By David Dodd
I think I have the very best true synchronicity story related to the Grateful Dead. An audacious claim, I know, but just listen to this.
When I was a student at UC Davis, in 1976 or 1977, in my very first year of being a Deadhead, I was getting ready to ride my bike in to campus from my apartment. I was humming a Grateful Dead song, and hopped onto the bike. Just as I stepped onto the pedals and started pushing, I was singing “Blue light rain, whoah, unbroken chain,” and at that very instant my bike chain snapped.
Over the years, I’ve heard many more synchronicity stories—I’d like it if you shared yours.
“Unbroken Chain” is, for me, one of the BIG songs in the Dead’s repertoire. Words by Bobby Petersen, music by Phil Lesh, it stands as one of most musically complex pieces they performed, and the fact that it was never, until 1995, performed live in concert by the Grateful Dead puts it into a unique category. The roar that went up from the audience when they broke it out at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on March 19 of that year virtually drowned out the first minute of the performance. It stayed in the live repertoire during that final tour, and was played in the penultimate spot in the second set of their last show on July 9, straight out of Drumz and into “Sugar Magnolia.” Ten live performances.
But the studio version on Mars Hotel always blows me away. The mysterious studio sounds that resemble jet planes taking off or water dripping, the incredible Garcia solo, the rapid changes in mood and the twists and turns of tempo and structure all combine for a wild ride. And Bobby Petersen’s lyric is right up there with some of Hunter’s best, for me.
The title has been taken up by a number of entities and events over the years—somehow it exemplifies something about the band. There was a fanzine called “Unbroken Chain,” started in 1986 by Laura Paul Smith and continued under the editorship of Dave Serrins, running for more than ten years. The Phil Lesh charitable foundation is called Unbroken Chain. And a large conference was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a few years back, also called Unbroken Chain. Clearly, the phrase appeals to Deadheads in a big way.
In the Annotated Lyrics, I devote a half-column of annotation to the concept of “unbroken chain,” mostly as a theological construct relating to the transmission of authority. In Petersen’s lyric, the unbroken chain is “of you and me,” as well as “of sorrow and pearls,” “of sky and sea,” and “of the western wind.” Image after image in the lyric is put forth, each layering onto the other in a cumulative accretion of meaning. Like a pearl, maybe. For me, the imagery and the phrase “unbroken chain” together work to tell me to make my own meaning of what is around me, whether it be from loss, from sorrow, from the natural world, or from my fellow human beings.
Last week, I was at the Grateful Dead Archive at the UC Santa Cruz library, and there, in a glass case, was a lyrics sheet for “Unbroken Chain” with Garcia’s handwritten notes for the chords. Someday I have to head down to the Archive and spend some time with the Bobby Petersen papers.
For awhile, I speculated that Bobby Petersen may have been gay, what with the line about catching it when you try to love your brother. Probably not, but an apt line for our times, from a number of perspectives.
This song mentions lilacs, so it reminds me of my mother, whose birthday was this week. She would have been 90 on Monday. A few years ago I planted a lilac in my back yard in her memory, as the first plant in what has become my Grateful Dead theme garden. Kind of a fun idea, I think, to grows plants mentioned in Grateful Dead songs. So far, I have manzanita, lilacs, begonias, roses, and lilies. I’d like to add a magnolia. For years I have been unsuccessfully seeking a real American Beauty rose, but have had no luck as yet. Mangrove might be a bit tough, and a weeping willow would take up too much room.
In San Francisco, there’s a Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park (I’m sure they have these in many places throughout the world), which has all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare. I would love to see a garden like that in Golden Gate Park for the Dead—a civic Grateful Dead Garden. There they could grow all the plants—barley, wheat, corn, and on and on. A weeping willow by the bank’s green edge. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
I’m hoping for a conversation that could include synchronicity, gardens, authority, gay rights, and anything else that might be on your mind. Over to you!
A couple weeks ago I had a premonition a GD cover band I was going to see would play it, and they did. But that's not the coincidence I wanted to mention.
I too was once riding my bicycle, I was listening to 5/19/77, on 5/19 of whatever year it was, 2005 I believe. I was riding late at night on these old back roads when I hit a gap on the shoulder of the road wrong and had a wipeout during China Doll. I wasn't hurt too bad, just shook up, I was only going 14 mph (that's the last thing I remember seeing on the odometer I had on the bike). As I got to my feet to make sure nothing was broken, I realized my cd player survived the fall. And as I stood I heard the line "pick up your China Doll...it's only fractured...just a little nervous from the fall." I smiled, brushed myself off, and rode the few miles left I had to get home.
I filmed a documentary at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival a couple years back. The last shot of the movie featured original merry prankster George Walker yelling through a microphone (while long time Kerouac collaborator and famed musician David Amram, and his band, provided the back ground music.) He tells a short story, something about Neal Cassady (while pointing at Cassady's daughter Jami, who was in the audience). Unfortunately, I couldn't really hear the middle part of everything he was saying. Something about standing up on a stage, I thought, but I couldn't really be for sure. Even in all my time editing, having listened to those last lines hundreds and hundred of times, I still couldn’t decipher what he was saying. All I knew is that the last thing he said was “Get up and dance! It won’t ruin ya.” It was perfect. It closed out the Jam, it closed out the weekend, and it ended up being the perfect ending for my documentary. Who cares about all that other stuff he screamed? I got everything I needed. Cut. Print. That’s a wrap.
This documentary has ended up being my most favorite of all the movies I ever made. It makes me happy to watch. It makes me happy to know that it exists. And I only rarely cringe at it or think it could be better. If you’re a creative in any way, you’ll understand that that almost never happens.
Every once in a while I would wish I understood what George Walker was saying, but overall I felt mostly content in not knowing, not that I really had a choice.
Cut to the next summer, the film is all “finished,” ready to be shown at next years festival, and here I am, on my way to my third Dead & Co. show, where I can only pray they play Cassidy (which of course they did, but that’s not my synchronicity story.)
My synchronicity story actually has an almost regrettable start. I had to leave the show early. I hadn’t timed everything out properly and peaked just a little too soon. For some reason I completely forgot that a 7:00 pm start actually meant 7:30. And there I was during Black Muddy River, not 5 minutes from my originally planned peak of Drums and Space, sitting in my seat, getting knocked into time and time again by my happy and cheerful row buddies. They were Grate. I, not so much. Understanding that I was in Camden, and had to get myself together enough to take the Ferry back across the river to Philly to get home, I finally decided that it was now or never.
I’m a hard believer in the idea that if you’re “gonna do something dumb, be smart about it.” So that’s why I planned the trip down to the minute. That’s why I had already bought the ferry tickets online and called to make sure that the online tickets were good for late night ferry shows, and that’s why I always call my family members the day before a trip so they don’t feel the need to call me while I’m six hours deep into talking to myself, holding a slinky up to my hear, and strumming it longways like a harp.
But of course, I hadn’t timed the show correctly, and of course there was a problem with my ticket, and of course a family member called while I was in the taxi on my way home. But I made it back, bummed that I missed the rest of one of the best setlists I had ever seen, but I made it back (and also not my synchronicity story, but every song that I stayed for, I had never heard live. All the songs they played after I left, I had the luck of having experienced live before.)
So I wasn’t having the worst trip of my life, but I was starting to bum myself out. I decided to make myself feel better and boot up my confidence a little bit by rewatching something that I knew what going to make me happy, but was also on brand and in the theme of the night, by watching my Jack Kerouac Documentary.
It was all going fine and well. I knew what happened, as I had made the movie, so no real surprises. The movie was just about coming to an end, and that’s when I heard it.
I didn’t believe it. I rewound, watched it again. I heard it again. I went back, watched George mouth the words. I wrote it all down, rewatched it again, and matched it word for word. I was in shock.
‘And Jami Cassady’s crazy father stood at the edge of the stage, bopping furiously, and Pigpen of the Grateful
Dead stood up and he grabbed the microphone, and he said, “C’mon people, get up and dance! It won’t ruin ya.”'
The Grateful Dead, literally from the dead, were trying to calm me down during a bad trip I was eventually going to have at a future show.
They were giving me advice, I didn’t know I needed, nine months before I actually needed it, and all through art that I made. They were telling me that I should have just got up out of my seat and danced. It wasn’t going to ruin me. They might as well been speaking directly to me, personally letting me know that it’s all going to be okay and to not care about what other people think.
Any fear of a bad trip was completely gone, so I just spent the rest of the night playing a Star Wars scene in my head while listening to the laser sounds coming out of my newly discovered slinky instrument, watching John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous at (the thankfully very colorful) Radio City Music Hall comedy special, all through the shiny and reflective circle in the middle of my desk fan, and watching the new instillation of rainbow roof lights dance across the top of the recently built skyscraper right outside my bedroom window.
The pieces were all in place, the world had come together, everything made sense, and I was Grateful.