I am Deadhead. There, I admit it.
I know some people find the Grateful Dead’s music, and their legion of fans, irritating anachronisms. Yet, the bus keeps rolling along, with new fans of an old band showing up for concerts. I am part of that unruly horde.
Let us agree that their music is an acquired taste, if we can agree on nothing else. And if that is all we can agree on, please stop reading. But if you like their music, or are just interested to learn more about it, stay with me, dear reader.
One of the first Grateful Dead songs that I fell in love with was The Wheel, a song that first surfaced as a studio recording on Jerry Garcia’s eponymous solo album in 1972, and first performed by the Grateful Dead in 1976.
The importance this song took on for me personally is due to the mystical poetry of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, of course coupled with the magical chemistry Garcia brought to his guitar, and in the recorded studio version, pedal steel guitar.
The Wheel is turning
and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go
and you can’t hold on.
The wheel that you can’t let go of and you can’t hold onto, evoking the childhood memory of playground merry-go-rounds, dizzying and fast, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Woe to any child who fell off, for if your shoes got caught on the bars you would be dragged bleeding around in the dirt until someone had the sense to stop the damn thing.
And isn’t this the metaphor for all our lives? Even if you try to stand still, the world spins on its axis, and dances about the sun. You will spin, one way or another, by will or fate. How should we respond? What is the right choice? When is it wise to take the wheel and drive, and when is it wise to enjoy the ride?
Round, round, robin run around
Gotta get back to where you belong.
Little bit harder, just a little bit more,
Little bit farther than you gone before.
We try so desperately to find safety, to find where we belong. Yet at the same time we strive, we work, we kill to get a little closer to ever elusive dreams. Inch by inch, we think we are succeeding, only to be reminded by fate that we can only choose some of our journey. We try to travel miles, but wind up traveling around the block.
For me, Hunter’s lyrics are timeless. These aren’t love songs about Jack and Diane, or songs about sexy teachers. Nothing against those songs, or types of songs, they have their place. Hunter’s lyrics transcends the whole genre that the Grateful Dead were stuck in, namely rock. Garcia, Weir, and the entire band realized that rock was barely born but was already dead (no pun intended), mired in muck of teenage hormones. For me, they’ve always represented a spiritual element of music that transcends genre labels.
There are many Deadheads who equated the Dead with Jerry Garcia, and as much as I admire his guitar stylings, I’ve often
found myself pleasantly surprised by other voices trying out their songs, taking them in new directions, and making the songs their own. Reinvention – constant reinvention – was the heart of the Dead’s improvised ethos, letting the wheel turn round one more time.
Lyrics by Robert Hunter.
Written in response to a WordPress Daily Prompt: Wheel