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Philosophy and the Grateful Dead

On the surprising depth of the music and culture of world's greatest jam band.


Adam Jacobs: Okay, Dr. Steve Gimbal, welcome to Beyond Belief. We've been looking forward to speaking for some time and today…well, first of all, how are you? Nice to see you.

Steven Gimbel: I'm doing wonderfully. It was absolutely wonderful to see you. Thank you for having me.

Adam Jacobs: My pleasure. And thank you for taking the time to be here and have this conversation. And fortunately, I think that you and I have a lot in common, and I'm hoping to focus on a couple of those areas today. The first one being philosophy, of which you are an expert, and then I'd like to talk about music, but specifically the music of the Grateful Dead, which you have compiled some philosophical musings on; the nature of their music and about the culture of the Grateful Dead. And being that they're one of the most unique and legendary rock and roll bands of all time. There certainly is tons and tons of material there to delve into great ideas in life through their music. So let's talk about that if it's okay with you.

Steven Gimbel: Of course.

Adam Jacobs: Okay. So I don't know if you do this. When I enjoy music, which is like perpetually, it's hard for me to go for several hours without having something on. I often think to myself, why is it that this has any effect on me or anybody? These are vibrations of the air. 440 megahertz doesn't mean anything as far as I know, but that, in conjunction with other tones when strung together, have this bizarrely heart-pulling quality to them that I can't personally explain. And so I'd like to throw it to you, a philosophy professor, and ask these simple questions of basically what is music and why do people care so much about it?

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Steven Gimbel: Ooh, really big questions. Outstanding. So music has fascinated us throughout history, and the use of music in ritual, especially religious ritual, has been there As long as we have records, we have hymnals going back. We know that there's always been singing, often dancing connected, and I think there's another element that will later have to explore as the embodied nature of it. But music, if you go to the ancient Greeks, was one of the most fascinating phenomena because it combined three seemingly completely distinct elements. So, on the one hand, you had physical elements. So let's think of a lyre, not a person who can't tell the truth, but the stringed instrument, you would pluck the string, it would make a tone. You could hold your finger at a certain place, shortening the string, it makes a different tone. And they realized that there were certain combinations of finger placements that sounded awful, and others that sounded wonderful, so harmony.

And what they realized was that you could, if you took the lengths of the strings that sounded good together, you would realize that they had very simple mathematical relations among them. So if you're a musician, you might talk about fifths or fourths, right? These are fractions. This is actually one of the first places that mathematics is really applied to the world is in the basic understanding of harmony within music. And what was interesting is that you have both physics, physical happenings, you have mathematics, but then you have the human consciousness. The idea is that certain things sound good to the ear, certain things sound awful to the ear. And so the soul is soothed by some things. The soul is upset by other things. And what they realize is there is this weird connection between happenings in the world, mathematics, and happenings in the mind.

And so you had one of the early philosophical groups, the Pythagoreans, who used this to believe that everything is number, and by everything is number. What they mean is that the world is actually governed by numerical ratios. And one of the central proofs of that is just this connection that humans innately feel towards certain combinations of tone. We are wired to really respond to certain kinds of sound. But what's interesting is it's not just that, Ooh, that sounds good. That sounds bad. I mean, even think about the way we describe music that really moves us. We say that the music has soul, right? The idea being that somehow music touches something much more deep inside of us. And if we go from ancient Greece to the 20th century, somebody who said very much the same thing was Albert Einstein.

Like many people who were very good at math, he was a very late speaker. So for a long time, parents were worried that their son was an idiot because he just wasn't developing verbally the way other children did. But what was interesting is not only was he a late speaker, but his whole life never really trusted language. At the same time, he was a violin player. He also played the piano and adored music. Music, for him, was next to physics, the most important thing in his life. And what he thought was that normally when I communicate with you like we're doing right now, I have an idea. I have to conceptualize it. I have to take that concept, find appropriate words, and transmit those words to you. You then interpret the words, and you get something in your mind. And so all thought that is verbal is mediated by the use of language.

And so you asked me to begin, how are you doing? And I said I'm fine. Well, what do you mean fine, Steve? And we could have a conversation about that, but it'll take a while for you to really get a sense of how I'm doing. But musically, and I know you're a musician, you can communicate almost directly emotional being to emotional being through music without that intermediate mediating step. And so Einstein thought, much like the ancient Greeks, that there is something inherently magical about music in that it really does almost allow soul-to-soul direct connection. And so when you talk about both playing and enjoying music, and I think we can talk about the differences there if you'd like, but just engaging with music, being surrounded by music, it affects your mood, it affects your blood pressure. It just affects you deeply emotionally.

Adam Jacobs: Two follow-up questions on that, and I think that was a very thorough and good explanation. I agree that the mathematical ratios that the Greeks talk about, the music of the spheres, people took this stuff really seriously. I don't think we appreciated it. It wasn't just like something people did on the side for fun. They investigated music, they thought about it deeply. But when Einstein says soul to soul, does he literally mean a soul? Does he think that there is such an entity, or is that just a metaphoric way of saying that it's one person touching another somehow?

Steven Gimbel: For Einstein? Yeah, the word, he doesn't use the phrase that way, and for him, it would be metaphorical, but for him, it was something deeply emotional. And so, when he uses religious language, he uses it in several different ways. One of the ways in which he uses it is to refer to both ethical matters and emotional matters, things which he wants to split off from factual matters. So where you're right, the Greeks want to really fold it in. So you use this phrase, the music of the spheres. The idea was that the universe was governed by certain mathematical relationships. And again, this math would be connected with music. And so the thought was that all of the motions in the universe generated sounds.

And there was this beautiful, perfect background harmony that we don't hear because we're just so used to it that we're deaf to it. But that if you could sort of tune into it that the universe itself, in a certain sense, is making the most beautiful of music. And Einstein certainly would buy into that as a metaphor as he really did see the universe as coherent, as governed by rational rules that are accessible to the human mind. And in that way, generated a sort of awe, which is exactly the sort of feeling that you get from a tremendous piece of music. Sometimes you just hear things, and it really moves you. So I think that's what Einstein would've meant.

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Adam Jacobs: Okay. One last comment on this, and I could see that this could turn this just alone. This could be the entire discussion that we have, but when most people look at any mathematical formula they don't have, yes, a mathematician will, someone who's steeped in the mathematical world will see the beauty of a mathematical formula and feel some emotion towards it. Most human beings do not. But nonetheless, there is something about the quality of sound that hits people so directly and so firmly between the eyes that people are almost, everybody is just immediately pulled after it in a way that I find to be bizarre. I would think that if the Greeks are correct, that the world produces these sounds, so to speak, which I don't know if that's factually correct or not, or I think so. The sounds are so low that you can't actually hear them, but it's strange for me to think that it accomplishes what it does.

It doesn't seem like it's got the lifting potential to make us so emotional as we are. And so it's, it's been this point of consideration for me for a long time, but I let me transition to the Grateful Dead specifically. They exist in a certain form even today, and they have been playing, and I love everything that they play. I saw them in 2019 just before Covid the Dead and company at MetLife Stadium. Oh yeah, it was great. It was great. I hadn't seen them in decades, and they played the same songs, and everyone loved I everyone loved it, including me. My question is, what's with the repetition of the material for five decades plus this band has been performing these same songs, they include some sometimes and discard others at other times. Why don't they come up with new music? Don’t they have anything inside them as musicians that are like that it's compelling them to want to create more? Or is it what's with it? How do you explain that?

Steven Gimbel: Well, I think I would put it in very different terms. So there are different ways that one can perform music. So if you think of classical music, there is a score, and the score is followed, and every presentation is roughly the same. You, of course, you'll have different acoustics, different players who will play with different feeling, but by and large, there is a way in which the music is expected to be performed, the Grateful Dead. What was fascinating about them is they had a very particular philosophy that came sort of out of the early history of the band. They started as basically just a rhythm and blues band playing In the Midnight Hour, playing Good, Lovin’, playing the music of the mid-sixties. And they realized early they were a little different because the way the guitar player Bob Weir put it is “the song was over, but we weren't done playing it yet.”

And the idea was that what they would do is use the structure of the song as a general guiding principle. This is actually very similar to what happens in Jazz, where you have a chart set out, but the point of the chart is basically to set up certain constraints within which the players then can explore musically. And so what the Dead really were about, and this comes from their early days at the Acid Tests, was to take the place and the time when they are playing and explore the sort of feeling and mood and mutuality with the audience that was unique to those people in that place at that time. And so while they played in the original formulation, 3000 concerts, each one is going to be different. And so if you listen to one version of the song played in Cornell 1977, and you hear it again at Hershey in 1985, it may be the same song, but it's not the same song.

What it's doing is reflecting the way in which the players connect with each other, the way in which the audience is connecting with each other and the way the band and the audience is connected. So it really is an improvisational experience that requires connecting with the sort of feeling in the air. And so while music is capable, on the one hand, of affecting your mood, I used to be an athlete, and you'd have certain songs that we get, you're really pumped up before a game. And you could have others when you were studying that could relax you. Some music you listen to before bed music can do the converse as well, that is that the players can react to the feeling, the ambient feeling around them. And you get this interesting feedback loop. And that really is where I find the Grateful Dead philosophically interesting is that, yeah, you're right, they're playing the same songs, but the songs are just vehicles for conveying and shaping the mood at the time. So the emotional, intellectual, human element is an essential instrument in the playing of the music.

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Adam Jacobs: Would you agree with me that there's a kind of liturgical feeling to the repetition of the songs, that there's almost like a canonical, here are our songs, and yes, a hundred percent they're masters of improvisation within the structure, but I almost feel like we're going to play Althea and we're going to play Jack Straw. There’s a recognition. There's almost like a friendship with the songs, like an emotional connection with all of them, even if they're different every time. And it's recently, it struck me that there's like a liturgy that for the fans that they're going there to commune with their band, and they have got their priests, and I don't want to take this too far, and they're participating in this experience.

So I actually have a quote, and I think this comes from the book, but forgive me if I think I got it from someplace else, but it says, the band members discovered that this group consciousness had a life of its own. They discovered that there was this consciousness, “It is informing us, Phil Lesh, the bassist, noted. Not only did the spirit of the Grateful Dead not care if most of America didn't like it, Lesh noted, it doesn't even care whether we like it or not.”

He is ascribing a power, and I would describe it as an otherworldly power, to an actual spirit of the band. And I just want to give you one more quote from Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer. It says he speculated that “there is some great power, be it God or whatever, that enters into the Grateful Dead on certain nights. And it has to do with us being open and getting together with the audience,” exactly as you said. But do you think that, therefore, the players themselves, the audience, is there something spiritual going on at these events, or would you not put the bar quite that high?

Steven Gimbel: I don't think it's absurd to do so. There's a lyric in one of their songs, the Music Never Stops, which says the music plays the band. And that is, I think, absolutely true. And I think anyone who's ever played improvisational music knows that feeling where there are times when you are driving it, and it's sort of your ego. And ego is just the Latin for self. So you are making decisions, but then there are times when you just let go, and somehow the music comes out of you. And it isn't, I mean, it's clearly conscious you if you're a horn player where you're putting your fingers, I'm a harmonica player where you're blowing, but somehow it takes over you, and it's a collective experience, and it's that sense of letting go of the ego that really is essential for a certain kind of music that is you do allow the music in a certain sense to take over.

And it is created. And it's not that you cease to exist, it's not that you become another person, but collectively there is a sort of consciousness that is driving the music independent of the particular decisions consciously made by the players. And I think there's no doubt about that. And there's clearly, this is a band that comes out of the counterculture in the late sixties. You had this of [inaudible] psychology connected with issues of what was happening in the psychedelic experience. And you could easily see these sorts of things being very atomistic, right? What is happening to my consciousness when I am in this situation, but what is happening to my consciousness when I take this sort of substance? But what they were experimenting with and what I think makes it so interesting and why music is so much a part of that scene was what happens collectively.

So the central question of metaphysics is this, right? I have a mind. So if I hold up a pen, you see the pen? Where is the pen? Well, it's right there, Steve. Well, actually, if I ask you where's your vision of the pen? It's not out there, it's in here. Your vision of things is internal. How do you know that what's happening in your lived experience in any way connects to some external reality? Now the second question we get to once we get to an external world is, how do I know there are other minds? How do I know? And this is the one everyone's played with. When you see red, and I see red, how do I know we're seeing the same thing? And the answer is we can't. But what's fascinating with music is that's one of those sorts of experiences when we do seem to connect directly.

And the making of music, the enjoying of music, is one of those times when there does seem to be a sort of collective consciousness in the way that the psychologist Carl Jung used to talk about. There is a way that seems to break beyond the mere self. I mean, when I would go to Dead shows, way back when, and my guess is we were probably at some together is at the end of the show, you would turn, and you would just hug the person next to you whether you knew the word. Because you had just had this profound experience, and you couldn't put it into words to anyone who wasn't there, but that person was right there. They had that experience too. They understand, and there's just a bond that came from “You experienced that too, right?” Yes. So there is that sense in both playing and enjoying the music. And I think it's an interesting question. Are they the same sort of experience? Are they different experiences? But there is something that is special about being at the point of creation of this art that just does move you beyond your own ego?

Adam Jacobs: Again, I'm very well said, and I think the ego part of it is pivotal. I think the degree to which we reduce the influence of the ego in many different endeavors, whether it's with psychedelics, whether it's with personal growth, whether it's having some kind of traumatic or difficult experience, the reduction of the ego always seems to coincide with an increase of awareness. And I think that's one of the pillars of most spiritual traditions is to reduce the influence of the ego so that you can see beyond yourself and appreciate, let's call it, a higher dimension. And I think, amazingly, music does that. And I think I agree with you that The Dead did that in a special way.

Let's explore for a second. I think that's the most positive aspect of the band and their culture. Let's talk about some of the negative parts, which some of which is explored in your book. So there's a quote that it said, and this is about the parking lot scene really, which is also a remarkable thing that I think is unique to the Dead in many ways. But it says, “The hippie paradise of Woodstock was said to have died four months later at Altamont. The Altamont Speedway concert The Dead was a much more enduring ecosystem.” So yes, there are these people who traveled and maybe still do, but not in the past, but travel from show to show, show they sell a few things. They live in a little van, and that's their existence. They're not hurting anybody, but they're sort of detached from society, or they exist in their own little, ecosystems. My question for you is, yeah, they're seeking out this kind of, I'm going to call it a mystical kind of experience, but is it self-indulgent good to focus on your trip, your experience so much? Is there a point at which you got to say, I’ve got to do something for somebody else? Or would you say, no, listen, they're happy, they've achieved happiness, they found something, leave them alone?

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Steven Gimbel: Well, I think it's more than just a sort of utilitarian search for hedonistic pleasure. Now, there certainly was that in the scene. I mean, let's put that out. There were a lot of people who were just there because there were certain sorts of pleasures that were generally frowned upon or could get you arrested that you were more likely to have access to in the parking lot or in the scene. So I think there is certainly this very shallow hedonistic element of it. We all knew the term at the time was “trust heads,” rich kids who were just, it was just a self-indulgent sense of pleasure-seeking. At the same time, I think there was also something much more profound in the scene that, at its best, it engendered, and we can use the term of moral imagination to understand it. So the moral imagination is the ability to see things as other than they are so that we can create them as such.

So if you can't see things as being different, you can't improve them because you couldn't imagine things being any different than they are. I think part of what we saw in that scene and part of why it was really something that lived on, especially, so when we think of what we think of as deadhead culture, which is touring and the parking lot scene, that's actually something that sprung up in the 1980s, which was a very conservative time in America. And I think it was the result in part of the shallow hedonists, but it was also part of people saying, you know what? Maybe we could create a different world. Maybe we could create a world that isn't based on the eighties, Gordon Gecko from Wall Street. “Greed is good.” Maybe it isn't about greed. Maybe it's just about being together. Maybe I don't need more than I need to survive.

Maybe it's about being kind to the earth. The Deadheads were famous for cleaning up the parking lot where they camped before they left. Maybe it's about being together and having these communal experiences. And so what attracted me at the time was really an ethical dimension of the scene. I mean, my first show was at Merryweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, and I was there early, and I saw a guy selling t-shirts. And what people would do is in order to get from show to show, they would generally make and sell crafts. And if you weren't touring, you'd buy so that you could help them. And so it really was a self-cycling, self-contained ecosystem in that way. And he had these wonderful shirts, and he wanted $5. I only had a 10. He didn't have change. It was early. So I said, you know what? Keep it.

And he said two words that, to be honest, changed my life. They were words I had been taught my whole life to say. He said, thank you, but he didn't say it the way I was taught. I was taught that this is good manners. When somebody does something for you, you say thank you. He wasn't just saying it. He was grateful. He was literally thanking me. It was an authentic statement in a way that just frankly shook me to my core. And it was that sort close by. He really was genuinely thankful that I was doing something kind to help him, and he wanted to express authentic gratitude. And it was that sort of authenticity that I think the scene at its best was capable of showing in a culture, a shallow culture full of feathered hair and corporate rock. And the idea of someone expressing a non-material authentically human value is what turned me from just a fan of the music into a dead head. And I thought, if that is possible, through this simple relationship passing between these two people, I mean, I thought the shirt was worth ten. I had no problem. It was a beautiful shirt. I often think of it and said that I no longer have it.

But there was a sort of ability to transcend the sort of shallowness of what was the corporate culture of the eighties. And I think that was what some of us hoped was there in the sixties. I think it was clearly a sort of romanticization, but I think it was a longing for a sort of human authenticity that the seed at its best did engender.

Adam Jacobs: I hear. Very good again, and I appreciate that you were affected by such a small thing, but it was such a major thing, and you're making a very deep point. I think everyone speaks about the little things being important, but I think not that many people truly live it and truly experience it as if they're truly important. So you're right, there was an authenticity there that was and still is.

Well, let me ask you one more question along these lines, right? We're talking, you mentioned hedonism and self-indulgence and various negative aspects, although I get that you want to focus on the positive, but there's a quote from your book from Nietzsche, and he says, “Let us look ahead a century. Let us suppose that my attempt to assassinate two millennia of anti-nature and desecration of man were to succeed that new party of life, which would tackle the greatest of all tasks, the attempt to raise humanity higher would again make possible that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian state too would have to awaken.”

So, on the one hand, I get what he's saying, and I can appreciate it, we need, passion in our world, not enough of it, or it's in the wrong arenas. I'm talking about a healthy good passion for a zest for living. And that's amazing, and I agree with him. At the same time, there has to be limitations. And in the essay that I read about, which is by David McGregor Johnson, it's Apollo versus Dionysus, the limiting force versus the expansive force, which strucks me sounds very much like the Kabbalistic understanding that I have of something called Chochma, which is expansive and something called Bina, which is constrictive the two things necessary to make art, to be functional and emotionally happy in this world. And did the Dead and their scene accomplish this? Did they go too far in the freedom and the personal expression, or would they have done better if they had more of the Apollo concept with them as well?

Steven Gimbel: Ooh, that's a great question. So I think you're right that art requires both. You see Apollo in the structure of the music, you see Dionysus in the playing of the music. You could go see two bands play the same song, and one plays it very tight, very well, and the other just blows you away. That is, they play it with soul. So I think you're right that there are both of those present in the art. Where I think Nietzsche gets it completely wrong is, and you’ve got to understand Nietzsche's reacting to a philosopher before him, Friedrich Hagel, and Hagel argues that the only thing that exists is history. History is God working himself out through a process. And that process has a definite logic, and the individual only exists and is only important as an element of the big. And so, as a result, you as an individual are meaningless.

Nietzsche is trying to react to Hagel. He says I philosophize with a hammer. He's trying to destroy this sort of grand narrative and restore the value of the individual. But in doing so, what he does is exactly, I think, what we were talking about before. The opposite of it is he elevates the individual to the sole important element. So for Nietzsche, the key is that you have this will to power, which is in the self, to assert yourself on the universe. You make history by breaking history, and that we need to worry about only creating the great individuals because they are the history makers. And so it's very much an individualistic picture because it's in reaction to this ultimate lack of individuality. But what his over-emphasis on the individual, the great individuals does is deny the fact that our greatness doesn't come through purely our individuality, but our collectivity.

And you don't have to abandon any sense of value to this individuality to be part of a collective. And I think that's really where music is the best example to pull a sort of full circle to where we started to losing the ego. So for Nietzsche, he is fully invested in reinstilling, the ego reinstilling the self and the self as conquering others. You only exist by defeating as opposed to existing with instead of existing against. And music and the Dead had very many individualistic followers who were just looking for self-pleasure, but it was also a place for some to try to lose the ego and connect with others. And so I think Nietzche is a fascinating lens because there was this Dionysian element to it, right? There was this drunken revere that allowed you to throw off the constricting bounds or constricting ties of society, some of which were unnecessarily restrictive, unnecessarily constraining, and which limited us from being able to fully connect with each other.

So there is a time in a way in which this sort of Dionysian expression of anything allows us to destroy those things which keep us from connecting. What it also can do, and I think you're absolutely right in this, is if we over-indulge in it, it then allows us, Nietzche wanted us to be just individuals against the world, against each other. And that's, I think, where music isn't found. That's where the sort of self-centeredness creeps in. And we've all seen bands where somebody wants to be the star that never quite goes as well as when you're playing as a unit. And that's, I think, the magic. And it's true in terms of the crowd as well. When there's an openness, a responsiveness, that's what leads to the magic.

Adam Jacobs: I agree. And well said again. And I have time for one more question, unfortunately, we could take this offline later.

You mentioned jazz before, which is actually what I studied and relate to probably most in the musical world, and in Dead certainly had elements of Jazz and improvisation was a major factor in their music. And you also spoke about classical music and the desire there of executing somebody else's vision very faithfully and sticking very firmly within a structure. And this reminded me of this is, again, it's a Kabbalistic concept of the difference between perfecting becoming perfect and perfect shun. Whereas a [inaudible] piece might be like, it's perfect. And just, therefore, don't try to tinker with it, just play it because it's perfect, versus this other element of trying to become more than you are. And there are so many corollaries to these ideas, but what would you say, what are the goals of these two forms of music, and why does the discrepancy exist for human beings? Why do we have both?

Steven Gimbel: I think they serve very different goals. So the classical composition is a beautiful piece of art that is designed to create a certain aural canvas, which affects us in certain ways, right? There will be certain pieces that, when you hear them, you are moved, and it's the artistry of performance, but it's really the artistry is in the composing. Now, when you get to improvisational music, I think it's a very different animal, which is, it's interactive. So in classical music, you come to the piece, in the case of improvisational music, you become embroiled with the piece. Yes, you don't know where it's going, the players don't know where it's going. And there's this openness that is experimental and can sometimes be transcendent. That is oftentimes, it'll fail, but occasionally something will come out that isn't the particular intentional desire of any given person but is collectively composed.

It is collectively created despite the fact that the classical composer sits down with this sheet of paper and works and crafts and has certain rules which they follow, or which they intentionally break in order to get intentional effects. In this case, because you have multiple consciousnesses, they're willing to open up themselves to the other and follow and explore what you can get every once in a while. And it's magical when you're a part of it, is something more that no one thought of, and yet it's clearly a collective, right? These are conscious people who are making intentional movements, but doing so because they get caught up in something that is being collectively created. And that's where Jazz, I think, is just masterful. It really is the American art form because this sort of approach, this sort of willingness to surrender control from the ego to the group, is something that really is unusual, but it is potentially transcendental.

Adam Jacobs: Well, Dr. Steve, thank you so much for being here and for making this happen. For the audience, you can check out his writing on every month. And it's actually a family affair. His daughter writes for us as well, and they are amazing gifted writers. And if you like this, you will like those pieces month after month. So please check it out, leave comments, and we will respond to you if you have something to say. So great talking to you, and thank you so much for being here, and we will keep it going.

Steven Gimbel: Thank you.

Adam Jacobs: All right, have a great day.

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