Death Is Not The End, Part 2:
Turn On Your Love Light
I was never a Deadhead. In fact, I never really knew any Deadheads until I abandoned Western Washington University and defected across campus to Fairhaven College in Bellingham, Washington when I was 20 years of age. With all my experimentation with hallucinogens over the years I always seemed to end up wanting to play The Beatles, Brian Eno, The Velvet Underground or Yes when I was tripping rather than The Grateful Dead. You see, the Dead I never really understood until, of course, I went to a Dead show years later. They didn't play Seattle between 1982 and 1994, but when I heard that they were going to be playing with Bob Dylan at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon in the summer of 1987 I decided I'd been a virgin long enough. I roadtripped with three friends, one of whom had managed to get us some lightning bolt from his boss who had frozen it for a few years. He told us to be very careful. Sure enough, rather than the hour or two it usually takes for you to feel anything, this stuff hit in about fifteen minutes. Right when we were in the middle of the Autzen K-Mart picking up supplies.
I remember sitting in the stands of the stadium with the sun beaming down and I'd taken off my shoes and socks. My friends had all wandered off and suddenly I felt so hot that I wanted to go for a little stroll. But I thought to myself, "If I go I should probably take my shoes and socks with me because they might not be here when I get back. Okay, let's see. Socks go on first, then shoes go on after them. With socks it doesn't matter which way they go on, but with shoes it does. So, the left shoe goes on the left foot and vice versa. Got it. Okay: tying bows.....Ah, I don't really want to go for a walk THAT bad." Eventually I caught up with two of my friends outside who were sitting in a patch of ivy and I remember one of them attempting to talk to the other to try and help her figure something out. I recall her saying "Everybody is having their OWN trip. Wow. Everybody is on their OWN trip." This was quite a revelation to her. Almost like hearing someone's first baby steps away from the warm waters of existential solipsism. That crystallized sentiment alone is indicative of the psychological ice-cutting that happened on a regular chemical basis at a Dead show, underlining the significance of the Dead as a cultural phenomenon: if the mechanized aspects of the 20th century have separated, divided and isolated us from each other, psychedelics were/are the social lubricant of those weary souls desperately trying to reconnect with Mother Nature and each other. None other than mythologist Joseph Campbell once pronounced Deadheads the newest tribe on the planet ("Oh, wow, whirling dervishes, just like in other tribes," you could almost hear him say), and that is the context the Dead have to be appreciated in order to fully realize their contribution to the twentieth century. No matter how much one had been told about a Dead show you couldn't really understand the Dead unless you went to a Dead show and then realized that it was probably the closest thing to running away and joining the circus as there was at the end of the 20th century. It was a tribe of spiritual warriors, American gypsies, the logical extension of the Diggers, the Romantics, the Blank Generation, the Beats and the hippies. The counterculture tangible and incarnate, entrepreneurial merchants drifting from show to show making bracelets, shirts, vests, necklaces, whatever they could in order to keep their lifestyle going, following the band, meeting the same people at each concert like it was a traveling minstrel show (or else embracing the transient lifestyle out of overcompensatory guilt to balance the bad karma of hoarding of the ones with rich parents.) It didn't really occur to me why the band would play in the middle of the afternoon on a gorgeous day until I realized that the Dead shifted the emphasis of entertainment from the band to the fans and (if you were lucky enough to see them in a place as naturally beautiful as Eugene) the surroundings of where you are: smack dab in the middle of life, sitting, standing, showering next to the chemically adventurous: We are not the "event." The "event" is all around you. We're just the band.
To paraphrase Ken Kesey, whose connection with the Grateful Dead goes all the way back to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests of the mid 60s: you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow. "This hole where there's nothing there. All of the major religions of the world fill up this hole with whatever they can. Candles and flowers and litanies and opulence if you're Catholic. Hand-wringing and pumped-up squeezing emotions if you're Protestant, because they can't afford the flowers and the candles. The Jews fill this hole with weeping and browbeating and beseeching of the sky: "How long, how long are you gonna treat us like this?" Rigidity, guns and a militant ethos if you're a Muslim. But all of us know thats not what is supposed to be in that hole. With LSD you see that the books you think are the true accounting books -- your grades, how you'd done at other schools, how you'd performed at jobs, whether you had paid off your car or not -- are not at all the true books. There are other books that are being kept, real books. In those real books is the real accounting of your life. And the mind says "Oh, this is titillating." So you want to take some more LSD and see what else is there. And soon you have the experience that everyone who's ever dabbled in psychedelics has. A big hand grabs you by the back of the neck, and you hear a voice saying "So you want to see the books. Okay, here are the books." And it pushes your face right down into all of your cruelties and all of your meanness, all the times that you have been insensitive, intolerant, racist, sexist. It's all there, and you read it. That's what you're really stuck with. You can't take your nose up off the books. You hate them. You hate who you are. You hate the fact that somebody has been keeping track, just as you feared. You hate it, but you can't move your arms for eight hours. Before you take any acid again you start trying to juggle the books. You start trying to be a little better person. Then you get the surprise. The next thing that happens is that you're leaning over looking at the books, and you feel the lack of the hand at the back of your neck. The thing that was forcing you to look at the books is no longer there. There's only a big hollow, the great American wild hollow, that is scarier than hell, scarier than purgatory or Satan. It's the fact that there isn't any Satan. And all you've got is Sartre sitting there with his momma -- harsh, bleak, worse than guilt. And if you've got courage, you go ahead and examine that hollow. That's the new wilderness in America and its connected to the idea of freedom, but it's a terrifying freedom. The new wilderness is no longer just up on that hill or around that bend, or in the gully. It's the fact that there is no more hill or gully, that the hollow is there and you've got to explore the hollow with faith. If you don't have faith that there is something down there, pretty soon when you're in the hollow, you begin to get scared and start shaking. That's when you stop taking acid and start taking coke and drinking booze and start trying to fill the hollow with depressants and Valium. Real warriors like William Burroughs or Leonard Cohen or Wallace Stevens examine the hollow as well as anybody; they get in there, look far into the dark and yet come out with poetry."
Death Is Not The End, Part 3:
The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)