Plankton Wat starts his day with The Dead

Post Author:
Plankton Wat

Today was one of those perfect days in Portland, one of those sunny afternoons we all wait for to remind us of why we live here. I woke up early to sun pouring in the east facing windows and was feeling refreshed. I'd been out drinking beers with some friends the night before, and typically I'd want to sleep in on a Sunday, but not today. There was birdsong in the trees, and warmth bouncing off everything. After picking some tomatoes from the yard, and chopping them up with some damn hot chili peppers we grew a few weeks back, my family walked down to the neighborhood farmer's market to meet up with some of our best buddies. It was a special occasion. A Javanese gamelan group was playing it's delicately intoxicating rhythmic melodies as we walked up. Gongs reverberating off a small patch of grass, carried by a gentle breeze, and across blue sky. Kids bounced around eating Italian Ice, a dude was serving home brew in the parking lot, and we sat there getting seriously blissed out.

What does this have do with a rock band that hit its stride decades ago you may ask? Well, just about everything. The true beauty, the real art of the Grateful Dead is the band's ability to be completely unconcerned with damn near everything while pushing themselves to do something a little different every time they pick up their instruments. Non believers will say this is lazy slop, dudes too high to ever really get it together, but that's completely missing the point. With the Dead it's all about the trip, the musical journey, moving from A to G, or maybe just hanging out on A until the keyboard player gets fed up and crashes the whole vibe with some menacing biker bark “I'm a stone jack baller and my heart is true!” Snap those dudes out of their trance, and get some real boogie happening because what's a jam without some groove damn it! Wake those freaks up, get 'em up on their feet dancing. Bring some real joy and glorious noise to a world hellbent on destroying itself. Jamming is an act of rebellion anyway, breaking the rules and doing it yerself, and then you just keep doing it until amorphous sludge turns diamond sharp.

It is of no significance that the corporate warmongers want to pave the world with negativity, domination, and despair when Kreutzmann launches into a tight shuffle, Phil Lesh floats some round low tones all around the beat, and Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia blasts the whole damn thing into some unforeseen intergalactic fourth dimensional wormhole. This is escape at its finest, dudes literally pushing their abilities to the breaking point to not only get their heads out there, but also the heads of anyone free enough to follow them. And yeah, Bobby might be struggling to find the right chords, and Pig just might be checked out with a bottle of Southern Comfort flirting with some freaky chick in the crowd, but that's all the more proof of just how all inclusive these dudes really are. It's not some rock star trip, some inflated egos running unchecked, but rather some kinda nerdy dudes who couldn't hold down a job if they tried doing the only thing they know, sticking together and praying the tune holds together too. The Dead has a serious vibe antenna, and if the vibes are bad they just might not play at all like at Altamont when their buddies the Hells Angels killed a man in the audience. In the film Gimme Shelter you can see Jerry literally shaking from the bad vibes, no way for these guys to build their good times machine with such dark forces at play. Best to pack up and head for greener pastures, get out of the city, and head for the woods where the band can just play.

And this is exactly what they did. Out in the wide open of the North Bay they would write their best material and record two of the most timeless records rock'n'roll has produced, Workingman's Dead, and American Beauty. Yes, 1970 was the year of the Dead, the vibes were just right, and a once free form dance band somehow managed to collect the whole American trip into grand folktales. Focusing on their voices, and throwing in some country pedal steal and bluegrass mandolin picking, the band transported the whole psychedelic experience into something lasting and meaningful, something that can bridge the generational divide, something with the power to transcend and unify.

But I digress, this whole jam was about starting the day with enthusiasm for life, for basking in the sun and sharing good times with good friends. Simply allowing ourselves to accept the beauty in the world, and reject the forces of greed. To work towards something that we can enjoy collectively, and to share in the open wonder of play. Just like those kids at the farmer's market unknowingly intoxicated by the lush tones of the gamelan, just like those kids flying high on the ecstatic sound waves of the Dead's endless jam. The whole point is to be together, as loose and disfunctional as that may be at times. Just keep pushing it all out further into the holy universe where the vibes are right, and the band is truckin'.