he one thing that every human being since the beginning of time has in common is that we are all born to die a certain death. The greatest poets throughout history have tackled that somber reality.
Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Thou known’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.”
And while Rumi, Yeats, Chaucer, Whitman and Dickinson have all confronted mortality, so have Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Robert Hunter. I would even argue these lyricists get closer to the truth than the poets because they are armed with the gift of melody and harmony. Listen to the Talking Heads song “Heaven” and you will know what I am talking about.
Dylan told Ed Bradley in a “60 Minutes” story that in his prime, when he wrote some of the greatest popular songs ever, that the songs were coming through him, that he wasn’t writing the songs as much as he was channeling them.
The single greatest example of a songwriter channeling divine inspiration occurred in 1970, when Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace” and “To Lay Me Down” on the same day.
Hunter told Rolling Stone magazine in a 2015 interview, “Everybody went away and left me alone for the afternoon with a bottle of retsina and a beautiful London day. I’d never been in London before so it was all new to me. They had this beautiful parchment paper in the room — a stick of it that just called out for things to be written on it. And that stuff just poured out.”
He wrote in the annotated “Grateful Dead Lyrics,” “It remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing Apo catastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper.”
All three songs from that day in London confront death and are backed by Jerry Garcia’s gorgeous melodies and sublime harmonies. Quotes from these songs adorn thousands of tombstones of former Deadheads, particularly the lines from “Brokedown Palace,” “Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell, listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul.”
That divine trio has such a universal appeal that 48 years later, there’s a 17-year-old girl in my apartment named Cameron (the daughter of one of my dearest friends) who chose them to memorialize her brother who died last week at the age of 22. The musical memorial happened yesterday on KOTO from 3-5 p.m. during my radio show that bears the same name as this column.
Cameron is living with me because she needed a change of pace. In the song “Althea,” Hunter wrote, “This space is getting hot.” Her spaces had gotten too hot, and her mother and I agreed that Telluride would be a great place to spend her senior year. Cameron is as big (and knowledgeable) a fan of music as any teenager I’ve ever met. Her obsession is The Grateful Dead, which makes for a happy home, and several requests from the neighbors to turn it down when Donna Godchaux chimes in with her primal screaming coming out of the last jam during “Playing in the Band.”
“My brother and I came into the world with an appreciation for music,” Cameron told me when I asked her what music means to her and her brother Coleman. “Jamming to the Dead and going to see live music was a crucial part of our childhoods. Coleman’s first Jazz Fest was when he was a 1-year-old. He played with his Tonka Trucks in the sand, and our parents and their friends danced around him while The Meters played.
“Throughout Coleman’s life, music was one of his greatest loves. The best times of his life were seeing live music. Music helped him through the worst times, too. Music was comforting and brought him peace when he needed it most. He wrote his college essay on how music festivals could heal the world. He then went on to study live event management, so he could fulfill the ideals laid out in his college essay. He could listen to a song only once and know the lyrics. He loved to sing and had an incredible voice. In all my memories of Coleman, there is always a song playing in the background.”
Here are some of the lyrics from Cameron’s favorite songs she played on her radio show.
“There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone”
“It’s a far-gone lullaby, sung many years ago.
Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.
Goin’ home, goin’ home, by the riverside I will rest my bones,
Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul.
Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell,
Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul.”
“TO LAY ME DOWN”
“To tell sweet lies, one last time and say good night
To lay me down, to lay me down, to lay me down, one last time.”
“JUST BREATHE” (Pearl Jam)
“Nothing you would take, everything you gave.”
“COLLIE MAN” (Slightly Stoopid)
“And the road to life,
Yes it goes up and down,
Doesn’t really matter,
As long as the music goes on.
I never needed any
Reason for me to say,
Through all them troubled times,
Yes me love you any way,
And the roughest path,
You know the rocky, rocky road,
You know that,
Life and love is a, heavy, heavy load”
“You say love is a temple, love is a higher law
Love is a temple, love is a higher law
You ask me of me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t keep holding on to what you got, ‘cause all you got is hurt
You got to do what you should
With each other
Sisters and my brothers
But we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other”
“OLD MAN” (Neil Young)
“I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last.
Rolling home to you.
Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
and you can tell that’s true.”
“WAKE UP TIME” (Tom Petty)
“You never dreamed you’d go down on one knee, but now
Who could have seen, you’d be so hard to please somehow
You feel like a poor boy, a long way from home
You’re just a poor boy, a long way from home
And it’s wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine”
Rise and shine people. Rise and shine.”
You can listen to Cameron’s tribute to her brother Coleman for the next two weeks by going to radiofreeamerica.com, type in KOTO Radio, click on view full archive, click on Oct. 31 and then click on 3 p.m. One Step Ahead of the Blues. The link will be up until Nov. 14.