An early version of this essay was first published in Dead Reckoning: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. Edited by John Rocco. New York: Schirmer Books, 1999. pp. 172-181.
Tuning In Together: Daniel Webster, Alfred Schutz, and the Grateful Dead
Like accounts of the Grateful Dead, the stories
people told about Daniel Webster are hard to believe. During the nineteenth
century Webster was hailed as one of the primary voices of American civic
culture, defining the terms of national union in the turbulent decades prior to
the Civil War. From his renowned legal defense of
Today, however, most people read Webster’s speeches
with a grimace rather than with pleasure. It seems that Webster’s audiences
must have been under a spell of patriotic hysteria. Similarly, accounts of
people’s experience at Grateful Dead concerts tend to have the same problem.
They often fall prey to the anticlimactic claims of “you had to be there” or
invocations of a mystical ritual that exceeds description in words (neither of
which have I found very helpful or enlightening). To most non-fans of Grateful
Dead, recordings from even their most inspired concerts hardly even qualify as
music: perhaps the people who had their lives transformed by it were too young,
took too many drugs, or had too much of something. However, it might be a
mistake to discredit the records of either experience, largely because the
stories are so widely shared. Upwards of 15,000 people climbed up
The key to understanding the effect of Webster’s speeches and the Dead’s concerts is the audience participation in the event, a desire on the part of the fans to experience a profound moment of transcendental contact. Nineteenth-century audiences met Webster’s invocations of patriotism halfway, supplying a spiritual significance to Webster’s words. Webster bonded with his audiences in a synergy that changed both performer and crowd. And like the experience of seeing Daniel Webster in the 1820s and 30s, a communion of collective consciousness is what the Grateful Dead and their fans create at a rock concert. At the end of this essay I propose that myths of the transformative power of Daniel Webster’s eloquence echo throughout the lyrics of many Grateful Dead songs. My main topic, however, is the intersubjective elements of literary and musical performance. The Grateful Dead’s psychedelic music is a powerful example of the reciprocal creation of an artistic event among audience and performer. In what follows, I argue that the Grateful Dead’s music hinges on two related ideas. First, their music is about transformation. Second, I attribute the sound of transformation to the collective agency of the band members and the audience.
There are a variety of responses to the Grateful Dead’s music. Some people went to their concerts because it was a party, full of sex and drugs, family, and friends. Some people like the laid-back sound, associating it with country music, the blues, and American folk traditions. Some people like the music in the same way they like any other rock music---Dead CDs sit right next to their Nirvana or Eric Clapton albums. There are also people who like certain Dead songs, but not others. All these are legitimate elements of the Grateful Dead experience.
Among all of these varieties of appeal, however, one crucial element of a Dead show is their psychedelic music. The psychedelic is not a topic on which there is definite consensus because people hear it in different ways. But among seasoned Deadheads who live to hear it, there is often a nod exchanged among people when it happens. Fans use expressions like “X factor,” “multi-leveled,” “the monster,” “the Zone,” and other names they make up to describe what is probably inexpressible. One fan I know calls it “megalopolis.” Although the Dead’s music arose amidst LSD culture, many of their fans hear the monster without using drugs.
Unfortunately, the phenomenon is difficult to pin down. It usually occurs between songs but once people get accustomed to hearing it, they can hear it in almost anything the group plays, from the improvisations between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain,” to the Dead’s country songs like “El Paso.”
The psychedelic moments sometimes convey an impression of a lazy but inexorable squeezing, where a thousand rhythms are corralled into a few notes or a minuscule point in time. The music---sometimes notes, sometimes rhythms and combinations of notes--arcs like the lines of force around the poles of a magnet. Or the notes start to sound like a thick electric fluid, syrupy and warped, rather than drum beats or guitar chops. During a jam, perhaps the music sounds like a highly dexterous octopus simultaneously performing many tasks in an impossibly short length of time. At other times it’s sort of a pointillist gyroscopic resonance generated between guitarists in songs such as the “Viola Lee Blues,” or the flamenco windups of “Morning Dew.” In visual terms, the rhythms can sound like the slowdown effect of a wildly spinning ball just before it drops through the hole in a funnel. But whatever its particular manifestation, the Dead’s brand of psychedelic music is always complex, involving millisecond timing and co-ordination, and it invites a sort of attention that other music does not. It is as if listeners find themselves asking, “are they doing what I think they’re doing?” And the answer is, creepily enough, “yes, I think they ARE!”
These sorts of effects often occur in abstract jazz music, but few jazz musicians seem interested in pursuing psychedelic effects in themselves---the psychedelic is only one aspect of music that jazz artists might draw on at a given time. However, Miles Davis, who seldom had a kind word for white-boy rock’n’roll, spoke with respect about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead after hearing them in 1970 at the Fillmore East. Whatever it was they did, it impressed him (Davis 301-2).
Perhaps the most accessible example of the phenomenon I am describing occurs during “Unbroken Chain” on the album, Mars Hotel. During the instrumental portion of the song, the sounds of the separate instruments fuse into a collective rhythm which takes on a physical shape and density. The sound that emerges is what I refer to as psychedelic. In interviews, Phil Lesh has declared that “Unbroken Chain” was a botched attempt to record what the band did on stage live (Gans, “Phil” 73). For many Dead fans, it nonetheless remains a fairly good approximation. In Lesh’s autobiography, Searching for the Sound, he also said that the version of “Viola Lee Blues” on the first album is close to capturing what the band was doing in its early years (99).
One simple explanation, quite likely by most outsiders’ judgment, is that the psychedelic phenomenon does not exist. It’s just a subjective impression. But if it is a hallucination, I argue that it is intriguing because it is a communally generated one, definitely shared by both the band and the audience. Almost everyone I have ever met on tour knows about those complicated effects that the Dead can generate. Part of the sound is knowing that other people are listening to it, hence the popularity of audience recordings. It is enjoyable because it is like being let in on a secret. Everybody knows that the band is trying to bring the monster to life. The promise of the second set is that the band is warmed up enough to pull it off.
Thus, the Dead’s psychedelic sound is a group experience, an example of what can happen in other public art forms, where performers and audience develop an intuitive reciprocity. To refer back to my opening gambit about Daniel Webster, I’m not comparing the content or style of Webster’s oratory to the Grateful Dead’s music. Rather, I argue that the reception of Webster’s oratory by nineteenth-century audiences, their awareness that a spiritual transformation was taking place, is similar to the X-factor of Grateful Dead concerts. The psychedelic elements of the Dead’s music have been formed in the cooperative invention of a ritual, or a set of social expectations between audience and performers (Hobsbawm). In George Ticknor’s words, the reward of seeing Daniel Webster speak was not strictly in what he said, but in watching him move toward an idea with simplicity and courage:
to those who are familiar with Mr. Webster, and the workings of his mind, it is well known, that, in this very plainness; in this earnest pursuit of truth for truth’s sake, and of the principles of law for the sake of right and justice, and in his obvious desire to reach them all by the most direct and simple means, is to be found no small part of the secret of his power (“Webster’s” 436).
Just as Ticknor’s appreciation of Webster involves his assumption that he knows the workings of Webster’s mind, Dead fans enjoy knowing what the Dead is doing. The Dead’s psychedelic experience draws on this bond.
The Dead’s psychedelic sound is composed of two stages of transformation. The first type occurs during the segueways between songs, where one song changes into another. Generally speaking, this is where the psychedelic quality of the Dead’s music is most evident. In some instances, the transformation is particularly exciting, shifting from a loose, exploratory drifting to a decisive pursuit of a new rhythm or melody. Other so-called jam bands, like the Allman Brothers, Phish, or Moe, also perform this first kind of transformation.
At the same time, however, there is a second stage of transformation that also takes place. The volume generally comes up, the musicians’ playing becomes more economical, and the music often takes on a visualizable clarity. The sound develops suction, pressure, or friction. The bass and drums begin to pulse rather than beat. Garcia’s guitar licks begin to shoot and glimmer in streams of plasma, pivoting at the millisecond intervals between rhythms with astonishing precision. Weir’s guitar starts tying steel bowties around Garcia’s notes. Notes liquify. Rhythms turn inside out, open like flowers, and invert backwards on themselves. Suddenly the music transforms from the sound of a couple guys banging out a graceful transition from one song to another, into a kind of electromagnetic field of syncopated activity. The music begins to sound like the metaphors we use to discuss quantum mechanics, with shells, fields of energy, and spinning electrons. At this stage, even the notes start to atomize and develop a topography or rhythmic texture---almost becoming “songs” within themselves---exponentially compounding the rhythms of the original song. (As bizarre as it sounds, I suspect that everyone who has heard a lot of the Dead’s music will agree with many of these outlandish claims, and people do not need drugs to hear it.)
I believe a friend was referring to the fugue-like intricacy of the music when he turned to me in the middle of a show and said, “there are little Sugar Magnolias inside the big Sugar Magnolias.” The truth the Deadheads know, however, is that there are little Sugar Magnolias inside of everything that they play. When people talk about the psychedelic aspects of the Dead sound, these sorts of effects are what they mean.
In contrast to other bands who get more frantic the better they play (I’m thinking of rock bands like Van Halen, Frank Zappa, or Pearl Jam), the Grateful Dead seem to get better by implying that they are holding back, or only skirting the contours of something much bigger or faster than what they are playing. Most jam bands never make it to secondary stage transformation, and if they do, they can only hold it for a few moments before it disintegrates. For the Grateful Dead, this perceptual shift---a movement from “song” to electromagnetic joyride---is where the real music begins, not where it culminates.
At a good performance, even the Dead’s country songs, those without extended jams or transitions, transform in this way. For example, songs like “Cumberland Blues,” “Sugaree,” or “Ramble On Rose,” which outsiders might consider to be some of the Dead’s more successful countrified tunes, become virtuoso performances of syncopation. At certain moments during good renditions of the songs, the band creates sonic patterns that are so complex that it goes far beyond human understanding. It is not a question of liking or disliking it. Anyone who hears it for the first time is filled with awe. And to name any one song as better than another in this regard is pointless. If the band is in the right mood, any of their songs transforms from a pokey melody into a tightly articulated visual sculpture of living, pulsing sound.
In the late sixties, some of the
songs that had a reputation for elaborate rhythmic effects were “Caution,”
“Alligator,” and the “Other One.” (Although, as I have tried to explain, it’s
not just a question of “rhythms” and “melodies”: as in most good music, the
traditional terms we use to define it only point in a direction where it can be
felt rather than schematized.) In the late 1990s, a fan on DeadNet captured a
sense of the precision involved in the sound when he started a discussion
thread about people’s favorite “Deadly Sharp and Pointy Alligators.” He was talking
about the maddeningly tight matrix of needling sounds that the band could
generate in good versions of
“Alligator>Caution” (check out the Shrine on November 10, 1967—even
the needles have needles). The savage attack of the “Other One” at the Fillmore
East on February 13, 1970 is also sharp and pointy, and its edge comes not only
from the chops of the guitars but from a subtle harmonic friction between the
instruments. One might describe these moments, as Todd Prusin does in his
review of a 1992
One music critic who early on
noticed the unique quality of the Grateful Dead's sound was Michael Lydon, a
founder of Rolling Stone and
The Grateful Dead [. . .] were
beautiful. They did at top volume what [
That sounds crazy now, but that’s how it seemed. The Dead built a driving, unshakable rhythm which acted not just as rhythm, but as a wall of noise on which the solos were etched. The solos were barley perceptible in the din, yet they were there like fine scrolls on granite. At moments Garcia and Weir played like one instrument, rocking toward each other. Garcia could do anything.
What was Lydon talking about---Garcia better than Jimi Hendrix? (I assume he took drugs for all the bands, not just the Dead's set). With his references to "pure" music and Ravi Shankar, I suspect he meant that the Dead's approach was more expressive of an otherworldly universe than the postured styles of artists like The Who or Hendrix. Even though Garcia initially has a very characteristic and idiosyncratic sound (that noodle-y approach), by the middle of a good rendition of a song, he and the band around him simply transform into pulsing electricity.
Although the psychedelic elements of “rave” music initially appear to be similar to Grateful Dead music (after all, raves are descended from the Acid Tests), the electrical rhythms, hums, and resonances that compose the layers of rave sound are superficial (and rather hokey) in comparison to secondary-level Dead transformation. As intriguing as the cosmic whifferdills and chicka-wokkas of Ecstasy-based music might be, they typically sound like they are painted on a house beat, rather than being part of a living, developing force. Similarly, jam bands who imitate the psychedelic sound often employ a delicate syncopation at the treble end of their music to evoke the jangly “Peppermint-and-Incense” psychedelic effect but the depth of their jams doesn’t go much further than that.
Is the monster real? It is hard to say objectively because some people can not seem to hear it at all, even when they have been put in front of a loudspeaker. And those who can hear it do not always agree when it happens. (And how tedious it was to hear debates about the relative quality of a legendary performance in the parking lot afterwards.) Investigation into this area is dogged by the Solaris effect (of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, and the 2002 movie) where the phenomenon may indeed be “mind-manifested” by different individuals. In contrast to the unique, personalized hallucinations of Solaris, however, most experienced Deadheads generally agree about the effects they are hearing, even though they may disagree about the content of a given rendition.
Although Deadheads use different languages to describe the psychedelic sound, I believe they are referring to roughly the same thing. In the words of Rock Scully, one of the band’s managers, it’s the awareness that the individual song is irrelevant. All songs are merely “shipping units” that give the Dead a basic architecture to begin playing something else (Scully 18).
Another problem with identifying the X-factor is that the psychedelic content of a given passage can vary with individual listeners over time. Most fans with live concert collections know the phenomenon I’m talking about is on the recordings, but oftentimes, the spidery and engrossing multi-leveled sound is not there as intensely every time the recording is played. Some people find their favorite shows have more gravity when played in some contexts than in others, and the effect seems to be largely unrelated to the volume or quality of the sound system: it can happen on the cheapest of tapedecks. Rather, it seems to depend on the state of mind of the people hearing it at a given time and place.
In addition to the way
time-and-place seems to affect hearing the sound, most Deadheads would probably
agree that the appreciation of X-factor seems to be enhanced in the context of
hearing an entire set or show from beginning to end. Believing that the Dead's
music is best heard in the context of a single show, the Dead's late archivist
Dick Latvala of Dick's Picks decided
to release entire shows (and even runs of several days) rather than distribute
fragmented highlights from a given tour or year. Many fans play a whole set
(like Roosevelt Stadium 8-1-73,
Community and “Tuning In”
So, given the subjectivity and variability of the effect, what is it that fans are listening to? What makes the Grateful Dead different than most other jazz musicians? I believe that the Grateful Dead’s music is actually part of a lifeworld created by active listeners. This lifeworld is learned, either from hearing Grateful Dead music on numerous occasions, or from being open to hearing the music in a certain way. Rebecca Adams’ work on the interaction between music and friendship in the Grateful Dead community is helpful here. The Grateful Dead experience materializes in the interactions of several communities: in the improvisational relations of the stage ensemble; in the social relations among audience members; and finally, in the band’s relationship to the audience, often suggested through their lyrics as a transcendental bond (“The Music Never Stopped”; “Eyes of the World”; “Ripple”). Their music constitutes itself through the enthusiastic interaction of these participants. The primary community responsible for the music is, of course, the band itself. (As Phil Lesh has noted, the Dead’s daily practicing in the early years of their career allowed them to develop an unusually close musical rapport for a rock band (Searching 102)). But particularly in the early stages of the band’s career, their music was part of an event---the Acid Tests.
As in any community, there is a collective pedagogy at work. People teach each other how to understand their world. This education occurs on several levels, and it starts primarily with the band’s style of musical interaction. The millisecond pause that characterizes much of the Dead’s music (their slow or hesitating sound), allows the band members to hear what each other does. Their responsiveness to each other is a crucial part of the sound. One can hear band members respecting the spaces for the others to play. (Almost every show in May 1977 is particularly delightful in this regard). Audience members also teach each other how to hear: “listen for the gaps, not the notes,” “what a ‘big’ Johnny B. Goode,” “listen to Garcia’s rubbery sound.” Appreciating the Dead’s sound requires more work than pop rock does, but once a person develops the talent, it is hard to listen to any music in any other way. Pop music starts to sound ridiculously shallow, and even a lot of what passes for jazz seems like tedious noodling without much purpose. It’s a process of education, but the pedagogy is not a specific set of doctrines. Rather, it is a socialized posture toward listening.
One philosopher who tried to describe the interactive elements of a musical event was Alfred Schutz (1899-1959). Schutz, a disciple of Husserl and Bergson, was interested in describing human experience in relation to time, flux, and memory. He was attempting to break from a tradition of western philosophy oriented around static metaphors of sight and space---analyses of “subject” and “object” in a hypothetical, frozen moment. Schutz looked to audition as a means for talking about the flow of consciousness through time---Henri Bergson’s durée. (Bergson’s durée is the long impression of past-present-and-future which composes our sense of the now). Because sound has temporal duration, Schutz felt that it was a better means for discussing the operations of consciousness, human sociality, and “possibility of living together simultaneously in specific dimensions of time” (Schutz 162). Schutz thought of music as a communicative structure which takes listeners through the durée psychologique, or the stream of consciousness, of another person. Listeners hear the projection of the composer’s mental state and journey through that experience. Schutz called this experience “tuning-in” to the composer’s durée (Mendoza de Arce 58).
For Schutz, music is a doorway to the living consciousness of other people, stripped of conceptual ideas (Schutz 159). Schutz felt that some forms of literary narrative could achieve the same effect, but words generally obstruct contact with the durée itself. In contrast to seeing a word or a sentence on a page (which is virtually instant and which refers to a previously established network of ideas in other books), the significance of a musical note is purely situational: it is conveyed over time in relation to other notes.1 Schutz usually referred to Mozart and Wagner for his examples, types of scripted music I do not associate with the pulsing, interactive experience of the Grateful Dead’s sound, but toward the end of his life he became greatly interested in improvisational jazz. His characterization of musical experience helps explain how the Dead’s music can be thought of as the focal point of a communal consciousness.
Indeed, the Dead have cultivated an aura, like Daniel Webster did, of articulating on stage what the audience, as a group, is thinking about. An early and uncanny comment about the Grateful Dead’s music has become an important myth: their sound is the consciousness of the people coming to hear it. As Rock Scully remarked when he first saw them, they were “uncannily tuned into the wavelength of the room” (Scully 10). John Dwork, co-editor of the Deadhead’s Taping Compendium, finds Dead music valuable in particular as a “vehicle for inner travel” (3:7). The promise of a Grateful Dead concert is to commune with, or journey with, a collective mind.
The idea of bonding with a collective mind can be taken in two ways. The first is the literal interpretation, suggested in David Gans’ interesting 1991 interview with Owsley Stanley, or as he prefers to be known, Bear. Bear remarks that there seems to be a physical connection between electric instruments, psychedelic use, and the people present at a musical event. The music, the electrons in the people’s DNA, and the hallucinogens all begin to work together. In Bear’s view, and he’s not too clear in the interview, he seems to be suggesting that what people hear at a Dead show is their DNA electrons spinning (Gans, Conversations 304).2 Perhaps he simply means that the Dead have learned how to play the “sound” of what the mind tends to do when it is on hallucinogens. In either case, while some Deadheads may find these interpretations fairly plausible (particularly the second), they are hard to make with a straight face to a community of non-Deadheads.
Rather, I’m more comfortable talking about Bear’s remarks as part of the discourse which has shaped the band’s music and our understanding of it. Simon Frith, in his discussions of popular music, points out that the sound of a given group is crucially linked to the way people talk about it---the way they make that music mean something to them. In other words, the discourse about the Grateful Dead partially constitutes their sound. In Frith’s view, however, this is true for all types of music.
What makes it particularly germane to the Grateful Dead? Bear’s statement that the Grateful Dead is the sound of our communal brains buzzing may not be technically verifiable, but his comment, and others like it, have influenced the way the Grateful Dead’s music is performed and understood. The musicians, as well as the audience, have created an imaginary place to go. Call it a collective promise or a social contract. Listening to the Grateful Dead is more like playing in a fun house (where band and audience have constituted their environment) than consuming a product. Or, as Frith might argue, that is how the musicians and the fans have come to understand it. The audience participates in hearing the Dead’s western ballads, love songs, and folk tunes as a cosmic communion. More importantly, however, the appreciation of these moments is intensified---if not actually created---by the awareness that everyone present is listening for the same thing.
The resistance of the psychedelic to verbalization underlies the primary difference between Dead concerts and Daniel Webster’s oratory, or, for that matter the cultish behavior of other music fans, like Jimmy Buffet’s Parrotheads. All these experiences manifest audience participation; all these performances gain their power through an interactive process between artist and audience. But Grateful Dead audiences are participating in a far more abstract social event than celebrations of patriotism or cheeseburgers-in-paradise. The psychedelic is a social conspiracy stripped of conceptual meaning. Unlike Webster’s invocations of national union, which can be frozen on a transcript and interpreted “spatially” (in Schutz’s terms), or Buffet’s promise of vacation-time, the psychedelic effect of the Grateful Dead’s music is a psychological process. It only unfolds during the time it takes to listen to it. As the band’s lyrics constantly point out, the music is about itself. This non-conceptual self-referentiality is also what separates Grateful Dead from other forms of cult music, like punk, where the music is about “something” identifiable in the outside world, such as rebellion or partying or politics. The Dead’s music has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.
Other Deads, Other Jam Bands
Looking at later permutations of the Grateful Dead since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, (The Other Ones, The Dead, Phil and Friends, Ratdog), it has become clear that the transformative effects of the original band were significantly due to Garcia’s remarkable gifts as a guitarist. Garcia was not a lick-meister who built his solos from a repertoire of catchy chops. Rather, he developed long paragraphs of notes. Even during the worst years of his heroin addiction, Garcia tried to approach each song as if he were playing it for the first time. Within a few bars of each version of the hundreds of renditions of “Scarlet Begonias,” Garcia seemed to find the song spoke to him in a different way, and he tried to finish the song by fulfilling the possibilities generated by that new beginning. Garcia let each song take him to a new place, and he trusted himself to follow it, trying not to fall back on how well he played the song the last time. A large part of the Grateful Dead’s commitment to a transformative sound and style grew from Garcia’s ability to celebrate a given note and moment.
In recent years, Phil Lesh has emerged as the flame-keeper of the old band. Despite the many changes in guitarists since Garcia---Mark Karan, Steve Kimock, Jimmy Herring, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, and Jeff Campbell, among others---Phil has been training the bands he has created to do what Grateful Dead did, but with new material. (In contrast, Bob Weir’s band, Ratdog, initially sounded a lot like Weir’s style of guitar playing: sharp and angular, rhythmically complex but rather cold. They’ve gotten much better over the past several years.) As Phil’s bands show, he wants to keep playing psychedelic music, and he often acknowledges that the audience is part of it at the end of his shows. During his closing remarks before the encore of each show about the importance of becoming an organ donor, Phil thanks the crowd for helping to make “this kind of music” possible. Of course, he simply means buying tickets to what’s-left-of the-Grateful-Dead, but more importantly, I think he means providing the necessary reception for what psychedelic music is. He’s aware that it’s a group commitment.
The success of Phil and Friends, at least of 2007, has been mixed: his bands make it to a primary level of transformation easily but because of the rotating membership, they have difficulty sustaining the very abstract sound of second level transformation for very long (that sort of achievement seems to require that the musicians stick with each other for a while). Given the limitations of the other jam bands out there, like Moe or Phish, who have toured for many years on an ethos of exploratory psychedelic jamming, Phil’s ensembles are noticeably better (at the very least, Joan Osborne’s rich and bluesy voice was a welcome addition to the Dead sound). There is no question, however, that the people who go Ratdog, Phil, Moe, or String Cheese Incident shows are looking for the unscripted “thing” that the Grateful Dead created. Phil’s bands just do it better than most other bands do.
Although the Grateful Dead’s instrumental music defies translation into ideas, the Dead’s lyrics borrow from an American literary tradition, stretching from Emerson to the Beats, which celebrates the ecstatic, transformative, and intersubjective elements of public performance. As Schutz points out, some forms of literary expression, like lyric poetry, convey the intersubjective effects of music. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman grew up amid the myths of Daniel Webster’s eloquence. Webster was one of Emerson’s heroes in his youth, a figure who Emerson claimed could “galvanize” with the spirit of the nation, enabling both to “speak words not their own” (JMN 5:103). Emerson liked oratory because it transported him in a magnetic fusion of speaker and audience. For this reason, Emerson filled his journals with extensive appraisals of the orators of his day.
Emerson’s lectures, whose words Robert Hunter and John Barlow have often adapted for Grateful Dead lyrics, venerated the transformative power of the great poet-orators of the period. At one point, Emerson wrote that oratory “is an organ of sublime power, a panharmonicon for a variety of note. But only then is the orator successful when he is himself agitated and is as much a hearer as any in the assembly. In that office you may and shall (please God) yet see the electricity part from the cloud & shine from one part of the heaven to another” (JMN 7: 224-5). Emerson, with figures like Webster in mind, defined oratory as collective ecstasy. Both audience and performer conspire to open up a space for the transmission of divine electricity. In the words of John Barlow, the bolts of “Lazy Lightning” are what Dead audiences came to hear again and again.
Another orator, Father Edward T.
Taylor, a revivalist preacher at
Finally, concluding his thoughts on
What an eloquence he suggests. Ah could he guide those grand sea horses [of eloquence], with which he rides & caracoles on the waves of the sunny ocean. But no; he sits & is drawn up & down the ocean currents by the strong sea-monsters;--only on the condition that he shall not guide. One orator makes many. How many orators sit there mute below. They come to get justice done to the ear & intuition which no Chatham & no Demosthenes has begun to satisfy.
(emphasis mine, JMN 10: 402).
Emerson composed his lectures and essays to lead his audiences through the sense of dialectic transformation that he perceived in Taylor and Webster. As many contemporary Emerson scholars point out, the secret of Emerson’s writing is its endless transformation. His words won’t stand still, each an “infinitely repellent particle” of manifold energy (Packer 2). His words oblige readers to participate in the flux of a mind at work. Walt Whitman, Emerson’s student, employs the same strategy in his poetry. “Song of Myself” is an attempt to provoke a mystical experience of collective union which breaks down the barriers between body and soul, poet and reader. Like Emerson, he sought to induce a state of intersubjective ecstasy. When Grateful Dead fans listen to their favorite tapes, they’re listening for, and creating, the same thing.
1. Putting too much significance into the difference between a word and a note could be disputed. After all, musicians routinely draw on musical phrases from other compositions which have developed “meanings.” For example, a few notes from “Amazing Grace” in a jazz composition might summon feelings of down-homeness or melancholy, or simply flag a different musical universe. But what Schutz meant was that notes take their primary significance not from their previous incarnations but from their actual environment in a song. In other words, notes are more like salvaged bricks than words are—they don’t intrinsically “mean” what they did when they once composed a church; in their new form, they might compose a school or a crematorium. Words, on the other hand, often carry more residue of their origins and have a more specific use-function built into them. Thus, Schutz felt that words get in the way of seeing what is going on in the durée. Writers who have been successful using words like notes might include Ralph Waldo Emerson: most high level Emerson scholars are aware that Emerson is trying to use words to imitate and activate mental processes rather than to describe a world---the words themselves don’t “mean” what they used to in his prose.
2. In email conversations with Bear since the initial publication of this essay, he wrote to me that in his interview with David Gans he was making no claims about Grateful Dead being the sound of our communal DNA buzzing. He regarded that characterization as absurd, but he said the Gans interview had been severely edited for publication. Rather, he said he was simply making the observation that DMT use in the audience raises the volume of the music for all listeners in that environment. Bear’s correction is tangent to the discussion here.
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