The psychedelic jam band world owes a debt to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The bizarre 1939 book appears to many as total gibberish, written in a made up language with words like “riverrun” and “bababadalghatakammronnkonnbrovarrhounskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk”.
But to many in the 1960s counterculture, the book was an inspiration. Terence McKenna referred to Finnegans Wake as the literary equivalent to LSD, and Timothy Leary said Joyce’s writing “prepared me to enter psychedelic space.”
As Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead's primary lyricist, explained to Steve Silberman in a 1992 interview: "Before I was writing songs, I was a stoned James Joyce head, Finnegans Wake head. I can still recite the first page and last couple of pages of that thing. There was something in the way those words socketed together, and the wonderful feel of reciting them, that very, very deeply influenced me."
In 2015 a project called Waywords and Meansigns set Finnegans Wake to music, unabridged. One goal of the project was to make Joyce’s book more accessible to the average listener. To help facilitate this, all audio from the project is distributed freely online. “I grew up listening to Dead shows on archive.org,” explains project director Derek Pyle, “so the idea of giving away music, letting music just circulate online, just made sense.”
Continuing the thread of psychedelic jam bands involve with the text, in 2015 Waywords and Meansigns featured original readings and music from Tim Carbone and Andy Goessling of the band Railroad Earth, as well as up-and-coming face-melter Parker McQueeney. On February 2, 2016 Waywords and Meansigns will release a second edition of the project, which will include original readings and music from psychedelic jammers Mr. Smolin and Double Naught Spy Car creating what Deadhead journalist Jesse Jarnow dubbed “hallucinogenic passageways and unexpected jazz corners”.
Mr. Smolin is best known to Deadheads as the radio host of “The Music Never Stopped” and “Head Room” on KPFK; “The Music Never Stops” won the Jammy Award for “Best Radio Show” in 2000. Double Naught Spy Car are genre-bending face melting surf-jazz group of Los Angeles session players.
For the Waywords and Meansigns project, Mr. Smolin and Double Naught Spy Car set the first chapter of Finnegans Wake to music, unabridged. Miles Mosley, who played bass for Kamasi Washington's 2015 album The Epic, spoke highly of the piece: “Smolin’s knack for space travel seems better suited in this context than any he’s ever explored before. His passion for this text has unleashed outstanding compositions that feel free-form in what they conjure yet detailed in their intention and execution.”
Composer Chris Rael, leader of the Indo-Pop band Church of Betty, also spoke highly of Mr. Smolin and Double Naught Spy Car’s contribution:
Waywords and Meanings is one of the most meaty and brazen musical responses to a piece of literature I know of, in part for its vast scope but more so for the gravity of its subject: Joyce's epically inscrutable Finnegans Wake. It is no accident that Mr. Smolin sets the tone for this collective opus with his spoken-word-and-musical reaction to chapter one of the book. Ever soulful and brimming with intelligence, Smolin is that rare artist with the smarts to tackle and the chops to interpret such a daunting text. He enlists one of LA's most intrepid outfits, Double Naught Spy Car, to supplement his piano soundtrack for his reading of the chapter. The reading is more than an hour long; Smolin and the Car manage to keep it sonically compelling throughout. Smolin tickles the ivories with authority and his reading is absolutely musical. More so than most others, this novel needs to be heard rather than read. It offers a poetry of sound. An unabashed Joycean myself, I lay no claim to comprehending the text. What I know is Mr Smolin makes it feel like music, sometimes jazz, sometimes atonal theatrical backdrop, sometimes moody soundtrack. The music and the narration breathe dynamically with the relentlessly abstract text. This is a remarkable achievement.
Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake [in its whole wholume] will debut February 2, 2016. All audio will be freely distributed via the project’s website, www.waywordsandmeansigns.com