A couple of days ago, I took Sara to visit my high school. It was the first time I’d gone back for a long look around in over ten years. Not because I have terrible, crippling memories of the place. On the contrary. I was kind of like a taller, more athletic Max Fischer. But it was the place I dreamed away from. It pushed me out into the world instead of calling me back. And I never seemed to want to go there again until I’d managed to realize those dreams I’d planted there.
Musically, I was one of those types that looked beyond the stuff my peers listened to. That is, pretty much everything every high school kid listens to: the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead. I wanted what was hard to find, what wasn’t easy to see near at hand. I felt that by looking over what was easy, I was helping myself discover something better.
Years later, when I returned to Tennessee when my dad got sick, I began buying vinyl in earnest. And I bought all those albums I’d once shrugged off. I remember sitting in the floor listening to Floyd’s Ummagumma for the first time. All the trippy ten minute freakouts, the swirling pseudo-symphonies with incomprehensible titles. And all I could think was how cool it was. And then it hit me like a lightning bolt: all the music everyone listens to in high school that everyone thinks is so obvious and so played out, is really the best shit. That’s why it’s filtered down to fourteen year olds thirty-five years later. The problem is, you don’t know why it’s good.
Initially, “wake” seems to be one of those mysterious poetic words that William Blake loved, like “bound” or “raise,” a word that connotes not just a double meaning, but its own opposite. We wake from sleep; we attend a wake for one who sleeps for eternity. But the apparent paradox is simply resolved. Both meanings come from the Old German word for “watch,” and the word when used in the sense of a vigil or remembrance refers not to the celebrated dead, but to the celebrants who stay up to keep vigil over the body to make sure it isn’t possessed by malignant spirits. Which may be why the event devolved into such a boisterous affair (at least among Celtic descendents). It is the opposite of a lament. It is a hunble plea for good vibes and peace in the life everlasting. A hopeful, open-eyed assent to the life that’s left for those left to follow.
There is another meaning for “wake” which comes not from Old German, but Old Norse, from the root word “vaka” which meant a hole in the ice. Literally, it’s the trail of disturbed water left by the passage of a ship; figuratively, it’s the consequences of the passing of something.
It seems to me all these meanings apply in some way to the Grateful Dead’s 1973 landmark, Wake of the Flood. I say landmark with pun intended, because after the waters of the title receded, a trail emerged that the band would blaze for the next twenty-five years until Jerry died, and beyond—the band tours again this summer after a long hiatus. After completing a nine-album, twelve disc deal major-label deal with Warner Brothers, the band decided to take its career and its future into its own hands. They established Grateful Dead Records and released Wake..., a studio compendium of songs they had already begun working into their live shows. Others, such as Jerry’s heartfelt classic, “Stella Blue” would quickly earn a vaunted place in the litany. “Eyes of the World,” “Row, Jimmy, Row” and “Weather Report Suite” all debuted here—the album versions the official points of comparison with myriad permutations on bootlegs the world over. This record is, more than any other, more than American Beauty or Workingman’s Blues, more than that Greatest Hits album that everyone bought in high school, the studio album that defines the Grateful Dead not just as a band, but as a living, breathing, cosmic, organic, soul-grooving, life-affirming, iconoclastic, irreplaceable EXPERIENCE.
But what point is there, really, in discussing the intricacies of the album itself? For Deadheads then and now, why would it matter? And for haters, if you’ve gone this long without giving the Dead their due, what could I possibly say that would change your minds? I only offer this: if you’re a fan, but not a fanatic; if your only experience of them is singing along high or drunk to “Friend of the Devil;” if you caught a show or two and never made it out of the parking lot; or if you just haven’t listened in a really long time… Put on Wake of the Flood on a soft, sunny day while you’re cooking eggs, or making a picnic on the lawn, or opening up a bottle of Rose in the yard, and just listen again.
I didn’t get to see the Dead. They were forbidden from playing in Chapel Hill the year before I arrived. The entourage ruffled too many feathers, made too many local businesses nervous, too many potential headaches for the small-town cops to contemplate. I missed something there because of a few narrow-minded civic leaders and it still rankles my chain. But it makes me laugh too. Wake of the Flood. Not the flood itself, but what comes after. Deluge. Catastrophe. And then a slow sinking into the muddy earth, the fertile soil rich and shimmering and growing… Abundance.
The Egyptians based their entire mythology, hierarchy, and religious principles on this concept. The flooding of the Nile, the fertilization of the river bed, the grateful plentitude that followed. When the system failed, drought ensued. The order suffered, regimes fell. Osiris murdered all over again by Set.
Is the album Wake of the Flood, the abundance that remained after the flood of activity of their first eight freaky years? Or is the album itself the "Flood," its message an aggregate entirely new, destroying all earlier conceptions and expectations, and paving the way for blessings to come? The cover art hints at mythical themes: inside a circle bound by a maroon border heavy as a Church hymnal, a mysterious crone gathers wheat. Her face is patient, careworn, and yet also serene. She is neither beautiful nor frightening nor possessed of supernatural qualities. She is eternal, if not immortal, her caul as deep and brown as the sucking March mud. Behind her, the Great Ocean, its borders impossible to perceive. It is the Material Prima, the pre-ternal matter, to which our own words and thoughts give shape. The Woman keeps her back to waters. She stares towards us, but not at us. Instead she looks down at the rich cords of wheat she has gathered that bound outside of the frame, and the remnant of her harp.
Wake of the Flood is an easy listen. But it is as deep as a record can get. It is deep in its joy, its lack of cynicism, its belief in a way of living that asks one merely to hear, to contemplate, to feel, to smile and to return the favor. As Orson Welles said of Falstaff, it is good the way bread is good, the way wine is good. Wake of the Flood is a benediction. It is a hard-won yes with no irony, no unnecessary complications. It's an easy thing to see, but it’s taken me a long time to get here.
GRATEFUL DEAD WAKE OF THE FLOOD, 1973, Grateful Dead Records