" We can wonder how reality is put together, when nothing stands still"

Walking in the Fields of Time and Religion

A Thematical Essay by

Sven Bachmann

Included in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics with the author's permission.

I: Time

Remember old Heraklit? If not, donīt worry. His main theme was that everything is being involved in constant movement. Nothing stays the same. Thereīs only progress. Or Hegel? This philosopher kept maintaining that the „Weltgeist" is constantly updating himself by way of dialogical process. So what, you might say. This should be about the Grateful Dead. Well, it is. What the two fields have in common is not only the same ground they are walking on, which is a certain aspect of time in general, but the same direction theyīre walking on that field as well. Hold Hegel & Heraklit in mind and look at this:
seasons round, creatures great and small, as we rise and fall
thereīs nothing you can hold for very long
everything wanders from baby to z
new ones coming as the old ones go
That last example of course occurrs in some other context but can, by way of analogism, easily be transferred on some other, more abstract, level, which is a thing that is always nice to be playing with. We all could come up with a lot of other examples that show similiar ideas of looking at time as the instance that establishes just to take away. Or, to put it more optimistically, that has to pull back (into mind) in order to give again. We will have to see further down what this means for real life. Right now, we should take a closer look at the thesis itself. We can wonder how reality is put together, when nothing stands still. And, a little confused, we would find, that this very moment, in which we all read this and think about it, just does not exist, and, necessarily, that every right-now is only - an illusion we all are very good at outplaying. But itīs fact. What we call īpresence` is just the verge from the īno more` to the īnot yet`. This small and actually non-existing point is the space we fill with our bodies and actions. Itīs a border we cannot come across in neither direction. (So far simply animal, we get to be human beings by crossing the border in mind, but thatīs another subject and not due to the questions discussed here.)

So what is the point of it all? The GD lyrics (I always talk about all the lyrics and at Hunter or Barlowe or whoever, which is another discipline you are free to act in, but about The Grateful Dead as one. That includes cover lyrics as well.) have to be including these thoughts, if what I stated above, should prove to be right. Letīs see, how they walk in the fields.

The lyrics of course are different from song to song and argue on other levels. Some are even out of what weīre looking at now, but you can see in general that there is a thematic string throughout the lyrics, a certain key, the lyrics are based on. And, besides, if every song would come up with the same old topic, the GD would never have got that far, if you not tempt to say that the lyrics are completely out of matter.

Back in the fields the lyrics keep on walking hand in hand with the no-presence-thesis. One striking aspect occuurs almost throught the lyrics, and itīs that of time-handling. Just a few examples:

going where the climate suits my clothes
going where the water tastes like wine
going where the chilly winds donīt blow
my time coming, anyday, donīt worry about me
Iīll be knocking at the golden door
comes a time...
thatīs where Iīm gonna make my happy home
gone are the days when the ladies said please
going to leave this brokedown palace
in my time, I will roll, roll, roll
going back home, thatīs what Iīm gonna do
Lots of other examples waiting. The point is, to put it shortly, the way the lyrics put together past, presence and future. How? Itīs always the same pattern lying beneath the surface. Presence is something the lyrics try to wipe out mostly because of the bad shape the lyrical Ego is in. This lyrical Ego tries to compensate that bad shape by crossing the border to the future which he pictures more brightly than the presence is. He does it in mind, naturally. And the past? The Dead have several songs about an if not glorified then harmonical-romantic past. Songs as "Attics of my Life" for instance deal with subjects that are past and gone, as dreams always do. "Brown-eyed Women," "Franklinīs Tower", "Ramble on Rose" and others you can add to this list offer a look at the past that can be meant (not excludingly, of course) to be compared to a presence, that is not even mentioned(!). So we see in the lyrics a combination of reminiscents and outlooks. Even the songs that deal with topics close to the presence as "Easy Wind" still maintain this time-structure by keeping up the state of the past ("I been balling"..."I been chipping") and of the future ("Gotta find me a woman be good to me, wonīt hide..." and "Iīll give everything") both sandwiching that of the presence that is characterised on the one hand by total absence of the lyrical Ego, on the other by unsatisfied wishes (implicit in: whole lotta women...and you never heard a word it said). The fact that the presence is still commentated as īEasy Wind` does point at the way of acting in the system exposed, but it does not interfer with the system itself. Itīs another level. We will have to see about that later. Even love songs that are about unsatisfied love such as "Black throated Wind" keep up the future-idea, when it comes to the last verse (in this example). Again, other examples exist, but I cannot take up them all in that way I would if Iīd be writing a book about it. There are, though, songs in which future as something the lyrical Ego can project himself into, does not exist. "El Paso," "Black Peter," "Friend of the Devil," "Mexicali Blues" and others are of that kind. The missing future-outlook represents here the presence of death. No future, no life. Or if not, as with "Friend of the Devil," they produce a rather desperate tune. "Looks Like Rain" is one of those, too, and future is still functioned, even when not mentioned. "El Paso" has this conflict between presence and a future that does not exist expressed:
maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me
tonightīs nothing worse than this pain in my heart
The point is, that here the importance is put into the presence, which fatally leads to death. But these are examples outnumbered by those mentioned further up in this essay, which deal with the future as the field the mind can walk in.

"Loser" is a great example for those. The lyrical Ego is almost denying the presence although describing it all the time. I mean, the songīs future character is only expressed in a very few lines and the title, of course. Starting with a reflection of the past the lyrical Ego proceeds with giving a pretty close description of himself and the things he is doing. Itīs all in the presence (this time). But still we can assume that this lyrical Ego is so to speak existent only as a subjunctive. Heīs all a could and would, even in that verse that makes it all present: "Well, I got no chance of losing this time." There is no this time, because it would only be, if: the ten dollars were given, the deal was not let down, the gold money was put, if the love was there, where it is assumed to be. Itīs all inside, and that puts it into the future imagined by the lyrical Ego. What we thought to be present is only (in Hegelīs terms) inside the subject and expressed by means of objectivity.

"Wharf Rat" is brilliant for the same reason. But the tune is not in the same degree implicit, though. The thought is expressed there and therefore of a higher grade: But Iīll get back on my feet someday. It has to be that clear because of the rather desperate beginning in order to put the difference between presence and future into a brighter light. We can say that the lyrical Ego in this song is somehow more confident and even more reflecting his own situation whereas in Loser itīs all pre-cognitive.

"When I Paint my Masterpiece," "Next time you see me," "Tennessee Jed" are all about conception of presence and future. Or take "Mission in the Rain": "Tomorrow will be Sunday born of rainy Saturday." And so many other songs that move on that ground. Even songs like "New Speedway Boogie," that are carried by darker emotions or even doubts, still maintain future hopes. But they are held more general and not decisively for a special way, though. Future is said to be uncertain, but still the present "darkness got to give". There is so much to extract from the songs only by comparing structures - itīs a shame I cannot bring that to paper at once.

This is all from the philosophical point of view: time-structure. We found out, that the lyrics provide a certain look at time, in which the future obtains an outstanding function and presence is either shown as being non-existent or reflected as being, because of the constant flowing of time, only a temporary state of life. Future is presence in mind. We now have to take a closer look at the result of this, which will lead us via ethics to religion. In other words: The fields are walked through and known, now letīs see how to make a living there.

II: Religion

It would be kind of non-satisfying to be left alone with the results found out above. We all are thrown into presence, so we have to find to way to live there. The GD lyrics do not say, you have to live like that or like that, thanks to them, but they offer by being. We have already seen, that life is mostly fulfilled in the future. Problems will be solved and things will be O.K. then. Although the presence is rather negative, there still is confidence. Now letīs look again at that old phrase: Iīm going where the water tastes like wine. In case you donīt know (I didnīt not long ago.) that goes back to St. John, Chapter two, in which he describes how Jesus turned water into wine. That was, when I first thought about paying attention to religious affairs in GD lyrics more intensely. What I found out is more than I can come up with right now, but filtering the information available should provide us with enough material due to our subject.

The Bible is the mostly used religious instrument in GD lyrics. Lots of songs play with biblical phrases. There are two steps to take one after the other. First, we have to point the biblical passages out, that are used. Then, we can try to make something out of it. But before getting started, we have to call back into mind, that the time-structure of the songs itself is an adaption of biblical material. Replace problem-solution by salvation and confidence by faith, and youīll get a pretty close remake of the New Testament, or, to put it correctly, of the state of mind described throughout the New Testament.

"Going Down the Road" is the one example that allows us to integrate that whole other level of religion into the conception of time-structure. The other is "Estimated Prophet." But we should be careful with that song. Yes, things might point at Old Ezekiel, the hippest prophet of the Old Testament. But where does that knowledge lead us? Nobody is helped much if they just have that information. What do you want to do with it? Read the book of Ezekiel then listen to the song. Nothing happens. Not that itīs completely unimportant, far from that, but itīs too special and therefore not enough. Youīd get nowhere, if youīd nail every song to which it relates. It sticks there and withers away. Steps have been left out to be taken first. Just look at the lyrics and make a word-field analysis. Youīll find out there are many words that deal with religious affairs such as voices saying, preaching, golden door, angel, shaft of light, paradise, rising up, shine, prophet, the sea will part before me, call down thunder, fills the sky with flame, glory, light. Quite a lot of words and phrases. Now leave them alone and consider what we found out about time. The point is, that all this is meant to be happening someday. So we get the conception of time filled with religious contents.

We are all curious how the religion proposed looks like. Weīll find out. Right now we should assume that it is similiar to what we read in the Bible (NT). Everything is put into the future. That is from the structural point of view. Religion in GD and of the NT are held together as far as formal aspects are concerned. But we have to get an impression of what the contents are like. If they correspond the GD lyrics are simply a different way of church-work. Arguing for or against this thesis will make necessary to look at what the GD lyrics make of the biblical layout. How does salvation look like? How does faith? What should life look like in order to achieve salvation? How is God presented? Of which the last question is rather important. After having answered thes questions weīll have to decide. If the lyrics turn out to be non-clerical, we will have to ask, what else they offer and why biblical terms and stories at all? But first things first.

Salvation is, easily to be seen, in by far most cases, no matter of post-life, but takes place in the lives of the lyrical Egos. This is already an important difference. Mostly salvation consists of solving the problems due to unhappy love affairs ("Next Time You See Me," "Black Throated Wind") or to having "come to no good" ("Wharf Rat," "Loser"), in which the beyond has no place. Itīs all this life.

The concept of the beyond, the other world, is the next point. Just because itīs not like in the Bible, doesnīt mean, there is no beyond in the lyrics. We come to the heart of the lyrics with that point. What is the beyond? The answer is in (my lyrical favourite, along with "Terrapin Station") "Weather Report I&II." This has been pointed out before, so I cut it short. It is here, it is now, as Peter Gabriel put it in his Lamb. GD lyrics say, thereīs no name, but itīs there and itīs in nature (water, sky, earth, rain). The God himself has got no name, presented in a quotation from the Bible. That proves, that the beyond is nothing taking place somewhere in time, which is unalterable, but something here and now, always existing, something always around us. It coexists with us. Itīs present. That seems to be contradicting what we said about time-structure, but the point is, that it is transfigured in a religious way. Itīs not on the level of the action, but on the level of the mind, the explanation things are, the explanation of reality as mystery. With that knowledge we can easily explain the general vagueness of the lyrics (as D.Dodd did in his "Ambiguity as a philosophical stance in the lyrics of the GD"). This can by no means go together with biblical points of view, where everything is said to be reasoned by God and reasonable through God. Along with that we get another role and identity of God himself in the GD lyrics. God is represented by the flow of time, as it is very clearly put in "Weather Report II."

According to the different conception of reality, we have to define the way of life offered by the lyrics to achieve salvation. Since there is no instance telling us whatīs true and what is not (which is at least in Germany one of the main aspects of postmodernism), there is no instance telling us how to live. According to postmodernism there is no longer one reality or one truth, but our perception is set together by different concepts of reality, such as different ethics in different cultures. Our perception and therefore our way to live is like zapping through TV. This is everywhere in the lyrics not only of GD but of the time in general. In GD lyrics the way to live is consequently not predetermined for the persons described. That is shown by combining characters which cannot handle their lives properly with confidence and faith of these characters referring to a somehow golden future. Again, "Wharf Rat" and "Loser" are outstanding examples. But in "Going down the Road" we get the link to religion, but not to religion offered in the Bible. The aspect of religion caught by GD even goes beyond that. We have seen, that there are a lot of points disagreeing between the Bible and GD lyrics. One could make it even more evident by picking out all the verses referring to this.

But why do the lyrics refer to the Bible at all, if they simply put the contents aside? Letīs have a look at what they refer to. The list that follows contains every song I could defintely connect with the Bible in at least one aspect. Apart from it and thereafter will be a list offered that contains songs that are likely to have a grip on the Bible. I could not make it evident, though, partly because language problems, partly because of lacking Bible-knowledge.

Thatīs enough for the moment. Other songs having biblical images are: "Let it grow," "Eyes of the World," "Next time you see me," "Promised Land," "Throwing Stones," "Crazy Fingers." Both "Samson & Delilah" and "Greatest Story Ever Told" tell whole stories of the Old Testament. The sources of these two are clear enough. "Samson & Delilah" is closer to the Bible than the other, but the settings of both songs are biblical. It is apparant that the Dead have a like for OT-stories (see also "Gomorrah" and "Brother Esau"). The NT-elements are mostly cut down to the structure as shown above.

[If anybody has a connection to the Bible for the following songs, Iīd be glad if they let me know:

I have several lines in mind, but I prefer not keeping you away from looking at whole songs, for I most likely let most of the stuff glide through my fingers.]

Back to the meaning of the Bible-quotations in the GD-lyrics. It has already been said that there are too many differences between the use of biblical material in the lyrics and in the Bible itself to interpretate the songs in a mere clerical way. Ambiguity also extends to religious aspects and that again makes the way to live due to religion impossible to define. But is religion used just as a represantation of hope in future producing confidence or faith? Remember this was the point we started with. We now found out about the intensity of biblical images. What do we make of that?

Mostly Old Testamentarian stuff, pointing back and further back into a somehow mysterious past. By transferring this past into presence the face of the biblical contents transferred gets more and more unclear like moving away from our eyes. What happens is that the biblical images and stories are reduced to their origins, to the instance that has produced them: Spirit we might call it, but it actually has no name, which we have to keep in mind when talking of it as spirit. It sounds awkward: The unspecificness grows when pulling the past into presence. This is interesting, because it has two (at least) meanings. The first one is that for us today old religion(s) cannot mean the same as they did for former generations. This is sort of the expression of the feelings not only of youth nowadays towards the Bible. We have lost contact to the book of the books. Instead we can build up connections to the way religions built up, itself. This is the other meaning and with it the lyrics cross the border from simply being a form of protest to reforming again, what has been covered or torn over the years. This is what the songs sing of (on this level): Replacing the particular (Bible / religion) by the general (spirit). The way we can do this is to take the particular. Necessarily it will become general.

In the lyrics the NT is the status of the hic et nunc. Its system sets up the future. The status of past is vaguely indicated by the OT references. But they have no bottom. In them we see what lies before them. The confidence expressed finally is replaced by faith, but itīs not the faith of the NT. Itīs new and unnameable.

This is mainly what I wanted to say about the GD lyrics and their religious aspects everybody has a feeling of when listening to the songs.

Spread the music, spread the lyrics.

Posted October 1996