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The Grateful Dead, Poetry, and the Atom Bomb

The Grateful Dead, Poetry and the Atom Bomb
D. Leah Steinberg
“The Deadheads are doing the dance of life, and that I believe is the answer to the atom bomb.”[1] – Joseph Campbell

After I had already sent my book Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan, to the book designer I came upon the above quote by Campbell.  It felt so amazingly serendipitous, as if it was written for me that I had to end my book, with the quote.   As with many things Grateful Dead related there always seemed to be a reason for something occurring. This quote bridged two importantly profound events in my life, having a parent and uncle who worked on the Manhattan Project, the secret research and development of the first atomic bomb and my first and continuing association with the music of the Grateful Dead. 

 In 1971 I went to my first Grateful Dead show in Chicago.  I immediately knew the sound and the poetry was going to a part of my path to healing.  Forty-seven years later I live in the San Francisco bay area and still go to recreated “Dead music” by many musicians and music with the surviving members of original Dead; Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh.

From the beginning the lyrics resonated with me from the song Ripple (American Beauty album), “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty.  If your cup is full may it be again.  Let it be known there is a fountain.  That was not made by the hands of men.” [2]  Which conveyed to me, that if one is lacking and in need of healing, the fountain of life, of energy, and spirituality is there for all.  And lyrics from the song Brokedown Palace, on the same album “Listen to the river, sing sweet songs, to rock my soul,”[3] also brings me home, to a river of healing.  I began my book with a quote from the song Cassidy which was to me a plea to heal the world “come wash the nighttime clean, come grow the scorched ground green.”[4]

When I danced at shows over the decades, it seemed that everything was connected.  It was a community where spirituality, poetry, music, a philosophical understanding of how the world could be better, as well as a shared feeling on how everything is one.  At my first Grateful Dead show I had a profound spiritual experience that bridged the music, the community, and the lyrics that were pure poetry.  They merged into a synthesis of a more evolved way of being in the world.

The connection between the band and its audience was always a ritual striving for oneness.  This concept spans to my Jewish upbringing as well, the Shema says “the lord our God, the lord is One.”  It gives no clearer explanation than that.  No differentiation between God and the human race, nor God and nature, there is only the one.  Interestingly, to this day, there is a large community of Jewish Deadheads.

My book’s main focus represents another type of split; that of the impact on individuals who had a parent who worked on the Manhattan Project.  When contemplating the development of the atomic bomb I delved into the concept on a spiritual level of the splitting of the atom.  On an energy level, nuclear fission takes place when an atomic nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei causing the release of energy.  A nuclear chain reaction occurs when those two new atoms fission releasing three new neutrons, causing a large amount of energy.  Uranium-235 was found to be an isotope where this can occur and was used for one of the two bombs.  The atom that was split during the research and development of the first atom bomb, the bomb that was developed to stop Hitler, the bomb that ended WWII and led straight into the cold war, created for the next fifty years a ‘balance of power’.  When working on my book I wrote this haiku:  
  A broken atom
  Hotter than a thousand suns
  Into the cold war

The Soviet Union was the enemy, there always had to be an enemy, the other, a split where there was no common ground, and as long as the United States had 500 nuclear weapons and the USSR had the same amount, the “balance of power” was kept intact.  It kept ‘the peace’ in other words a way to keep ‘the other’ from starting a war that would end in nuclear annihilation.

That split was a spiritual metaphor for what I felt internally, much of my life, was a split, between my mind and heart; my body and mind. my heart and soul.  I believe this reflected a lot of what happened in the world I saw around me.  The military, medical, and business models are run with specialization as its prime goal.  A need to know basis is a concept that demeans workers in their attempts for acknowledgement and understanding of what they are working on.  It brings dissociation to medicine by not acknowledging the whole that is needed for true health.  The military having control of the Manhattan Project caused much dissent and consternation among many of the scientists on the Manhattan Project, where traditionally scientists were used to collaborating among themselves.  

From my book I wrote, “For decades I would ask the same questions from multiple viewpoints:  could any psychologist, scientist, or musician from a dark star ever decipher this web for me?  Is it possible to find my way, our way, into fusion and wholeness?”[5]

There has been attempts in the fields of science, medicine, and psychology to build a bridge to wholeness.  One field is wholistic medicine; Psychoneuroimmunology that merges psychology, neurology, and immunology and how they all affect each other.  There was a time when bringing Zen into many areas was very popular; The Tao of Physics, bridging eastern philosophies and science, in popular culture The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even sports, The Zen of Tennis, and The Zen of Tennis.

But I would say that the symbolic concept of one atom with its core as a whole is a spiritual concept worth contemplating.  If that can be imagined and meditated on, the bringing the atom back together – fusion power is two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, and at the same time, they release energy.  A power that my father worked on at Fermi Lab in the 1980s.

In my book I talk about the times we would go to see my father play clarinet in the lab band when they performed musicals.  We went to the summer lab picnics with all of our extended family (my mother, siblings, aunt, uncle, and cousins).  I wrote, “these were times throughout my childhood when my dad’s work and home life merged for me, when I felt the energy from the Lab not as the frigidity of the Cold War or the furnace of an atomic blast, but as the warmth of a family.”[6]

From the album Mars Hotel comes one of my favorite lyrics “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”[7]  There have been many strange places, from Grateful Dead shows to searching for the truth about mine and my family’s place in relationship to the atomic age where I have been shown the light.

[1] Joseph Campbell
[2] Ripple, Lyrics by Robert Hunter, Music by Jerry Garcia
[3] Brokedown Palace, Lyrics by Robert Hunter, Music by Jerry Garcia
[4] Cassidy, Lyrics by John Perry Barlow, Music by Robert Weir

[5] Steinberg, D.L., Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb, 2016, P.11
[6] Steinberg, D.L., Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb, 2016, P.43
[7] Scarlet Begonia, Lyrics by Robert Hunter, Music by Jerry Garcia.