The Radical Center
Last night, I settled into one of the Dead’s great performances, the Veneta show from 8/27/72, aka the “Field Trip” or what Nick Meriwether called “The Last Acid Test.” The sonic quality of the recording, as well as the event itself, put you right in the middle of the show. You can feel the heat of that late summer day as well as the buzz of the faithful in attendance. Despite everything — the heat, the dust, the usual problems with the equipment — the Dead reached one of their peaks with this performance. They did that a lot in their career, of course, but this is one of the best.
The banter between songs is superbly entertaining, especially Ken Babbs trying to speak through his hallucinations. No one thought better on his feet than Babbs. The band too was quite loquacious, especially Bob. But it was a comment by Jerry as they come out of “He’s Gone” that made me remember you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
They were, of course, complaining about the sound and the equipment. Bob said it was hard to keep the guitars in tune with the 100-degree Oregon heat beating down on them. “Turn up my voice on the monitors, God love ya,” he says. Then Jerry chimes in, “Say what? Not so good . . . well, OK, I can work with it.” And then they slide into a sublime “Jack Straw.”
“Not so good . . . well, OK, I can work with it.”
There was the epiphany. In an off-hand comment, Garcia seemed to sum up one of the core organizing and operating principles of the Dead. Take what you have and make the best of it. Throughout their career, they did that over and over — with each other, with their musical abilities, and most spectacularly, with their performances. While they frequently reached an apex of perfection, just as often they fell short. What distinguished the Dead, however, was their perseverance when things weren’t “just exactly perfect.” Whether it was a song, a performance, or the long arc of their career, they played the hand they were dealt, working through it with each other, always striving for perfection even while falling short. But they never let perfection be the enemy of the good.
Since the music had my synapses firing, it got me thinking. We are living in a time of profound polarization. You see it everywhere — incomes, culture, politics. Let’s get rid of Obamacare! Let’s build a wall! Let’s make college free to everyone! We attach ourselves to extreme ideas and then become unwilling to countenance any compromise. Let’s lock and load and march into battle! Anything less than our stated ideal of perfection is designated as weakness, loss; it becomes a badge of honor not to compromise and meet in the middle.
The Dead argued all the time musically. About which song to play, how long it should go, which turn they should take deep into a jam. But more often than not, when they reached an impasse — when they got lost in deep space for instance, in the 21st minute of “Dark Star” — they would talk to each other through musical thought, try a few alternatives until a small path opened up to take them to the other side, where things fit together again. In those moments, it can be easier to walk away and just give up, move on to another song, another performance, or in the extreme, another band. The Dead didn’t do that. They stuck it out, searching for the center where all voices are heard and, thus, real solutions found. In the process, they learned how to respect each other and when necessary lift each other up. They did this by finding the space in the middle, the radical center — that calm, strong balance among opposing forces.
The radical center has its own demands. It requires us to be respectful, aware and ingenious. It requires the courage to step away from our “position” (or belief, conviction, ideal or whatever else you’d like to call it) to see things in a different light. It requires us to think in terms of “us,” not “me.” To let go of “I” and approach “thou,” as the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously realized.
Today, we need a way to reclaim that radical center, to listen to each other and be willing to admit there may be no perfect solution, but there could be a very good one. To be willing to say “Not so good . . . well, OK, I can work with it.” To find that path, like the Dead did so many evenings, that leads us to a place of collaboration, compromise and creativity.
Now back to Veneta. I can’t wait to hear how they resolve the conflict in “Dark Star.”