Ancient tune spiralling to Communion at Terrapin’ Crossroads

This light, so hazy–
cast by a new moon
through dense thought
to an ancient tune–
how pale the rays
as the light fades
through forest creepers
and clinging vines

There was musical communion in the air cast by a full moon through the sounds of an ancient tune and its excised lyrics still known as “Terrapin’ Station” by a recombined remnant of the Grateful Dead known as Communion. While “Terrapin’ Station” was first performed at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California February 26, 1977, this evening’s performance in San Raphael happened on a Saturday night on the last of day January, bringing to a conclusion the Sabbath of Song. The Grateful Dead’s realization of this song in the eyes of its original lyricist, Robert Hunter, remains incomplete, leaving out as it does the lyric resolution. As is the way with musical communion, when Hunter’s lyrics met Garcia’s composition, only a fragment of Hunter’s lyric remains, leaving the musical setting far more satisfying. Sometimes the very incompleteness of the fragment is more satisfying than the whole.

I had been waiting since relocating to San Francisco, American Jerusalem, to make pilgrimage to the Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads in San Raphael and the evening was a remarkably intimate one, with sounds of ancient tunes embracing the concert venue built by Grateful Dead bassist, Phil Lesh. The vibe of the Grate Room feels a lot like “Rambles” modeled upon by Levon Helm’s legendary Midnight Rambles in his barn concert venue in Woodstock, New York. What struck me amidst the intimacy of this live music was the rapport between all musicians in Communion, especially between father, Phil Lesh and his son, Grahame Lesh. You catch a glimpse of this intergenerational transmission in this photograph.

While the Lesh Family Ramble Band, and “Terrapin All-Stars” features a rotating cast of fantastic local talent, this culminating moment of the Sabbath of Song was unique, as Communion was unveiled, featuring Phil Lesh, Stu Allen, Ross James, Grahame Lesh, & Alex Koford, and featuring Jason Crosby! The fragments of this all-star band, Communion, were remarkably well-aligned in three part harmonies throughout the tight sets that featured creative, exploratory renditions of classics. These small moments of Saturday night rambles have the feeling of what Alain Badiou calls an Event.  Like all revolutionary moments, for Badiou see the Event as an important “eruption” in some basic field of human social activity and thinking—for Dead Heads, it was the Grateful Dead. Everyone has their show, regardless which musical moment, the Event is something which has happened “that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is’,” and “which compels us to decide a new way of being.” I am suggesting that something about the nature of this deeply intuitive and interactive musical friendship extends from a communal family and marked another evental moment that Saturday night at the Grate. That fragmentary nature of the Grateful Dead continues to resonate as Dead Heads across the world contemplate making pilgrimage to hear this American counterculture band in their final stand – a series of just-announced stadium performances on July 3, 4 and 5 marking their 50th anniversary at Soldiers Field in Chicago. It is a return to the same 55,000-seat capacity venue that marked their last show with guitarist and vocalist, Jerry Garcia still in the line up on July 9, 1995 at Soldiers Fields before his passing in August 1995. Now Soldiers Field stands as an evental site, further augmented as the living remnant of the Grateful Dead will be joined by Phish guitarist, Trey Anastasio, for three 50th-anniversary shows at this evental site.

Too often, the danger in Badiou’s event is the sense that there is almost a retroactive meaning ascribed to the moment without any true subjective criterion. For Dead Heads, however, there is no doubt that Soldiers Field is that evental site, and this 50th year anniversary of the Dead is that event. And of course, longtime Dead Heads across the world, even those who emigrated to Israel are contemplating making the transatlantic trek for a chance to see this final reunion at the evental site.

All attempts to hold on to the ancient tune are fleeting, but those evanescent grasps for the communion between notes, between songs, between sets, and between shows is what abides. As the music mavens, holy beggars and Dead Heads make plans for pilgrimage to the evental site through mail order, those excised verses to “Terrapin’ Station” by Robert Hunter continue to resound as the strange trip continues:

A long line to ride
A long black train
on a spiralling track
takes us back to Terrapin

About the Author
Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. serves as rabbi at Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is the author of Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013), A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011) and Contemporary Hebrew Mystical Poetry: How It Redeems Jewish Thinking (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2009).