Blair's Golden Road Blog - “Listen to the river sing sweet songs…”
By Blair Jackson
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?
I'm so sorry for your family- and for those families-- i know exactly what you're writing about-- the same thing happened to me-- we lost a beautiful 18yr old girl on a glorious spring day... the grief is unimaginable...
and birdsong-- birdsong became her song-- still is.
all i know is something like a bird within her sang... then that beautiful guitar line...
it doesn't take away pain, but it gives a shape and a movement to it- a sound to it-- one i can live with--
i send love and good vibes to you and yours-
One more tune (performance, really) that carries powerful emotional resonance for me is a 30 minute performance of Shining Star from (I think) the early 90s. My college sweetheart played this show for me many times and gave me a copy which I eventually lost. I've listened to it many times, and not once made it through with dry eyes. For me it carries all these sweet, wonderful memories, as well as the memory of getting through the breakup of that relationship partly thanks to that song.
By the way, if anyone knows what show that was (my tape wasn't dated) and if that recording is available, please let me know. I found on amazon an out-of-print release called "Shining Star" which unfortunately is only available from sharks for unbelievable amounts of money. I'm wondering if that is the version.
Other than the love of dear friends and family and (for me) spiritual practice (meditation, nature, reflection,etc.), music heals in a way nothing else can. I need music to get through pretty much every day, and pretty much every day that means grateful dead music.
Amen to the songs on American Beauty having particular healing powers.
I may have missed, but I haven't seen Unbroken Chain mentioned. I survived a psychically distressing experience following the ingestion of some psychotropics by listening to Unbroken Chain over and over (as this was in the glory days of cassettes, this required a great deal of rewinding). The sound in that song that (to my ears) reminds me of a plane landing (I have no idea, to this day, what makes that sound) reassured me that I was "coming down." And the way Phil (and Donna) sings it was/still is hypnotically calming to me. And so is that sweet, clean, melodic guitar intertwined with Phil's winding bass lines in the beginning. And then there's that groovy jam in the middle.
I offer you, your family, and all the families affected by this tragedy my wishes for peace. My dayjob is working with traumatized preschool aged children. You are right, non one should have to experience the tragic and seemingly senseless destruction of life such as your daughter witnessed....especially not so young. The impact it can have on a psyche is profound, as profound as the swirl that any of the songs you mention bring up for us, as you say, in unexpected moments.
I probably don't have much more to add. I have definitely experienced comfort in song lyrics (especially Grateful Dead songs)...it's therapeutic to have the emotional resonance that comes from knowing that someone has had an experience similar enough to relate. It's also amazing how efectively the medium of music conveys these similarities of experience.
Very interesting thread, and Blair, I'm so sorry about your daughter's friends.
For me, Ripple is the most beautiful song ever, and always makes good times better and bad times more bearable for me. I wish I had seen it more than the one time I caught them acoustic (10/30/80). But at least I never heard Phil sing it, lol. Might have ruined it for me forever. Seriously, I think it's the most beautiful (lyrics and melody) of all of the Dead's beautiful songs.
Marye, there is a circulating aud of 23 Jan 81, which opens with Sugaree, taped by Dick Latvala no less! I do not have it, but if you are interested, I am sure someone can help. But then again sometimes such special things are best left as they are in the memory.
high time off workingman's always does that spine tingling feeling for me, just a flood of memories reaching deep down into my psyche
Blair, I'm sorry about the tragedy of your daughter's friends, my thoughts and prayers go out to them and their families.
As Eileen Law says no better therapy than a few songs of the Dead.
For my Box of Rain was a great help in the death of my father 9 years ago, and of course Broke-Down Palace, Comes a Time, To Lay Down My, Attics of My Life, Ripple, Terrapin, He's Gone, Mission in the Rain, etc... help me in many times my feelings decay.
I put my children to bed every night singing "we bid you goodnight" from LiveDead while they were young for comfort as they slept. I tragically lost my son last year and have been comforted myself numerous times as I listen some of the songs already mentioned. There is definitely healing in the music, "so let there be songs to fill the air."
My mother passed quickly after 93 healthy years, so her passing was easier.