Commusings: If You Get Confused, Just Listen to the Music Play by Jeff Krasno

May 22, 2021

Hello Commune Community,

Given life’s impermanence, it is very difficult to identify any stable, reliable self. Our roles, interests, beliefs, and bodies change. Am I the svelte, free-wheeling hippie that I was in my 20s? Or am I the cuddlier, more distinguished me of 2021? Am I the bluegrass banjoist of yesteryear? Or the meditative pianist of today? Is the conventional notion of self just an illusion and we are all simply bobbing down the river of consciousness experiencing life moment to moment? 

Over time, long-held passions seem to color one's identity. My entire adult life has been punctuated by a love of music, a pursuit of well-being, and a desire to foster community. Our new program, Sound Consciousness: Drones for Sonic Bathing, puzzles these pieces together in a most gratifying way for me. And I hope you enjoy it, too. 

Today’s musing recounts the early misadventures that helped form my long-held fervencies. Hope you get a laugh or two. 

Drop me a note at [email protected] or follow my ranting on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,
Jeff

• • •

If You Get Confused, Just Listen to the Music

by Jeff Krasno 

 

In early April 1986, my girlfriend, Sybil, and I hopped into the back seat of Tony’s low-slung boxy Volvo station wagon and set off for Hartford, Connecticut. My tummy was a bit rumbly. My palms clammy. We were on an adventure. Despite my jitters, Tony was a portrait of stoicism, expressionless behind the wheel. We once drove through the entire state of Nevada without exchanging a word. Framed by round, Lennon-style spectacles, Tony’s lizard eyes provided little visibility into his complex brain.

The journey required music, of course. Tony instructed me, as he was apt to do, to fetch the cassette case from under the seat. I unzipped it to find sixty-four chronologically arranged bootlegs all meticulously labeled in Tony’s patented all caps penmanship. I fished out a tape marked “Greek Theater, Berkeley, California, 1984” and handed it to Avery, Tony’s girlfriend, who was installed as co-pilot. She popped it in the player as Tony lit up his gilded proto pipe. The elixir of wafting weed smoke and slippery guitar licks calmed my nerves as we banana’d onto the Merritt Parkway and headed north. I was on my way to see the Dead, the first of myriad long, strange trips.

For those unaware, The Grateful Dead emerged from the counter-culture of the Bay Area in the late 1960’s. The band was rooted in the tradition of American folk-rock that celebrated the open road, dubious and sometimes villainous heroes and copious shots of whiskey and rye. Their live performances were extensive psychedelic improvised explorations into the musical unknown. Their avidity for risk led to occasional sloppiness but also to unmatched epiphanous heights which were only enhanced by psilocybin and its psycho-active cousins.

As we swerved off I-91 and toward the Civic Center, the character of the city streets morphed from a reserved starchiness befitting a proper insurance man to a carnival of tie-dye. There were bells on shoes and scarlet begonias tucked into curls. Top-hatted troubadours strummed and caroled. And the once stately sidewalks became peppered with mini-stovetops frying grilled cheese and sundry vegan delights. Petite pixies peripatetically perambulated with their index finger raised to the sky. Apparently, they needed a miracle – just one every day – a ticket to the show.

Of course, getting into the show was preferred. But the diorama of the Dead played out both in and outside the concert hall. Not getting your miracle entry voucher could sometimes be just as transformational as spinning the night away on the floor of the arena. The enduring magic of being a Dead Head was the effervescent community that filled the crevices of every town on every stop.

Approximately 10,000 souls, a small city, transplanted itself with every Dead show. The human scale was most prominently on display during the summer months when the band would install itself for multiple shows at big outdoor venues like Alpine Valley, Laguna Seca or Shoreline Amphitheater. The parking lots swelled with tailgaters, drum circles and endless vendors hocking jewelry, t-shirts, tapes and illicits.

Schuyler and I took a swing at a guacamole concern one tour. I bought avocados in bulk from Fairway on the Upper West Side. Add garlic, caramelized onions, pepper, salt, lime juice, diced tomatoes and, my hitherto secret ingredient, a splash of soy sauce. We packaged it as Jeff & Sky’s Holy Guacamole and hit the road. Of course, our commercial dip was just a front for something greener and more lucrative.

In the summer of 1988, now a convert, I lay my sleeping bag down on 34th street next to thousands of other freaks. Sleeping out for tickets was a ritual among the hardcore. These outings were social gatherings in and of themselves. Heads played boom boxes and noodled away on guitars. The typical Madison Square Garden ticket scalpers were quite flummoxed by this hippie invasion. In the morning, the kiosks opened and I bought tickets to every night of the Dead’s 9-show September run. This series of concerts would overlap with my first two weeks of college in an academically most inauspicious manner. Still, I serendipitously ran into almost everyone I have ever known over that fortnight.

My personal proximity to the band grew tighter over the years. In college, I joined Delta Phi, a co-ed fraternity that was led by David Graham, the son of Bill Graham, the flamboyant impresario who promoted the Dead (and Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and others) in San Francisco. I went from sleeping out for nose-bleed seats to sipping Long Island iced tea backstage. After college, I befriended the tech iconoclast and Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow. We shared numerous misadventures, most memorably jumping naked into the Biltmore Hotel pool brandishing a bottle of Cuervo. Later, my brother, Eric, joined bassist Phil Lesh’s band as his lead guitarist. And, now, I have the distinct honor to be collaborating with drummer Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain on our latest Commune program, Sound Consciousness. Wayne Dyer memorably uttered, “The angels you wish to attract into your life will appear when they recognize themselves in you.” Well, the seraphim leisurely showed up signaling that, perhaps, I am just an aging hippie.

The common thread weaving its way through my life is the fostering of community. I am drawn to methods of cultural engineering that help community flourish. And there are few communities the that have enjoyed such longevity and scale as the Dead Heads. The band is still touring and selling hundreds of thousands of tickets more than 50 years after their first gig. One of the earliest shows I ever attended was with my father and, last New Year’s, I brought my youngest daughter, Micah, to the Forum in Inglewood.

One of the primary keys to the band’s sustained success was the nomadic and decentralized economy it spawned. Once the Dead struck the final note of the show, they no longer considered the music theirs. The band intentionally allowed fans to tape its concerts and sell and trade those recordings. This gave birth to tens of thousands of well-manicured collections of live shows, like Tony’s, and endless good-natured and spirited debates regarding the best performances. They also open-sourced their visual iconography, which allowed people to produce and sell their own merchandise bearing the Dead’s primary logos. The car parks were a veritable souk of Dancing Bear tie-dyes and Steal Your Face tapestries. This economic decentralization cultivated tremendous creativity because no one was going to purchase a stock, mass-produced concert Tee. You were looking for something completely unique, hand-sewn and relational.

Modern capitalism sacrifices the hand-hewn on the altar of convenience and efficiency. For this reason, we too often perceive material objects as cleaved from the spiritual. Hence, worthless and disposable. But in the dusty lots of the Dead shows, you knew the woman who stitched the embroidery or blew the glass, and that connection imbued your crystal necklace or leather moccasins or multi-chambered bong with the divine.

The relationship between the band and its following was symbiotic. The music provided the glue for the community. And, in turn, the Dead Heads infused the music with meaning. If there had been just one person standing alone in the middle of the concert hall, the songs would have rung hollow. In fact, I have been in the arena for numerous uninspired and dreary soundchecks. But put 30,000 people in the place, swaying and playing, prancing and dancing, skipping and tripping (and occasionally stripping) and the music made you forget you had a head.

Transcendent music – not unlike meditation – burns away the ego. In its temporal ever-presence, it rips off our individuated cloaks of identity. When the crowd full-throatedly joined in unison around the famous refrains from “Not Fade Away” or “He’s Gone” or “Truckin’” there was little sense of one’s societal position, race or creed. Our story of separation – the delusion that we are separate individuals living in a separate external universe in competition with each other – was torn away and dustbinned. The Dead, like any great band, makes everyone in the audience feel the same.

While a long-haired hippie in sandals prattling on about how “dude, we’re all connected” might elicit an eye-roll, let’s remember the stylings and exhortations of Jesus. JC, Buddha and Gandhi among other mystics were robed nomadic sages proffering forms of unity consciousness and realizations of the non-self. You need barely turn your head to see a hundred Jesuses at a Dead show. I’m not contending that there weren’t overdoses and stolen devil sticks, tawdry affairs and other malfeasance going down in the shadows. But there was a true rejection of individual materialism to be found among these migrating villages. This wave of spiritual cognizance reflected the counter-cultural mentality of the 60’s and 70’s. Broadly, that sea flattened in the 80’s and on. But the Dead shows remained a vestige of the wide-eyed idealism of a lost generation.

During the middle of the second set of every Dead show, the instrumentalists would wander off the stage leaving Mickey and fellow drummer-percussionist Billy Kreutzmann to explore uncharted rhythmic territories. These extended tribal sonic adventures drove the real Dead heads to new dimensions of consciousness and the neophytes to the beer kiosk. This ritualized section of the show, known as Drums→ Space, served as the early inspiration for what became Sound Consciousness. In fact, Mickey and Zakir’s “drones for sonic bathing” are the culmination of this 50-year live, public experiment.
In the throes of quotidian madness, we tend to experience sound monophonically, as if there is just one big wave of it enveloping us. But when we focus our attention, it becomes evident that we are experiencing a stereophonic and polyphonic symphony of frequencies at every moment. An orchestral bird section tweeting on the left. The whirr of our hard drive in front of us. The soft patter of our children’s feet likely in the kitchen. An endless fucking leaf blower seemingly everywhere. Notice how these sounds simply appear and disappear in consciousness moment by moment. And you didn’t put them there. They simply arise not unlike thoughts or emotions or sensations. This simple practice of intentionally noticing sound seduces you into the present moment. You’re not projecting your fears into a future of negative anticipated memories. You’re right here, just fine, in the ever-lasting now.

My first experience of Drums→ Space was in Hartford that christening April night. The band members peeled off the stage after Smokestack Lightning, and I wondered if the show was pre-maturely over. But Mickey began subtly conjuring a foreboding beat as if foreshadowing the climactic scene of a thriller. The suspense ramped as Billy triggered sonorous bass drums and soon enough we were in the car chase. This wasn’t a song. It was a roller coaster. And I was on it. And not of sane mind!

I glanced over at Tony who had munched the same mushroom stems. He stood hunched and motionless like a terrapin, smiling ever so slightly. He turned to me, and sensing I was beleaguered, looked down his nose over his spectacles and concisely summoned the verse, “If you get confused, just listen to the music play.”

• • •

Listen to the first 5 sessions of Sound Consciousness for free at onecommune.com/sound.

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