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Diary: (1) Michael Robbins on Proust and the Grateful Dead
From the author’s archive
Half of What You Thought You Had
The only claim I want to make in this piece is that time is a motherfucker. “We can sometimes find a person again,” writes Marcel Proust, “but we cannot abolish time.”
At the unthinkable age of fifty, I resolved to finish In Search of Lost Time, having read the first two volumes long ago and then read a lot of other stuff instead for a couple of decades. Throughout the course of this long, obnoxiously intelligent novel, Proust exposes “society” as consisting of self-important buffoons—buffoons with whom he chose to spend all his time. So when I first read Swann’s Way as a young man, I couldn’t quite see that the aristocracy and its parties aren’t really the point. They’re almost incidental, if it makes sense to put it that way when several hundred pages are devoted to describing them in pointillistic detail. The point, even within the fiction of the novel, is to see them again, to see anything in the past again. You can’t, of course, and that’s also the point. Which is why I’ve been thinking lately about the Grateful Dead.
For years I’ve listened to Dead shows hosted on the Internet Archive—somehow the Dead played more concerts than should have been physically possible, more of which were well recorded than should have been technologically feasible, initially circulating among aficionados on cassette, now streaming online like everything else. The Deadhead comment threads posted under these shows are an obsessive terrain given over mostly to banality (“great show u had to be there awesome show”), arguments about whether this night’s version of a song is better than that night’s, people saying things like “did you ever notice planets kinda wobble around in the sky,” and unhinged imitations of rock-crit hyperbole: “At times it sounds as though they are standing at the edge of the earth and the music is just ringing through the canyons of time.”
But after embarking in earnest on the Search, I began to notice that more than a few comments return to a familiar theme:
The aroma of the weed wafting through the air as the second set opener China-Rider kicked off is locked in my olfactory center—I can go back to that exact moment in a flash.
Every once in a while something triggers a long forgotten memory.
This recording just isn’t the same as being there, but when I listen, I am there all over again.
Flood of memory returns, most of them thankfully good ones, of High Times and peace.
You get the idea. I myself was listening to “Sugar Magnolia” one afternoon when suddenly I was in the hills above Boulder circa 1991, Europe ’72 on the tape deck of my ’85 Ford Escort, my senses flooded with the overwhelming data of that day.
“Scrap the past instantly,” Henry Miller wrote in a book I loved at eighteen and never glanced at again. But you get older, you spend more time in the past. “The whole of that past,” Proust says toward the end of his novel, “which I was not aware that I carried about within me.” Whoa-oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?
The Dead were always there, first as inscrutable images in my mom’s record collection—rainbow-haired weirdo smashing himself with ice cream; weathered crone posed before the sea with wheat and scythe; rose-garlanded skeleton. In junior high I got into American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, their best studio albums. “Ripple” was the only rock and roll my grandmother would abide. I’d be sitting by her pool in rural Kansas, listening to, like, the Meat Puppets on my rudimentary boombox, and she’d say, “Play that rock song I like.” In high school I despised the stoners who listened to the Dead—I still hate those dancing bears—but a college reconciliation dovetailed with my newfound interest in jazz. “How many times,” Proust says, “these people had reappeared before me.” But it was a surface love. I never went to a show, and for live recordings, I was content with the officially released Live/Dead and Europe ’72. The deep vault was for tie-dyed boomers in Volvos.
Then, in the late 00s, an acquaintance wrote something for the Times about the evolution of the tape-barter economy and the question of which show was the show, the best one ever played (consensus pick: Cornell’s Barton Hall, May 8th, 1977). Out of curiosity, and with a new turntable to break in, I bought the four-LP box set Sunshine Daydream: Veneta, Oregon, August 27, 1972 (a close second), recorded not long after I was born. (I soon realized that buying Dead shows on vinyl is a mistake—“Dark Star” is split across two sides—and traded it in for the CD version. This was also a mistake, as the vinyl set now goes for $600-$800 on Discogs.)
This set, unfortunately for anyone who has to ride in a car where I am in control of the music, woke me up. I had never heard the band playing so raggedly and so delicately, often at the same time.
Read Part Two of this post here
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