Everyone, even the relatives rolling their eyes and whispering in the corner, loves the crazy uncle. The crazy uncle makes everyone feel better. The crazy uncle brings life to otherwise somnolent affairs. The crazy uncle speaks truth in uncomfortable, necessary ways. The crazy uncle is the life of the party. The crazy uncle has arguments with himself in the backroom that no one can quite make out, but everyone understands. The crazy uncle is a genius. The crazy uncle is terrifying. The crazy uncle lives alone even when he is sleeping in your guest room for too long. The crazy uncle has strange scribblings in his pocket that would illuminate us if only we could read their script. The crazy uncle has instruments stacked up in the corner of every room that no one knows he plays. The crazy uncle argues with birds and has no patience for children though they love him above all others. The crazy uncle is a painter, a sculptor, a prophet, a laughing angel in the sunlight. No one knows what it is like to be the crazy uncle. He does not wish he were any less crazy, but sometimes the crazy uncle wishes more people spoke his language so he could just be still.
When I was hallucinating the Grateful Dead, I often hallucinated their symbols. By hallucinating the Grateful Dead, I mean that flickering videotape that runs through the trippers brain at the end of the night, lying in bed, trying to get some sleep. When you first climb into bed at the end of a trip the videotape is still moving too fast. You close your eyes and, unlike most nights when the mind is moving too fast to allow sleep, you don’t recall lackluster events from a basic daily routine. You don’t relive silly conversations or quiet, awkward personal exchanges. You’re not horny. You’re not sad. If you allow yourself to ease into it and enjoy the show, it’s like being the only person in a cranial planetarium with a mad 16th century jester running the projector
The Grateful Dead were never masters of the stage show. You didn’t come away from a Dead show having seen a multi-media extravaganza that had been drilled into your brain. They didn’t need those crutches.
But the Dead always came complete with their own potent symbols. In the early days, the only symbols were the band members themselves. The blaze of hair and wild clothes – the sheer unattractiveness of the players except for that pretty girl-boy playing rhythm guitar with his eyes rolled back in his head. And the face you most likely went to sleep hallucinating was Pigpen’s: the incongruous greasy biker channeling Dead delta blues singers with an attitude tougher than all New York City.
In 1969, Owsley Stanley (a.k.a. Bear, a.k.a. Alice D. Millionaire) – then working as the Dead’s sound-wizard - saw the need for a logo that the band could put on their equipment to keep it from getting lost and ripped off at festivals. He tells the story of the band’s most recognizable logo on his website www.thebear.org.
The Steal Your Face logo was as distinctive and fascinating as the band itself. Creepy enough to back off casual rubberneckers and potent enough to draw together the true believers.
How many Deadheads have lain in bed at night hallucinating that symbol? The Steal Your Face flickering on a loop with all manner of different expressions chattering across that single row of top teeth?
How many Deadheads have lain in sleeping bags with Bob Thomas’s dancing bears skittering around the grassy field of their long-gone minds?
How many Deadheads have watched the Ice Cream Kid stepping across the jagged chasm of their own right and left hemispheres? Felt that ice cream cone get squashed flat into the slithering mass of their own fleshy noodles?
How many Deadheads have watched the Skullfuck skeleton with roses for hair extending a hand from out of their psyche beckoning them to dance a minuet?
Begged the Blues for Allah violinist to play a less haunting tune?
Watched tie-dye mandelas spiral together, contracting and expanding like radioactive rainbow solar systems with pulses and heartbeats?
The crazy uncle knows how to take the pulse of the universe with only a pinkie finger extended in the wind. If you ask the crazy uncle why he is doing this, he will look at you with pity and wonder. The crazy uncle won’t tell you what he knows. He will crack an egg over your head to show you. The crazy uncle was born in a city that no one knows existed. The crazy uncle tells stories about hobos and gamblers, mystic riverboat captains and cross-dressing pirates, the crazy uncle tells you about these people so you believe that they exist. Then he laughs and walks away to get another cup of coffee. The crazy uncle has sketchbooks filled with faces he keeps hidden under the kitchen sink. They are smeared because the pipes leak and the crazy uncle likes them that way. The crazy uncle starts dancing in the middle of dinner when there is no music and no wine. The crazy uncle has perfect rhythm. When you look in the mirror sometimes you see the crazy uncle standing behind you with a grin. When you look in the mirror, sometimes, you see the crazy uncle.
When I hallucinated the Grateful Dead sometimes I hallucinated Garcia. I could see his beard and tinted glasses. There are so many images of Garcia that you can conjure. Garcia with a puffy afro haloing his face. Garcia with pigtails in 1968. Garcia with a happy, stoned grin. Young Garcia with mutton chops. Old Garcia fat and tired. Young Garcia without a beard on the edge of the 1970s.
The Garcia I hallucinated most had nothing to do with the smiling beatific Jerry that the media often portrayed. I never saw Jerry as that goofy icon. My Garcia was the serious Garcia. He never smiled. If anything, his mouth was fixed in a slight frown. Not angry, but too far gone somewhere else to bother smiling for the camera. My Garcia was a preoccupied philosopher who simultaneously looked into the past and the future through waves of music. He translated the universe for us – not a goofy job. Garcia had the most serious of roles: to bring light and wisdom without trampling the vibe of the moment. To create the vibe through which we could travel time with him. The vibe was the music. The man was secondary. So my Garcia was not a proud, silly man. My Garcia was not some earthbound angel or martyred old hippie. My Garcia was deadly serious and working in a role that very few have the power to pull off. He was here to make us dance. To help us dream. He was here to tap into the music that was in the ether before he ever got here and will be in the ether long after we’re all gone. The music didn’t need Garcia, and probably tried to keep him out more often than not. But Garcia persisted. Because Garcia needed the music. And he knew that we need the music too.
So the Garcia I hallucinated was a serious Garcia. So many times I lay in the top bunk of Shasta’s VW bus with skeletons and steal your faces and dancing bears and spinning dancers and multicolor mandellas folding in on themselves and exploding into kaleidoscopes…. I couldn’t come down. I had been tripping for many hours, but the trip wasn’t quite over yet. I wasn’t going to be let off that easy.
And then out of the cosmic swirl there came Garcia. Garcia with a deep black beard and deep black head of hair and deep black round glasses that melded together like a black fog obscuring all but the most memorable features: the set of the mouth. The mouth was not smiling on my Garcia. The mouth was a solid line in the black fog. The mouth and the fog were Garcia with a job to do. The symbols, the giddy energy of the iconography, the hassles and shakedowns and laughter and dances were all secondary to the space created between the music and the listener. This is where Garcia came in – the transmitter of the music that was all around us. The one who could play it pure because he believed. The one in whom we could all believe. The one. The solemn Garcia. The searching Garcia. The Garcia who gave it all for us to hear the music.
The crazy uncle was always there. He was there before you were born and the crazy uncle will pitch the first shovel of dirt onto your grave. The crazy uncle will greet you in the afterworld. The crazy uncle holds the keys to the kingdom. The crazy uncle is not allowed into the castle. He plays for the kings and queens who never notice he exists. The crazy uncle cooks meat given to him by grim hunters over an open fire. The crazy uncle wears burlap shoes and capes of purple velvet. The crazy uncle has black wine stains on his chin and dirt beneath his toenails. The crazy uncle spent years underground. The crazy uncle materializes in China and Egypt and Indiana and New Jersey. The crazy uncle has no home but is never homeless. The crazy uncle is your best friend and the cipher that will stalk you forever. The crazy uncle is a blessing. Trust him.
So I ask you my friend: Do you know the crazy uncle?
Are you the crazy uncle?
Can you see him now?
But hush: Be at peace, brothers and sisters. Close your eyes and try to get some sleep.
The crazy uncle will be watching over you.