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Published: 2012/08/09
by Dean Budnick

Mickey Hart Revisits The Promised Land

I know you have so many interests within music. When you’re not on tour, what do you do?

MH- Today, I’m sonifying a part of the brain that reacts to sound. I have wave forms from the brain that I’m now sonifying and making sound out of. These are electrical stimuli, energy that comes out of the brain when there’s activity. So I’m working in the neurology of sound, today. That’s what today brings. I’m really anxious to find out what the brain looks like before and during and after an auditory experience.

We know music works. We know music does a lot of things. We know it sometimes allows people to speak who haven’t spoken, walk who haven’t walked, relive their pain and suffering for at least a short time. But we don’t really know what its code is. Music therapists are like the foot soldiers now in the field. And then there’s the scientific side, and that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to find out what really—because the brain is rhythm central. What the brain says, happens. So, this is what I’m at now. I wanna hear it, I wanna see it. There’s new technology now. I’m working with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley out of the University of California in San Francisco in his lab sonifying brain waves. Today I’m going to sound design those brain waves.

What’s the raw data that you work from in terms of doing that? What kind of files do you have?

MH- These are electrical stimuli, so they’ve been transferred from electricity into sound, and then I take the sound and make music out of it.

Once you’ve completed that, where do you intend to take it next?

MH- Music as medicine—examining the sonic make-up of an afflicted person and someone who hasn’t been affected, to determine if there’s some way to bring frequency back or take it out. Or how does sound vibration affect disease? Because disease is when the body gets out of rhythm, gets weak and attacked and is broken. A healthy organism can resist a lot of those kind of diseases that affect the complex organism like the body and the mind. So keeping that tuned is the most important thing, and that’s what music does: it’s the tuning system that keeps you healthy. And when you stop eating right and drinking and partying and doing lots of bad drugs and just not taking care of yourself, you will fall out of rhythm and you will not be healthy.

That’s what I would hope, that music, once we know how to really use it, will be one of the great diagnostic tools and healing tools of this century. Bob Marley said “Music have plenty power.” So The Great Seer, he knew, and so does every other musician who’s ever been caught up in that bliss, that feeling. They know that that’s power, really a lot of power. If you can direct that power back, then you’ve got something of great value. It’s kind of like Tesla. He was wondering, how do you handle electricity? How do you get it to people? And what good is it? We’re at the same place that Tesla was with electricity. There are things we are about to find out now about music that will be amazing. That’s what I hope comes from all of this stuff. And it’s fun! We as humans must have fun. And we really are coded for music, because we have to do music—that’s what makes us human. I’m not gonna do any career change now, though.

Speaking of your career and its scope, one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you today was to talk about Jerry Garcia. Tomorrow [August 9] is the anniversary of his passing. I was wondering if you could share your initial impressions of him?

MH- Jerry? The first time I met him I played with him. It was a joyful musical experience and my first moment being in the Grateful Dead. It was a live performance, of course, and I didn’t really know Jerry. Bill [Kreutzmann] and I went out and got a set of drums from one of Billy’s friends, set it up, and off we went for a few hours. Next thing I know, everyone was looking around, Jerry was smiling and said “We could take this around the world.” Obviously that was meaningful to him. I can hardly remember it. I just remember it was an extraordinary personal experience. It was elevating to say the least. I would say it was wondrous. It was music unborn that was being born right in front of us.

I didn’t really know Grateful Dead music at the time, so it was really an outpouring of inspiration by everyone. It just kind of came together and completed the puzzle I guess. That was my first interaction with him.

In terms of his legacy or ongoing presence on this day in 2012, how would you characterize that?

MH- Jerry means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s why it’s so great. He was an enigma in a way, a mythic figure. You could see yourself in him and you could see perhaps a divine channel because he was like a fountain of music. People saw themselves and related to him and his sound and he was a very sweet person in real life, and that all came out on the stage in his music. But he also was very weird, and had a dark side that you can hear in the music, too. All of those beautiful real places he could articulate and would make a musical journey real interesting. Not only to play with him, but also for people who were observing the experiment that was being created in front of them for their enjoyment and also spiritual upliftment, which we always thought was the primacy of it all. If you don’t have a spirit that’s in working order, then you’re not really alive. So, that’s what the Grateful Dead was created for.

Did you find in the end after you played with him for so many years that he still had the ability night in and night out to surprise you musically?

MH- Well towards the end, he wasn’t really creating new songs. He was revisiting things that he knew because he was losing his feeling in his extremities. The blood wasn’t getting to his heart and he couldn’t move around as fluidly. So he did as anybody else would do in that case and play it on the safe side. So he didn’t go anywhere especially new, but went somewhere familiar to see what perhaps he forgot. It wasn’t really exploratory at the end. He wasn’t healthy. And if you’re not healthy, you can’t play healthy.

Diabetes and doing too many drugs, not taking care of himself. I mean, he was not an athletic guy. He didn’t exercise. Everything was the guitar. It was all his energy. His whole life-force went into the guitar and that’s what came out, and that was formidable. Because he had good feelings. He was a wonderful man, and he had the ability to translate all those human feelings, those traits, directly to your eardrum. And also, it was Grateful Dead. Not only him as a person, but the Grateful Dead as an entity took on a wholly different meaning for many people. Some people saw it as Santa Claus, some people saw it as their drug. Some were really inspired by it, and it was a flawed model, but it was just so charmingly flawed that everybody loved it. (Laughs)

Is there a peak era in your mind?

MH- Each era had its peaks, and they were quite different. To me, my favorite was probably ’68, ’69, ’70, because that’s when the seeds were sown and we were composing what you know now as Grateful Dead music. That was a very catalytic time. It was a great discovery on all of our parts—a new way of playing music collectively. Being able to give parts away, take them, be flexible. Kind of like plasticity. It’s gotta be fluid, it’s gotta be supple, it’s gotta move, it’s gotta be selfless. It’s gotta be a lot of things. That ability forms like a group mind. The organism became powerful. And it set off itself. That’s what makes a great band a great band—those kind of things.

Anyway, Jerry was a big part of all that. Besides, he was funny. Really funny. I mean, he said the funniest things at the best of times. He had great timing. He always wanted to be a drummer. That’s why he picked up the banjo, the closest thing to drums, you know picking, membrane, get it?

Imagine what he would have sounded like if he would’ve been a drummer. Oh man, that would have been great. And then I would of course be playing guitar.

Did he ever get behind a kit when you were in rehearsal space?

MH- Yeah, he did actually! We switched instruments once. For one song, I played guitar and Jerry played drums and Phil I think played keyboard, and we played one rock and roll song. It was just so funny! It must have sounded awful. I think everybody was playing someone else’s instrument [ identifies the lineup as: Bobby on keyboards, Brent & Jerry on drums, Billy on bass – Mickey on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Phil on lead guitar].

It was an April Fool’s Day show.

MH- Oh really? What was the name of the song?

It was “Promised Land.” Did you rehearse that?

MH- Oh, of course! We rehearsed it for weeks! Don’t be silly. It just happened right there as we walked out on stage. What does it sound like?

I’ve never heard it. I just know that it happened. [It can be found right here on] Capitol Theatre, April 1st 1980.

MH- That was so funny. I’m not sure how it happened but I know I had something to do with it….

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