The Grateful Dead:
A Meditation on Music, Meaning, and Memory

Copyright © 1995 by Gary Burnett

Though it began as a mode of composition, it rapidly became a kind of architectural metaphor, a way of defining blocks of space with barely controlled fields of sound, the slide from one phrase to another suggesting both walls and a grid within which we can live in the instant before it once again disappears. Only when it stops altogether is it possible to begin looking forward. And it is only in part a question of style, of the creation of a musical universe unique to this particular aggregate of players.


There are just too many stories, many of them fragmentary, most of them nothing more than random images laced together by the assimilative forces of memory. When a thread is pulled, an entire skein follows: a slight movement made by Phil at the Greek Theatre (palms out toward Bobby in a gesture of denial or refusal, combined with a shake of the head) drags along another fragmentary image: Phil pointing out to Bobby that he can't start "Playing In The Band" because Jerry has already retreated to his amp, lit his cigarette, and begun the endless process of tuning up, what Bobby, with his repertoire of three or four bad jokes, calls "Dead Air."

Given such a tangle of memories, little is specific or completely clear. I'm not even sure which shows Phil's two gestures belong to; one, I know, is linked with a memory of oppressive summer heat, another--or maybe it's the same one--with the remembered pressure of the sand below my feet as I stand with the crowd in front of the concrete risers of the Greek Theatre. And more: eucalyptus trees around the Greek; the two mile walk from home to get there; someone in line saying "Yeah, Jerry used to move a lot"; that sense of well-being and accomplishment when I finally move through the gate.

Nor am I convinced of the accuracy of many of my memories. My feet clearly feel the distinctive physical sensation of that sand, called up across the years; but I can't actually recall seeing sand in the pit at the Greek. Still, there it is; it's the way memory--my memory, at least--works; it's a blur, a melange of things that somehow elude any attempt at description and coherent storytelling. But it's the closest I can come to explaining why I'm "on the bus."

How can anyone else possibly understand the real significance of the arc a fluorescent frisbee took as it flew through the smoky air of Winterland and bounced off of Keith's grand piano at a show in late 1973 or early 1974? Or the fact that such an inconsequential image has remained with me, as clear as ever, for nearly twenty years?


The response is often visual: the legs around me as I sit on the floor become saplings, part of a great forest through which the cool winds of space blow.


           as well


Someone standing near me spent the whole show screaming for "Box of Rain," which, of course, the band never played. But just once, midway through the second set, I called out for "Me and My Uncle," knowing neither how common the song was nor how rare it was as part of a second set; as if on cue, they played it. Everyone turned to stare at me, by now not just "on the bus," but apparently given some kind of strange control over the course of events. That sense of control--that inexplicable command of events--is a cliche, but we've all lived it.

Long, intricate vocal lacework at the end of "He's Gone" and, as second encore, my only "And We Bid You Goodnight."

The next night, when I wasn't there, they played "Dark Star." Of course; the playing of that song is one event I've never--until very recently--been given access to, much less control over.


White t-shirts glow in the black light of Winterland, hair and arms of dancers cutting patterns through space. Distance is meaningless.

 effortlessly lyrical

Two cannabis-laced cookies outside of the Greek Theatre. 1984. Dancing on the small incline near the football stadium where they'd set up speakers for people without tickets. The year before, they had used the entire baseball field, and hundreds of people came together to enjoy the show for free, with the blessings of all.


The core of my feeling of being on the bus, though, isn't limited by that odd sense of control, any more than it is by the more palpable memories, the tactile, auditory and visual sensations that remain with me. The whole thing is driven by something else: something I'm less certain about, something even less subject to explanation. A poet friend of mine thinks that it has to do with the way the Dead are able to endlessly spin what he calls "musical narrative" out of themselves. And that's true, but it doesn't explain the magic of being at a show.

The continuity (or "narrative") of any good show is part of it, certainly, but only part. The only thing I can say is that each show means something, and that what it means is curiously precise and--at least at the best shows--amazingly coherent.


The Dead build this "meaning"--in its most obvious form--purely out of the actual music they play: sometimes Jerry, or one of the others, will repeat a particular signature riff a number of times throughout the course of a show, turning it into a kind of motif which links songs as different as, say, "Let It Grow" and "Stella Blue." In several 1991 shows, the motif was, unexpectedly, the "Dark Star" theme.

Other instances are more subjective.

At one show--the first time I saw Brent--I felt the air around me being carved by the sheer physical force of the sound, sculpted, constructed. The music created a home, a literal physical space within which I could live. I have no memory of the songs played at that show, but still feel the structure erected, huge, palpable swatches of Brent's organ throwing material walls up all around me, incised with the filigree of Jerry's guitar and buttressed by Phil's bass.