Category Archives: rock and roll

Eternal Songs

What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

     Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died.  It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio.  You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.  

     His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines.  Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs.  And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby.  All stars in the world of rock and roll.  But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi.  Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.

     Hunter lived a long and eventful life.  He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family.  He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia.  He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music.  He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon.  In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers.  And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop.  In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’

     I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died.  I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life.  His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking.  He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way.  And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.

     And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu.  If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die.  Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’  It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words.  Here is that verse:  ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.

     I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago.  I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used?  The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.

     The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them:  “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them:  Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם –  it is your very life…”

     Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago.  And here we are today, having read them.  As we will next week, and the week after that.  Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light.  This darkness has got to give.

     Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –

“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,

We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;

Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”

     The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone.  Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter.  Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.

     One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple:  “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

     so may it always be – 

 

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R E S P E C T

The new issue of Rolling Stone just arrived in the mail (am I the only rabbi in the country with a lifetime subscription to Rolling Stone?!) and Aretha Franklin is on the cover.  A gorgeous shot of her, probably from when she was in her late 20s or early 30s.  She was called the Queen of Soul for a reason.  She had a powerful presence and charisma, and she was a true artist, with a voice that comes along only once in a generation.

Her signature song will always be RESPECT.  Who can ever forget the incredible staccato darts of her voice, shouting out the letters one at a time, while the band behind her laid down a classic Motown groove, all shivering and shaking?  She demanded respect and she earned it, but it wasn’t easy.  It was a long road, twists and turns, ups and downs, but she never stopped.  RESPECT.

It seems more than ironic that Aretha has passed from this world to the next precisely at a time when the sense of respect that she so memorably sang about is virtually impossible to find. I write these words just a few days after the Senate has concluded processing the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination.  The deliberations were torturous at best, but also riveting.  Americans were simultaneously fascinated and horrified, both compelled and repelled.  We tuned in, we read the papers, we watched the late night news shows, we listened to the radio coverage – we were drawn to the event like flies to a carcass.

And regardless of which side you were on, whether you believed him or her or some combination of both, whether you knew that he was lying or wondered if she was misremembering, what was definitively lacking in all of the proceedings was any sense of respect.  Instead the Senate, a once (at least in legend) austere and cordial body, was reduced to a caricature of one of the Fox News shows where people scream at each other, all the while belittling and insulting those with whom they disagree.

It would be helpful to us all to remember that respect, or lack of it, is not a political issue.  It is not ‘political’ to expect one person to treat another respectfully, whether that person is a Senator, a Supreme Court nominee, or the President of the United States.  It is that fundamental lack of respect that we now see at every level that degrades us all, our communities, our culture, our country.  It certainly degraded the Senate over these last few days, and the entire nomination of a Supreme Court justice.  How any of it will ever be cleaned up is beyond me.

What I worry about most is that we are all slowly being dragged down to that low level.  That, almost without realizing it, our language is becoming coarser and our anger more intense  That our ability to listen to one another is slowly but surely slipping away.  It is a downward trajectory, and the deeper we go, the harder it gets to climb out.  These lyrics from the classic Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ come to mind:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

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Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”

It is that heart that we should strive to see, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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Augusta ’84

The Deadheads among you will recognize the reference to the show played by the Grateful Dead at the Augusta Civic Center, in (where else?) Augusta, Maine, on the 12th of October, 1984.   Commonly acknowledged as one of the best concerts played by the Dead in the 80s, its reputation was sealed when it was included in a list of the top twenty Dead shows of all time, and then included as THE 1984 show in the CD box set release 30 Trips Around the Sun.

At the time, those of us who were lucky enough to be there had a sense that something special had happened.  We may not have fully grasped the magnitude, we may not have wrapped our heads around the ultimate historical significance, we weren’t talking about top twenty all time lists, but we knew that the band had conjured up the magic that evening.  I saw the Dead seven times that fall, twice in Worcester, MA (10/8 & 10/9), twice in Augusta (10/11 & 10/12), twice in Hartford, CT (10/14 & 10/15), and the tour closer at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse New York on 10/20.

The famous Augusta show was without question the peak of the tour, and within the show itself there was a moment that captured it all, that encapsulated what made the Dead the Dead.  I’ll return to that in a moment.  But the truth is the band was playing well in general that fall.  They were having fun, throwing in some rare gems, mixing up the setlists.  New England was cozy for the Dead, the venues all within a few hours drive of each other, many of the towns small, and that particular tour just happened to coincide with peak foliage, the oaks and maples deep into their oranges, yellows, and reds.

I guess what I am trying to say is as great as Augusta was, you could kind of see it (or feel it) coming.  The vibe was good, Jerry energized and playing well, Mydland digging deep into a new found commitment to the blues and his Hammond B3, Weir as frisky as ever, and the drummers tight.  Phil, for his part, was in a good personal space, sober, in love, and feeling groovy.  The table was set.

And you could trace it in the arc of the shows.  There was the explosive Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower > Jack Straw to open set two of night two in Worcester.  It is true that the Help > Slip > Franklin’s is a bit sloppy and choppy, Jerry not quite keeping pace with the complicated transitional leads, but the venerable old Worcester Centrum simply explodes when the crowd realizes that Jack Straw is being served up in the heart of a strong second set.  Night one in Augusta, by the way, is a strong show in its own right.  The first set is particularly well played, with hot versions of Shakedown, Big River, Ramble on Rose, Looks Like Rain, and Might As Well.

And post Augusta the band played a phenomenal show in Hartford.  Often lost in the shuffle of the greatness of Augusta, the 10/14 Hartford show is one for the ages, with an eleven song first set, a powerful run of China > Rider, Samson and Delilah, High Time, Estimated > Eyes, all before drums!!  And then post-drums a gorgeous China Doll, with the breakout of Lovelight, only the 5th time the band had played the song since 1972.  Whew!

But allow me to return, for a moment, to Augusta.  A fair amount has been written about the 10/12/84 show.  The energetic playing.  The wild setlist, filled with rarities and songs only performed once or twice that entire year.  The phenomenal Morning Dew, and the Good Lovin’ encore.  But there was a moment, locked forever in my memory, that captured it all, that pushed the show from great to all-time top twenty lists, and that truly   expressed the quintessence of what the Dead were after night after night, of how powerful it was when they found it, and of why we went to so many shows looking for it.

It was in the second set, post drums.  There is a long, long jam, winding and twisting and turning out of the space.  Garcia’s guitar weaves sonic theme after sonic theme, but keeps coming back to the graceful notes that lead into Playing in the Band.  The problem was, they had played Playing in the Band the night before.  What was Jerry doing?  He brought the band right up to the edge of the song, and then danced away, then back again.  The notes appeared and disappeared, circling, close, almost, and then gone again.

And here is the thing.  We were all on that ride together, Garcia’s guitar like some kind of massive magic carpet that we all were riding.  Even the band!  It was electric, how closely they were listening, how intently following Jerry, how ready to be vessels for the great muse that was about to descend.  And we were too!  Knowing, even more so feeling that a giant and beautiful and powerful wave was about to crash, and we were all ready to ride it.

Then it happened.  Jerry turned towards Weir and Lesh, peering at them over his glasses in that Jerry way.  At that very moment Mickey leaned forward over his drum kit, yelling out to Bobby, ‘Playin?!’  Weir turned to the drummers for an instant, and with the briefest nod confirmed what was about to happen.  Suddenly, with tremendous force and power, just as Bobby turned back to the mic, the entire band came together on the mystical ‘one.’  Playing in the Band – the ‘Playin’ playout’ section – just the end, the reprise – filled up the old Augusta Civic.  I believe to this day the entire concrete shell of the building momentarily lifted a few feet off of God’s good earth, with 4,000 Deadheads aboard for the ride, and the greatest band we’d ever seen on one of their greatest nights.

In one of the oddest and nearly impossible karmic Grateful Dead occurrences, somehow, someone video taped that entire night in Augusta.  Remember, this was 1984!!  Like with seemingly everything else in the universe, you can find the video on Youtube.  The quality is iffy, but there is no question that it is the show from that evening.  You can’t see the drummers on the video – it is filmed from Phil’s side of the stage, and so you see some of Phil, and Bobby, Jerry, and Brent.

But that magic moment after the space is quite clear, vivd and captured for posterity by the mysterious videographer.  You see Weir turn back towards the drum kit, confirming Mickey’s query,  ‘Playin?!’  That slight nod, which I guess means something like ‘evidently so!’  And then the explosion.  Still gives me chills.  Even 34 years later.

Let there be songs to fill the air!  And magic, too, that will last a lifetime.

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The Glasses

These are the little things that remind us that time is creeping by.  A bit like an honest look in the mirror, one of those moments when you realize you aren’t in Kansas anymore, that you actually do look your age, and that your age is somewhere in the mid-50s!  Who knew?!

And so it was that I set out, just late enough not to turn back, to officiate at a funeral.  I was most of the way down the street when I realized I had left my reading glasses at home.  I’ve been wearing reading glasses for some time now, close to a decade, but until very recently I could pretty much get by without them in a pinch, particularly if the light in the room was good and I wasn’t too tired.  If you use reading glasses yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

But just the last month or so I’ve needed them more and more.  Those little blurry things on that page are letters?  Good light still helped, but trying to read a menu in a restaurant had become impossible – it essentially looked like a series of ink schmears on yellow paper.  Nevertheless, here I was, Rabbi’s Manual in hand, eulogy printed out in 12 point font, and in 15 minutes or so I would be standing in front of a group of mourners, reading from that manual and delivering that eulogy, no reading glasses in sight.

It wasn’t perfect, but in the end it worked out OK.  The light was good, and I adjusted the lectern so it was as far away from my eyes as it could possibly be.  I had just written the eulogy, so it was fresh in my mind, and that also helped.  The truth is I barely need the Rabbi’s Manual.  I’ve read those prayers hundreds and hundreds of times, and they are imprinted in my mind.  It is pretty much like starting the tape and letting it play.  Even so, I’ve seen Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead forget the words to Me and My Uncle, a song he has sung more than a thousand times.  He now uses an iPad so the lyrics are always there, just in case.  So it is with my Rabbi’s Manual.  More of a crutch than a necessity.

And that is the funny thing about it.  As a young rabbi, I didn’t need the glasses.  Everything was crystal clear, whether near or far.  But I sure needed that Rabbi’s Manual.  The thought of conducting a service without one would have terrified me twenty years ago.  Now it is exactly the opposite.  The manual I don’t really need anymore, or at least I know I can get buy without it in a pinch.  But I sure need those reading glasses!  The more experience I have, the muddier things get.  Ah, the wisdom of aging…

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You Can Run…

You know the second half of the phrase.  You truly can’t hide, especially from yourself.  Here is the unedited version of the Torah portion column that was published in today’s Baltimore Jewish Times.  Their editors decided to cut out the section about Dave Mason and Traffic. The song ‘Feelin’ Alright’ appeared on Traffic’s eponymously titled 1968 album.  Joe Cocker made the song famous with his hard driving version, recorded for his 1969 record ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’  The original version by Traffic is more laid back, but it still has that distinctive shuffle.  Give it a listen at this link:  Traffic/Feelin Alright.

Deception is everywhere surrounding Jacob, a virtual dance of deception from which he cannot escape.  He has been raised in a dysfunctional family, where his parents Isaac and Rebecca favor different children.  He cannot trust his brother Esau, who is his rival for affection, power, and the ever illusive birthright and blessing.  In the end, Jacob is trapped by the deception that surrounds him.  Not in the sense that he is fooled.  He is not, and in fact understands exactly what is going on around him.  But rather in the sense the he begins to engage in it, and in the process he learns something about himself:  he, too, is a master at deception.

Perhaps that is why Jacob flees from his parents’ home.  It is true – Esau is angry with him, and he has lied to his father.  But he could have worked through it with Rebecca’s help and his own cunning mind.  There is, however, one thing Jacob cannot escape in the home of his birth – himself.  He has taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and he does not like what he sees.  There is an ugliness in his soul, a growing ease with the telling of lies and a growing power to manipulate others.  He has been trapped by the continual deception of Isaac and Rebecca’s home because it has become his way of life, his method of interacting with the world.

So Jacob runs, hoping to escape the ugliness he sees in himself, wondering if he can recreate himself in a new place.  Perhaps with a new start he can become a new person, more honest, truer to himself and to God.  Some of you may remember the lyrics to the great Dave Mason song “Feelin’ Alright”: “Seems I got to have a change of scene; ‘Cause every night I have the strangest dreams; Imprisoned by the way it could have been; Left here on my own or so it seems;  I got to leave before I start to scream…”

That is Jacob at the beginning of Parshat Ya’yeitzei.  Alone, wrestling with his conscious, fleeing from what he experienced as the prison of Isaac and Rebecca’s home, dreaming of things untold, looking for a better place, and a better self.  What he will learn in the course of his journey is that deception is everywhere.  Laban’s home, where he will live for the next two decades, is also a place of deceit and cunning and lies.  To survive there Jacob once again becomes the master deceiver.

So it always is.  You cannot escape from yourself.  A change of scene does not produce a change in values, personality, morals, or ethics.  That only happens with serious self-reflection, with deep and committed work of the mind and soul, with an internal battle to conquer your worst predilections.  So Jacob will ultimately wrestle the mysterious angel, at that moment finally coming to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.  Only then can he return home a new man, leaving deception behind,  finally prepared for an honest confrontation with the legacy he left behind.

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Running Down A Dream

You might recognize the phrase as the title of a track from Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever.  The rock and roll world lost one of its greats when Petty died at the (relatively) young age of 66 just a couple of weeks ago.  I was never a huge Petty fan, never even bought one of his records, and saw him live only once, on July 4th 1986.  But his music was always around, ubiquitous, part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, his songs constantly on the radio, so many hits, so many catchy licks, so much good music for so long.  Like all great song writers Petty loved a turn of phrase, and ‘running down a dream’ is a wonderful example.  Although the lyrics of the song are mostly bright and cheery, the title evokes the edginess of dreams, and perhaps also the difficulty of attaining them.  You have to chase after a dream, work for it, hunt it down.  Only then, over time, might it become reality.  And the chorus of the song reminds us that often, ultimately, dreams are out of our reach:  “running down a dream, that would never come to me..”

It reminds me a bit of navigating the fall holiday cycle in the Jewish calendar.  The introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to lead to the festive joy of Sukkot and the celebratory release of Simhat Torah.  That is the dream, and throughout the holiday season those of us who work in the synagogue world chase that dream with everything we have.  But the truth is it always feels slightly out of reach, ephemeral, just at the edge of your peripheral vision.  To paraphrase another great rock and roller, Bruce Springsteen,  ‘you can look but you cannot touch.’  Part of clergy work is simply the expenditure of personal energy – bringing your spirit to the service, to try in some way to heighten the atmosphere, to make things feel festive, warm, worthwhile.  You are chasing that dream, running it down.  But sometimes in the chase, it runs you down instead.

And the truth is you rarely, if ever, get there.  You know the old joke – the mother wakes up her son on Shabbat morning and says ‘you have to get up, it is time to go to shul!’  The son responds ‘I don’t want to go!  I am tired of shul!  I went yesterday! I am not going!’  ‘But,’ responds the mother, ‘you are the rabbi!’  Most rabbis, if being candid, will tell you they are just as tired of shul at the end of the holiday cycle as their congregants.  That energy gets more and more difficult to muster, the dream of joy and celebration more and more elusive.  The protagonist in Petty’s song never finds his dream.  Here is the last stanza:

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine

And there again you see the great song writer at work.  Just a few words, but what it captures!  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.  We can’t see the road ahead, but we always believe that something good waits for us there.  We hurry forward, picking up the cards we are dealt, chasing that dream, hoping against hope that at the end of the road we will find joy, maybe even ecstasy.

Of course what Jews learned long ago is that joy is almost always tempered.  When found it comes about through hard work, through effort and energy, often blood, sweat, and tears.  But on the rare occasions when it is found, the difficulty of the journey makes the taste sweeter and the appreciation deeper.  In the meantime we continue down the road under darkening skies.  Just beyond the next mile marker the clouds may part and the sun might shine.  Put the convertible top down!  Here is the first stanza of Running Down A Dream:

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’…

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