By David Dodd
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—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
My friend, Grateful Dead scholar Mary Goodenough, mentioned this week how she was listening to “Althea” a lot lately, and still finding new things in the song. If there’s a song that can be repeatedly applied to many different life circumstances, it’s “Althea.”
The outlines of the story, told through a back-and-forth dialogue between the singer and Althea, seem a bit elusive, and as always, Hunter doesn’t give everything away by any means.
The narrator, after an elegant opening musical riff that establishes a deceptively lazy and laid-back feel, tells Althea about his life situation, as a lead-up to what, apparently, is a declaration of needing to back out of their relationship. At first, the narrator seems to be complaining in general about feeling adrift, and possibly unable to trust his friends—there is “treachery” afoot. Althea assents that indeed, things are not all right in his world, and proceeds to give him quite a bit of advice.
At that point, the narrator tells Althea that he is “born to be a bachelor,” that is, he doesn’t see their relationship as permanent. She cuts him loose with an “ok, that’s fine,” and he regrets the turn of events, changing his mind and trying to get her back.
That all seems pretty straightforward, right?
But the vagueness of references to what is actually going on in the narrator’s life allows for the listener (us) to hear ourselves in the song.
A great deal of ink has been spilled putting forward the idea that the song is a somewhat pointed message from Hunter to his old partner Garcia, and I’m not saying that’s not the case. But Hunter always meant his songs to be many things, carrying levels of meaning relevant to many listeners, and so I think it is something of a mistake to reduce any song, even one as poignant and possibly pointed as “Althea” to anything quite so specific.
Starting with our title character, Hunter weaves in his ambiguity. The name “Althea” is often noted as meaning “with healing power,” as it is a variant of the Greek word, “althos” which means “healing.” However, the character in Greek mythology who bears the name is not purely a healer, but also a justice-dealer who revokes the healing power she has used on behalf of her son, Meleager, when he kills her brothers, his uncles, in a dispute over a prize in a hunt. I know, it’s complicated—go read the entire story—but it does seem kind of amazing that Althea, the mythological character, has this two-sided relationship with her own son.
And, there is the method of his healing and his subsequent killing, which is via a fated log (literally “fated”—the Fates told her that he son would die when the log was burned). She pulls the log from the fire, but casts it onto a fire years later when she learns her son has murdered her brothers. And poof! He’s dead.
“Baby, it’s your fire…”
What I had never particularly noticed before today’s hard look at the lyrics was the extent of Althea’s dialogue portion. Her speech begins at the end of the first verse, and carries through to the beginning of the final verse. Both the first and last verses start with the “I told Althea…” introduction.
It’s hard for me to tell, once the narrator has told of the outcome (“so now I’m tryin’ to catch her…”) , who it is speaking in the final four lines, but they are among the most resonant for many listeners:
Can’t talk to you without talking to me
We’re guilty of the same old thing
Thinking a lot about less and less
And forgetting the love we bring.
That line: “Can’t talk to you without talking to me…” casts the entire song we’ve just listened to in a different light. Each word we say is something we ourselves might need to hear, and all those words attributed to Althea—might they not be a conversation the narrator is having with himself? Could it be an entirely internal dialogue? Or, conversely, could it be that the words Althea speaks might just as well be self-directed?
This is what I love about these words—they might sound like one wise person giving advice to a foolish heart, but they might be that foolish heart talking to himself, or they might be the wise person addressing his or her own foolish heart while supposedly giving advice to another.
And all along there is the wash of the musical setting, lulling us and gradually building to the bridge, and then dropping off again for the final verse, and the closing with one final instrumental round through the verse chords.
The last time I saw the Dead was in June 1995 at the Shoreline Amphitheater. They played “Althea,” and Garcia’s voice was, if not weak, at least sounding older than it had to me ever before. The entire show was like that, and there were moments of less-than-stellar musicianship.
If the song was a message to Garcia from Hunter, then his playing it right up to the end was some kind of brave acknowledgement of the relevance of the lyrics. If Garcia didn’t take it that way, then the point might be moot. But even if Garcia’s performance of the song was directed outward, there was always that closing verse to bring it home: “Can’t talk to you without talking to me.”
I’m sure this song will accrue additional layers of meaning for me as my own years accumulate, since that’s what has happened so far. And that is a wonderful thing to look forward to.