Sean Kay Memorial

Feb 11, 2021

This is a guest post from Randall Schweller, Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University and author of Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple. This is the fourth post in our remembrance series on Sean Kay.

Sean and I shared two passions: international relations and the Grateful Dead. From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, I was the “Jerry Garcia” in a Grateful Dead cover band called Timberwolf that played in the tri-state area. Our keyboardist, Rob Barroco, later joined the Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends. Sean knew the Grateful Dead and hooked me back up with Rob Barroco in 2012, thirty years after I’d last seen him.

As a musician, Sean studied the guitar style of Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist. When I met Sean, he immediately proposed that we get together and jam, but for years we didn’t have a good reason to do so. 

Finally, when Sean told me that he was giving a talk at the Mershon Center on his book, Rocking the Free World, we both thought—okay, this is the perfect time to finally get together and rehearse a mini-set for a “captive” audience. He came down from Delaware to my house in Columbus, and we hastily threw together some songs. Our lack of practice shows in the performance, but I’ve never once had regrets. As Jerry Garcia preached, music, like life itself, must take risks and be in the moment, otherwise it’s lifeless and boring.    

Arguably the best bridge ever written—certainly in the repertoire of Grateful Dead songs—appears in “Black Peter,” a song about a boy on his deathbed:

See here how everything

Lead up to this day

And it’s just like any other day

That’s ever been

Sun going up and then

The sun going down

Shine through my window

And my friends they come around

Come around, come around

Our lives are composed of cumulative experiences that lead to the present moment. The day of our death is merely one more day in an eternally recurring series of days—every day mostly just like the one before and after it.  As the speaker in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes tells us:

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course….What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Viewed in these stark terms, the world appears monstrous, our lives meaningless, reality an appalling afront to the vanity of human existence. How could the birds continue to sing at Auschwitz when the world seemed too horrible and sad for such simple moments of beauty? This is how I felt when I heard the news of Sean’s death. How could the birds sing and the sun shine when such a gentle, kind, beautiful soul was gone? How could the world continue to go on as if nothing had changed?

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.