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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.
If I had to be pinned down and answer "my favorite Grateful Dead song is..." like most of us, it would be a Collection of songs, not just one.
Althea definitely makes my collection of favorites.
I named my Motorcycle Althea, and the more I stare into the flames of a campfire and contemplate the depth of Robert Hunter Lyrics, the more it makes sense to me.. Probably Me Only, but hey... in my world, that's all that counts! :D
I thoroughly enjoyed the perspectives here, and have more ammo for the next campfire. Thanks all!!
Thank you David. Some very interesting stuff here. There is not much I can say because everyone else is so spot on. And thank you Blair for posting your interview (by the way, Im currently reading Garcia, great stuff)
The mood of the song always hits me first. I love a song with good lyrics but it always takes me so long to fully grasp what is going on in a song, and I say "going on" because I don't want to say I know what any song is about, let alone one with lyrics by Robert Hunter. I'm not the brightest crayon in the box and I've never read any Shakespeare and I know very little about Greek mythology. I even majored in psychology and I completely missed the "Jungian" reference (which is pretty funny) but I never felt that I've been missing out on anything with the song. The mood is still there and there is enough context for me to form my own connection to the song.
One time on the Cosby Show Bills younger daughter brings over a new friend named Althea. As Bill leaves the room he says "Althea Later".
I love this song. Seems like the first live version I heard was on cassette from the King Biscuit Flour Hour while driving from Needles, Canyonlands National Park into Moab, Utah in 1979. My first thought at that time was , the Grateful Dead still have the good magic. It makes perfect sense that Althea means "to heal". Good music can heal on all levels much like laughter.
Althea later Sugaree.
Good to see you on these pages again, hope all is well with you and yours.
Always loved this song, and the music so went with the lyrics, which I agree should be discussed a bit more than it is now. The lyrics make you think, but the music makes you feel it. One reason why I love this band, they make me feel, and that's what I want my music to do. Thanks Mr. Hunter and of course, good old Jerry.
I had neglected a long time love by refusing to make plans for the future when we were in our early to mid 20s. We had been co-habitating for some five years by that time and she left. I tormented myself for two years trying "to catch her". A close friend pulled me aside on one particularly dim self-pitiful day and said "nobody is messing with you but you" and it truly hit home with me. I began to pull out of it and see the promise ahead instead of the mistakes that were behind me. It wasn't much longer after that shift in outlook for me that my "Althea" and I reconnected and eventually married and have three children now having been together for 22 years minus those two years spent putting it all in perspective. This song speaks loudly to those in need of a good lecture! Bravo Mr. Hunter!!!
This blog is fun to read every week, but what it needs are a lot more performance notes. These are ususally all about the lyrics and their possible meaning. I'm not a lyrics guy. You sing 'em, I hear 'em. It's when a song is PLAYED that I am moved, that it has any significance for me.
So, give us more on the many performances and versions of the songs. Like on that Mason's Children entry, I've wondered why they switched between two rhythms. Or why they stopped playing Friend of the Devil with a fast pace.
Phish.net has write-ups on song histories and also directs us to specific performances which is great for fans like us.
We love it. Give it to us. We want more!
I was always amused by how often Jerry would mess up the line before "If you get confused listen to the music play..." in "Franklin's."
Had to contribute one other post here, hope others find it amusing-
About 30 years ago, during my early listening/concert attendance of the Dead, a good friend and I had different perceptions of a certain line in the song- I insisted it went, "You may be a clown in the burying ground or just another pretty face," and he (who generally would have been right about these things) insisted it was "cloud in the burying ground." Like friends do, we'd good-naturedly debated this on a number of occasions, but alas, this was way before THE INTERNET was public, so it was just one person's word against another. We happen to attend a show together in Hampton, first set comes, Althea happens to get played, and as it's progressing to the point of contention, we look at each other in states of HIGH EXPECTATION to hear the issue resolved once and for all, LIVE- and, surprise of surprises- Jerry forgets the whole line and just vocalizes a warbling mumble.
So...burning question NOT answered that night..!!
Strong overall rendition of it and great show, though- and once again- "...sometimes the mood is the thing, and it says it better than anything else does."
That comment of Jerry's from blairj's interview- "Well, sometimes the mood is the thing, and it says it better than anything else does"- really struck me, as this is how I tend to approach music. As a fairly analytically-oriented person most of the time, I compensate by relating to music and the other arts in a fairly emotionally-driven, non-analytical way (referencing Jung a bit farther, in a loose sense, music helps me access an "inferior function" of mine- a direct emotional experience of something). Because Hunter's (and often, Barlow's) lyrics are strongly ambiguous, I've always responded to them on a predominantly emotional level, along with the melodies and the playing, without much thought to their particular meanings. For me Althea evokes desire with ambivalence, and an awareness of one's reluctance to fully commit in relationships, plus the approach-distance dynamic in relationships, and the dark, rueful humor of it all- but I've interpreted it that way based more upon particular lines and their relationship to what's being played with them- the bluesy, funky, offbeat music- rather than a close or deep reading of the lyrics. Same thing for me with, say, PITB (to me about committing to life with its existential uncertainties), or Dark Star (finding the beauty in a liminal state of mind or in the vastness of the cosmos, really both simultaneously), or Chinacat Sunflower, which I've never sat down and parsed, but I guess I'd say evokes youth, the wild, animal side of things, playfulness, psychedelic experience, and one's emotional appreciation of all that- though when I'm listening (all of these songs) I'm just mostly feeling it/them.
Of course, Chinacat also strikes me now as having a lot of overlap in the psychedelia of its lyrics with Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (as I see now that Handjive has written about in another post)- interesting to note how the tone of each of the melodies- Chinacat strikes me as very bluesy, bouncy, and upbeat, while LSD strikes me as a bit joyful (with a tinge of melancholy) for most of the song in a very calm way- seem to really fit with the lyrics. Now I'm trying to imagine Chinacat's lyrics in a more placid melody, and the substance of Lucy's lyrics presented in a bouncy way!
I imagine my experience of the music is a fairly common one, but I still do enjoy the analyses of the lyrics as well. It would be interesting to know just how often or how much the band members/lyricists involved have a definitive interpretation of the songs they sing.... I'm really glad they haven't attempted in their interviews to nail down the meanings of the lyrics to them!
It sure sounds like, it was Althea, after that, that says, "Ok that's fine, Son, now I'm gonna try and catch ya" .... Maybe that misunderstanding explains a lot in my own life!!!! Haha oops!!!! ;P