Tag Archives: Bob Weir

Creative Process

People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is.  Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me).  You can read the sermon text here.

First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic.  It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are.  But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching.  Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!

My ideas generally come from one of three places.  First, something from the weekly Torah portion.  It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary.  But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion.  Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week.  A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank.  So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news.  An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio.  That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.

Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold.  Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood.  (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone)  How this works I honestly am not exactly sure.  I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular.  But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent.  And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.

As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon.  First off, the initial idea.  I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book.  I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’  That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.

Then the free association process was off and running.  Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus).  The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting.  That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them.  I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows.  The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode).  Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table.  There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled?  And second, what is the point of all this?

Time to walk the dog!  And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape.  The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what.  At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces.  Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.

But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending.  Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land.  How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?

Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point.  The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment.  Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there.  We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.

Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016.  I love that record.  In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds.  And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text.  One more step, one more river to cross.

One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things.  That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

So there you have it.  A bit of Torah.  A dash of Game of Thrones.  A nostalgic fondness for MASH.  A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon.  Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in.  Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.

Sorry about the length of this post!  Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!

 

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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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Detours

Each year I release a reading list to my congregation of books I plan to read over the summer. I generally read the books that make the list, but I also add one or two unexpected titles. These are my reading ‘detours.’ I discover them in local book shops or in the NY Times book review. They catch my interest for one reason or another and before I know it the official list books are on the back burner and I am deeply immersed in some new narrative.

This year two detour books have appeared. One is the 2013 Mann Booker prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Cattan, and the other the new David Grossman novel To the End of the Land. I finally finished the Catton book a few days ago. A monster of a read at 850 pages.  It is beautifully written, but I had the feeling I was watching a magician’s trick – it was enthralling but at the end it didn’t ring true.  I have high hopes for the Grossman novel but want to finish Hillbiilly Elegy before I get to it.

Some summers it is the detour read that ends up the best of the batch. This summer the jury is still out, but I have a feeling nothing will beat Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved, a book that truly moved me.

In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for further detour opportunities. After all, isn’t that part of what summer is about? Finding the hidden roads, the never before tasted treat, the unexpected delights and pleasures of being away?

What is it that Bobby Weir sings in Lost Sailor?

Drifting, you’re drifting; drifting and dreaming; ’cause there is a place you’ve never been; maybe a place you’ve never seen; you can hear them calling on the wind…

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One More River to Cross

A dreamscape.  It is nighttime.  A wide expanse of water, and a far distant shore.  We are swimming, and I look back.  Maybe there are a dozen of us?   Maybe fewer?  But people I know, people I love.  Why we are swimming I don’t know or I don’t remember.  As I slowly move forward in the water, looking at the distant lights, I realize we will never make it across.  I turn back again to look at those behind me, and I can see they are tiring.  We have so far to go.

But when I look forward suddenly everything has shifted.  This happens in dreams.  The second floor of a house morphs into the first floor.  A person you are speaking with somehow becomes someone else in the middle of the conversation.  And here, the river that was uncrossable, the opposite bank that seemed inconceivably far away, is suddenly close by.  In the dream the thought flits through my mind – maybe I was looking at it the wrong way, staring in the wrong direction.  If I had just looked to my left earlier I would have realized it isn’t so far after all.  It can’t be more than another 30 or 40 yards.  Oddly, there is an old and dented stop sign at the river’s edge, the exit place where I now know we will climb back on to dry land.

Of course the River is a symbol, a living in dream embodiment of the liminal moment, of transitional space.  Think of the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Or in the Bible, the Israelites must cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.  Jacob wrestles his angel at a river crossing (also at night!).  Moses is taken from the River Nile as a baby.  There is something powerful, something compelling, about the dark water and the deep currents.  The river pulls us along physically, but it can trap our minds as well.

And yet.  To survive the journey, to escape the river, is to emerge whole and renewed.  Possibly cleansed?  Different, with a new understanding, more wisdom, better insight.  The truth is there are many river crossings in the course of life, some more difficult than others, some with deeper and darker water, others not much more than a simple wading across a sandbank.  It is knowing the other shore is there that keeps us going.  Somehow, someway, we sense comfort in that distant dry land.  A place where we’ll be able again to plant our feet and move forward with purpose and direction.

One last thing.  One More River to Cross is the title of a track on Bob Weir’s lovely new solo record, entitled Blue Mountain.  On the album Weir gruffly confronts a variety of topics, his now weathered voice and spare acoustic guitar calling to mind dusty ghost towns, lost loves, and yes, distant shores that we have yet to reach.  Here are the lyrics of the song’s last stanza:

My one true companion is carrying me
One more river to cross
And when I cross over, he’ll go running free
One more river to cross
And I’ll burn a dance, and the horse will run wild
Through endless green meadows, till one day it finds
And then it will cross over back to my side
One more river to cross
A river and crossing it back to my side
One more river to cross
One more river to cross

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The Upside Down

One of the most popular TV shows in the country over the last few months has been the Netflix sci-fi/mystery/retro (early 1980s!!)/buddy series called Stranger Things.  The show follows the adventures of a group of young teens as they try to save a friend who has been captured by a monster and taken to a parallel universe (sounds simple, right?).  Called the Upside Down, this strange place is eerily like our own world, but everything there is dark and twisted.  A clean pool of clear water is murky and filled with weeds in the Upside Down.  The beautiful forest of our world is filled with rotted trees entangled in lichen there.  Horrible monsters lurk behind every corner, and danger crouches at every doorstep.  It is our world, with everything gone wrong.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that so many Americans were watching Stranger Things during the last grinding and depressing months and weeks of election 2016.  The show seems like a fitting prelude to where we’ve arrived.  A real estate mogul turned reality TV celebrity with no previous governing experience and a bad Twitter habit is poised to enter the Oval Office.  He has installed a far right wing conspiracy theorist conjurer as his chief advisor.  The soon to be vice president’s mantra is “I am a Christian first!”  And reports surfaced just today that Rudy Giuliani, the erstwhile mayor of NYC and current channeler of hyperbole is actually being considered for the position of Secretary of State.  Of the United States of America, that is.  Have we somehow, without even knowing it, fallen into our own version of the Upside Down?  As crazy as that sounds, aren’t the other sentences in this paragraph even crazier?  And they are all true.

I can’t help but think of the moment when the Frankenstein monster rises from the table, violently infused with life by the power of lighting, an angry and lashing energy that appears seemingly from nowhere, destroying everything else it touches.  And surely more than anything else it was anger that brought this new administration to power, the disdain and hurt and boiling fury of millions of Americans who had simply had it with Washington and political gamesmanship.  How destructive that unharnessed energy and anger will ultimately be we won’t know for at least a little while.  But we are going to find out, and there is no going back.

In Bob Weir’s first public appearance since the election, sitting in with the Joe Russo led band JRAD, he passionately sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.’  I am guessing Weir chose the song particularly, as a musical response to the events of last week.  Penned by Bob Dylan and one of his early masterpieces, the lyrics of the song paint the picture of a dystopian world where everything has gone wrong.  The dark and disturbing imagery contrasts sharply with the song’s chorus, warning us all in a prophetic proclamation that there are consequences to these historical moments, and that they can be far reaching.  But the last stanza suggests that we cannot turn away, that in fact we have to walk into the darkness, enter the Upside Down, in order to have a chance to emerge whole.  Stranger Things indeed.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

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Summer Tour My o’ My!

Even Donna Jean showed up.  Oft maligned back in the day, she was heartily cheered at every show she participated in, every single time she stepped up to the mic.  In a sense that captured the Dead and Company summer tour, 2016.  Summer tour my o’ my!  Like the biggest, zaniest, craziest, wildest, family reunion you’ve ever attended.  Those wacky yet lovable old cousins you’ve known forever, but also new friends and relations.  At SPAC I sat on the lawn next to two young Deadheads, never having seen the band with Jerry, but in love with the music and the vibe and the scene.  Maybe they were 25.  Maybe.  At Fenway Park in Boston, right behind us, another young couple fresh to the magical, mystical, technicolor circus that made the classic bumper sticker oh so true:  there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.  There were babies with their moms and dads, teens out for their first taste of adventure, grizzled old Heads who first saw the band in the 70s.  Sorry – early 70s!  Everybody rocking and rolling, everybody a shaking and a moving.  Shake those bones!  From Connecticut to New Jersey, Wisconsin to California, New York (with its ways and means) to Massachusetts, Colorado to North Carolina, the Deadheads were on the road again.  Out in force.  I would argue the world was a little bit of a better and brighter place because of it.  And a little bit better and a little bit brighter was something we all needed this summer.

But don’t discount the music.  It wasn’t just a massive party running on the gas of nostalgia, a ‘reunion’ tour where old musicians mail it in and play the hits.  That just would never work with the Dead, with their determination to walk to the very edge of the abyss each night, and then just drop down into the vast yawning chasm of improvisational music.  What do they always say?  You can’t make this stuff up.  Fact is stranger than fiction?!  John Mayer playing with the Dead?  With Bobby?  And Billy and Mickey?  How absurd!  How could it ever work?  But work it did, beyond anyone’s imagination and expectation.  The music was fine, tasty, raunchy, beautiful, and often it was smoking hot. Old Deadheads stood slack jawed in the over flowing crowds as this band ripped into some of the classics with a completely fresh take.  How about the second night at Citi Field opening the show St. Stephen > Music Never Stopped > Bertha.  The Help > Slip> Shakedown that opened Irvine.  Or the elegiac, moving, gorgeous, haunting Days Between at SPAC, Bobby somehow pulling from the nether sphere Jerry’s very spirit to stand by him on the stage.  Or John Mayer channeling the classic 1960 Maurice Williams song Stay during the Wheel?  Night after night there were surprises and delights, new takes on old tunes, creative and unexpected setlists.  A band beyond description indeed.

I know, I know, some will say it can’t be.  The muse died when Garcia left this world and went to the great arena in the sky.  The naysayers will never climb back on the bus.  But the thing about it is this – the music lives on.  It is out of the bottle, out in the universe.  It has a life of its own, speaking now to new generations, to younger musicians who will carry the legacy forward, to younger fans who will come to the shows and enact this ancient tribal ritual, who will wonder what it was like back in the day, but who will create what it is in the present, and lay the groundwork for the future.  The last line in the Book of Lamentations is this:  renew our days as of old!  So it was for the Dead and the Deadheads in the summer of 2016.  From sea to shining sea the flag was held high, the spiral light burned bright, and the music never stopped.FullSizeRender

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