Tool(s) of the Man

Mickey Hart is still pursuing that perfect beat -- in words, sound, and even government service

The two are rarely thought of together, but Sammy Hagar actually played a significant role in bringing Mickey Hart's latest book and CD Spirit Into Sound into existence. Hart — Grateful Dead drummer, solo artist, and rhythm scholar — had been collecting random quotes about music for more than two decades, compiling assertions about its origin, power, and cosmic implications from sources as varied as Miles Davis, Son House, and (no kidding) the Ayatollah Khomeini. Hart faxed a sample of the quotes to Hagar, whom Hart describes as a “reader and a spiritual player.” Hagar was intrigued, and Hart decided that “if Sammy liked it, everyone will.”

Hart is something of a spiritual player himself, and during the downtime of his 30 years with the Grateful Dead, he released a number of solo albums — some of them with his Planet Drum ensemble. He also wrote two previous books, Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey Into the Spirit of Percussion and Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm. In explaining the concept of his latest book, Hart speaks with the authority of someone who has spent a lifetime investigating and celebrating sound and how it relates to human consciousness. “How do you turn a spirit into a form? That's what it's really all about,” he says. “Spirit is invisible. You can feel it, but can't touch it. It's a mysterious energy. In the case of the sound shapers, the musicians, it's sound. That's the commodity that we're dealing with. Hence, spirit into sound — how do we turn our feelings into something that's tangible, that we can share with another person?

“It's also about the magic of music because it is magic. We can't explain this alchemical thing, this energy we call music. It does something to our hearts and our brains, and it makes us feel a certain way. How that works exactly, well, science is beginning to weigh in on that — the physiology of it, how sound affects the physical being.”

Hart's book is meant to show that there are any number of explanations for such questions, each of them worth further contemplation. “In the book, you see everybody from Plato to Confucius to the Ayatollah Khomeini weighing in on the power of music, whether positive or negative. Here is the testimony of all the great thinkers, and maybe some not-so-great thinkers, but they all saw that shaft of light for a few seconds. A good quote is hard to find, you know? I've been through thousands of 'em, and these are the cream of the crop, the tastiest fruit from the top of the tree. You won't find any lame biblical quotes here. I mean, I don't want to offend any Christians out there, but music and the Bible were never a big thing.”

For the Spirit Into Sound album, Hart attempted to create a sort of soundtrack for the book, just as Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum also had accompanying CDs. “Any book about music without music is mute,” Hart says. “[The album] is what I was thinking musically while I was compiling the quotes. It has a spiritual side to it, a Zen kind of soft side — a low vibe, if you will.”

That softer side of Hart's work comes as something of a surprise. After all, his teeth-rattling duets with fellow Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann were often highlights of the Dead's marathon concerts, and his solo albums have emphasized the power of rhythm more than its subtleties. Spirit Into Sound is a definite departure from all that. “It's just what's been going through my consciousness lately,” Hart says. “I've been toying with scales from around the world, and a lot of these sounds have been put into my computer. I'm accessing them and creating scales from different parts of the world with these unique instruments that normally only have one or two notes to them. Using my computer, I can put these into incredibly ornate scales. That's what I'm toying with right now. I've been doing a lot of research into the world's music over the last few years, and this is sort of a walk in the park for me.

“Also, I was thinking nature thoughts when I composed this music. A lot of my thoughts were involved with nature spirits, so it was calm and soft and loving. A come-hither sort of thing. Instead of beating you over the head with a big backbeat, I thought I'd seduce you a bit here. Because that's what it did to me, with the panpipes, the flutes, and all the softer sounds from Indonesia and Brazil, and all these exotic instruments. Now, for the first time, I was able to manipulate them into these unusual and soft zones. You don't have to play a drum hard to get a beautiful sound out of it. Normally, we play the drums too hard. I just wanted to explore the soft side for one CD.”

Hart has the power to access the thousands of instruments and drum sounds he has collected over the years thanks to RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe), a custom-built rig that looks something like a xylophone on steroids. “RAMU is my sound 'droid, my robot,” Hart says. “I hit pressure-sensitive pads on it, and it triggers my computer. I can be an elephant. I can be crushed glass. I can be a gamelan. I can be a panpipe. I can be anything. It offers me utter freedom. It's a MIDI'd instrument, so I can combine any sound with any other sound and make instruments that are unsung and unborn. It's the most exciting creature in my life, aside from my wife and kids.”

For years, Hart has been a tireless advocate of world music. His Planet Drum album, in fact, won the very first world-music Grammy. Although it's OK to like the exotic sounds from distant locales these days, it wasn't always so. “Now world music is popular,” Hart says. “Back then, it wasn't. I mean, I couldn't give the stuff away. When someone in my family got married, had a baby, or some special occasion, I would give them music I recorded in Egypt or something, and many times they would leave the cassette on the table. They thought it was junk or third-rate music. I've been doing this since the '60s and '70s. The face of world music and its value has changed dramatically over the years.”

So, too, has the value of Grateful Dead music, which is perhaps more popular now than ever, even though the group disbanded after the death of Jerry Garcia. Hart participated in the brief reunion tour, on which the Dead survivors dubbed themselves the Other Ones. Although he says he enjoyed that, more as a “casual encounter” than anything else, Hart remains more enthusiastic about the continued outpouring of the Dead's archival material. Volume 17 of the Dick's Picks series was just released, and last year saw the arrival of So Many Roads, a five-disc set of previously unissued performances.

“I love it, and the Deadheads love it,” Hart says. “Not everybody was able to be at every concert except us, and we don't remember any of it! We just know we did it. I love to hear what we did, and so do they. And here they can hear the best possible versions of it. We're about to digitize our whole collection and start releasing it. I want to do it in my lifetime. It's almost 2,000 shows that were recorded.”

Hart is at work digitizing more than the Grateful Dead catalog these days. He's on the board of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. It may be a sign of how times have changed that a leading light of the '60s counterculture is now a government appointee, but Hart takes his work very seriously. “The center has the largest repository of indigenous music from around the world in one place. Not just information, but the musical component of the library is huge — millions of hours of music. A lot of it is in danger. Some of it is rare and is lost to the new generation of indigenous people, and some of it is just decomposing because of mold or what have you. These are great treasures, just masterpieces of sound. My job is to digitize them and to make them accessible via the Internet, so that's what I'm doing.”

For Hart, though, his passion still boils down to the beauty of rhythm, whether it's the sound of his own heart beating — which he concentrates on to center himself before playing — or the sound of a single solitary drum. He even has a favorite instrument — an Egyptian hand drum called a tar. “I carry it with me everywhere,” he says. “I take it on the road, because it's real quiet. I can play it in hotel rooms and airports and it doesn't bother anybody. It's very delicate, the soft side of percussion. I don't like to beat the drum so much; I like to caress them and make love to them. It makes me feel so much better.”

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