Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Fishing and the Meaning of Everything

by Marcelo Gleiser
author of The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything

The boy inserted his fishing rod into a plastic pipe secured deep in the sand. The surf was low and the sun was already setting behind his back. Gone were the girls in scant bikinis and the muscular guys playing volleyball. Copacabana beach lay bare in front of him, a perfect, golden horseshoe. Here and there, older fishermen tried their luck along the beach, retired men in their sixties and seventies with little to do, their skin leathered from years under the tropical sun, beer bellies bursting out of their shorts. They all knew the persistent eleven-year-old who would come three or four times a week to the same spot with devout discipline. The routine was always the same: he’d string three hooks to the end of the line and carefully load each with a small piece of sardine. Then he would run to the water with the rod behind his back and cast the line as far as he could beyond the breaking surf. After placing the rod into the pipe, he’d sit down on the sand and wait. He paid little attention to the older men. Entranced, he shifted his gaze back and forth from the distant horizon to the tip of the rod. He didn’t know then why he had to fish. But he knew he did. Alone.

Usually, he’d go home stinking of bait and empty-handed, or at best with a meager catch of a small catfish or a cocoroca, a bony relative of the sergeant fish common off the beaches of Rio. His older brothers would smirk, clamping their noses, amused at the boy’s stubbornness. But not on that day. Two large silvery shadows darted fifty feet away, high on a wave. The boy retrieved his line quickly, hooked some fresh bait, and cast right behind where he had spotted the pair.

Marcelo Gleiser
For ten minutes, nothing happened. Discouraged, the boy started to retrieve the line. Suddenly, he felt a strong tug. The bamboo rod bent in half with a fury he had never seen before. His arms turned rubbery. “It’s a shark!” he yelled. “It’s a shark!” Two older fishermen nearby dropped their rods and came closer. It had been years since someone had caught a shark there. The boy ran to the water’s edge, holding on to the rod with all his might, trying to reel line in. But he could hardly turn the handle. “It’s gonna snap! The line is gonna snap!” shouted one of the men. “Give up some line, boy! Let the fish run!” The boy, trembling head to toe, released the reel’s lock. Line swished out as the fish tried to regain control of his destiny. The mighty predator had become prey to an even mightier predator, a stunned eleven-year-old boy. After some ten minutes of give and take, the boy finally reeled the fish ashore. It wasn’t a shark. But it was big, bigger than anything he had ever caught or seen anyone catch at Copacabana beach. Silvery, flat on the sides with a large yellow tail fin; probably a young albacore, weighting about eight pounds, a beautiful creature to behold.

The older men circled the boy, amazed at the sight. Bursting with pride, the boy collected his equipment and tried to shove the fish headfirst into his bag. It wouldn’t fit. The V-shaped tail stuck out as he walked the two blocks back home, pretending not to notice the looks of amazement from the passersby. He opened the door to his apartment and placed the fish on the kitchen counter. The cook, a large black woman in her fifties, came running in. “Lindaura, look what I caught for dinner tonight!” the boy said. “Grandpa is coming, right?” The cook eyed the fish with incredulity. “You caught this down by the beach?” The boy beamed. “I did. And no one helped me either. I wanna see who’s gonna make fun of my fishing now.”

It took me over thirty years to reconnect with that boy.

Life took me adrift and I forgot all about that young boy and his big fish. My head turned upward to the Universe, and I became a theoretical physicist, interested in questions that, not long ago, wouldn’t have been considered scientific: How did the Universe come to be? What about all the matter that makes up stars, planets, and people? And life? Can we ever hope to understand how inanimate atoms first joined together to become living things, and then thinking brains? And if life took hold here, could it exist elsewhere? Could there be other thinking beings out there in the immensity of the cosmos? Even as a teenager, I marveled at the fact that such fundamental questions about existence could be answered in rational ways, without invoking supernatural agency. At the very least we could try to answer them, if not in their entirety, at least in part. The value, I realized, was in the trying, in being a participant in this continuous process of discovery we call science.

I now understand that those long afternoons of fishing and contemplation were a prelude to what was about to come. After all, fishing teaches us to be patient, tolerant, humble—key qualities needed in research. How often do fishermen go to the water with their rods, dreaming of the day’s catch, only to come home empty-handed? Likewise, how often do scientists passionately explore an idea for days, weeks, months, years even, only to be forced to accept that it leads nowhere? Notwithstanding the frequent failures, and just as in fishing, they keep coming back, even if the odds for success are pretty low. The thrill is in beating the odds, occasionally landing a big fish or an idea that reveals something new about the world.

In fishing and in science we flirt with the elusive. We stare at the water, and sometimes we see a fish stir underneath the surface or even jump, betraying its presence. But the watery world is not our own, and we can only conjecture about what really goes on down there, polarized lenses and all. The line and the hook are our probes into this other realm, which we perceive only very imperfectly.

“Nature loves to hide,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote some twenty-five centuries back. We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration—our reality amplifiers—the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many other instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.

This is an excerpt from The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything.

Friday, June 10, 2016

In Search of the Soviet Spies with Two Lives

by Barnes Carr
author of Operation Whisper: The Capture of Soviet Spies Morris and Lona Cohen

The subject of my book, Operation Whisper, came to me on a morning that seemed to have been modeled from childhood memories, moist and green, smelling of jasmine and wild onions. I was sitting under the big oak in my backyard in New Orleans, drinking coffee and searching the paper for something interesting. But it was a slow news day. I was about to move on to the sports section when I noticed a story buried at the bottom of an inside page.

A famous spy for the Soviets had died in a KGB nursing home in Moscow. His name was Morris Cohen, eighty-four years old, born in the Bronx. There was something odd about this. I knew that Americans had spied for the Russians, but how many had actually got on a plane and defected to the workers’ paradise?

And just how famous was he? The story went on to say that Morris and his wife Lona had run a Soviet spy network in the United States and Canada during World War II. They stole atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project and put Russia on a fast track to building its own nuclear arsenal. The Cohens, and not the Rosenbergs, had delivered a complete diagram of the first A-bomb to Moscow. That, I had to admit, was an impressive set of bona fides, as they say in the trade.

Morris and Lona Cohen

The story also said that Morris had worked as a sports writer for the Memphis Press-Scimitar before the war. That’s when I sat up. I had worked as a reporter for the Press-Scimitar. It was my first major-market journalism job. A Russian spy was an alumnus of the Press-Scimitar? I put the paper down. Was that why some people used to call us Reds on the Press-Scimitar? I poured another cup and read on.

Morris had served in an international brigade in Spain and fought against Franco’s army, the obituary said. He was wounded in battle and recruited for spying while recuperating in a hospital. I put the paper down. The Cohens sounded like a good subject for a feature story or an essay in a historical journal.

I obtained a copy of their FBI file, which included interviews with people who had known them in America at different times in their lives. I began mining sources at libraries, archives, museums, and additional government offices. I found that the Cohens, after leaving America, went on to atomic spying in England. But when I started checking British sources, I hit a wall. Nobody had ever heard of the Cohens. What was I doing wrong? My course was finally corrected by a helpful soul in the morgue (library) of the Sunday Times.

“Who?” he said.

“Morris and Lona Cohen,” I replied.

“Famous spies for the Soviets.”

“In Britain? Never heard of them.”

“It was the Portland spy case.”

“Oh! You mean Peter and Helen Kroger. Bloody Yanks.”

Things really opened up after that. I collected British news stories about the Cohens, and memoirs and reminiscences written by the spies they worked with, and the spy catchers who caught them. I contacted people who had known them, and located some good published interviews, including one conducted by KGB historians.

The Cohens and their London spy ring were finally captured in a joint effort by the FBI, CIA, RCMP, MI5, and Scotland Yard. When I found that out, I knew there was a book in all this. The roll-up was called Operation Whisper. The case featured all the elements of a Hitchcock thriller: chases, blackmail, threats of assassination, secret drops, secret meets, secret knocks, secret codes. Nocturnal beach landings and shots in the dark were included, along with a double-agent femme fatale. The Scotland Yard detective who arrested them was called Moonraker. I especially liked that.

One thing I noticed early on was that Americans who had written about the Cohens offered little information about their later work as the Krogers in England. And British writers who wrote about the Krogers seemed to care little about their previous incarnations as Americans. Thus, in my book I have tried to bring together a narrative history of the Cohens’ “two lives” on both sides of the Atlantic.

Equally, I’ve described how police and security agents in the United States, Canada, and Britain systematically tracked down the Cohens, clue by clue. Writers often concentrate on the political ideology of spy cases and ignore the work of the spy catchers. But in a chase, I think the role of the hound is just as thrilling as that of the hare.

In the course of my research I learned a lot about spying, about the Spanish Civil War, the two world wars, and some truly fascinating characters I would like to have had a drink with. At times, the well ran dry. Other times, there was a flood. That’s why I like research. But most of all, I like the writing.

I don’t agree with what the Cohens did. But I do think they led intriguing lives. I’ve always believed that contradictions in character are the things that make people interesting. You’ll find plenty of those in Operation Whisper.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

10 Simple Solutions to Better Hand Hygiene

Did you know today, May 5th, is World Hand Hygiene Day?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the force behind an awareness campaign to make sure we're all practicing responsible hand hygiene. It just so happens that this week, through our ForeEdge imprint, we've also released The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World, by Miryam Z. Wahrman—yes, a handbook to understanding the critical importance of maintaining clean hands in your daily life, with advice on best hand hygiene practices.

So what better time to share some of Wahrman's helpful tips? And some may seem like common sense, but often the most obvious are the easiest habits to break. Here are ten things you can and should be doing to keep those hands clean and yourself and others germ-free:

1. Don’t shake hands, do the fist bump. If you do shake hands, be sure to wash up or use alcohol-based hand rub before touching your face or eating.

2. Keep your washing-up areas stocked with plenty of soap and clean cloth towels or paper towels. This is equally as important at home as it is at work.

3. Always keep a bottle of alcohol-based hand rub handy, at work or on the road.

4. If you are a parent of small children, or a caretaker for a family member, keep your charge’s hands clean.

5. Teach your children from the earliest ages to keep their hands clean, in particular, to wash after coming home from school, the playground, or other activities, and before eating.

6. If you are a supervisor at work, develop and encourage hygiene policies for your employees. Your initiative may be as modest or subtle as making sure there is soap and paper towels in the bathrooms and hand rub available in the office.

7. If you work in health care, be vigilant about hand hygiene, cooperate with hygiene policies, and take the initiative to be a role model for others.

8. According to the WHO, 61% of health workers do not clean their hands at right moment. So if you are a patient, politely ask your health worker to wash hands and don gloves. If you are advocating for a family member who is being treated, you should do the same. This is not the time to be bashful or worry about insulting someone.

9. If possible, when buying prepared food, be aware of how your food is handled and ask the food handler to wash hands or don gloves.

10. Learn about local health codes, and advocate for them. Encourage your legislators to develop policies, codes, and laws to further protect consumers.

For more information about World Hand Hygiene Day and how you can spread the word (not the germs), visit the WHO's website.

And to learn even more, including how ancient cultures dealt with disease and hygiene and how scientific developments led to the germ theory, pick up Miryam Wahrman's The Hand Book: Surviving a Germ-Filled World, available now!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An American Woman in the City of Violins

Carleen Hutchins measuring the thickness of a violin plate, ca. 1960. Images courtesy of Hutchins estate.

by Quincy Whitney
author of American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins—the Art & Science of the Violin

Cremona, Italy, October 1997. Standing in Piazza Lodi, I felt a ­mixture of excitement and frustration at the realization that my husband Eli and I had clearly reached a dead-end. We had veered off the beaten path of an itinerary we had planned for an anniversary trip to Italy in order to take in the City of Violins, at the suggestion of Carleen Hutchins, whom I had met just a month before. We were now evidently quite lost.

I met Carleen because of a stranger sitting next to me at the New Hampshire Humanities Council annual dinner who, upon hearing that I was a Boston Globe arts reporter covering New Hampshire, said I should contact a violinmaker who summered up on Lake Winnipesaukee. Nevertheless, when I took up her lead, the most significant interview I ever conducted was almost the fish that got away. When I phoned Hutchins to ask for an interview, she turned me down flat. In fourteen years, I had never come across an artist, educator, historian, or scholar who did not want free publicity. I soon discovered that Carleen Hutchins seldom did the predictable thing. Taken aback by her refusal, I hung on the phone, contemplating my next move. Suddenly, Hutchins blurted out: “What’s your angle?” No one had ever asked me about “my angle” before. With no time for a clever comeback, the first thing that came to mind was the truth—I told her I was fascinated by stories where science and art overlap. Bingo. The door opened. “That’s exactly what I do,” Hutchins said. “When do we talk?”

Two weeks after my feature appeared in the Globe in August 1997, Hutchins phoned to ask if I would consider writing her biography. Tired of weekly deadlines and intrigued by the idea of a larger project, I still wondered if everything she had told me could possibly be true, as her story seemed too remarkable to be real. Just a month later in October 1997, a serendipitous trip to Italy cast away all doubt. When Hutchins found out that my husband and I were going to Italy, she asked if we would mind visiting Cremona, “City of Violins” and the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari, as she was bent on tracking down an old friend who had moved his workshop—Maestro Francesco Bissolotti. “Bisso,” as Carleen called him, was one of two master luthiers who in 1937 had founded the city’s prestigious violinmaking school in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of Stradivari’s death. Hutchins wanted to send him Research Papers in Violin Acoustics 1975–1993, the definitive collection she had just finished editing.

Now here we stood in Piazza Lodi. After hiking up the stairs to Bisso’s abandoned workshop, which held no clue as to a forwarding address, we had reached an impasse. As we sat in our rental car, ready to pull away, two students crossed the piazza, one carrying what looked to be a violin case. I approached the student who had stopped at a pay phone on the edge of the piazza, and in my struggling Italian, I said, “Bissolotti.”

“Bisso?” he said suddenly in broken English as he hung up the phone. “We have never met Maestro Bissolotti, but we have come to Cremona today to buy a viola!” The four of us meandered down a cobblestone street as if feeling our way in the dark, until two Japanese gentlemen appeared out of nowhere, asking, “Bisso?” We followed them to an archway leading to a small courtyard, through an open wrought iron gate, into a smaller courtyard, where we found ourselves pulling the knocker on an old door covered with peeling green paint.

We were ushered into the outer room of the workshop of “Bisso,” a short man with a mustache and winning smile, who immediately began speaking Italian to the student bent on purchasing a viola. Bisso knew not a word of English, but when I presented a letter signed by Hutchins, his face lit up. He motioned for one of his apprentices, Lorenzo Cassi, to accompany us on a tour of the Palazzo Comunale. When I asked Lorenzo if he knew of Hutchins, he replied: “I have never met her, but we have read every paper she has ever written!”
Carleen Hutchins, ca. 1990.

To find the Collezione Civica in the Palazzo Comunale, one need only look for the tall bell tower in the heart of Cremona. Inside the galleries, glass display cases house the earliest known violin, made in 1566 by Andrea Amati—the undisputed father of the violin—along with a 1615 viola made by Amati’s son Girolamo, a 1689 Giuseppe Guarneri violin, and a 1715 Stradivarius violin. On the day we visited, in the corridor just outside the violin galleries, we passed From Tree to Violin, a month-long exhibition created by the violinmaking school. Had we visited two weeks later, we would have missed it. The very last exhibit panel was devoted to Carleen Maley Hutchins.

Here in the City of Violins, keeping company with the most celebrated names in the violin world—all of them Italian men—was a living American female violinmaker, a woman who had taught herself acoustics by carving violins. I was immediately intrigued. Why had I never heard of this female luthier who had asked me to tell her story? In the midst of our conversations, Hutchins would get phone calls from luthiers in Australia or China, physicists and museum curators in England and Scotland, a dendro­chronologist in Paris, a luthier in Belgium, members of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia, a conductor in California, a faculty member at Juilliard. It became clear Hutchins had developed an international community around violin acoustics and she had created a new family of violins—yet she seemed to be a hidden treasure.

The preceding is excerpted from the introduction in American Luthier.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

5 Cool Artifacts Unearth Boston's Rich Past

Volunteers for the City Archaeology Program excavating a site in Boston.

As the city archaeologist of Boston, Joseph Bagley's job includes managing more than one million artifacts excavated from dozens of sites throughout the city and conducting digs, often with volunteers, on small projects on city-owned land. Between what resides in the archives and what still remains unrecovered, he would tell you there's no shortage of fascinating discoveries deep in the soil of Boston history.

So when Bagley decided to write a book about some of his favorite finds, the hard part was narrowing it down to the few dozen that could adequately represent this place over the ages, from as early as the first human inhabitants thousands of years ago. Painstakingly, he did just that, and the result is A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts, complete with photos and essays on each artifact, due out in April from UPNE. Here Bagley selects five of those 50 objects that begin to tell Boston's fascinating story:

Neville Point
7500–5500 BP | Boston Common

Found on Boston Common during a 1986 archaeological survey before installation of lighting throughout the park, this 5,500–7,500-year-old native spear point base is the oldest artifact found in downtown Boston. It was made from stone harvested from outcrops found only in the Blue Hills area south of Boston. While the oldest man-made object found in downtown Boston (so far), the earliest evidence for people in the area around Boston goes back 12,000 years. This stone tool is older than the Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge.

Cat Skeleton
1714–1750 | Three Cranes Tavern, Charlestown
This intact cat skeleton was found buried in a bowl under the entrance of the Three Cranes Tavern in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. It dates to around the turn of the 18th century when witchcraft hysteria was peaking in and around Boston, and appears to be similar to other caches of cats in thresholds and hearths as a means to deter vermin and witchcraft from the home.

Circa 1750 | Faneuil Hall, Downtown
This whizzer toy, which would produce a buzzing sound when spun on a loop of string through the two central holes, was hammered from a lead musket ball. Thomas Apthorp was the son of Charles Apthorp, a major merchant and slave dealer in Boston who had a shop near Town Dock near present-day Faneuil Hall, where this artifact was excavated. The Apthorps were the wealthiest family in Boston in the early to mid 18th century. After Charles' death Thomas became the pay master for the British troops, who were at the time encamped on Boston Common. As a Tory, Thomas fled the city with the British on Evacuation Day in 1776.

Shell-Edge Pearlware
1819–1830 | African Meeting House, Beacon Hill

While this type of ceramic is one of the most common artifacts one will ever find on an archaeological site in Boston, this plate in particular was part of a large matching set of dishes that were encountered during excavations behind the 1806 African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. The oldest standing Black church in America, the church also had apartments in the basement where Domingo Williams lived. As a free black man, Domingo ran his own business and became a popular very popular event caterer and organizer for Boston's white upper class. Despite his freedom he and others in the Black community faced broad discrimination in Boston. Based on the number of similar dishes, archaeologists believe this plate is part of Domingo's catering set, which was used throughout the City for parties, but also for community events at the African Meeting House back yard.

Red Sox Pin
1912 | Dillaway-Thomas House, Roxbury

This 1912 pin was issued to members of the Boston Red Sox fan club the year Fenway Park opened. Parts have broken off in the past, but it consists of a baseball face with eyes and a mouth, crossed-bat arms, and a chest made from an umpire's pads. The pin was found in the yard of the Dillaway-Thomas house in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph Bagley is available for purchase now.

Follow the City of Boston Archaeology Program's ongoing projects on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

All About the McDuffies?: The Geopolitics of Jacksonian Bank Notes

by Christopher C. Apap
author of The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic
It is tough in an election year not to pay attention to state and local politics—indeed, as we once more revisit the way that Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primaries set the tone for the national conversation, we are reminded how local debates shape not only America’s idea of the nation, but the idea of America abroad. This is no new occurrence. My book, The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic, is an exploration of the complexity of local, national, and at times global identities during the 1820s and 30s. And while primary season is now one way that individual states shape their identities today, I am reminded of a different form of localized identity-formation from the period that I study: currency.

We now think of American currency as a nationalizing force, and, whether it is how we think of the Almighty Dollar or how Sean Combs has argued that it is “All about the Benjamins,” we know what American money looks like. Yet national bank notes were instituted only in 1862. Before that, hundreds of state-chartered banks around the nation printed their own notes that could be redeemed at those banks for “specie,” or the hard money of gold and silver. Some of these early notes were simple and quite utilitarian in design, but by the 1820s and 30s, the thriving engraving business would mean that banks could issue complex notes which would be considerably harder to counterfeit. The engraving industry went bust with the Panic of 1837 (for which fans of Hudson River painter Asher Durand, who made a very good living engraving banknotes before turning to art as a more full-time occupation, are thankful), but for nearly two decades, bank notes often reflected complex local identities.

I first discovered this when, during a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worchester, Massachusetts, I heeded the advice of Paul Erickson and delved into the crates of antebellum banknotes in the AAS archives. I discovered paper currencies that reflected a pointed and often quite political form of self-fashioning.

Take, for example, the currency of the Portsmouth-based New Hampshire Union Bank, whose five-dollar note was printed with a rich tableau across its top. At the left-hand edge, we have images of state houses, churches, and farmhouses, with agricultural workers in the foreground representing the state’s general national image: as an agricultural center. However, the right-hand side of the image suggests a different aspiration to broader commercial interests with the images of a bustling port with ships at sail. In the center, the common representation of America, Columbia, presides, flanked by the representations of other goddesses. To her left, holding an anchor, is perhaps a representation of the goddess Fortune, who is often understood to patronize sea-journeys and trade; to her right is likely Ceres, goddess of agriculture, with what appears to be plowing instruments and a sheaf of grain.

If geography textbooks of the day tended to minimize New Hampshire’s commercial impact, what this banknote seems to suggest is that its agriculture acumen could and should be turned to trade interests that would benefit the state and the nation. Or, at the very least, the bank note suggests that the President and Directors of the New Hampshire Union Bank hoped that this would be the case.

The Farmers and Exchange Bank of Charlestown, South Carolina, can be understood in similar ways. At the top center of their ten-dollar note is a fleet of trading vessels that underscore its position as one of the chief southern ports of Jacksonian America, and the bottom right depicts an agricultural scene that reflects not only the centrality of cotton to their economy, but makes the state’s dependence on slave labor a centerpiece of that depiction. If one is tempted to overlook what John C. Calhoun had termed South Carolina’s “peculiar institutions” on the note, or to minimize it as a mere attempt at honest representation, the portrait at the lower left might cause them to think otherwise. It pictures Representative George McDuffie, who was not merely a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and, a year after this note is dated, the governor of South Carolina, but who also was, with Calhoun and Robert Hayne, one of the more vocal proponents of Nullification (the argument that states had the right to reject, or nullify, federal laws that negatively affected that state; Nullification was the philosophical precursor to secession). McDuffie would in fact powerfully and repeatedly argue that national tariffs had a direct and deleterious effect on South Carolina’s economy. How interesting, then, that this Charlestown bank would choose McDuffie to symbolize its exchange value; it is hard not to read the bank note as a political statement in favor of Nullification, state’s rights, and the defiance of South Carolina in the face of Andrew Jackson and the nation as a whole.

This latter example is a striking reminder of how, even and especially in the 1820s and 30s, bank notes could be fundamentally and intrinsically political: they could be the vehicles through which states articulated their own identities locally and, to the extent that they might circulate more widely, nationally as well. And while our politics today is deeply implicated in money as well, it is the primary races which are capturing the national imagination at the moment. But it is worth remembering the different ways that states like New Hampshire and South Carolina presented themselves to each other and the rest of the nation nearly two centuries ago; they are a reminder of how acts of self-definition often reflect broader political debates and aspirations.

Christopher C. Apap teaches English literature at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and is the author of The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Why the Grateful Dead Will Always Matter

Grateful Dead at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, Oct. 9, 1980. Photo by Chris Stone.

Last summer, after fifty years, the band with which the tie-dye shirt became synonymous, the group that helped to define an era (or certainly its vibe), the Grateful Dead performed a series of shows as a whole group (with Jerry smiling down in the form of a rainbow) for the last time. But like many of the concert-goers who couldn't bring themselves to leave after the final notes of the final "Fare Thee Well," the Dead won't soon fade from time or memory. In 2016, an offshoot of the band, called Dead & Company, is expected to tour, and a Dead tribute album seems to be in the works. And just released from ForeEdge, a lovesong to all things Dead, titled Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson, dives deep—as deep as any Dead guitar riff—into this timeless band's enduring legacy. Here’s a taste. 

by Michael Benson
author of Why the Grateful Dead Matter

Light the song, and pass it around. Don’t bogart. Let it shine, let it shine, stoke it on a Palo Alto stage, until that fire reaches the mountain in Concord, the magnolia fields down by the river, becomes a conflagration of the heart stretched from South Colorado to the West Texas town of El Paso, the twilight purple plain of Wichita, all the way to Europe and the Pyramids of Egypt under a lunar eclipse. Stoke it until it envelops the Earth with an accelerando of Peace.

And that’s the Grateful Dead, not just a band that played songs, sold records, and gave concerts, but a band of sorcerers, conjurers of a rare and different tune, music with a heartbeat and breath, with the perfect tension between dissonance and resonance, suspension and completion, a cynosure for the huddled masses, tie-dyed angel music for spinning the sacred dance of life as a falling leaf at the jubilee, a rolling away of the dew, a movement and groove that gets into the fiber of your skull, spreads like ripples on still water, grows roses along a trellis of bones, messes with the gears of your body clock until you’re on a long, strange pilgrimage jonesing to find the 45-minute Sugaree, waving that flag, driving that train, holding away the despair with a cloak of space and drums, lightening the load until you get up and fly away.

You don’t have to take my word for it. The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell (his book The Power of Myth is required reading in college sociology courses) went to a Dead show and said the music was the antidote to the Damoclean sword of nuclear war.

Jerry Garcia, performing with the Dead, May 10, 1980, in New Haven, CT.

Why does the Dead still matter? Why will they always matter? Sure, because of the genius music, years of trippy listening pleasure—Jerry Garcia’s beam-me-up-Scottie leads and achingly sad vocals, Phil Lesh’s intricate bass lines weaving in and out of everything including the sound system, Bobby Weir’s strong masculine vocals and truly weird and wonderful second-chair guitar, the growling blues of Pigpen, the musicality and lightness of Keith and Donna Godchaux, and the Apocalypse Now rhythm section, the devils, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, all of whom we’ll be on a first name basis with from now on—but there’s a rebel bad boy social component as well. Their first fans thought they were bikers. The band matters because through it the counterculture lived on—ironic because the musicians were more piratical than political. They never turned a show into an anti-war demonstration. Although they were against all violence, their vision of show biz didn’t involve causes. They just didn’t like to follow rules and were constantly trying to get away with shit. But it didn’t matter. The counterculture burbled urgently from deep fissures in the earth beneath the San Andreas Fault and the Dead were swept away in the movement despite their apathy. They were too close to the crack to avoid the deep rifts in society.

America came out of World War II a militaristic animal, intoxicated by its own might, its ability to push enemies around, to purge the world of evil. But the following generation, the kids coming of age in the 1960s, saw military solutions in a different light. The war in Vietnam had no real purpose; it had sprung up like a malignant weed through the cracks in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, a crossfire disguised as a magic bullet that burned Camelot to the ground. While America was spoon-fed Oswald pabulum, an undigested buzz of coup cabal grew into an electronic feedback wail—Dylan at Newport—and radicalized the American folkie-bohemian.

Bob Weir, performing with the Dead, Dec. 31, 1976.
Anti-Nam protests evolved smoothly from the pre-existing Cold War academic beatnik movement to “Ban the Bomb.” Like the war before it in Korea, Vietnam was a Civil War, a North fighting a South, and there seemed no cause for the U.S. to intervene. What was it all about, anyway? Profit? They said it was about the “Domino Theory”: if North Vietnam—and it’s Red Chinese backers—were allowed to conquer South Vietnam, the other small countries of southeastern Asia would fall as well. To many, the theory seemed weak—who cared who owned the jungle? Eisenhower had warned of the military-industrial complex, which would one day come slouching toward Bethlehem. War without reason was a symptom of the behemoth. The younger generation believed that war existed only to make a few men rich, while sacrificing the lives of American boys who didn’t have the connections to avoid the draft.

American involvement in Vietnam was light until the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, in which it was reported that a North Vietnamese ship fired across the bow of an American ship, an act of aggression used by LBJ, sworn in on Air Force One on a terrible day in Dallas, as an excuse to escalate hostilities to the jangly tune of billions of dollars and more than 50,000 American lives.

Finally, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” said on the six o’clock news that the war was unwinnable. In order to show their dissatisfaction with the world the adults were creating, the youth of America grew their hair long, a fashion that began as Beatles-esque but eventually became anti-military. Youths began to take mind-altering drugs, which they were told by Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey and so many others, would expand their consciousness. Like Jack Kerouac and the beatniks before them, they worshipped the road, all the roads that led to the next Dead show, psychic roads that led to enlightenment.

It was the birth of a movement, initially a fad of psychedelia, from which the Dead were the last survivors.

This has been excerpted from Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson.