This is the End Again, Fare Thee Well: Endings as Beginnings with the Grateful Dead

Fare you well my honey/Fare thee well my only true one/All the birds that were singing/Have flown except you alone.

Goin’ to leave this Broke-down Palace/on my hand and my knees I will roll, roll, roll/Make myself a bed by the waterside/In my time, in my time, I will roll, roll, roll.

The “Broke-down Palace” of religion was once defined by renowned anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, as: “(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

Nothing seems more “uniquely realistic” than entering into the zone of a Dead-show or a Rainbow gathering to remind you the world is insane and this other world is actually for a singular moment, what is real.

Amidst the sea of symbols and iconography that have defined the Grateful Dead, especially the hundreds of thousands of illuminated envelopes with dancing bears and skulls with roses wreaths sent to the Stinson Beach P.O. box for mail-in tickets, for decades there remains something “powerful, pervasive and long-lasting” in the “moods and motivations” of Dead-heads. While Jerry Garcia might be rolling in his grave knowing that I joined a bunch of I.T. Dead-heads for pilgrimage on the Google bus up to this final show in Santa Clara, something magical was still taking place as we all came with the same song in our hearts, “Fare you well my only true one”.

Dead-heads traveled from all over the world, from as far as Israel, to make this last pilgrimage—how fitting that the beginning of the end happens in the West Coast.

“The end is inscribed in the beginning”, as the weekly Jewish mystical chant teaches, and so it was palpable in singing along to the heart wrenching rendition of “Broke-down Palace” at the end of the second Fare Thee Well show at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara June 28, 2015. This marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s beginning in Northern California and this was one of their last goodbyes en route to Chicago’s Soldiers Field, as the story concludes nearly twenty years to the day of the last Dead show with Jerry Garcia that took place there. I remember decades ago, the first time I heard the Dead and the song that caught me was “Broke-down Palace”—for some reason, it really says moved my being like no other and now I’ve come to appreciate another layer of its meaning for the West Coast— it was first performed on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, where I now reside. The second show of the Fare Thee Well 50 Tour in Santa Clara began the set with “Feels Like a Stranger” and ended its encore with “Broke-down Palace”. The remaining Dead originals, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, were joined by Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Chimenti to resurrect the Dead as the bell tolls on the beginning of this end of touring together.

Part of what is so mesmerizing about “Broke-down Palace” is the familiar way it touches your heart, likely because of the ingenuity in Robert Hunter’s lyrics and the waltzing music composed by Jerry Garcia, all fused together within a sailor song called “Fare Thee Well”. “Broke-down Palace” was written in London, 1970, the year my ship set sail into this earth and I was born. That moment in London for the Dead was an inspired period for songwriting, according to an interview with Hunter in a documentary film by Jeremy Marre, “Broke-down Palace,” “Ripple” and “To Lay Me Down” were all composed in one afternoon, over a half-bottle of retsina wine.

The power of each of these songs lays in their distant familiarity, capturing our hearts with a bitter sweetness that can only be appreciated as felt in a good lament. Indeed for me, this marks part of the paradoxical genius of the Grateful Dead—an ability to celebrate the beauty of life amidst its passing before our very eyes.

Fare Thee Well is the bittersweet lament of another sailor and his song— Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, his group of fourteen happy-go-lucky friends. They took leave together on a journey with a bus named, Furthur for a cross-country trip in 1964 to visit the World’s Fair in New York. Fast forward and the Furthur bus is decomposing in a swamp on Kesey’s farm when he dies in November 2001. Four years later, one of Kesey’s surviving sons, Zane hitched up a tractor and pulled Furthur out of the muck, covered it in storage, now awaiting restoration.

Sinking in a swamp like the Furthur bus could have been the fate of the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia and the last show in Soldier’s Field, but somehow entropy kept its players spinning, traveling and singing in various configurations—why this long after life to the songs?

I would suggest part of longevity of the Grateful Dead, in its various incarnations, including Bob Weir’s Furthur, was due to this need to continue to sing the songs, or as the Warsaw Ghetto rebbe put it in 1942, “until the song sings itself.” Living in this post-secular age, there is an urgent need for solace in times of crisis that religion once provided. Especially when we wander through death’s dark abode, everyone needs an anchor or a walking staff. Religion, for Geertz, is what bolsters the pilgrim in the face of life’s chaos “by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence”. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than a moment of chaos experienced by the leader of the Merry Pranksters. Amidst a disjointed reading that Ken Kesey gave while Tom McKnight was a student at the University of Virginia in the 1990s, the Merry Prankster had many moments of genius. In particular when Kesey was discussing the death of his son, who had died when the high school wrestling team’s van drove off a cliff during snow storm, something really shone through. Kesey opened his heart, sharing his struggle with grief following this tragedy. How did he transform this grief into joy? Kesey said it was not long after his son’s death, he was invited to see the Dead play a gig somewhere on the West Coast. During the second set, Kesey said, the whole band turned to him in close to the stage and began playing “Broke-down Palace”. At this point in his reading, Kesey in tears as it wasn’t until that moment that he really understood the true purpose of art. Kesey said that:

“All my life I thought art was this [he stuck a fist in the air]. But at that moment I realized that art was really this [he made a hugging motion].”

From the fist of revolution marching anthem to the embrace of the sailor’s song in moments of solace, Kesey truly understood why the bittersweet lament of the Grateful Dead continues to sing itself.

The truth is, however, we never really say “goodbye”, at least according to Judaism. Sure there is the greeting Shalom, which is said upon departure but also upon arrival, as well as the blessing for peace on the journey. Perhaps it is a shade different than the sailor’s song, which ebbs and flows into levels of bittersweet lament in the goodbye, as a loved one floats away, off into the horizon. The sailor, like Odysseus, is always at sea, home forever in the offing, while lovers ebb and flow with the tides. But the spiritual seeker, Abraham, according to Judaism, is always iconoclastic, turning and returning home, even in confronting death.

At the funeral of renowned philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, on December 27, 1995 in France, his colleague, Jacques Derrida eulogized him with one word—adieu.

Not to merely say “goodbye”, as adieu is normally understood in French, but a-dieu “on your journey to God”, or as the sailors would say, “Godspeed”.

For both Levinas and Derrida, the word adieu characterizes the condition of being human: the salutation prior to all constative language, shared at the moment of separation, at the moment of death, it is also the a-dieu, “for God” or “to God” before and in any relation to the other. Thinking is not a matter of neutralizing abstraction, for Derrida, but it is a gesture of hospitality for what happens and still may happen. As the hasidic master, Reb Nahman of Bratzlav well understood:

all his thinking amounted to nothing unless his Torah was inspired enough to ultimately open to others as a song or Shirah—its deepest gesture of hospitality.

As I find my way back to the Google bus amidst a sea of 60,000 fellow travelers, I felt the past twelve hours journey allowed me to make “myself a bed by the waterside”. Ken Kesey felt that same power 60,000 pilgrims felt at the encore of “Broke-down Palace”—as a song whose embrace is inescapable at the moment of his greatest grief and ours. In their moments of greatest genius, the songs of the Grateful Dead continue to sing themselves: “Fare thee well my honey/Fare you well my only true one…

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).