Peter Shelton

Dark Star

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on September 16, 2014

Lying on the living room floor the other night, listening to “Dead Air,” the all-Grateful Dead show on Eugene public radio, I was swept away by a live version of the 1977 release “Looks Like Rain.” It was simply the most beautiful Dead song I had ever heard, lovely and sad and hopeful all at the same time.

And mysterious. What did lyricist John Perry Barlow mean by “I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name”? And with her side of the bed empty, how can Bob Weir sing “But it’s alright ‘cause I love you, and that’s not going to change”?

The summer of 1970, the summer following the breakup of my first love, I worked collecting money at a City of Newport Beach parking lot. The fellow I teamed with, another college junior, killed himself at the end of August. His family found him lying in bed with a plastic bag over his head and the Dead’s “Dark Star” from 1969 repeating over and over on the record player.

This fellow, whose name I have buried in memory somewhere, played guitar on our breaks. We’d walk out on the sand, maybe sneak a hit off a joint, watch the waves and talk. He was tall and smart and a good listener, too. I liked him a lot.

I went to his funeral and stood in the back. A minister in robes intoned, “I didn’t know Steve . . .” (I’ll call him Steve.) I was incensed. I almost shouted: “No? Then why are you speaking? What is this charade? Steve didn’t believe in this shit!”

I didn’t, of course, because I was raised to be polite. And, I had to admit after my rage subsided, that I didn’t really know Steve either, apparently. He’d never given me any reason to think he was considering killing himself. So I went to the record store and bought Live/Dead, the album with “Dark Star” on it. It’s 23 minutes and 18 seconds long. Takes up all of side two. A couple of the other song titles on the double album caught my eye: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight.”

“Dark Star” was brooding, ethereal, strung out on Jerry Garcia’s meandering guitar improvisations. But I didn’t hear death there. The cover art featured a bare-breasted woman with a scepter rising out of a coffin. But all Grateful Dead iconography played on that theme: life, death, dancing skeletons, the very-alive sensuality of the music.

I didn’t hear any clues in the Robert Hunter lyrics either, although they were dark. “Reason tatters / the forces tear loose / from the axis.” Maybe I should have been suspicious of the chorus: “Shall we go, / you and I / While we can? / Through / the transitive nightfall / of diamonds.”

I might have recognized T.S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) in that line. I didn’t at the time, though if I had, I’m not sure I would have learned anything about my friend’s decision to off himself.

Maybe it wasn’t premeditated. Maybe he was experimenting, searching the psychedelic. Robert Hunter told an interviewer years later that he had no idea what the “transitive nightfall of diamonds” meant. “It sounded good at the time. It brings up something you can see.”

Then again, maybe Steve was deeply unhappy and hiding it. I knew him only a few weeks.

In my living room the other night, I thought of a line from Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir, The Boy Detective. He was making the point to a class he was teaching that life is not orderly, as literature (or a song) strives to be. “No one,” he wrote, “has clarity, shape, and a theme.”

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