The Magic and Mysticism of the Grateful Dead
by Matthew Rick
"They're a band beyond description,
like Jehovah's favorite choir.
People join in hand in hand while the music plays the band
Lord, they're setting us on fire"
-- "The Music Never Stopped" by John Barlow and Bob Weir
Centuries from now, if someone were to dig through the pages of rock 'n' roll history it is doubtful that they would find a 20th century musical act that would generate more mystery, curiosity and misconception than the bizarre entity known as the Grateful Dead, with its tie-dyed legions of the faithful, the Deadheads. Believed by many to be the musical "keepers of the flame" of the elusive "spirit of the Sixties," the Dead were also, consciously and unconsciously, involved in the creation and continual reinvention of a living, growing mythical universe, filled with images, archetypes and references ranging from the mundane to the arcane.
Since their inception in 1965, the Grateful Dead had always been associated with magic, mysticism, and folklore. Even the band's former name, The Warlocks, meant a group of male wizards. Through the years, from their legacy as the House Band at the Merry Prankster's Acid Tests to their disbandment following the death of singer / guitarist and reluctant frontman Jerry Garcia, magic remained a vital ingredient in the Grateful Dead experience.
According to Deadhead lore, Jerry Garcia drew the band's name from a 1955 Funk and Wagnall's New Practical Standard Dictionary of the English Language. The definition was as follows:
grateful dead - The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero's coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts. He gives his last penny, either to pay the man's debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours he meets with a travelling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune, saves his life, etc. The story ends with the companion's disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the other had befriended. 1.
This definition of the Grateful Dead gives an image of the band that is closely linked to karmic retribution (or, in the more vernacular, "what goes around comes around.") Such sentiments were evident everywhere at Grateful Dead shows, from lyrics such as "whichever way your pleasure tends, if you plant ice, you're gonna harvest wind" to the gifting of "miracle tickets" (free tickets handed out -- often by complete strangers -- to ticketless heads in the lot.)
But what's in a name? After all, Garcia merely drew the name at random from a dictionary and liked it for its weird appeal. He apparently had no knowledge that the curious moniker had roots which may date back to a passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The passage, included in part on the cover of the band's first album, today graces the walls of many head shops across the nation. It reads:
Amidst the sullen Darkness there shown a solitary Lite
For it is known 'Neath the Sands of the Pharoahs
That deep in the Land of Nite,
The Ship of the Sun is drawn by The Grateful Dead.2.
Alone, a name associated with cryptic references is not enough to account for the mystique surrounding the Dead, though. There was no mistaking that they were not America's standard Top 40 pop music fare. Even during the anti-war '60's, the Dead gave little lip service to the protest movements. Their early lyrics, most often the work of Robert Hunter, were more likely to sound like zen koans than New Left political rhetoric, and the music had a style that was too erratic to be easily packaged into commercial radio.
Much of this was due to their bizarre heritage. Coming from backgrounds in a diverse range of musical training and interests ranging from roots music, folk, jazz, classical, bluegrass and blues, The Dead went from being an amateur jug band to plugging in and becoming rock 'n' rollers. With the additional perspective lent by the infusion of LSD, and a creative space to improvise and explore new musical terrain, provided by the Merry Pranksters, an iconoclastic cadre of Beat inspired psychedelicists, the Dead began what Garcia would later describe as a thirty year "psychopharmamusicalogical experiment." The result was a band that was much more interested in exploring their musical potential than in cutting singles.
In describing how the Warlock/GD performances at the Pranksters' Acid Tests would change to suit the moods of the audience and venue on a particular night, Prankster Ken Kesey said, "They weren't just playing what was on the music sheets, they were playing what was in the air. That means that the band [had] to be supple."3.
Then there was the Cassady factor. Through the influence of Neal Cassady, the infamous Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and, later, the madman who comandeered the Prankster bus FURTHUR from coast to coast, the Grateful Dead became, in many respects, the spiritual legatees of the Beats. Similarly, the Deadheads were the natural descendants of the Dharma Bums, carrying on the rucksack revolution where Kerouac's little St. Theresa bum left off.
During and after the Acid Tests as the band continued to play off one another's strengths and weaknesses, they developed a sense of "misfit power" and found their analogues not in music history texts but in the pages of science fiction novels. A particular favorite was Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, in which the main characters comprise an entity that is collectively more powerful than its component parts.
At live performances, the band discovered that this organism was made up not only of themselves, but of the audience as well. In time, a reciprocal agreement developed between them and their audience. At their best, energy was exchanged, raised to higher and higher plateaus, reach a peak or crescendo, and then taper, allowing for a safe re-entry into the trials and tribulations of everyday life, often providing new insights brought about by a change of perspective.
Although unwilling to interpret their role as a vehicle for personal transformation, the band acknowledged that they were interested in utilizing the music as a vehicle for something than extended beyond recreation.
As Jerry Garcia would later say, "I think basically the Grateful Dead is not for cranking out rock and roll, it's not for going out and doing concerts or any of that stuff. I think it's to get high. To get really high is to forget yourself. And to forget yourself is to see everything else. And to see everything else is to become an understanding molecule in evolution, a conscious tool of the universe. And I think every human being should be a conscious tool of the universe." 4.
Some nights the band and audience were capable of achieving this lift-off. Other nights they were not. But year after year, this band beyond description would tour the country, playing more sold-out concerts than any other band in the known history of the universe.
Dead Tour became the natural heir of West Coast bohemianism. The passing of the torch from the Beats to the psychedelicists, through the being of Neal Cassady, is well documented in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. When the Haight-Ashbury district became crippled by floods of homeless children and too many wolves in sheep's clothing, the Dead moved north to Marin and Mendocino counties and the "scene" continued to thrive where it began -- on the road. The road was the central spiritual metaphor that ran throughout the Grateful Dead universe. The band and fans would criss-cross the country two and three times a year, and Dead Tour became the archetypal Fool's Journey of the Saint of the Circumstance on the Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion.
As many a Tour Head will attest, the magic of the Grateful Dead was in being present -- witnessing that moment when one of the band's legendary space jams would open up and the music would lift off into the unknown. These moments also brought with them experiences of personal revelation and a sense of connectedness, a feeling of being part of a larger whole, not unlike being cells that make up an organism.
Once these feelings began to be articulated, heads began to discover that they were not alone in these sensations and subsequently they developed a language to talk about these shared experiences. Perhaps the most common and easily accessible term was "the groupmind -- the collective identity or gestalt created at Deadshows."5.
With The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in many ways the definitive book on West Coast psychedelia, Tom Wolfe tried to capture the mojo, the groupmind gestalt, shared between the Merry Pranksters, and, by extension, the people who attended the Acid Tests by describing it in terms of sacred geometry. The phenomena was The Unspoken Thing, which occasionally gave way to kairos -- the supreme moment -- a time when temporal time intersected with universal time to bring about -- COSMO! -- a lightning flash of illumination. Zen master satori!
"Every once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right."
Nevertheless, there was no way to force the mojo. The supreme moment could be coaxed along by band and audience, but there were never any guarantees.
"We can raise the sail, but we can't make the wind come. 'Raising the sail' is preparing to be moved. Spirit is the wind, the sense of musical well-being, of being together. This is a unanimous process." 6. -- Mickey Hart
Magical references abound in the Grateful Dead universe, and heads frequently consult oracles and use synchronicity as signposts. In recalling his earliest travels with Neal Cassady, singer/ guitarist Bob Weir speaks of "Radio I Ching" and the words on the radio corresponding to the spontaneous raps pouring from Cassady's mouth. In time, the Deadheads began to recognize a similar phenomena as Radio I Ching -- hearing the band sing thoughts that mirrored their own consciousness. Or the outer world, as in the case where the Dead played their crowd pleaser "Fire on the Mountain" in Portland, Oregon, at about the same time that Mount St. Helens erupted for the second time in three weeks.7.
Synchronicity, or presence of "meaningful coincidences" abounds in the Deadhead cosmology. There is even an example of one such "meaningful coincidence" in a popular translation of the I Ching text. The fifty-sixth hexagram, Fire on the Mountain, is described "The image of the Wanderer." As noted in the previous paragraph, "Fire on the Mountain" is a highly popular Dead tune. What could better describe a Deadhead than "the image of the wanderer"?
Similarly, references to Deadisticism appear in other obscure texts. The term Dead Head for example: "In the alchemical process there was a phase called the 'Caput Mortuum,' or 'Dead Head,' -- the 'Nigredo' or 'Blackening' that was said to occur before the precepitation of the philosopher's stone."8. If taken to its natural conclusion, this would seem to imply that the Deadhead phenomena, on a universal scale, is an alchemical phase (the Nigredo perhaps describing the prevalence of self-destructive hedonism on Dead Tour?) necessary before the precipitation of universal enlightenment. (Or simply "furthur" proof of what Prankster Wavy Gravy refers to as "the Cosmic Giggle"?)
On the band's side of the laminated curtain there are plenty of references to magical symbolism as well. In the early Seventies, band members and extended family began a company to do extensive tinkering with experimental sound equipment (producing such results as their legendary Wall of Sound). For the name of the company, Bear, the band's resident alchemist, chose Alembic, an alchemical vessel wherein gold is distilled from the dross. In a 1973 Deadheads newsletter, St. Dilbert, the patron saint of Hypnocracy, used Uroborous, the ancient mystical symbol of a serpent swallowing its tail, to describe the bands viscious circle of More Gigs - Larger Halls - More Equipment - Bigger Organization - Larger Overhead - More Gigs... ad infinitum. (If the poor saint only knew how Uroborous' hunger would grow in twenty years to follow...)
According to the largely unpopular book The Dead by Hank Harrison, Harrison claims that during this period he was making regular trips to the Warburg Institute, home of one of the world's most extensive libraries of hermetic literature, and bringing back mystic volumes that the Dead were reading voraciously.
In addition, there is evidence that individual members of the band, to varying degrees, were interested in actively exploring and utilizing techniques that have come to be called "magical." Though reluctant to speak of such things, fearing (perhaps quite wisely) that Tour Heads will mistakenly give unwanted weight and misunderstanding to their words, the Dead venture into specifics on occasion.
Lyrcist Robert Hunter is a poet in the manner described by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. When Hunter speaks of "invoking the muse" to produce his finest works, he insists "the muse is not a trope."9.
"I've got this one spirit that's laying roses on me. Roses, roses -- can't get enough of those bloody roses. (The spirit) gives me a lot of other good lines too, but if I don't put the roses in, it goes away for a while. It's the most prominent image, as far as I'm concerned, in the human brain. Beauty, delicacy, short-livedness... There is no better allegory for -- dare I say it? -- life, than roses. It never fails. When you put a rose somewhere, it'll do what it's supposed to do. Same way with certain jewels -- I like a diamond here, a ruby there, a rose, certain kinds of buildings, vehicles, gems. These things are real, and the word evokes the thing. That's what we're working with, evocation."10.
Apparently a similar muse was visiting Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse when they first discovered the "Skull 'n' Roses," one of the most prominent Grateful Dead symbols. Skull 'n' Roses (or Skullfuck as the band likes to refer to it) was originally an illustration by Edmund J. Sullivan in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a Persian spiritual text. The design was utilized by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse as the center piece of an Avalon Ballroom poster for the band in 1968. "We had been looking for something to use for the Grateful Dead. Kelley and I just looked at each other and said, ' There it is, the perfect picture.' And so we designed a poster around that picture. We knew when it was finished that it was really hot because it felt right. It just fit so good with the name. The skeleton that symbolized death and the roses that symbolized rebirth and love. It just said Grateful Dead."11.
Throughout their career, the band ventured into numerous unorthodox waters, always pushing the outer limits of what it meant to be a rock 'n' roll band. While never espousing a particular philosophy or belief system, they took pleasure in playing "power spots," often on auspicious dates like solstices and equinoxes. In 1987 during the much publicized Harmonic Convergence, the Dead played Telluride, Colorado, following a set by Babatunde Olatunji. And, of course, the band played historic concerts in Egypt in 1978, where some members of the band's extended family were even allowed access to see the Ship of the Sun.
Very few, if any, people on the Grateful Dead Tour would admit to believing that they thought Jerry Garcia was God, but the widespread belief that the Deadheads were a personality cult who worshipped Garcia persisted. This was most evident in the rumors and mystery surrounding The Spinners (more formally, The Family of Unlimited Devotion). The Spinners were a communal group of young people in peasant dresses and other austere clothing who would twirl in the hallways of Deadshows and were often seen prostrate on the floor of the venues after Garcia would finish songs.
When asked about the Spinners, Garcia replied, "They're kind of like our Sufis. I think it's really great that there's a place where they can be comfortable enough to do something with such abandon. It's nice to provide that. That's one of the things I'm proud of the Grateful Dead for. It's like free turf."12.
When asked how he felt about the Jerry is God phenomena, Garcia responded with characteristic humor, "Anybody who thinks I'm God should talk to my kids." Did he mind being the focal point of a religious group? "Well, I'll put up with it until they come for me with the cross and the nails."13.
Caroline Rago, formerly a core member of the Family of Unlimited Devotion, said that the idea that they believed Jerry was God was a misconception. In the Spinner cosmology, she likened him more to an avatar -- describing a role similar in many respects to the one attributed to Bob Marley by Rastafarians. "He was the cosmic minstrel who provided the channel," she said.14.
Well into his eighties, the prominent mythologist Joseph Campbell discovered the Grateful Dead. Not usually a fan of rock 'n' roll, Campbell's interest was piqued by the Dead's myth making capacity. After attending a concert and seeing the audiences interest and enthusiasm, he claimed that they were "the antidote to the atom bomb."15.
Expressing and appreciating love and humor are perhaps the most crucial keys to understanding Deadisticism. Any attempt to describe the spiritual or transcendent qualities of the Grateful Dead without mention of the humor present on all levels, is sorely lacking. Humor is, in fact, the single most vital element in the Grateful Dead, perhaps even more crucial than the music itself. The Dead's roots are in Prankster antics, and it is this sense of benign mischief that has been the social glue holding band and fans together through many a difficult year. "When you lose your sense of humor, it just isn't funny anymore," Mr. Gravy reminds.
Why has the Grateful Dead become one of the most cherished myth making faculties in the last half of the twentieth century? Perhaps because they have never tried to impose meaning or belief systems on any of their listeners. Perhaps because they recognized early on that the whole was more powerful than its component parts.
Through it all, very few people in the band's nucleus or immediate family, were willing to offer definitive statements. If the Dead were dogmatic about anything, it was a dogmatic avoidance of dogma. Perhaps John Barlow summed up the phenomenon best. "[Deadheads] have what I consider to be one of the most positive developments in the history of spirituality: a religion without beliefs."16.
1. Official Book of the Deadheads, Paul Grushkin
2. This passage has often been cited as coming from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but according to Bob Stone, it appears nowhere in the original Coptic.
3. Video short by Pete Shapiro following the video "Tie-Dyed: Rock 'n' Roll's Most Deadicated Fans."
4. Garcia: A Signpost to New Space, p. 127.
5. Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads. p. 127.
6. Grateful Dead Family Album, p. 227.
7. Grushkin, p.11.
8. Holy Blood, Holy Grail, p.82.
9. Lecture, The Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, July, 1993.
10. Bay Area Music Magazine, cited by Brandilius, p. 150 GD Family Album.
11. One More Saturday Night.179-181.
12. Magical Blend
13. Magical Blend
14. Discussion, Light the Song: A Contemplative Retreat for Deadheads, Northfield Mount Herman
15. Campbell quote -- lecture at SF State "Ritual and Rapture: From Dionysus to the Grateful Dead." (Author's note: This concept was not unique to Campbell. More than one psychedelicist has noted that LSD was discovered at the same time as the splitting of the atom, intensifying humanities' spiral into the unknown. And one year before LSD was declared illegal in the United States, the Grateful Dead appeared, singing lyrics penned by a man who'd been introduced to LSD by the CIA funded MK-ULTRA program. The MK stood for Mind Kontrol.)
16. Skeleton Key, ix.