Four Grateful Dead Songs That Made Me A Better Dad.
The Grateful Dead have played a huge part of my life for 32 years. From college through kids, their music has been with me, like a spiritual partner holding my hand through moments of joy, uncertainty and sadness. Most people are surprised when they discover I’m a Deadhead, as that band is more of a counterculture lifestyle than a musical preference. More times than not, I’ve been told I don’t look like a deadhead, whatever that means.
Actually, I know what it means.
The songwriting of Robert Hunter and John Barlow, together with the performances of Jerry, Bob, Phil, Mickey, Bill and the members who passed, have made me a better student of life, and consequentially, a better dad.
Journey of the Dead
My Dead journey started in a tiny 2-bedroom beach apartment, over-filled with six guys in the summer of ’88. We were broke, and our entertainment was comprised of Dead bootlegs for music and The Young Ones videos on VHS. Initially, the Dead were like having that first sip of Miller Lite. Exciting, odd, but I knew it was to be an acquired taste. REM, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Smithereens and The Cure were more my drinks of choice.
Later in life I realized I was wrong about Miller lite, and right about The Dead.
I rejected the low-quality, TDK-taped jams at first, which is how most of the music was passed along. It was part of the beautiful, share culture. Unlike the Doobie Brothers, who Rerun soon discovered didn’t take kindly to bootlegs, The Dead welcomed them. There were even Tape sections. Days after a show, someone would get the tape, and pass it around to copy.
But live didn’t really move me at first, so I began with initial steps towards safe, studio albums like American Beauty, Mars Hotel. I stepped up to a bit of live, like Reckoning, but it still felt more like studio on a stage, which was ok with me. Slowly, I expanded to live as I came to them, and they came to me. It wasn’t their talent that attracted me, it was their faults.
Growing up, everyone hid behind an established image to sell records, get asses in seats at the movies. Everything was so polished. But the Dead were different. They were human, and with fault. They had gifts. Wonderful, and expansive gifts, but they also had days when their gifts were less on display. And it was all captured live, on metallic TDK cassettes, flubbing the beat, missing the words. They put it out there, stretched and made you feel like you were a part of something great. That you were trusted enough to not judge when Phil would sing off key, or Bob would forget a line. Or Drums/Space ended up being more noise than final frontier.
And they did it on a Persian rug, the same one your grandma may have kept in her Parlor. It added a homespun familiarity. It was a magic rug that made every note, every lyric fly into your soul.
I’ve been to 32 shows, which in the scheme of things is not that many. I stopped going when Jerry died. I found out the news on my honeymoon in Costa Rica. I knew it would never be the same. But they tried, and many people hung on, not wanting to let go of the magic.
So I went to my tape collection, eventually my cd collection, then my digital collection, and enjoyed the live experience through the sound and memories. When I had kids, I made mix cd’s for them and had dead lyrics in their birth announcements. It represented a connection to nature, hope and each other.
In the car, Songs like Monkey and Engineer were a much better alternative to Barney for us all. As they got older, I kept them away from pop as well. I found most of that filled with lost messages, devoid of worthwhile story or substance.
Finally, I took them to the Hollywood Bowl for a Dead and Co. Show. I kept an open mind, and although Jerry’s presence was surely missed, the vibe was still the same. It was like going to your high school reunion, and reconciling the memory of the past with the graying reality of the present.
The entire catalog is something that I connect with, and have used to learn lessons of kindness, understanding and love that help guide my journey with our three kids. Yet, these four songs stood out and deserve their own mention:
Eyes Of The World
From the first lyric, “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world,” there is a responsibility given to be good, be just and help others. Some people live by a moral compass that will get them what they want, when they want it, no matter who they hurt. This song teaches us to slow down the metaphorical seasons of life, and to love ourselves in a way that helps others. I listen to this song when I swim laps, and it helps affirm my responsibility to myself, my wife, my children, and the world.
Brokedown Palace taught me about my spiritual connection to nature. I learned how to be a dad and how the chapters of our life all connect. It’s about going home with your new self and the importance of family support. That cycle is one that many of us struggle to understand or accept. This particular set of lyrics was used in the birth announcement of Alec, my oldest son, who is now 20.
River gonna take me, Sing me sweet and sleepy. Sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back back home. It’s a far gone lullaby sung many years ago. Mama, Mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.
At 20, the evocative lyrics bring new meaning as he is in Oregon for college.
I also used lyrics from this song for the announcement of my middle son, Noah, who will leave for school this year.
“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.”
Scarlett Begonias taught me to be kind, to not judge, and be open to how life teaches you grand lessons in unexpected moments. This spring we adopted a 3-legged-German Shepherd when my other dog, Cassidy (after another Dead song) died.
My son Noah named the new dog Scarlet. The lyrics “Ain’t nothing wrong with the way she moves,” and “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right,” made me sure he was right.
From the Staccato guitar to the simple licks from Jerry, this song always came at a wonderful time in the show. You were in the third act of a musical experience. Help on the way, Slipknot, Franklin’s Tower, a 20-minute journey through the three songs, and affectionately know as Help/Slip/Frank.
“If you get confused, listen to the music play” worked well in context and in a larger sense. I used that as a call-to-action at times, when I faced some tough decisions. It taught me to slow down, and realize that life is a long run. Make time to take time to think, and not react on the spot.
That was evidenced in their long performance of this group of songs, which pushed their ability to focus, to communicate with each other and connect with the crowd. It was a marathon of music, and it was merely 3 songs. Their mantra of “Roll away the dew,” was a calling to not procrastinate in life, and to push through life’s challenge when you were ready. It gave you the power to pause, accept and change things when the time was right.
I used this for my daughter, Skylar’s, birth announcement.
“In another time’s forgotten space, Your eyes looked through your mother’s face. Wildflower seed on the sand and stone, May the four winds blow you safely home.”
As I scan through life, The Dead has been one of the most influential bands who have shaped not just what I love, but how I see myself and the world around me. The Dead have taught me to be kind, accepting and full of gratitude. They taught me that life’s simple moments are the things we should be chasing, and that we all have a purpose to make each other’s life a bit better. All lessons I pass on to my kids everyday.
At the end of their shows, Jerry would sometimes leave us with these words, “Take this feeling we have tonight and do something good with it, be kind.”
And I repeat the words to you, as I have repeated them to my loved ones.