Thursday, November 1, 2012

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

When I imagine Grateful Dead music I see its core being drafted by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. At heart it seems to be rooted in their biased search -- for sublime joy, informed by open curiosity. Joy and curiosity are essential aspects of the soul, and they have their own colors and fragrances, and it's hard to imagine anyone better than Garcia and Hunter at tapping and expressing them.

I imagine Bob Dylan's music coming from a different essential aspect -- strength -- and not just drawing on creative energy to come into being, but actually manifesting as creativity itself. Raw strength seems to tumble from Dylan's songs with a relentless ferocity. Think of the songs Hurricane, Desolation Row, and Ballad of a Thin Man.

Most Wednesday nights I can be found at Ashkenaz in Berkeley for Stu Allen and Mars Hotel, a Dead/Jerry cover band with a rotating cast. Mostly I'm there for dancing, and mostly I get moved by joy and curiosity. That's to be expected. Most of the songs are Grateful Dead songs. The dancing around me is loopy, or crescendoing, or trippy.

Stu's in another band called Ghosts of Electricity. It's not really another band. Most of its musicians take turns in Mars Hotel. But it might as well be another band. Instead of playing Grateful Dead music, they only play Bob Dylan songs. The arrangements may be similar. The approach may be similar. But there's no denying the ferocity of Dylan. In anybody's hands, a Dylan song returns the band and audience to the very source of creativity. Last night at Sweetwater Music Hall, the dancing around me was energetic, relentless, and powerful.

I make sure to see Dylan himself live every couple of years. Usually his voice is impossible for me to decipher, and he reworks his lyrics into new melodic settings, so the songs themselves can be unrecognizable. But I go anyway. I'm in Stratford-on-Avon at the Globe Theatre watching Shakespeare onstage, or in Greece listening to Homer recite, or in Vienna with Mozart holding the baton. Like those others, Dylan has direct access to the fierce, red creative pulse -- the eros side of love, the leap into the unknowing -- and his songs remind me that courage and strength have a deep source and are available.