Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Althea"
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.
Enter: 1980 Go To HEAVEN-Needless to say that particular Vinyl Track WORE STRAIGHT ON THROUGH!
My first show in 05/80 and A good friend of mine would simultaneously -- TO THIS DAY, whenever it should happen from then & on through today @ 53; with +35 years,(& no doubt, besides that palindrome) STILL thinkin' bout Less n Less ............................and REMEMBERING LOVE WE ALL BRING!
Best line: When the smoke has cleared, she said, that's what she said to me.
Hunter never tells us what she said here. We're left to ponder it, and since the meter of the song just plows forward, only the observant notice the missing line. It passes in an instant, but that instant is dizzy with possibility.
I found it dated 8/4/79. Does anyone recall if he was he playing Tiger? I have photos of the show with both Tiger and Wolf. IT's a special song for me and just trying to learn all I can about the history from the beginning.
I was very moved by how "Althea" spoke to me. I played it a lot on my morning drive time show on community radio KFAI. I recall that my research turned up a connection between "Althea" and "Rose of Sharon." You'll recall that "Rose of Sharon" is on one of Hunter's first two LPs.
For me, this is another one of those songs I just can't get enough of. Back in the days before the internet I was fortunate enough to have a guitar instructor who would chart out for me songs I wanted to learn. He would give me the chords and I would work it out. This was one of them. I figured out my own interpretation on the walk up to Bm, and then I played it again and again and again. There is something there for me playing these songs that just takes me to where I want to be.
And I love Garcia's Bm A E riff I was pleased to find it in Terrapin at the Brand New Crescent Moon phrase.
I never considered this as a dialogue between lovers, rather as a dialogue between old friends, but the between lovers gives me a new perspective.
Again, before the internet there was not so much information. For a long time I heard Sad Today, A Child Or Grown. Also sometimes I heard Friends Are Getting Most Disturbed. Does not quite rhyme as well as concerned but lends a darker tint to the same feeling. Kinda a similar vein as Ducked Back Into Novato, but I digress.
The bridge is simple yet powerful and another reference to Hot! In later years the jam out at the end was nice however I always liked the jam in the middle better.
Thanks again David for another thoughtful essay.
Dittos on That David !
I have really come to enjoy meditating on One Select Song all week long
"...By the Riverside
We've got some things to talk about
here beside the Rising Tide....
Come on Along or Go Alone..."
I am thinking that this Jim Character is one of those who seems bound to "Go Alone"
A sorry Victim of "Treachery".
He's all torn up about it and afraid to expose himself to getting burned again.
Its a Tale told over and over in all kinds of Songs and Stories.
" When Push Comes to Shove You're Afraid of Love"
He may be born to be a Bachelor...or a Clown...or both...or any number of things....like a tragic Shakespearean figure .
all the time "forgetting the Love we Bring"
I keep reflecting on Warren Zevon's words :
"We made mad love
Shadow love Random love
And abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder"
where a little Love Making ends up in a Whale of Pain (accidentally)
and the "heart gets harder"
whose love seems "Bigger than a Cadillac"
and Jim keeps driving her back.
Now he's going to break her heart to avoid having his heart broken.
"We're guilty of the Same old Things"
get carried away by Hard Hearted Fear
or carried away by Tender Hearted Love
Jim, when you get right down to it,
is a Victim of his own making.
"Ain't Nobody Messing with You but You
You're friends are getting most concerned"
Well...Althea's calling his hand.
"The Time has Come..."
Lets hope Jim gets past his Fear and Torn up State
and hold on to Althea's Love
"Althea" is such a passionate song of Unrequited and Unrelenting Love
and yes...Alabama Donna may have been a sweet model of Inspiration for this one I am thinking !
One may argue that after the first verse, a series of back and forth comes into play. The "pretty face" would suggest Althea as opposed to Jim. The last line in the second verse appears to be started by one and finished by the other. In the third verse the back and forth continues, with Jim clearly part of the dialogue.
The bridge here seems out of place. Maybe best saved for a harmonious final verse to further punctuate the uncertainty of their relationship.
The first two lines of the final verse resume the "back and forth", with the final two, another bridge to cross. A harmony of emotion.
Donna would have been a perfect Althea.
...of the Hunter canon. (Yes, I think moreso than even Stella Blue or Wharf Rat.) Plus the intro is a perfect example of Garcia's playing ability at its best -- sweetly affectionate but utterly haunting. Althea is a nearly perfect synthesis of lyrics and music. In my mind, I can replay the ending from the Without A Net version over and over for hours. That simple yet lush Garcia riff, Bobby sliding away with reckless determination, Phil wandering around lost in his own thoughts, Brent off-handedly playing the actual outro solo, Billy and Mickey raising and re-raising and re-re-raising the stakes. Everything about Althea is so simple but so complex, and that's why it might be my favorite Dead song of them all.
Wow--well, I knew my little attempt at writing about "Althea" was modest. Modest to the point of recklessness, I think now...
I wonder sometimes what exactly this series of blog posts has been about, or what it is becoming, and really, I think it is becoming exactly what I was hoping it would become--what I had hoped for the annotated lyrics site, and what I had hoped for the WELL "deadsongs" conference. That is, a place where we can all hop on, sometimes goaded by me or infuriated by whatever I said (or DIDN'T say).
I'd like to be able to write more about performance practice--that's a good idea. And to include more about all of the references. Should I start by pasting in the annotated lyrics piece about each song before I start my little essays? I don't think that's necessary, somehow.
What I envision becoming of all these short essays is, perhaps, someday, a little book to accompany the Annotated Lyrics book, which would include polished-up versions of these essays (with all the mistakes removed!!); brief commentary on recommended listening for each song and performance notes to go with those; and maybe a discography--although that's pretty redundant, too.
So far, we've discussed about 82 songs over the course of the 85 entries in the series. There's a ways to go, and I'm happy to keep chugging along, but it won't magically become anything very different than what I've been up to so far. So, if you want the other stuff, feel free--add it into the comments, and then it's there for everyone to read!
Thanks, everyone, for the great discussion of this song. I'm always blown away.
A long time favourite from my rolling list of favourites depending on emotion or mood, Althea with it's jaunty riff and melancholy spirit reminded me of a past love or two in many ways whilst always lifting the spirits whenever I heard it. Favourite version from Maine State Fairgrounds 09-06-80...