It's been an emotional day with Robert's passing. Seeing friends and loved ones share favorite and pertinent lyrics has been a blossoming experience. Robert's words have no divine merit but they nonetheless serve important functions in the hearts of Deadheads. I figured I would write a letter as a tribute since I am ironically speechless.. I'm sure there are others who have had similar experiences. Here's my letter to a hero who provided a foundation of light in a dark world.
Thank you for weaving a blanket of human connection throughout the world by no other means than your own words.
Why? Well, firstly I love to groove to your lyrics in tunes. But secondly.. Well, it’s a longer story...
A handful of years ago I was taken to a psychiatric ward to be treated for what doctors perceived as suicidal ideation. I was pink-slipped, in other words, the state deemed me unfit to look out for my own safety. The states’ solution was a mandatory three days in a psychiatric hospital. I was going through a hard time in life, like many young folks often do at the impressionable age of 19. Health issues had taken a toll on my wellbeing and I was afraid the issues were going to suffocate my schoolwork. I visited a hospital with the hope I could be directed towards a psychologist or therapist suited for me. I slipped up on a sentence and said something along the lines of “I just don’t know where to go”. With that I gave the suggestion to the doctors that I was suicidal. I was shook when they said I was a threat to myself. Sure, I was depressed.. But this was a big misunderstanding. strapped to a stretcher and sent to what I was told was a “normal hospital”. Well, they didn’t tell me “this is the type of normal hospital you read about in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
Regardless, I was defeated and torn. I was in the midst of severe depression and the only thing I wanted was to be with my family. The psychiatric ward didn’t allow phone calls so that was out of the picture. All of my attempts to make friends were met with cold stares. Fellow patients included folks who admitted to domestic violence, attempted murder, and every other act that painted a boogyman picture of each individual.
I kept a constant dialogue with myself. “Why are you here?”, “You were in class two days ago. What the hell happened to you?”. I was scared. I was alone. Hell, my bunk partner was a young man with schizophrenia who abruptly woke me up one night to tell me the voices in his head wanted to kill me.. Well, Robert, to say the least, it was a pretty shitty time. I had no one to turn to.
Until I got a compliment on my Grateful Dead shirt.
An older bearded man, late 50’s early 60’s with a grizzled look to his face, took notice of my Steal Your Face shirt. He said, “Oh, man I love the Dead. I used to tour back in the 80’s. Oh man, one time I was at a show and it started pouring rain outside. Jerry and the guys immediately went into Cold Rain and Snow..”. The man said his name was Eric and he was glad to have another Deadhead to talk to. Eric told me he was a lifelong artist who made a living from selling jewelry on Dead tour. But we weren’t on Dead tour now. He too, was very alone and scared.
The man and I spent the rest of the time we could that day talking about favorite shows, who was the best keyboardist, our favorite tunes.. Basic and fun Deadhead talk, right? Well, when we talked about our favorite lyrics I got a little teary-eyed.
Eric mentioned the obligatory “Once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right”. I laughed and said something like, “Boy, I hope so..”.
Eric and I were immediately in a setting of comfort. We opened up about our deepest fears and our dreams for the future. I spoke about my depression openly. Eric shared how hard his life has been as a lifelong schizophrenic. The days got lighter and Eric and I talked every chance we could get. Robert, your lyrics gave us a chance to share our humanity.
Well, as all things go in life.. things went on and things got brighter. I went back to school, scored a job again. I found myself rebounding back into life again. I began taking daily walks in the woods. My dark experience gave me the opportunity to reconcile with how blessed of a life I had.
It was.. Almost like.. “Once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right”. I became impassioned by the things I had neglected in my depression. Friends, family, nature. It all worked out in funny synchronicity..
Synchronicity, coincidence, ineffable cosmic jokes, curiosity.. These are all themes explored in your songs, Robert. Whether you had any of these themes in mind is beyond me but you’ve given countless individuals a conduit to share eternal themes of the human experience.
We live in a culture that gives preference to rugged individualism rather than collective egalitarianism. A ramification of a culture like this is a cold distant world that recognizes any form of empathy as a weakness. But your songs, like other great poets, has put humanity into the lens of those willing to listen. You did it with such flawless expertise you could introduce us to characters of American folklore, speak about concepts like the Buddhist “Bodhi”, and educate about clear concepts while remaining mysterious.
I sure as hell don’t know what the meaning of Terrapin Station is. I sure don’t know what a Dark Star crashing really means... But I have my interpretation. And that’s what matters. You gave individuals the chance to find the meaning between the words. Your lyrics didn’t paint pictures like most popular songwriters. Your songs created doorways for individuals to express themselves and find their own personal Truths. In a world so eager to find rigid conformity you asked folks, “Well, what do YOU think”?.
Paired with Jerry and friends you’ve weaved a network of loving individuals eager to share vulnerability in a grim world.
At the very heart of this dream, we dreamed one afternoon long ago are YOUR words, Robert.
Thank you so much. With love,
“If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?”