Alexander “Skip” Spence is little-known at best as the guitarist of the late 60’s San Franciscan group Moby Grape; however, he’d previously sat behind the drum kit of the area’s most successful musical act of the era. As a member of Jefferson Airplane’s 1965/66 incarnation, predating even the inclusion of Grace Slick, Spence withdrew shortly after their debut record and rapidly faded into obscurity before becoming sadly swallowed by the madness of untreated schizophrenia.
Fate can be a fickle friend. One minute you’re poised to take flight with one of the most famous bands of all time, but then you flip a quick left turn and find yourself battling demons alone in the dark, or fighting for your life against a mountain lion, or dying in a car accident, or disappearing into a concentration camp, or… While it is impossible to measure the influence of choice and coincidence on the fates, when the nightfall of diamonds does align to manifest good fortune along one’s path, it would be profoundly wise to simply be grateful.
At the age of 68, that’s precisely how Mickey Hart gracefully reflects upon 1967 and his window to join what would become one of the most widely known and beloved bands in the world: The Grateful Dead.
“There were just series of events that fate, chance, good luck… all those things it takes for a moment to happen, happened,” says Mickey Hart, internationally renowned musician, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, three-time Grammy winner, and one of the drummers/percussionists of The Grateful Dead. “Sometimes it’s a decision you make in a split second…You look at it in retrospect and appreciate it, and you realize that there was an element of magic or circumstance that was rare, and you appreciate it very much; but you do not dwell back there, that’s not good… It’s very fortunate to be able to be an artist for your whole life and be successful at it. As a matter of fact, artists are a strange lot, and success comes very hard to few artists.”
So, without dwelling in the past, what is Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead up to in 2012?
“Well, I would call it… it’s really hard to really describe…” he admits with reference to his current musical undertakings. “There’s two elements. First of all, music of the whole earth: rock and roll, dance, trance, loud rock and roll — I mean not necessarily loud… Modern music. And the music of the cosmos… that I’ve been sampling from the radiation of the epic events in the universe. Sonifying the light waves… They’re all singing their own song – all of these spheres and events all have their own vibration and radiation, but they send us light; you can’t have sound in the vacuum of space… Some of it goes back 13.7 billion years ago. From The Big Bang, when God put his foot down and the great groove began.”
I also had to ask: really? Wait, are you really sampling songs from the universe? I mean, actually?
“We gather them using telescopes from around the world,” Hart assures. “Scientists do it for me, then I get it and make it into music. It’s really amazing… I take that sound and use it in the music. A combination of musica universalis (music of the universe) and music of the Earth. Whatever you call that, that’s what I’m doing. I have not come up with a good name yet, but I’m sure it’ll come to me soon… I guess you might say it’s The Sonic History of the Universe. I’ve sonified the sounds of the universe. So that’s what I’m doing, and I’m having fun with it.”
Note to the reader: Musica universalis, meaning universal music or music of the spheres, is an ancient philosophical concept which regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies (the sun, moon, and planets) as a form of music. The music was not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic or mathematical concept. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras is frequently credited to originating the idea. Legend suggests that he could “hear the music of the spheres,” an ability he claims to have received from Thoth – the Egyptian god of the moon, magic, and writing. Musica universalis continued to appeal to thinkers and scholars of music through the end of the Renaissance; and apparently to Mickey Hart at the turn of the 21st century A.D.
Hart has always shown particular interest in expanding musical horizons. As a well traveled musicologist and author, who’s written books on the history and traditions of drumming, who’s known for reissuing recordings with historical and cultural value, he’s pursued a lifelong interest in ethnomusicology and world music to its limits. I suppose at some point along the journey he was bound to flat out leave the planet. So like the ancients, why not look to the night sky?
In an official press release, Hart said, “I have always thought of life, the world at large, as music… This work is a representation of that notion. I have combined sonic images of the formation of our universe with sounds drawn from musical instruments. It’s all about the vibrations that make up the infinite universe… they began as light waves and these light waves are still washing over us. Scientists at Penn State, Lawrence Berkeley Labs, and Meyer Sound have transformed these light waves into sound waves. These musical excursions transport me to wonderful and strange new places filled with rhythms for a new day. The combination of music for the whole earth and the sounds of the planets, the stars, the events that formed our universe is intoxicating and points toward an awareness of what music is, could be, and where it comes from.”
Hold on a second, imagine that! Imagine someone asking you what you do for a living and you say, “Hmm, well, using radio telescopes I gather light waves from the universe and convert them to sound waves for Mickey Hart from The Grateful Dead to make music out of.” Talk about a clincher on a first date!
Both literally and figuratively, this is some pretty spacey stuff; but it must be stressed that these are no mere hippy burnouts with dreamy visions amounting to nothing more than the drippy climax of a psychedelic trip. Not unless you’d accuse NASA of being the same. These are intelligent, educated, and serious artists in collaboration with scientists to utilize scientific data for the composition of music.
Hart himself is on the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center, has acted as spokesperson for the Save Our Sounds audio preservation initiative, is on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, and also serves on the Library of Congress National Recorded Sound Preservation Board, to name a few… They were always serious, in fact. All the way back to 1964, before they were the Dead, before Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh joined the Warlocks, when Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan started a Jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. While you can get silly as hell employing instruments like banjo, harmonica, washtub bass, jug, and mandolin, alongside hoot n’ holler stomps about the jailhouse, cocaine, and the south, you still don’t play them without being serious about music. As the formative outfit gradually developed into The Grateful Dead, by 1967 Mickey Hart had joined in time for the sophomore album “Anthem Of The Sun,” when they’d really begun pushing the cryptic envelope through psychedelic improvisation.
“Those years — ‘67, ‘68, ‘69, ’70 – that was the crucible,” says Hart. “That’s where we tried to create the great work, and it all came from there… that’s when we were falling on ‘the Grateful Dead sound’… It’s raw, experimental in nature… It holds the kernels and seeds that were propagated in latter day Grateful Dead music… When I get together with the old gang, sometimes a situation comes up, an event that happened, and we go, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’ ”
Nearly fifty years later The Mickey Hart Band has cut an innovative record that’s still reaching for the stars, the great work. The Dead were exceptional at surpassing convention while commending the roots of music. “Mysterium Tremendum,” released in April by Hart’s own 360° Productions, is the long player manifestation of a universally musical journey which finds an unsettled foot and drumstick planted firmly in the earth’s crust. Perhaps it’s Hart’s Anthem of the Universe from the vantage point of our planet.
It’s not nearly as “out there” as you might suspect, though – the collected cosmic voices are woven into tapestries of a type of ethno-rock n’ roll. Southern rock-influenced guitar riffs and leads, of the signature jam band variety (think Derek Trucks on a mellow evening) are juxtaposed across rhythmic, nearly meditative trance-scapes, while the body at large pulsates with a colorful array of instruments and percussive doohickeys. It’s as if Hart’s blend of world and rock music acts as a pillow to catch and absorb the songs falling from an infinite sky.
The band’s lineup features Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, Tony Award winning percussionist Sikiru Adepoju, Tony Award winning vocalist Crystal Monee Hall, singer Tim Hockenberry, drummer Ian “Inx” Herman, guitarist Gawain Matthews, and keyboardist/producer Ben Yonas. And wouldn’t you know? A (China) cat (Sunflower) from the old gang: the behind the scenes member of The Grateful Dead who didn’t take stage with the band: lyricist, singer-songwriter, translator, poet: Robert Hunter.
“Hunter is a bold visionary writer who knows where I am going with this music,” said Hart in a press release. “He is indispensable to the weave of this story. The way he writes, the imagery and mythology, are perfect for this project. Nobody writes like Robert Hunter.”
And I’d swear nobody in their late 60s, or otherwise, is touring like Mr. Rolling Thunder Mickey Hart himself. He’s a campaigning warrior of music.
He says, “That’s one good way of getting the music out of you; by focusing, not only your own musical vision, but that of the group… stage two becomes possible, which is really where the great magic lies. This is what it’s all about, this is really the road, this is a musician’s dream — to really be able to fill your days and nights up with music… you dream it… I was thinking the other night how great it is to be back in the music, on a daily basis… When you’re at home, you’re filled with distractions.” With a deliberate appreciation for how family can hardly be depreciated as a “distraction,” he continues, “You can’t really devote your whole circadian rhythm with the music…”
I had to ask… What brings you to our little beach town? What are you doing here? It’s not every day such a prestigious act makes it to the west side of Los Angeles, nor possibly ever that a member of The Grateful Dead has performed within walking distance to our homes.
“I want to go to all those places I haven’t been,” Hart said with a surprised simplicity. “That’s why I’m going to Hermosa Beach, I want to go there. I’ve been to a lot of places, and I want to go there.”
George Harrison once said something along the lines that even if fate is dictated by sheer coincidence, it’s not to say that nothing is orchestrating the coinciding incidents. Fate. For someone who’s been all around this world, through the universe and back, it’s surely a long strange trip that’s spun Mickey Hart our way. He and his band are performing Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach this Sunday evening, May 20 and we’re grateful.
Wagatail Presents: An Evening with The Mickey Hart Band. Music at 7, doors at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30. Hart is donating 100% of ticketing fees from sales on MickeyHart.net to Music Therapy research. A free download of the single “Slow Joe Rain” is also available on the website. The show at Saint Rocke will feature brand new material as well as selections from Hart’s greatest hits and Grateful Dead songs.