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Michael J. Vaughn

An Interview with Mickey Hart


Being a musician in Northern California,it is nigh-on impossible to avoid the Grateful Dead. The band lurks around every corner, ready to strike when you least expect it. My first band, a novelty outfit that enjoyed deconstructing cheesy pop tunes (a medley of "These Boots Were Made for Walking" and the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," a salsa version of George Michael's "Faith"), was founded by a Deadhead, who hosted rehearsals in his flat one block from the immortal intersection of Haight and Ashbury. A year ago, I was sent to review a musical, "Cumberland Blues," which turned out to be based entirely on Dead tunes. Just this spring, my blues band auditioned for a local promoter who booked us for a Deadhead party, opening for a 250-song Dead cover band called Jerry's Kids.

Still and all, the Dead's biggest incursion into my life came in the form of a book: Drumming at the Edge of Magic, an autobiographical exploration of percussion, music and trance penned by former Dead drummer Mickey Hart. It was given to me by a non-musician friend who knew about my drumming avocation, and it changed the very manner in which I perceived sound.

At the time, I was working on a novel that would become my first published book, about a love-ravaged man who hides from the rhythms of life, only to be swept back in when he joins a college choir. While reading Hart's book I happened on Pythagoras's description of a stone as "frozen music," and Voila! I had my title.

In Magic and its sequel, Planet Drum, Hart's interest in trance culture was a natural, since he was a major figure in the biggest trance movement in American history. As one-half of the Rhythm Devils (with Bill Kreutzmann), Hart led the Grateful Dead into extended jams and percussion solos that left the band's followers (all right, with the help of a few hallucinogens) spinning literally like whirling dervishes. (The trance state happens to the drummer, as well. Once, during a half-hour jam on, coincidentally, the Dead's "Bertha," I found my limbs doing things without my permission, a muscle intelligence I later described in a poem as "watching my arms and legs secede from the union.")

Hart's latest book, Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music, is actually a by-product of the first two. As Hart and UC Santa Cruz ethnomusicologist Fredric Lieberman were researching those books, they would find interesting quotes and insights and tack them up to Hart's studio walls, eventually building a 1,000-piece scrap-paper monster they labeled "The Anaconda." Spirit into Sound is a 208-page anthology of those quotes illuminated by fanciful illustrations, photos and typographies.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity of interviewing Hart (and thanking him for the book title) during his 15-city book tour. In the spirit of his latest project, I will let the voices of The Anaconda take part in the discussion.

"Assassins!"

- Arturo Toscanini

(conductor, to his orchestra after an unsatisfactory performance)

Michael J. Vaughn: Did you know from the start that your drumming books would venture so much into the worlds of culture and spirituality?

Mickey Hart: Oh, yeah. Although I didn't know cross-culturally what it was all about. There wasn't much material on the subject—especially percussion and trance. It was written by scholars, for scholars—and mostly not in English. As a musician, I could tell when they were BS'ing me and when it was real—because (drumming) was my work. I had to sort of filter all that.

Frederic Lieberman: co-author: One of the most powerful insights afforded by research in ethnomusicology, most clearly articulated by John Blacking, is that music is inseparable from our humanity. Music fills needs at the center of our being, needs not met by other arts or activities, sacred or secular. No human society, present or past, has lacked music. Music is therefore one of the very few human universals, which puts it on the same level as food and sex.

MJV: Tell me about your friendship with Joseph Campbell.

MH: We shared a lot of myths, and talked all night sometimes. Our primary connection was the shaman, and shamanistic performance.

Joseph Campbell, anthropologist: A sound precipitates air, then fire, then water and earth—and that's how the world becomes.

MJV: Do you have a favorite quote from Spirit into Sound?

MH: Maybe the Khomeini quote. No, really I wouldn't know where to start. They are all trying to describe the indescribable. Music is like quicksilver. I do like Rushdie's description: "the bolts of the universe fly open." I mean, Jesus! I couldn't have said it better—little slices of light illuminating the universe. Sort of the skeleton key into the sacred dimension.

Ayatollah Khomeini: Music is no different than opium. Music affects the human mind in a way that makes people think of nothing but music and sensual matters. Music is a treason to the country, a treason to our youth, and we should cut out all this music and replace it with something instructive.

MJV: So compare a Dead tour with a book tour.

MH: The big difference is that I meet the people and I get to answer questions and stuff. At concerts, that's out of the question. With the lights and everything, I can't even see the audience. And you're just concentrating so much on what you're doing. I can feel them, though.

Bill Kreutzmann, Grateful Dead percussionist: When I'm playing, I'm in the now, and I experience how I'm feeling right there onstage and sometimes I'm able to get into a state of 100-percent bliss. It's a really joyous, serene place.

MJV: After a lifetime of drumming, do you still discover new things? A new way of striking an instrument, perhaps, or some new trick of rhythm?

MH: Oh yeah. Yesterday, I had a brilliant day. I went about two weeks without playing, then when I got back to the drums I discovered a whole new vein. It's a constant state of exploration and discovery, every time I go to the drum. You just have to let go. You have to let the drum play you—make it a meditation instead of a performance.

Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher: The composer reveals the innermost being of the world and expresses the deepest wisdom in a language which his own reason does not understand; like a sleepwalker, who tells things of which he has no clear knowledge when he is awake.

MJV: When you're out promoting the book, or your percussion groups, do you ever tire of answering questions about the Dead?

MH: No. People naturally want to know about that. I can always re-direct it to a quote. There are few junk questions. If I tried to shake (the Dead), anyway, it wouldn't work. Besides, Spirit into Sound is a Grateful Dead Book. There are so many books out there, and only so many slots, so any edge helps.

Robert Hunter , Grateful Dead lyricist: Driving down to Fiddler's Green to hear a tune or two, I thought I saw John Lennon there, looking kind of blue. I sat down beside him, said: "I thought you bought the store." He said: "I heard that rumor, what can I do you for?" "Have you written anything I might never have heard?" He picked up his guitar and strummed a minor third. All I can recall of what he sang, for what it's worth: "Long as songs of mine are sung I'm with you on this earth."

MJV: So does the music take a back seat while you're doing your book work?

MH: My music is never on hold. We just finished a companion CD for the book, which will be out in January (2000). It's mostly acoustic percussion, calm sort of stuff.

Mickey Hart, from Spirit into Sound: Once, when I was seriously ill with a fever from a bad flu, I still had to perform, and during the four-hour performance the symptoms of my illness gradually disappeared. The music not only provided a cure, but also left me feeling exhilarated. This is by no means a rare experience. In fact, I can't remember ever feeling worse after a musical performance.

MJV: Do you think we will every truly figure out what music is, and why we're so dependent on it?

MH: Oh, that's an easy one! That'll come as we figure out the physiology of the experience, what happens to the brain after our auditory experiences. The sort-of pat explanation is that, "It's the vibration, stupid!" We live in a vibratory world, from the origin of the universe itself to nature… It's what we are molecularly made of, our DNA—it connects us. Science is filling in with all these new machines that measure brainwave responses. We'll find out in five to ten years, for sure. That's the holy grail.

Salman Rushdie, author: Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world… That we should have discovered the magical intervals and distances that yield the poor cluster of notes, all within the span of a human hand, is as alchemical a mystery as mathematics, or wine, or love… Song shows a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.

Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden… Glory bursts upon us in such hours: the dark glory of earthquakes, the slippery wonder of new life, the radiance of… singing.

Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music is available ($16.95 retail) from Grateful Dead Books, 1370 Industrial Ave., Suite G, Petaluma CA 94952, 1-800/983-3352, www.acidtest.com. The Mickey Hart website is at www.mhart.com. All excerpts in this article copyright © 1999 Mickey Hart.
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