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Readings from the Torah of The Dead: Mickey Hart Band Rebuilds Jerusalem

by Josh Fleet on September 11, 2013

Photo by Bruce Shaffer

“Dude, I’m 60, almost 61, with a belly. I danced the whole night. I spun like I hadn’t in years.”

If this were America, the man talking — call him Moishe — could put any number of local Santa Clauses out of business. But this is Jerusalem, so his beard and belly are as formidable as his lifetime of Jewish study, practice and experience.

Though he looks a lot like the other elder statesmen of Sinaitic revelation walking around Nachlaot, a maze-like neighborhood in central Jerusalem, where lost souls come to be found, and where it’s easy to find yourself lost in yet another narrow, ancient alley, this rabbi is something of a psychedelic sage.

But with 200 (or who really remembers how many?) shows under his sash, Moishe’s expectations leading up to the Israel debut of a member of the Grateful Dead were fueled more by nostalgia than hope.

Flinging faded-photographic past into the sacred motion of Now, the Mickey Hart Band came to Jerusalem on Aug. 22 — the only performance outside of North America on their Superorganism Tour — and dismantled expectations beat by beat by beat, leaving a smoking crater of Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus Amphitheater, wherein 900 American-Israeli (and American and Israeli) Deadheads stood flabbergasted, exhausted and genuinely grateful.

Backstage after the show, being interviewed by a local contingent of self-described hardcore heads, Mickey knew something special had just occurred:

“You’re not supposed to be able to do that at 70 years old,” he said. Mickey Hart knows how to make thunder clap and lightning strike.

From the first throbbing drone of “Ghost Rider,” off his new album, and all the way through to the end of “Fire on the Mountain,” which closed out the second set, Reb Rhythm led his congregation to incendiary spiritual heights in the hills of Jerusalem — all while proclaiming the inherent oneness of each and every creation in the entire pulsating, infinite cosmos.

Where Mysterium Tremendum, released in 2012, grew from the outer workings of the celestial spheres, Hart’s latest effort, Superoganism, springs from the inner rhythms of the human body — specifically the brain.

“We’re playing with the timeline of the universe,” he said. “From Day 1, the beginning of space and time, you know, the moment of creation 13.8 billion years ago, to us, the micro, here, now!”

On stage, surrounded by a constellation of musical all-stars, and with a hive of wires sprouting from a custom helmet that measures and projects shifts and blips of neural activity onto a screen glowing behind him, Hart resembled a supernova mid-explosion.

Aside from being billed as the first-ever performance by a member of the Grateful Dead in Israel, promoters and press alike noted that the drummer is the only Jewish member of that legendary group. He was aware of the significance his journey to Jerusalem held for much of the audience.

“The focus was a little hotter,” Hart said. “I understand that.”

He took a serious risk traversing the 7,000+ miles between California and Israel: “The instrument that creates all of this stuff is a delicate instrument, even though it’s built like a tank. It’s still a very sophisticated soundroid. And moving it across great waters, and setting it up in the desert, always holds its risks,” he said. “This is the furthest we’ve taken it. And so I was very confident in the beast, and it roared. And it purred. That’s another thing that I loved about Jerusalem: We were able to get really deep grooves there, because the sound was so luscious. The atmosphere was so relaxed. And we were able to hear our sound and play with it. It felt like a real connection with the people.”

But Mickey’s being modest. Vibes around certain parts of Jerusalem were downright fervent in the weeks and days leading up to the show. But even such laser-like hype was cool in comparison to the beams of energy exchanged from band to fan and back throughout the show itself.

Under a full moon, with the Holy City twinkling in the distance, the Mickey Hart Band set the mountain at Hebrew University ablaze.

“To play at Scopus reminded me of Red Rocks — the beautiful stone amphitheater — and I was watching the audience going in. I could see them drifting as we played,” Hart said. “I could see them going deeper and deeper into the music. It became a ritual experience for them.”

Harnessing the heartbeat of the sun for an extended introduction to “China Cat Sunflower,” by the time the Dead classic unfurled its wild whiskers, the Jewish Deadhead nation was up and dancing, souls in communion at the bottom of the sacred mountain, heeding Mickey’s percussive prophecy:

Hear, O Israel, the Rhythm of God, the Beat is One.Way back in July, I hopped off the road to move to Israel smack in the middle of what became arguably Phish’s best tour since the ‘90s. Sad as it was to leave that behind, landing soul-first in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood at the beginning of August, I stepped into solace-providing surreality:

Posters for the impending Mickey Hart show blanketed the blocks, alongside traditional Moda’ot Evel, black-and-white notices of remembrance for recently deceased community members.

Making friends was as simple as following the sound of Orpheum ’76 wafting out of a nearby window.

Saturday evening conversations at a popular house of Jewish learning invariably began or ended (or both) with a reference to the premier local Grateful Dead cover band: “Yo, you checkin’ out The Elevators after Shabbos?”

And it was the “9 Days of Jerry,” Radio Free Nachlaot’s yearly observance of the time between Garcia’s birthday and yartzheit (Aug. 1 and 9, respectively), featuring Jerry-related musical programming 24 hours a day, six days a week.

Loerlai Kude, one half of the team responsible for RFN, the online guerilla station whose two pillars of programming are Jerry and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, never got off the bus; she simply transferred to one with a Hebrew heading.

“I couldn’t appreciate Orthodox Judaism without the Dead,” she says.

Now, her efforts are a communal rallying point for the tribe within a tribe that is Grateful Judaism.

Nachlaot is the sort of place where Grateful Dead apocrypha runs rampant. Like this story, from Shmaya Honickman, 21:

“When my dad met Jerry, man, Jerry walks up to him and says, ‘Is it true the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth?’

My Dad says, ‘Uh, yeah, I think so.’

‘Cool, man,’ Jerry says. ‘We coulda played there.’ And he walks on by."

The Dead at the Dead Sea. It almost happened. Someone had the idea to set the band up on a floating stage out in the middle, right there between Israel and Jordan. Something about the impeccable harmonics. The Jordanian government wouldn’t grant the permit, and Phil Lesh wouldn’t compromise. Had to be in the middle of the Dead Sea, or not at all.

Supposedly.

Like they say about Hasidic stories: If you believe the miraculous tales literally happened, you’re foolish. If you don’t believe them, you’re a heretic. “Music mediates everything — if allowed,” Mickey told me over the phone a week after his show in Jerusalem. “That’s the basic bottom line here. Music mediates life. It also holds all the stories, hopes, dreams, fears, tears, laughs, joy — it holds all of that.”

Jewish history’s peak psychedelic moment was the collective revelation at Mount Sinai, when all the people experienced the space-melting voice of God. They “saw the sounds.” As a unified community, they trembled. In the Torah, the scene leading up to revelation is describe like this:

“On the third day when it was morning, there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. And the entire Mount Sinai was smoke all the way through because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.” (Exodus 19:16-19)

Ear-splitting. Mind-blowing. Face-stealing. The people staring up at the mountain were completely overwhelmed by what they heard-felt-saw. They begged Moses to speak on God’s behalf, “lest we die.”

Beyond the quaking fear, revelation at Sinai was a musical event whose sound echoes on to this day, particularly in the call of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which is blown every year during Elul, the month before the High Holidays, partly as an attempt to wake up the listener’s soul.

Elul began soon after I got to Nachlaot, right in the middle of Jerry’s Nine Days. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, people in Nachlaot were sounding the shofar and preparing for Mickey’s arrival.

Their efforts weren’t misplaced. If Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is time’s reset button, then gathering as community to share in the groove with a man who intimately understands that rhythm and music is just carved and composed time seems holy, appropriate.

“Our word religion comes from the Latin and means ‘to bind together,’” Hart wrote in Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion. “A working religion, then, might be one that binds together the many rhythms that affect us by creating techniques — rituals — that attempt to synchronize the three dances, the personal, the cultural, and the cosmic. If the technique works, the reward is a new dimension of rhythm and time — the sacred.”

Judaism understands these three dances as a triumvirate called World-Year-Soul, what Rabbi Raz Hartman calls Kabbalistic 3D. In the Jewish formula, time, which is culturally construed, is the mediator between physical, personal space and infinite, cosmic soul. In Hebrew, this paradigm is known as Olam-Shana-Nefesh. One of the secrets of this concept can be understood by looking at the first letters of each word, which together spell Ashan, meaning “smoke.” Like the verse states: “Mount Sinai was smoke all the way through because the God had descended upon it in fire.” If revelation at Sinai had a chorus, it’d probably be this: “Fire, fire on the mountain.”

Mickey Hart wrote the original Grateful Dead music for “Fire on the Mountain,” so it’s not surprising that his band blazed through the song as the ecstatic conclusion to the second set of their phenomenal show in the Holy City.

For Moishe Geller, who spent the whole show ritually spinning stage left, that song is the pinnacle of the Torah of the Dead. Show him the lyrics or play him the tape of almost any Dead song from any date, and Moishe can give over inspired spiritual teachings — all of them deeply rooted Jewish tradition.

I asked why “China Cat” always comes before “I Know You Rider,” as it did at the begging of the MHB show in Jerusalem.

“It’s the pure joy,” he said.

You can’t put meaning to the lyrics — even Robert Hunter didn’t — so the song’s feral verse, coupled with an infectious melody, becomes a vehicle for deep happiness — a vehicle that arrives safely in the relatively dark, down-on-your-luck arms of “I Know You Rider.”

“If you’re in a joyous state and then you look at your shit, then you can deal with it,” he explained. “But if you start off with the angst of hunger, then you never get to the joy.”

As Jews everywhere observe the High Holidays, when forgiveness is sought and amends are made, lest a person, God forbid, not be inscribed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur, this teaching is especially relevant. When doing a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, you can’t just look at all the things you’ve done wrong. If you do that and only that, you’ll fall into depression, which Rebbe Nachman says is a grave sin.

Because “China Cat’s” joy comes before “Rider’s” woes, there can be this trust: “The sun’s gonna shine on my back door some day / March winds gonna blow all my troubles away.”

The first set was no warm-up. Following the classic “China Rider” pairing, Mickey and the band seamlessly tore through a selection of songs representing a sizable portion of his oeuvre (including the wisdom-laced, soul-driving “The Sermon” from Superorganism), finally ending up in “Samson and Delilah,” a song steeped in Scripture that has its own obvious and subtle Jewish resonances.

“You can fall a million times,” Moishe said, referring to the fall of Samson. “You can make the worst mistake that you can possibly make. But even at the last minute, you can rise up above your limitations and your errors, and you can fight evil and you can bring evil down upon its own head, so that good can live.” Judging from the deafening waterfall of applause following “Samson and Delilah,” the show could’ve ended there and folks would’ve gone home happy. The vibes at set break were palpable, buzzing, electric.

What happened in the second set — a near-continuous onslaught of thick, skeleton-shaking, cosmic rhythm — simply notarized the historical document being written about an already legendary night.

Starting off with “Mind Your Head,” which featured a real-time projection of Mickey’s brain flash-reacting to the music and the moment via a specialized helmet, and Mickey responding in turn with new rhythms, every body and soul in the amphitheater rolled into one unified mass of prayerful, gyratory groovespression.

As Moishe put it: “[God’s] playing the band, and we’re the instruments.”

The collective energy only grew from there, which is perhaps why Mickey — and I and probably 900 other people — have a difficult time recalling what happened when and how.

“We went right into the trance, as I remember” Mickey said, adding, “I don’t really remember the show that much.”

According to a set list found on the Internet (so it must be accurate), this is what went down: “Playing in the Band” was followed by “Aliromba O Saro,” a Superorganism track. Then, after a very fun “Franklin’s Tower” and the Hagar-Hart collaboration “Code War,” the band brought everyone to the penultimate peak with another new song, “Falling Stars.”

Surely no one could forget what emerged next from the musical depths: “Scarlet Begonias → Fire on the Mountain.”

All night we danced and danced and danced at the foot of the mountain. We smiled, smiled, smiled, from the sheer amazement of being in such a place, united in such holy song. And then suddenly, looking around, if only for a moment, we were in the air, above the flames. We were soaring. It was a collective revelation.

Judaism’s own fiery mountain, Sinai, was a revelatory experience. But the power — like the awesome energy created on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem by Mickey Hart, his band and his fans — was fleeting.

“Har Sinai is where the fullness of light comes in a flash. And then you have work to do. And now you have work to do,” says the Grateful Rabbi. “You have your peak moment, where it all rolls into one, right? How do you bring that into your everyday world? That’s the work.”

Performing “Stella Blue” for only the second time as group, cathartically and expertly led by the angel-voiced Crystal Monee Hall, the Mickey Hart Band left Jerusalem on deepest high note.

And though we’d come a long way together, the work wasn’t done.

Mickey sent us out with a mission: “I would like you take this wonderful feeling that we have here tonight, that we’ve made together, and take it home and do some good with it. I mean, that’s what this whole thing is really about,” he said. “If you can’t do it in your own heart, it can’t be done and you can’t give it away. It’s not like a fake kind of thing. So this is the kind of energy that — this collective energy — is one of the beautiful things that music does: It brings people together, and it makes it better at least while you play. But don’t leave it here. Don’t leave the will here. Take it home. Do some good with it.”

And then the words every Deadhead in the Holy Land had been waiting, hoping, to here: “Maybe we’ll see you again sometime.”

May it happen speedily in our days. Amen.

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