My 18-year-old daughter just had a week no one should have to experience. As Regan and I were coming out of the screening of the 7/18/89 Alpine show at the recent Meet-Up at the Movies, floating on air, we got a call from her telling us that three of her friends—all high school seniors—had been involved in a horrible automobile accident south of the Bay Area on Highway 101. One boy was killed, a second was in a coma, the third in critical condition but expected to recover. The past week has been a swirl of disbelief, grief and soul searching, as both students and parents have struggled to cope with this unthinkable tragedy, offer support to all who need it and also try to carry on with the other things in our lives. It’s not easy buckling down to read a chapter on comparative government when one of your pals is undergoing his second brain surgery in three days. Nor for us, as parents, to see our daughter entering what is new emotional territory for her and many of her closest friends. There have been solemn get-togethers and a beautiful candlelight vigil, and teachers and counselors at the high school have been sympathetic and helpful.
A few nights ago, my daughter was headed out of the house and surprised me by suddenly asking, “Can you find me version of ‘Brokedown Palace’ I can play in the car?” She has always enjoyed the Dead on some level, knows a lot of their songs to varying degrees and has become more interested in their music over the past year, especially since seeing Furthur during the last New Year’s run. I have heard her idly singing bits of “Brokedown Palace” around the house from time to time; maybe it’s from all those nights I sang it to her as I rocked her to sleep when she was a baby.
I had about 30 seconds of panic wondering which version I should choose before I went with the obvious one: the pristine studio recording from American Beauty, right out of “Ripple” (another song she knows), sweet as can be. The next morning she reported she’d listened to both songs a few times and it had made her feel better. And that eased my worried soul a bit to hear that. How wonderful it is that we can take solace from songs; relieve some of the emotional burdens we all carry.
“Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” have brought me through sad and confused times and also, as often, put an even bigger smile of my face when I was happy. There was always something that felt right about ending a great weekend of Dead shows with a beautiful “Brokedown,” as fans and band got to sing to each other: “Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell /Listen to the river sing sweet songs/ To rock my soul.” What a profoundly gentle and loving sentiment. I felt it strongly listening to Furthur end their recent Beacon Theatre run on that lovely grace note. And Crystal Hall from the Mickey Hart Band sings it as well as anyone these days; her version is in my head now, too.
Sometimes at a concert or listening to tape, I don’t know the song that’s going to affect me until I’m in the middle of it. A line will trigger some thought or memory and suddenly “The Wheel” is a revelation, or some line from “Stella Blue” or “Comes a Time” is the one that touches my heart in unforeseen ways. For me, “Attics of My Life” may be the single most affecting song in the entire Hunter-Garcia canon, at once mysterious (with its “cloudy dreams unreal” and “secret space of dreams”), frank about our frailties and so full of compassion and empathy. It always gets me. It is spiritual in the most uplifting and undogmatic way.
There are times I feel the quest in “Terrapin” is my own (down to being trapped in the lion’s den) and that’s the song that speaks to me, or I’m hurtling out of control and hanging on for dear life in “The Other One,” with Cowboy Neal at the wheel (at least someone else is driving!). I’ve been the Lost Sailor and had many a day Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad. A well-placed “Bertha’ might wash the blues away. Conversely, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” can be a cold slap of reality to remind us of life’s fragility. And a lot of the songs are marvelous escapes, where we briefly encounter the myriad characters that populate the Grateful Dead universe—from gentle Jack Jones to Delia DeLyon to Jack Straw from Wichita to Althea to Loose Lucy—and then move on, perhaps more observers than participants. I love a good yarn (although there are life lessons in them, too).
It’s an infinite, ever-changing tapestry that continues to yield new meanings and emotions, that changes as I change, and as the particulars of my world—and those I love—shift in both subtle and obvious ways. It seems as if there’s always a Dead song out there in the ether to shed light and move me brightly.
What are some of the Grateful Dead songs that have been important to you—in good times and bad?