Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

Moses Come Ridin’

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Gizah Light And Sound

Grateful Dead Play During Lunar Eclipse in Egypt

Not to distract from the continuous release of the portions of the part of the book I wanted to have published with Rhino records (which I’ve discovered makes no sense when put out in sections), but I can’t help but to appreciate the heaviness of what happened in September of 1978. Really. First of all, you have to get with the idea that the pyramids of Egypt are heavy already. I know, the stones are so big, they’re super heavy. But I mean heavy in the hipster sense, although I learned that Hipsters today are all about being nonplussed and basically apathetic to anything. It’s their whole identity. So I mean heavy in the ‘far out’ sense, like that is so far out there that matter is leaden with weight. The pyramids of Egypt are certainly heavy, and yet there is all sorts of conspiracy theory about them, too, like they were totally built by space people to instruct our race about all the stuff that was beyond our mental and spiritual capacity, so they gave us these mathematically significant structures that challenge your ability to figure out how anyone could have moved a single stone, let alone piled them up to form these perfect pyramids. In fact, it is likely the pyramid existed only on sketches, until the space people came and laid them all together, and said, “Here, this is what we’re talking about. This is a pyramid.” So you look at it and go, “Oh, yeah, I see it. That’s what you’re talking about.” And furthermore, think of all the secret messages written in them, and how they are laden with insight about celestial observation, and how the Egyptians seemed obsessed with the journey of the dead soul in the afterlife, that these massive structures were basically space-traveling coffins.

Yeah, that’s heavy. But I’m talking about the Grateful Dead playing in front of them. It wasn’t an easy gig to book, I’m sure. There was all that Israeli-Egyptian conflict going on that the Carter administration felt the oblige (say with a french accent) to mediate. In the midst of it all, Sadat would surely say, “You guys have some hippies that want to come desecrate our national treasure? Sure. Visas for everyone.” It was an odd diplomatic corps, led by Phil Lesh, who went to the State Department to get hooked in with the right people (read: get high with Washington politicos), and ultimately it was Sadat’s wife Jehan that made this thing happen. She sat in the front row on the first night. The history of mankind is full of events (come on, man, seriously?). But it’s the coinciding of events that creates a special moment in time. Space people land and build massive structures to remind us that we’re small and alone. Beat slackers get together and drop acid made by the CIA for mind control experiments, forming a musical entity. Nations war against nations in the name of all kinds of stupid shit. The First Lady of Egypt takes a liking to a slender bass player with perfect pitch (ear, not mouth), and we’ve got a Grateful Dead show at the most far out place on the planet. Oddly enough, the shows were scheduled for September 14th and 15th, with a third night added for the 16th. The Camp David Accords were signed on the 17th, which led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, scoring Begin and Sadat the Nobel Peace Prize. And the whole thing happens during a lunar eclipse. When I start to lose all faith, it’s the coalescing of events like this that makes me feel like an idiot for forgetting that the cosmic mechanisms are way heavier than I could ever fathom.

In keeping with the rule shared by sitcoms and rock albums that a good title has to have a double entendre, the Dead recently released Rocking The Cradle, capturing the best moments of that run at the Sound and Light Theater at Gizah. I can’t help but enjoy the interlude with the Nubian choir and oud player Hamza El Din that goes into Fire On The Mountain, and watching a younger Jerry Garcia clad in pigtails moving with exuberance and joy, for in truth, it would be a few months before a certain Persian export would get its claws into the man.

I still can’t get past the heaviness of the whole thing.



Beat It On Down The Line

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The second track, a Skjellyfetty arrangement of Jesse “The Lone Cat” Fuller’s “Beat It on Down the Line,” is an example of the Dead’s interest in a continuum of music and its roots, and their arrangement continues the adventurous spirit, born perhaps of the struggle with the mundane and the desire to find happiness. Escapism, adventure and the quest for happiness is captured in the Dead’s up-tempo arrangement. The destination for the singer is happiness, so escapism is not for avoidance, but a reverie of somewhere else, somewhere ‘down the line.’ Fuller was an odd phenomenon, known as a one-man-band, and inventor of a foot operated percussion bass named the fotdella by Fuller’s wife. Folk and blues ballads were often the inspiration for the Dead’s selection of songs, and here they draw from a contemporary whose song is reminiscent of the tradition. While a simple tale, it is just simple enough to let the simplicity speak to something as basic and vital as the quest for happiness. It is also a simple tale of an American character and his desire—the urge to escape toil and find love, while universal—Fuller makes an American story, where iconic elements of the railways offer the promise of going home:

Yes and I’ll be waiting at the station when that rain pulls on by,
Bye, I’m a goin’ back where I belong
I’ve gotta sweet love and she’s waiting there for me.
That’s where I’m gonna make my happy home.

“Beat It on Down the Line” is a song that would remain in the Dead’s repertoire for their entire career. It was recorded as the Dead’s jug band incarnation as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (recorded in 1964, released in 1998), so in a sense it can suggest the idea that the Grateful Dead are responsible for carrying on with a long standing tradition of music, of honoring the past and continuing to carry the torch. Singing about suffering, toil, misfortune and the quest to find solace and redemption around some corner, along with the adventure of getting there, embodies the Grateful Dead.

Click here to continue reading Listening for the Secret.

Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)

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The opening track on the 1967 album is the album’s sole original tune, credited to McGallahan Skjellyfetty, which was the pseudonym used for group arrangements or group compositions on the album. This song was written in response to the label’s criticism that the album lacked a potential hit, and so it was written and recorded after the rest of what would be the album was complete. Skjellyfetty comes from a character in the beat book, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, by Kenneth Patchen. The song embodies the sound and spirit of the band at this time. The philosophy expressed was really the simple invitation to “join the party.” “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)” is both an anthem and an invitation for like-minded folk to begin the journey. The sound is reflective of what the band really was at the time—the hurdy-gurdy of keyboardist Ron McKernan, aka Pigpen’s Vox organ, the simple and raw tone of guitarist Jerry Garcia’s Gibson Starfire, and the driving pulse of the tune itself coalesce into a happy aural experience, as danceable as it was a sing-along. I am still caught up in how the sound is rather the stereotypical Psychedelic Sound, but again that sort of becomes a parody of itself. “Golden Road,” aside from all that, is a striking number, especially viewed as the band’s first commercially recorded original composition. The emotional pitch is happiness, and that is communicated through the lyrics, and the tempo, rhythm and melody, the chorus—all of it gel into a rousing dance number.

While the mood of Golden Road is joviality in its most simple form, the song also contains religious and symbolic imagery that is part of the joy. Devotion is part of the title, and this is expressed in the act of dancing as well as the spirit of inquiry:

Well everybody’s dancin’ in a ring around the sun
Nobody’s finished we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find out where it’s at.

The circle appears as a symbol of unity and the eternal, a place without beginning or end, and the invitation to join the dance is to engage in devotion. In addition, the title offers the golden path, where the destination is devotion in lieu of heaven. This kind of idea is part of what the Grateful Dead offer in their music and lyrics—an ideology and poetry about how to navigate life—an invitation to ‘find out where it’s at.’

I definitely drew inspiration from the work of David Dodd, whose Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics offers vast insight into the lyrics of the Dead’s body of work. Readers would often submit personal accounts or addition anecdotes about lyrical passages. I don’t want to usurp his work and the contributions of his readers, but it is notable to mention a bit from Jay L., who references the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Tannis, page 31, side A:

“Ulla Biraah said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: In the future the Holy One, Blessed is He, will make a circle of all the righteous people, and he will sit among them, in the middle of the circle, in the Garden of Eden; and each and every one will point with his finger toward Him […]”

Jay L. offers further elaboration from a paraphrasing of the works of Pri Tzaddick, who references the same passage:

“In a profounder sense, this encirclement of God represents a level of Divine revelation beyond what is possible for the rational human intellect to experience. The Gemara thus teaches that in the future God will significantly reveal Himself to the righteous, and that, further, they will perceive the revelation equally. For a circle has no or end; rather, all points in the circle are equidistant from the center. Similarly, all the righteous people privileged to join this circle will be in equal proximity to the Divine light emanating from the center.”

An interesting idea is the idea that these interjections come in the form of written and oral traditions handed down throughout the ages. This will become a major aspect of the poetry of the Dead’s lyrics.

Click here to continue to the next installment, “Beat It On Down The Line”

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