Tag Archives: Grateful Dead

Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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Filed under celebration, community, continiuty, Grateful Dead, liminal moments, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Car

It was a 1979 Peugeot 504 diesel.  A nondescript brown/grey color, stick shift, manual sunroof, four door.  It was slow as molasses, the diesel engine struggling to propel the car up any incline of even moderate degree.  The back of the car – bumper, rear window, heck even the side windows – entirely covered in Grateful Dead stickers.  I remember at one point counting them, and there were more than twenty.  I actually had a debate with my dad about whether there was still enough room to see safely with the rear view mirror because the stickers blocked your view.

I drove that car my senior year of high school and freshman year of college.  It was no frills.  No AC.  Hand crank windows.  No power steering or power brakes.  It got great mileage – I could make it from Boston to Binghamton NY on a half a tank of diesel fuel.  The trunk was not huge, but I could get everything I owned in that car – everything – including my Polk Audio speakers, always stacked in the back seat.  One time I even had a keg of beer in the trunk that made loud clunking noises every time I turned or accelerated.  I had installed an Alpine cassette deck/radio in the dash.  It played through the tinny speakers, and I kept a small wooden box filled with Maxell cassette tapes on the carpeted mound between the driver’s  and ‘shotgun’ seats.

That old Peugeot rarely started in the winter.  There was a heating element for the engine that you turned on before you tried to start it in the cold, but it didn’t work well.  In cold weather I always parked at the top of a hill, and would gather 3 or 4 hearty friends to push me out into the road.  If you kept your foot on the clutch, and the car managed to get to 10 or 15 miles an hour drifting down the slope, you could ‘pop’ the clutch (suddenly release it)  and the engine would cough its way into running.  Sometimes you had to do it a couple of times before it would start.  If you got to the bottom of the hill and it didn’t go, you were out of luck.  Wait until spring, I guess.

We had all kinds of adventures in that car.  There was the time in the snowstorm, when my friend reached from the back seat and released the sunroof, allowing 6 inches of snow to tumble into the front seats.  Yes this was while we were driving.  There was the drive back from Baltimore in 1982, having seen the Dead at the Civic downtown, when the windshield wiper fluid ran out.  It was early spring, the Pennsylvania roads were covered in brown slush and dirty, melting snow.  As I drove, my friend reached out the window with tissues and tried to wipe it clean every few minutes.  One New Year’s eve in a heavy snow storm the car slid 5o yards down a steep road, gently and softly settling into a mound of snow before sighing to a stop.  There were late nights and early mornings, full moons surrounded by bright stars, hazy sun rises, trips to the beach, long rides alone singing along to a favorite song or gazing out at the beautiful rocks and trees of western Massachusetts.  Dozens of Grateful Dead shows.  Stops in Buffalo and Saratoga, in Harrisburg and Hartford, in Portland and Syracuse.  Endless miles.  The road does indeed go ever on and on.

That car transported us.  Physically of course, taking us from place to place, that unimaginable sense of freedom, of knowing you can pretty much go anywhere at anytime.  But also metaphysically, transporting our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, those shared moments of joy and laughter and struggle and adventure that would never happen again.  Eventually that old Peugeot gave up the ghost.  Some irreparable, fatal flaw developed – the engine block cracked, I think.  It was put to pasture in a junk yard somewhere, rusting in the summer rains and cold winter snows of upstate New York, Dead stickers slowly fading over time.  It wasn’t a great car – slow, difficult to drive, mechanically flawed.  But it was a classic.  And they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.  car

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Filed under liminal moments, memory, mindfulness, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

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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The End

Some of you may remember the song by the Doors.  Released in January 1967 on their eponymously titled debut album, it was a 12 minute long guided tour through the brilliant yet burning mind of Jim Morrison, the group’s singer and lyricist.  When asked about the song he explained it was written originally about breaking up with his girlfriend.  Maybe so.  But with its explicit references to death, its images of twisting snakes and preternatural lakes, it has always been viewed as an exploration of the end of life, of saying goodbye not for a day, not for a time, but forever.

When I was in college I spent a semester hosting a late Sunday night/early Monday morning (midnight to 5 AM) radio show on the campus station.  Mostly I played Grateful Dead bootlegs and album side long jams from the Dead’s Europe ’72 record or the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (check out the 23 minute Whipping Post on side 4 if you haven’t heard it in a while).  But every show, precisely at 2:15 in the morning, the station’s phone would ring and a young man would request The End.  Seeing as that he was probably my only listener how could I not comply?  It was a bit eerie, hearing Morrison’s oily voice coming out of the station speakers, no one else around, the campus dark and quiet during those predawn hours.

Of course when you are young death is a distant concept, an idea you are aware of but that for the most part is entirely disconnected from your reality.  Not something that actually happens to you or those you love.  Maybe even a bit romantic, Romeo and Juliet-esque.  But rabbis know differently.  Death is a day to day reality, it is a destination, a shared fate, a deep chasm we all cross.  Death don’t have no mercy in this land, sang the Reverend Gary Davis.  Amen to that, brother.

Of course most of the time we all live in that ‘suspended state of disbelief.’  That we’ll wake up and have a normal day.  That we will walk God’s green earth, feel the breeze, watch spring blossom in its fullness, talk with our neighbors, enjoy time with our family and friends, work, eat, drink, read the paper.  Just a normal day.  What did Garcia sing in Black Peter?  “See here how everything lead up to this day, and its just like any other day that’s ever been.”  And the truth is we have to live like that. You can’t go about your life as if you are Max van Sydow wandering through some Ingmar Bergman film, Death trailing and tracking you every step of the way.  So seize the day you have, live fully, be grateful, enjoy the little moments and the great ones as well.  Walk out from under the shadow and soak up the light.  In today’s vernacular, that is how we (rock and) roll.  All of us, one way or another.

One last thought.  After referencing the Doors, the Allmans, the Dead, it is only appropriate to go all the way back to the words of the Psalmist:  “This is the day that God has made.  Let us exult and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 118:24)  Amen to that as well.

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Filed under Bible, clergy, Grateful Dead, liminal moments, loss, mindfulness, nature, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

U.S. Blues

The Grateful Dead canon is filled with references to America, a land (in the Dead’s eyes) of on the one hand potential, possibility, and freedom, and on the other absurdity and utter hypocrisy. Think of the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter composition Jack Straw, with its cowboy anti-heroes, its flying eagles, its reference to the 4th of July and its copping of the phrase ‘sea to shining sea’ from America the Beautiful. In song after song Garcia and Weir sing of old time America, of the Great West and backroom card games, of cowboys on the dusty trail, of small town life and homemade whiskey, Tennessee Jed and ‘just like New York City.’ With parched throats and dusty boots the Dead came out of the West, fresh off the trail, seeking truth through experience, exploring the power of music to reveal the real, creating alternate community but connecting to something at the core of what our great country is about.

They knew in the end there was only so much they could do, but they never flinched. They were pranksters at their core and they could spot a con a mile a way. That may be why for so many years they intentionally maintained an apolitical stance, watching the issues and the elections come and go from the sidelines with bemused expressions. Even later when they started to touch on topics that might have been political they were big picture issues – the rain forest and the climate, the general human tendency to self destruct (Weir and Barlow’s Throwing Stones.) But to actually immerse in the game, to endorse a candidate, or take a position on a particular issue was anathema. Whether right or wrong, the Dead left that kind of thing to Springsteen or Bono or Kid Rock.

But they always watched, keeping the country and its doings in view, shaking their collective head at the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise. There was anger, too. Over the years Weir changed the lyrics in Throwing Stones: ‘Money green, its the only way – you can buy a whole God damned government today!’- always shouted with conviction and a ragged righteousness. In essence, in their own strange, bizarre, and beautiful way, they nobly filled the role of the artist, through their music granting us the flash of insight that reminds us of what it all should be about. Even politics.

The song US Blues captures it. Politics?! Uncle Sam?! The ultimate con-game, the largest and most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ll even encounter in your life. Beware of patriotism – it can muddle your mind! Watch out for politicians – they’ll try to ‘run your life, steal your wife!’ The song’s couplets are playful, even comical. But the title drives it home – US…BLUES! This is a tragedy of epic proportions. The blues is sadness personified, the lowest and worst situation you can imagine. A blues for the United States is almost a requiem, rock and roll style.

Sounds about right as a description for the political farce we are all so avidly watching unfold day by day. The ratings are through the roof! Can you imagine that? This is what we want to do with our time? Watch men in suits yell at each other, talk over each other, and insult each other with ever worsening vulgarities? Here is a better suggestion: read Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, SPQR. There are some eerie parallels in terms of rising and falling, of how great countries come into being, and of what brings about their demise.

At this point it really does have to play itself out. This great and uncontrollable wave, cresting and crashing, who knows where it might actually make shore? In that very last batch of Garcia/Hunter collaborations there was a sort of US Blues redux, entitled Liberty. Here its first verse: Saw a bird with a tear in its eye, walking to New Orleans, my oh my. Hey now bird wouldn’t you rather die, than walk this world when you are born to fly?

The bird, of course is America. The question is where is it going? And maybe even more importantly, how will it get there? Will it walk or fly?

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Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, civil rights, community, freewill, Grateful Dead, politics, rock and roll, Uncategorized

Sometimes the Light

this the text of my Kol Nidre sermon (5776/2015)

It was the evening of the 5th of July, now some two and a half months ago, when Becky and I found ourselves amongst the 75 thousand or so Grateful Dead fans who packed into Soldiers Field football stadium for the band’s last concert.  It was a great night, one I will remember for the rest of my life.  Great friends, great music, and an even greater spirit of celebration.  If you know any Deadheads you probably know that we have a terrible habit of standing around and talking about the band’s concerts ad nauseam, and although I am tempted, I will spare you a full review of that evening’s music.  But I would like to describe for you one particular moment.

It was at the beginning of the second set when the Dead went into probably the best known and most beloved song of their 50 year career, a song called Truckin’.  It is about both the freedom and difficulty of being on the road and traveling from place to place for music, whether you are the band or a fan.  The tagline of the song is ‘sometimes the light is all shining on me, other times I can barely see,’ not a bad line for a rabbi, but also perhaps a general description of how we make our way through life.  And for years when the Dead played that song in concert, when the band sang those words – sometimes the light is all shining on me – the house lights of the venue would come on, and suddenly a place of darkness – a concert hall – was flooded with light.  And so it was at Soldiers Field on July 5th this past summer.  Suddenly every corner of the stadium was illuminated – 75 thousand faces were visible, and for a few moments, every thing seemed clear as day.

The light that bathed us on that warm July night in Chicago was physical, an actual light that enabled us to see, but there was another kind of light in the stadium, an invisible, inner light that warmed our souls and touched our hearts.  It is a very different atmosphere here in the Rubin tonight, let me assure you!  But at the same time there is something about the Kol Nidre ritual that we enact this evening, so familiar to us. The removal of the Torahs, the solemn procession, and then the chanting of Kol Nidre.  As the Torahs make their way through the congregation the Cantor sings over and over again a single Hebrew phrase – אור זרוע לצדיק ולישרי לב שמחה – light is sown for the righteous, and for the pure-hearted, joy.  It is a verse from the 97th Psalm, and it captures the sense of awe we feel at the beginning of Yom Kippur.  Outside the sun is setting, darkness is falling.  But inside the synagogue on KN eve there is a sense of light, not physical light, but a spiritual light that Yom Kippur can bring into our souls.  This is a light that can illuminate our lives and our world, enabling us to see things that we didn’t see before, to have a sense of clarity and understanding about who we want to be and how we should live.

And it is that sense of light that I think we come to shul looking for tonight.  There are many reasons why Jews come to shul on a Kol Nidre eve.  Community, a sense of responsibility, guilt, family, tradition – the list could go on and on, and the reasons may be different for each of us.  But we all come here hoping to feel something genuine, hoping to be touched by the ancient prayers we recite and rituals we enact, hoping that by sharing this experience with one another and with God we will emerge from it feeling a greater sense of light and life and hope and healing in our hearts.  And that is the possibility that Kol Nidre extends to us.

This past summer while on the plane to Chicago I read a fascinating article about a man named Jacob Riis.  Riis was a Danish newspaper reporter who lived and worked in New York City in the late 1800s.   Because he was an immigrant he had a special interest in those who came to these shores looking for a better life, and he began in his work to focus on stories about the squalid conditions in the tenements on the lower east side.  He wrote story after story describing the jam packed rooms, the unsanitary conditions that people lived in, and the difficulty that these new Americans had in finding even the most basic services for themselves.  He wrote for the local papers.  He wrote for national magazines like Scribners and Harper’s Weekly.  But despite the thousands of words that he wrote, nothing was changing, and no one seemed to care.

Riis knew the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ and he hired artists to make drawings that were published with his stories.  But he knew what he really needed were actual photographs.  His problem was the tenements were totally dark – even in the day time!  There were no windows, and electric lights were virtually non-existent.  How can you take a photograph in the darkness?  But in 1887 someone had come up with a rudimentary technology called Blitzlicht that created a bright flash just at the moment a picture was being taken.  The first ever flash photography.  And so Riis went into the tenements with photographers, and they snapped pictures as the flashes were going off, and those pictures captured what life in the tenements was truly like.  Riis put the pictures together in a book he called How the Other Half Lives.  It became a best seller.  And in 1901 – in large part due to Riis’ photographs – the New York State Tenement House act was passed, and it would be followed by a series of progressive reforms that included factory safety, work hour limitations, and school access, that made America a different – and a more just and kind – country.

I’ve thought about why those photos had such a dramatic impact.  Part of it must have been that for the very first time many Americans were actually seeing the immigrant experience fully illuminated, and they could scarcely believe the suffering and the inhumane conditions that existed right under their noses, in the cities they worked and lived in. But I think it was more than that.  It wasn’t just seeing the conditions.  It was seeing what those conditions did to actual men and women and children, it was seeing their haunted faces and hopeless eyes, it was seeing that something inside of those people had been lost, that their inner light had been extinguished.

It is possible that some of us in the room tonight may have had relatives in those tenements.  Our ancestors who came to these shores, just 2 generations ago, lived in a state of poverty and need that we can barely imagine.  They built their lives literally from the ground up, creating the foundation that we all stand on today.  And one of the things we admire most about them, one of the things that stays in our minds when we think of them, is how they managed – despite their hardship – to keep their spiritual light alive.  I think often of a passage in Jonathan Sarna’s book on the history of American Jewry.  At one point he contrasts the shuls of our parents and grandparents with the shuls of today.  75 years ago our ancestors sat on Kol Nidre evening in modest buildings and rented movie theaters, with borrowed chairs and make shift arks that contained a single Torah, and they could not have even imagined the beauty and grandeur and size of a building like this, or the power and wealth of a community like ours.  But their Kol Nidre services were filled with passion and emotion, with tears and a heartfelt attempt to reconcile with their loved ones and with God.  Their spiritual lives were vibrant and were filled with an inner light that illuminated their days.

Do our lives still reflect that kind of inner light?  If there were a photographer in our homes, taking pictures of our daily lives, what would our own faces look like?  Not in the planned poses of today’s selfie culture, but in the unguarded moments.  Sitting at the dinner table wondering how to communicate with someone we love.  Or at our desks concerned about the future of our jobs.  Or in a quiet moment when we are reflecting on the achievements and characters of our children.  The inner light that guided our parents and grandparents did not come from wealth or material things.  It did not come from prestigious job titles or fancy homes.  Instead it came from family and faith.  From a sense of God’s presence in their lives, from their belief that they were connected to something eternal, to the Jewish people, to a sacred tradition and culture that could nourish and sustain them.

And what I would like to suggest to you tonight is that that very same light is still there for us.  It calls to us through the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, it tugs at our hearts and gently beckons to our souls.  It is something that we can bring into our own lives, something that can nourish and sustain us as individuals, as families, as partners in Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, and as members of the human family.  It is a light that can illuminate our lives, helping us to turn off the noise and glitter and distraction and to see what really matters.  That light shines for the righteous and the pure of heart, and it can shine for us too.

So let us open our hearts tonight to that ancient light.  Let it warm us and connect us, to one another, to our tradition and our people, and to God.  And let it shine, let it shine, let it shine – in a new year of hope, health, and peace –

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Filed under American Jewry, High Holy Days, sermon

The Turning – A New Year

There is a lovely phrase in Genesis 24 that describes the moment when Isaac walks out into the fields, just before he sees Rebecca for the very first time.  “Isaac went out to wander in the fields, לפנות ערב, just at the turning of the evening.”  There is an English word which captures this same sense – the gloaming, meaning dusk, or twilight.  That moment when it is neither day nor night, but for an instant or two, somewhere in between.  Or perhaps impossibly both at the same time.

Of course there are many turnings.  From youth to old age, from summer to fall, from night to day, from waking to sleep and back again.  And from one year to the next.  All different, but each with a sense of shifting, or perhaps drifting is a better word.  Between two states, or worlds, or times or seasons.  All with the sense that there is a flow, some great river-narrative that we all are riding, with foaming rapids and quieter eddies, with rocks and branches, its powerful current implacably moving us along.  It is a narrative less of words and more of moments, of winds and mountains, of laughter and tears, of feeling and deep blue skies and cold snow and fish swimming in clear water.  The ‘turning moments’ remind us that we are part of a grand story, ancient and wise and beautiful, that has gone on long before we entered it, and will continue long after we leave.  And there is awe in that thought, and perhaps comfort too.

A last thought, from the music always cluttering my mind.  The Grateful Dead were masters at finding the ‘turning moments’ of the musical journey they wove when they played on that great stage of life.  Order emerging from chaos, from a cacophony of notes a melody, from deep space a recognizable place to tread, to rest one’s weary soul.  When did those songs emerge?  How?  One song bleeding into the next, keys and scales clashing impossibly, but somewhere one note and we all knew.  A gentle swell of recognition, a new song, a new moment, a new place.  We arrived together.

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