Greatest Stories Ever Told - "I Need A Miracle"
By David Dodd
I distinctly remember, when we heard that the Grateful Dead would be the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, back in 1978, discussing with my roommates what we could expect in the way of song selection for the show. Would they do a selection of “greatest hits” (“Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band…”) or would they go for surprises? I predicted they would play their latest attempt at a top-40-friendly song, “I Need a Miracle,” from the just-released “Shakedown Street” LP. And yes, they did play a greatest hit—“Casey Jones,” but they also played “I Need a Miracle.”
Seemed like a future “greatest hit” to me! It had a big, catchy hook, and a memorable refrain. It had hyperbole. It was rock and roll.
That album, “Shakedown Street,” produced a few tunes with staying power in the ongoing live repertoire, most notably, of course, the title track, which turned into something really special. But the over-the-top lyrics of “I Need a Miracle,” along with what became a link to an ongoing tradition, has its own long-term appeal. And it, too, stayed in permanent rotation through the duration of their career, with the longest hiatus in performance being a 43-show gap from late summer 1982 to early summer 1983, for a total of 271 performances.
So: here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time. With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.
When I built the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics website, I actually did not even bother to annotate “I Need a Miracle.” It doesn’t have much in the way of the kind of literary or historical references that are the bread and butter of annotations. Really, the lyrics seem to me to be something Barlow might have written to one-up the image of women in other Dead songs, notably in “Sugar Magnolia.” Or it may have been an attempt to get away with the kind of sexism that doomed “Money Money” from the get-go.
“Miracle” seems light-hearted and self-aware—the character singing the song (and I do think it’s a character singing, not the persona of Weir, or of Barlow…) seems to be making fun of himself. “I need a woman ’bout twice my weight…a ton of fun who packs a gun with all her other freight.” I mean—what? And “It takes dynamite to get me up….too much of everything is just enough.” A nice turn of phrase. The miraculous is synonymous with the excessive, the transcendent with the hyperbolic and overblown.
“I Need a Miracle” signs by Deadheads.
But, despite the sense of the lyrics on the face of it, what “Miracle” did was to put something into Grateful Dead culture, just by way of introducing the word: miracle. I wonder who the first Deadhead was who thought of making a sign saying “I need a miracle,” and putting a finger in the air outside a show, asking for a ticket. But it soon became commonplace, and “miracle” became code for a last-minute, sometimes free ticket. I had the pleasure of giving out a miracle ticket a few times, and I have also received them, and it does feel miraculous, from both ends—giving and receiving.
Beyond that, though, and bigger, is how the word “miracle,” in common use, gave us a way of thinking (and sometimes talking) about what went on onstage. Being open to something miraculous occurring in performance had always been a part of the Dead’s playing. The X Factor, as it was sometimes called, was present when the music was playing the band. The idea of “needing a miracle every day” seems at first borderline ridiculous, but over time, maybe it seems less so, and even something to be expected. Certainly, from my own experience, the Dead delivered a miracle more often than not. And I became more open to finding the miraculous in daily life.
now that's just rude, to scalp your miracle ticket!
Indeed, even before the In the Dark era, which changed things a good deal, there were quite a few shows that were in such high demand and sold out so quickly (the Greek, the Frost, NYE, and assorted tour venues) that there were hordes of people who would regard the ability to buy a non-counterfeit ticket at full retail as a miracle. Always seemed that way to me, and it was always at such shows that I first saw people parading around with miracle signs. But it changed for sure.
lyrically "i need a miracle" has always been a contradiction to me. a contradiction in that the verses come across as a ridiculous story of "grateful dead (or insert any rock and roll band) excesses and extravagances" of the late 70's, i.e. - "we'll go into the book and break each and every law," "find her in a sideshow, leave her in L.A., ride her like a surfer on a tidal wave," and "it takes dynamite to get me up, too much of everything is just enough," and the chorus is an almost zen-like mantra that can be muttered to oneself in moments of synchronicity, where everything comes together seemingly spontaneously and just the way it needed to for things to work out.
i guess over time the mantra of the chorus is what shined through as the important message, and the verses could be glossed over while dancing one's ass of to this rollicking and rocking number. i would recommend to any who haven't heard them to check out the ones played in the fall of '78 - specifically from the "from eqypt with love" shows in oct of '78 at the winterland, and the one from new year's '78 is awesome as well - not coincidentally they both feature Lee Oskar on the harmonica.
in a community of people who either actively seek explanations for the moments of synchronicity, or who are just aware enough to recognize them, the chorus to this song is kind of a perfect summation of those moments.
that being said, i have no idea when it turned into a polite way to ask for a $20 ticket to a $70 show, or just for a free ticket. as a post jerry head, that element had been there since day 1 for me, and i just accepted it as part of the scene. i understand not being able to get into a show or two and trying, but to never buy a ticket at full price to support the band that you claim to love so that they can afford to put on the shows that i, and many others, go to at every chance we get, doesn't make any sense to me. in fact the ticket-less hordes who wander parking lots in search of a freebie are a drain on the scene to me - i don't like feeling like people are looking at me like i'm a "sucker custie," and not a true head because i'm not driving hours without a ticket to the show.
i would recommend checking out the film "festival express" to anyone who hasn't seen it. there's a scene in it where jerry is talking about the frustration of dealing with crowds who think that all these shows should be for free, and for the people, even though it costs the bands and the promoters a lot of money to put the shows on. so the ticket-less hordes existed as far back as 1970.
also, one last thing before i go. a cautionary tale of handing out miracles to shows in this modern age. last april on the first night of Furthur's run at the Beacon Theatre, during the setbreak my friend and are chatting with the guy who's sitting next to us. he tells us that he is frustrated because some dude was escorted to the empty seat next to him, he asked the guy where he got the ticket, and he said "some girl sold it to him for $80 outside." turns out the dude my friend and i had been talking to had miracled the ticket to a girl outside, and instead of coming into the show, she went and sold it for cash. the following night, i had an extra ticket and sold it for face value only to see the guys i sold the ticket to re-selling it later for a higher price. no good deed goes unpunished
I was a big fan of SNL and never missed a show (well, at least until Belushi and Ackroyd left). I had yet to get into the Dead so I knew very little about them other than the standard radio airplay. When they finished up the song and went to commercial break I was struck by the exhuberance and enthusiasm the studio audience displayed! It was an appreciation above and beyond what you would expect from your average rock n' roll fans and definitely sounded like the folks there were having a real good time, geez it almost sounded like a zoo! Little did I realize....
Only once have I ever 'miracled' anyone and that instance was purely unintentional. Y'see, this one time while heading to the front gate, I was re-arranging the contents of my pockets to make them frisk-worthy and I dropped my ticket. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!) So, if any of you folks out there ever found a ticket on the ground in the parking lot at Hershey '85, I just wanna say, 'you're welcome'.
another take on "keep on truckin" resilience in the face of cosmic adversity
According to Archive, it was played once with lyrics on 2-21-95 in Salt Lake city.
I just think its interesting that I can still find songs that GD played maybe once or twice. I just recently got Dicks Picks 35 which has Pigpens "Empty Pages," which is awesome and also in the book. Is it a miracle that those houseboat tapes lasted that long?
I would love to hear more of your story as time goes by.
For what it's worth, that song became our theme song as cooks when we were jammin on the line and needed a "Bud" brake. Through 33 shows I only got a this song a couple of times. I remember face value for a ticket being the norm till about 86 when the scalpers starting catching on to the scene. Paid 90 bucks for a 3rd night show and swore I would never do that again and so far I have not. I have miracled a couple people bust mostly trade for goods.
Ol' Alice wasn't as snarky about the scene as was fashionable at the time, as I recall. She seemed to be making a good effort to be a nice tourist in our world.
I don't think any band rocked harder than the Dead on Miracle, especially early on in '78 and '79. I was a convert. I loved the late '78 tapes, I loved the Miracle > Shakedown from Springfield '79. The tune was just perfect for the times, the tours, the situation. It was clear by the mid 70s that the Dead would pull us along with them when few of their peers would or could. Crazy good times, and it's captured in one handy song.
Thanks, all, for the nice words of welcome. I plan to do my best to elicit our stories as they might relate to the songs. That's something I see as a rich vein to be mined. I know I have some stories...and already I see that the people who will read this blog have stories, too.
It's hard to follow in the footsteps of an amazing writer like Blair, who has been a major inspiration for me over the years. He has a way of communicating his love of the music, and of being an enthusiast, rather than a "critic," which I just love. So I will be pretty much in the way of an enthusiast.
Some specific responses:
mustin321: I will just say, about SLC, that I don't THINK (and I don't have my source material handy...) that the Dead actually ever performed the song as a song--I know they did the instrumental, but did they ever actually sing the lyrics in a GD show? That was kind of a requirement for the Annotated Lyrics.
Someone asked me offline if I will take requests for particular songs to be featured. Definitely!!! That would be a big help for me, actually. Right now, I am only planning about one song ahead.
Mary E: Remember "Police on a joy ride"? Of course you do.
Shady Backflash: What a nice post! Pretty much gets it for me--in terms of having an ongoing sense of wonder. That is core to my way of being in the world, and the Dead get a good portion of the credit.
Keep the comments, personal stories, and questions coming!
Really excited that you are picking up right where Mr. Jackson left off. I read you annotated lyric book almost on a daily basis while listening to GD.
P.S. I never got an answer back as to why Salt Lake City was not included in the annotated lyric book?