 (featured on Without a Net), which is now probably my favorite era, didn’t click with what I thought the vibe of the Grateful Dead was all about. What I had heard on Beauty and Workingman’s.

            So I didn’t fall for the Grateful Dead all that hard at the time. Playing and listening to Punk occupied me for a few years. As I got more into jamband stuff, Phish at the end of high school and the Disco Biscuits in college, I collected 10-15 Grateful Dead shows along with the Phish and Biscuits I downloaded. I wanted a well-rounded collection. I certainly dug the 72-73 and 77 stuff I had. I even bought Dick’s Picks 7 on CD at the Borders on Wolf Road. That’s a very time diagnostic sentence right there.

So while I was listening to that stuff I read a few more Kerouac’s and found some new heroes. Kurt Vonnegut very quickly became a favorite. As did Tom Robbins. These guys paved the way for my outlook from college till the time after and taught me how to treat people in the world. Taught me to let go of what was holding me back. To participate fully, to immerse myself in this life. I kept reading the Kesey books, each time more fully understanding them as I did my best to follow Kesey's path in my own way. Sailor Song and Sometimes A Great Notion to me are some of the highest novels I’ve ever read. Each book changed and became a part of me. I ripped through Robbins and Vonnegut books, devouring the tastiness. I made myself savor the remaining Kesey novels, knowing they were much more finite.

            In my early 30's I finally fell much more deeply in love with the Grateful Dead. It started when I realized streaming Dead shows off of was a great way to make a slow office day pass more pleasantly. I was also working on my winter 46 and taking a lot of early morning solo drives to the Adirondack high peaks. Having a Dead show to listen to kept me alert and attentive and distracted me from over-thinking the coming hike. Pretty soon it was all I was listening to. As an anthropologist, tracking the changes through the years, noticing the patterns in the setlists and thinking about how the band changed and grew with the historic events that surrounded them became a fascinating pursuit. I learned deeper meanings in the songs as I read along with David Dodd's annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. At the end of Wharf Rat, the man listening to August West seems to  become the next wharf rat himself! Estimated Prophet tells the story of a twisted, spaced out street preacher who thinks he's the second coming. The haunting tale of a poker player who simply can't put down the cards and walk away in one of my absolute favorites, Loser. Such rich tales, so much to get lost in. Hunter and Barlow's words crept into my DNA.

            This leads me to the initial idea that sparked this post: The significance of The Other One. I was listening to the 9/30/80 performance of the Grateful Dead at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. The band played a string of shows in the fall of 1980 at the Radio City Music Hall and the Warfield Theater. From this famous run of shows that featured an acoustic first set, tracks were used to create Dead Set and Reckoning. I hadn’t spent a lot of time on the run yet and had only done so early on in my adult dead phase so was pleasantly surprised with just how good this show was.  I had  previously left off mid drums so almost put on something different for the drive down to work. I’m really glad I didn’t because the space>The Other One was gorgeous.

All photos The Grateful Dead, Fall 1980.
         A huge piece of the puzzle firmly clicked into place,  falling more deeply in love with The Other One while listening to this performance. Plain as day, this foundational piece of the Grateful Dead repertoire  referenced the psychedelic awakening chronicled in The Electric kool-aid Acid Test and mentions Neil Cassady by name! Further, the bus he drove the Pranksters across the country in serves as a metaphor for the entire cultural movement. I found out reading Scott Allen’s Aces Back to Back Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead and Neil Cassady were even roommates for a time. How deeply intertwined all these people, these pieces of art and this awakening all were! How much was I meant to be listening to this music and how amazing was it that I had been tracing these threads since I was in junior high?!?! Much like a faint trail through the woods, scant traces of the animals or humans who went this way before you, these paths through our media and culture can be followed and yield as impressive fruits for our labors as those paths through the woods followed. Sometimes 20 years of books, concerts experienced, conversations had, and leads pursued, can bring you to one song that really ties it all together.

Words and music by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann

Spanish lady come to me, she lays on me this rose.
It rainbow spirals round and round,
It trembles and explodes
It left a smoking crater of my mind,
I like to blow away.
But the heat came round and busted me
For smilin on a cloudy day

Comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, comin' around in a circle
Comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, in a circle,
Comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, in a circle.

Escapin' through the lily fields
I came across an empty space
It trembled and exploded
Left a bus stop in its place
The bus came by and I got on
That's when it all began
There was cowboy Neal
At the wheel
Of a bus to never-ever land

Comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, comin' around in a circle
Comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, in a circle,
Comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, in a circle.

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