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OUT with DR.
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Finding the Path with Help from Friends aka Lazy River Road
An interpretation of Uncle John's Band and Lazy River Road, specifically
as performed on June 20, 2008 by
is the Grateful Dead telling me about my life,
Invocation - the act of calling upon a spirit by incantation.
The songs, some by now in the their fourth generation of listeners, have crossed over into another dimension, the dimension of culture, the transcendence of physical life, have crossed the waters to the other shore, and now are calling back. Must an invocation be limited to the gods? Or moreover, is it that we ourselves are not gods? If the kingdom of Heaven lies within us, then indeed we are, and it is us being called to the river, called together by the elder, called together for the baptism, for the barbecue, for the family photo, so that he can bask in the glow of all that he helped to create, and so he can place his hand on our collective shoulder, and breathe into us that very life that we share, that wind who once we called Jerry, back into the vessel we use for the journey, the vessel we call body.
Think of an indigenous concept, from what American Indian nation I'm sorry I don't know that we are tethered to the ground, to the very center of the earth by an invisible thread attached to our feet, gravitatingly pulling us into the earth, and simultaneously connecting all of us. That connection, the inability to acknowledge that thread is what creates misery in our lives, for if we're connected, how can we bomb them, rape her, shoot him, hate them and still have anything resembling esteem for our thoughts and actions? How can we not feed each other, how can we destroy the earth, the very thing which connects us?
What is a river? According to Buddhist beliefs which really are ancient Brahman ideas, and not so inconceivable to conclude, the river is the source of life. The Thais call the river, mae nam, or "mother water", and so now the image has shifted (for me) from biblical to Buddhist, although the message really remains the same. By biblical, I mean simply that I always imagined Uncle John was a sort of psychedelic John the Baptist, the cleanser, the link the river itself the medium of cleansing, the psychedelic baptism being the initiation, but when I consider Hesse's Siddhartha, who sat by the river and listened to its endless flowing, its ceaseless renewal yet never changing entity it is indeed a metaphor for us, for we are never ceasing to change, our blood changes, our skin changes, regenerates, yet we have the familiar faces that our sisters and friends can instantly recognize, voices that shake us out of slumber when we hear them through phones, or a recording, or through a sound system, the riverside, the starting point, the gathering point, becomes in its mythical and cultural sense so much more than an anti-war song, or a song about the Lost City Ramblers led by John Cohen, who used to play along the Hudson River. Now it no longer matters, because now it is a marker for the wayward traveler, a point in the distance to follow, maybe a sound to follow back into the fold, back into the flock, bringing the children home.
How long did the Buddha sit by that river, listening to its song? How many animals, birds, deer, even dangerous ones, were moved by this still being, only breathing, not really even awake, but certainly not asleep? Here we are together again, having brought our personal linear threads (the past reaching into the future, holding us in the moment of NOW), having been invoked by a call to prayer, by the elder, come now, peacefully gather here, and now is when everything that has come before has been laid out for all to see, laid out by him, by him?
Five years in a Buddhist culture can lead one to disavow what goes on here in the States. I can't sugar-coat it. The war is for me a symbol of what has become of us, what will become of us. And yet, like fools we all sit back and silently complain and wait for some point on a calendar when we think our new leader will lead us to a better life, the promised land, but that leader can we really afford to wait for him? Can we even trust him, knowing that power corrupts, knowing that the ego can really only be suppressed by the psychedelic experience (thank you elder Terence!) and knowing that the other half of this population doesn't even fully understand how sick it has all become, like diabetes ravishing the body until a leg must be sacrificed, until the eyes lose their vision and the breath smells of foul decay yes, welcome back to America Bennie Boy, it's fucking worse than when you left it, it's worse than your worst nightmare about it, yes, you are amongst people who have no shame, have no humility, who think of only the price of gas but don't consider why, why, who don't even know about peak oil or the connection between Cheney and Halliburton, between Condi and Chevron, who don't know that the water they drink is contaminated, their apples are contaminated, and their souls bless their souls, they search under rocks for peace, look at them Ben, with their new age backyards and fucking SUVs, how dare they complain when they are the ones who let it happen (NOW we are about 8 minutes into it, the Uncle John's, but it seems like it's covered the 5 years in my mind)?
Indeed this has been eating me, despite the love from my family and my friends. How could I justify this anti-American sentiment? 5 years away is all I can say (and like this before I even left). They call it reverse culture shock. Walking around in a daze, not knowing what words to utter, forgetting the phrase for asking for this, or preferring that.
And yet how is it, that I myself, one individual, one person, one separate entity from all the others, how is it that He knew my soul was hurting, how did he know about my struggles being back here? "Well the first days are the hardest days, Don't you worry any more". He knew, he knows because we are all connected? When Phil sings this song, he maybe thinks of the New City Ramblers, or about a time when protests against the Vietnam-American War swelled, or maybe he thinks of the friends who have gathered along the riverside with him in the past, but have since crossed over to the far shore. It doesn't matter, because now at this moment (maybe 11 minutes have passed) my eyes are closed, they have shut out everything except for the band up there and my inner vision which paints a tapestry of, of what? What I see, what I see, and he is now using metaphors I can relate to from that Buddhist culture, "Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go," the animated sense of nature. And now he is here, whether it is Him on the stage, or Him on the far shore, does not matter anymore. It's bigger than all of us, this journey we take, this path we must find, the path that we find on our own yet somehow isn't so far strayed from others' paths.
When considering the metaphor of this journey, one must not forget the key ingredient, the music. The American spirit has found so many avenues to travel, from Jazz to Bluegrass, Blues, Folk, Country and more, all sharing something that's hard to actually put a finger on. The Dead always tried to capture all of these sounds in their dripping fashion. I can only best sum it up as an exercise in group performance in which a sound is created, a group sound, but a close listen reveals each instrument, distinctly and clearly separate from the others. For example, I'm sitting amongst some trees at this moment, hearing a fish crow, an American goldfinch, and about 7 other birds all singing separate songs, yet together finding a rhythm and harmony, together with a far off train whistle and rumble, a distant highway, occasional car driving in front of the house, children talking 4 houses down this concept is limited to the musician who realizes his or her role as a vessel through which the spirit can be realized into something recognizable. It does not necessarily (although it could) mean the garage band down the street, or someone who loves to sing, is a part of it. Membership, although certainly not exclusive, does require a certain passion beyond the love of music, or for those American Idol folks, it goes much beyond the love of performance. Of the Dead family, Phil himself was always the most consistent member for projecting me into that special place, the one that you forget exists until you've returned there. But it was Jerry who'd put his hand on my shoulder and say, "Hey buddy, doin' OK out there?" or "Hey, it'll be alright" or "It's all an illusion" or "Maybe we're all aliens!"
Follow the yellow brick road, follow the golden road, follow the lazy river road.
Somehow Lazy River Road has been turned upside down and inside out, taken apart and reassembled into one of the most powerful of the song types, what I call the portal song. What a portal song is, is difficult to explain (sometimes it's a jam, like the transition between scarlet to fire, circa '77). Let's say it's an incantation itself, that brings the body and spirit together. It is a vehicle to use to reach the far shore spiritually, NOW, while being able to come back into our bodies and use our insights from the spiritual journey as we continue on with our life journey. For myself, it was usually Jerry who held that key and unlocked my heart to go tripping through fields or flying through cosmic reaches. But Lazy River Road wasn't one of those, before, it was, well, it was one of his other types, but I can't really get into that, my diagram of how the Dead used different songs for different purposes, without having to write a dissertation of the Grateful Dead's contribution to the American Folklore Pantheon, that is, the gods of a particular mythology considered collectively, and anyway, if you're still reading this, it's because I've already vaguely touched that string that holds you into the psychedelic fold, and as it relates to our American journey, etc. and so you must have a vague sense of my meaning. Let's just say that Lazy River Road was a break from the sun on a hot August day, a sit back and sip some lemonade contribution to the American folk music collective, a wonderful song to play at top volume with the windows down driving along a lazy river road. Again, I must stress that this is for me alone, yet by getting specific about my interpretation I hope to make that connection, from the string attaching my sole to the center of the earth and then up to your sole from your string, connecting us. Back to the Buddhist metaphor of the river, which cyclically runs down the mountain into the sea, to be sucked up and spit out over the land, to run back down the mountain to the sea, to be spit out over the land, and here we've hit on many things, the largest being the reincarnation of the soul, the perpetual wheel of life that never slows down. In short, Lazy River Road was a first set song, in the summertime it was a ballad before the lights would come on and the psychedelic grip was complete. So the first step in turning it inside out was simply bringing it into the second set, and placing it after Uncle John's (the invocation) and before the Scarlet-Fire-blister into then what-I-never-saw-live-when-I-saw-the-Dead-with-Jerry-and-can't-even-start-to-digest remainder of the show. But how could I spiritually get to that Stephen-Not fade-Stephen-Eleven? Phil knew how, because he knew that for me the river can never be just a body of water in the scientific sense again. He knew that the river was the quickest way to get me back into myself, back into the place I need to spiritually survive here, in this place I am, and that no matter what I want, or think, that I must accept it, he called me there because after all there were "things to talk about", and having brought me, started leading me along the path.
In the past 5 years, I have undergone spiritual growth unlike any that came before. Taking myself out of America in fact showed me who I am, as an American, where I fit into that dream, and yet, stuck me in the mud a bit, as I grew to see America through the eyes of the world, I found my disgust overriding all of the wonderful things that might balance those negatives out (maybe this is about the point in the song for the first guitar solo). After all, to completely reject all of it, would require a rejection of my teachers, right? Dylan, Jerry, Miles, Laswell, Woody, Faulkner, Hemingway, Erdrich. A rejection of autonomy, freedom of choice, and some of the most incredible nature to be found, a nature that is so obviously alive. A nature that indeed becomes the very spirit that we invoke when we pick up guitars or pens or paintbrushes so that the same spirit can show itself in a form we can recognize! No, it does me no good to forget everything that has given me the ability to ramble on this page, and less good to forget the friends who may read this. And so, there I was stuck in Sycamore Slough, not a real place, and for me not even a literal image, I mean, not a marshy muddy swamp like is found in Louisiana, where we would also find a ward, but for me, it is indeed the fourth meaning found in the dictionary, "a condition of degradation, despair, or helplessness". The mortality of loved ones, implementing monogamy on a butterfly's soul, disgust at war. These can serve examples of the slough I was mired in, but Phil held out his hand and pulled me out of it, and keeping me along the river, no matter that the path is winding, and veers from a straight line, yet it remains alongside the river, which will give you everything you need to get through this journey and eventually to that far shore.
But that's not even it entirely, there's something else. The simple transition of it being a Jerry song, and what a Jerry song always meant to us, and now it is a folk song, and by that I mean a song for the folk, by the folk, and now sung by the folk, as each person takes a walk to the mic and shares a verse it becomes something like a testimonial from others walking the path, the carnival or circus or tent revival, something that sits in a box and then is opened and swirls around in the air to our delight before settling back into the box and put on the shelf until it is reached for again, probably in a few shows' time. It's a song the Carter Family might've sung, or Pete Seeger, Doc Watson or one of the thousands of singers from before the days of recordings. It could be on the Prairie Home Companion, and indeed, it should. Don't ask me about the performance of that night by the river. I can't tell you how "on" anyone was, or what Larry Campbell or Phil or Molo did at what point during what song. Although I heard every note, and it has replayed a thousand times already, I am still sitting with Kesey and Jerry and Terence back there on the riverbank. I am home. I returned to the states over a month ago, but it is just now that I'm home.