In its “Best places to celebrate the solstice,” Salon.com urges us to “embrace your inner pagan” — at places like Glastonbury Festival (natch), the Hill of Tara in Ireland, Cusco in Peru, and the desert site of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels in Utah (pictured above).
For any jam band lovers out there (for some reason, the term has always made me think of “ham”; I guess it’s the French jambon that comes to mind), here’s a set of clips that remind us that the genre peaked about forty years ago. (H/t to Gary Sauer-Thompson at Conversations.) It’s actually from 38 years ago, but I think the version of “Dark Star” that’s on “Live Dead” is much better — less flat and more dynamic, graced by a more central Jerry Garcia and much more mellifluous keyboard than the clunky one here. But I guess it was just that kind of August day this time around. For those who think it all sounds like a far-too-endless stew of mushy and blandly flavored noodling — and whose suspicions are confirmed in the listless version of “El Paso” this turns into part-way through the fourth clip — there is a moment in the Live Dead version that demonstrates it really doesn’t have to be that way at all. (This 1969 version comes closer to the Live Dead version, though I can only see Part 1 online, so it’s missing the moment in question. But taken as a long moment, it’s all still a pretty good one…)
Tom Verlaine used to lament that Television’s “Marquee Moon” was often compared to the Grateful Dead. This 2005 concert version displays both the reasons why it was (especially if you like the Dead) and why it shouldn’t have been (if you don’t) — though at around the 3-minute mark of this second part they show that they still can’t duplicate what happened in that studio in 1977. (Compare, for instance, with the 9-minute mark of the original.) But they do their best to recover.
All of which brings me to relationalism, ecology, earth jazz, and the summer solstice. (Warning: this gets long and complicated, and if you’re not interested in the objects-relations debate, you might just want to skip through most of it. Just don’t miss the Miles Davis clip at the bottom.)
If there’s a musical demonstration of relationalism, and by extension (as Skholiast points out) of ecology, it’s the kind of improvised music that the Dead are supposed to have excelled at (and occasionally did). The universe gives rise to many wondrous entities in its long history of spontaneity, relational responsiveness, habit-formation, and form-building. The habits start as rhythms, melodic chirps that turn into territorial refrains and calls, and that gradually maneuvre their way into verse patterns, melodies, harmonies, polyrhythms. Distinct songs develop for particular purposes and gradually get freed from those purposes, taken up into improvisational routines and performances, some of which crystallize into larger-scale architectonics, but only ever temporarily.
Two revolutions are being marked this weekend. One of them is natural, cyclical, the revolution of the earth around the sun with the sun reaching its most northerly point (in closeness to the surface of the tilted planet we live on), standing still for a brief moment, and turning back to the south. The second is political: a periodic, and perhaps naturally recurring (since humans are natural), swelling of collective energy that’s gotten particularly concentrated this week at the nodal point of the “city of 72 nations,” Tehran (35 N latitude, 51 E longitude).
Phenomenologically speaking (in terms of how earth-bound humans experience it), it’s not the earth that goes around the sun; it’s the sun that comes closer and then recedes. The solstices mark the two end points, and northerly peoples traditionally — and as universally as anything religio-cultural — have found this to be the high point of the living year, the height of life’s potency in the dynamic interplay of birthing and deathing, Yanging (in the Chinese system) and Yining, expansion and contraction. (For southerly peoples it’s the opposite, a time of withdrawal, inwardness, contemplation, a time for telling stories about how to get through the winter, carrying the flame through the darkest nights. But winters aren’t as severe in the habitable south, on average, since there’s so much less of it than there is habitable north, and the southern tip of South America is only as far from the equator as the “Athens of the north,” Edinburgh.)
That height of expansion is something one can feel in a fairly obvious way in the wet and dark green hills of Vermont where I’ve spent the weekend. But with many people’s lives no longer dependent on a natural calendar these days — and with generations of separation, in many cases, from a time when that dependence was clearly marked in collective rituals — celebrating the solstice becomes an artificial activity, a personal option that realigns one’s identity with a turn ‘back’ (back in time, back to ‘nature’, back to reason, in a sense) but also marks one as part of a distinct minority, encompassable under the umbrella term ‘pagan.’