Grateful and Very Much Alive, Former Dead Drummer Brings Godly Vibes to Israel

Mickey Hart, who headlines the Sacred Music Festival in Jerusalem, says music is a spiritual, religious experience: 'Whenever I play, it's church.’

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Mickey Hart, the former Grateful Dead drummer, has been traveling around the world since the group split up 18 years ago this month following the death of Jerry Garcia, the legendary’s band lead guitarist and signer.

But Hart had never been to Israel, and, he says in an interview, he was just waiting for an invitation. It came in the form of a request to play at the Sacred Music Festival, which he headlines tonight with a concert on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University Amphitheater.

When people think Dead, they think classic rock with touches of jazz, bluegrass, country, folk and funk – as well as some sensations that are hard to stuff into any one musical genre. But sacred?

“Whenever I play, it's church,” Hart told Haaretz. “My spirituality is music and that's what makes me whole. You could say that music is my religion. My god is vibration.”

Hart, 69, was the only Jewish member of the Grateful Dead. But his religious practice, he says, consists of connecting to his music. Tonight he’ll be wearing an unusual sort of skullcap – one that measures his brain activity, and then displays it in a kind of light show for the audience.

“I do consider my music sacred because I commit to the music in that way,” he says. “I give it everything I have and I take it very seriously and I get spiritual upliftment from it, and power, personal power. That to me is part of the sacred dimension.”

For him, the essence of being on stage is not to perform, but to have a dialogue with other musicians.

“The other musicians in the band and I are having conversations on stage,” he explains. “We are exploring the mysterious realms of music: Time, rhythm, all of the elements that make up life. Vibration. Vibration is the essential ingredient to life and music is made up of vibrations. So in that way the music is sacred.”

Hart says he isn’t coming to Jerusalem with a message that transcends his music. “Music is a universal. So that's common ground in some ways. Of course music is culturally specific, but it's vibratory in nature, so there's a commonality to it all. You can find peace in music, excitement in music, you can find love in music. It's a language that conveys deep emotions, and that's why music is human specific and human defining.”

Jonathon Lipsin, who flew in from Sebastopol, California for the concert, has been connected to the Dead for decades. As a teenager he was Garcia’s gardener. He went on to found Incredible Records, a unique shop in Sebastopol, the home of many well-known recording artists, including Hart – and in his day, Garcia as well.

“Mickey’s coming here in the face of a boycott led by other people like Roger Waters and Elvis Costello,” says Lipsin. “In Sebastopol, there’s a lot of anti-Israel sentiment and ignorance about the situation here. I applaud him for coming here, because he’ll probably get it back in town. He made a political statement for coming here.”

Hart has moved on from the Dead, but some of the fans keep moving with him, and other, new ones are coming along for the ride.

“He takes his music to another level,” Lipsin says. “What he does now is worldbeat and it’s phenomenal. I listen to it and just trip out. He borrows from his Grateful Dead days, but then brings it to another level. He takes people where they haven’t gone before.” 

The Grateful Dead. L-R, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Brent Mydland, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir.Credit: AP