Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Attics of My Life"
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!)
A couple of years ago, I lucked into a musical opportunity that will probably never come my way again: I got to sing back-up harmonies for Bob Weir. OK, it was for Bob Weir and the Marin Philharmonic, and I was one of ten or so singers, but still. Very fun. And the highlight of that highlight of my life was singing the final encore, just Bob and us on the stage proscenium, a capella — “Attics of My Life.”
The song has been firmly lodged in my conscious and subconscious mind since the day I first listened to American Beauty (and I can remember that experience quite clearly—dancing around the living room at my girlfiend’s parents’ house in San Diego). Wrapping up the Days Between period, I wanted to open a conversation about another significant Hunter / Garcia song, and was surprised to find that we haven’t talked yet about this one! One of my very favorite songs, in any kind of list I might make.
And while it might seem that this is not a story song, it does seem to be personal and autobiographical—a song about being a songwriter, and about the songwriter’s relationship to something greater than him- or herself. By extension, any of us can easily embrace the song’s meaning for ourselves and our own lives and work, and our hopes for finding larger meaning and connection.
Hunter often receives requests from listeners to weigh in on the meaning of his songs, or of particular lines within those songs. Heck, even I get those requests, and I surely don’t know much of anything about what anything means. But here’s an exchange I posted on the annotated lyrics website, found by a reader on rec.music.gdead (anyone remember newsgroups?) back in 1996:
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 1996 23:44:05 -0700
From: Deb Nison
Subject: R. Hunter on "Attics..."
This post is mainly in response to those who helped me out on the interpretation of "Attics of my Life" for my English paper. The paper is going great thanks to a lot of you. One of you kind folks gave me Hunter's e-mail address, and would you believe he responded to me in about 4 hours!?! A lot of you mailed me asking me what he said, so here is the letter. I debated on posting it for a while, but I think they are words to be read. Enjoy!
Deb, I guess I have to give the stock answer: if I could say it in prose I wouldn't need to write the song. Poetry is evocative - it's meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience.
I guess the best I could say is that "you flew to me" is an affirmation of the concept of grace -
No, this is not a song about being stoned. It's a song about the soul.
I love that: “If I could say it in prose I wouldn't need to write the song.”
And then, he is so helpful to this English student. He brings up the concept of grace, which, in the context of the words of the song, comes when he has no wings to fly, when he is dried up and out of inspiration. This makes me think of his muse, evoked in the Terrapin Station Suite, and the similarity of the response from something larger than one’s self.
If one large theme has emerged, for me, over the course of writing this weekly essay about the songs over the past year and a half, it is that so many of the songs, and so much of the entire Grateful Dead ethos, is about connection. Connection with those unlike oneself, with lovers, with the entire planet, with the cosmic unconscious—the ability to submerge and to emerge: to become something larger than an individual, while still embracing the diversity of being an individual and knowing others.
When Hunter says, in his email to Deb, that this is a song about the soul, that is a big door being opened, and it provides a key to the entire body of work. His answer implies that Deb had asked if this was a song about being stoned. In light of his answer, that question seems remarkably narrow, and I plead guilty to asking this kind of question along with Deb. “Poetry is evocative - it's meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience.” In this sense, lyric poetry as practiced by Hunter is a perfect match for tunesmithing as practiced by Garcia and the rest of the band—the communication occurs at a nonverbal level.
With “Attics,” this whole notion seems to be expressed in the meticulous way in which Hunter brings up all the normal ways of knowing: sensory (hearing, tasting, seing…) and pursuit of books and study, then dismisses them as inconsequential in the face of that which is simply given to us, unquestioned, unsought.
Not sure I’m saying what I’m trying to say here. And I don’t want to get any more definitive, because, well, that would be counter-productive given the topic of a song like “Attics.”
So. I will keep hearing, singing, and thinking about this song until the day I die, I am sure. I treasure the vocal arrangement from that Marin Symphony show—I’ve used it with my little church choir now a few times, and everyone loves singing this song. One of these days, if I get around to specifying what songs I would like to have played at whatever kind of gathering held by those I leave behind, I will ask that “Attics of My Life” be played or sung. I believe it will send my soul out on a fine journey—perhaps I will fly to someone who needs me.
And with that, speaking of souls on their journey, I say goodbye to the Days Between, until next year.
I’ve always wanted to tell this story, and I finally found an appropriate place.
Way back when, don’t have the year clear, but it must have been before I went to Europe, so maybe 1969:
I got a ride, probably in a VW bus, from Miami to the Meyer Baba place in Myrtle Beach, with Pigpen’s ex girlfriend. I don’t think she was lying, but who knows. She was a devotee of Baba, as was my then boyfriend. She said both Pigpen and Hunter were also devotees.
So I always assumed Attics was written to Baba. That it’s a love song from Hunter’s soul to the man he regarded (at least then) as the Avatar.
I was never committed to Baba, but I remember another gorgeous song, called the English Arti, that the Baba Lovers used to sing at gatherings. I always thought of Attics as another Arti.
I have always, without fail, found this to be the most poignant of love songs ever written. I can't even imagine more beatifully written words about a relationship so powerful and graceful that it evokes a true meaning of love.
I persuaded the Alpena Thunder Bay Choir to perform Attics of My Life. Now I need to deliver a choral arrangement. Do you have the sheet music? I got called away unexpectedly and can't do it myself. I'm at email@example.com.
Hey there, everyone. I'm real late to this site, and it's possible no one's around, but just read your responses to "Attics," and thought I would thank you. There's something ineffable about the Dead, something I know we're all a part of, that can't be named, though Love seems to be a good one. It was fitting that they ended the Chicago shows with "Attics," which I think is about "grace", or that "something" that we discover when we've run out of our intellect and striving, that spirit that reaches *to* us when we're ready. I find this same expression in "Terrapin" too (and "Box of Rain" and...). There's a sense of Promise in the Grateful Dead that's deeper than time or music, and it's so nice to hear other people expressing it.
How do you Describe the Indescribable?
How do you Describe the Appeal of the Grateful Dead?
How does Robert Hunter compose four verses of allegorical expression like this?
It blows my mind and puts it back together again in a better way
"I Dreaming Lay Amazed"
We are like Fish swimming in a Spiritual Sea and largely unaware of What sustains us.
We can become fixated on the Five Sense Reality and lose recognition of the Life that sustains us.
(Sorry Williworx...I know I am getting too Deep again..."tug me in the shallow water" Please!)
The Grateful Dead are like a Cruise Ship that Flew in and Picked us Up for a journey beyond the Physical Realm into the Secret Space that is Beyond Description...and then returns us Safely Home Again
like in a Dream we Dreamed One Afternoon Long Ago
Williworx, glad to share! It was awesome being there for that. I had been going through a period of not going to see "the old stuff" live and this (plus Furthur later that day), made me realize that these weren't old songs, they were timeless and could shine like new. Speaking of that, you might also want to check out the American Beauty Project (http://americanbeautyproject.com/wordpress/, and some tracks on YouTube). I'd love to see Olabelle, Lauderdale, Larry/Teresa, etc. do this again but they haven't toured recently.
I took your post out of context, saw the reference to Neil Young about he can't or didn't want to play the old stuff and it can only be new stuff with that band; and it occurred to me that there was room for a rebuttal to that thought. I was not thinking about the thread about "attics" at all.
For me, I always like a mix of old and new, sometimes rearranged and given new life.
jojo, I love playing the songs i can on guitar, and totally agree with your post. What I was trying to say, which I didn't, was at some point the old songs didn't exist. In "Attics", the singer has spent his life seeking all that's still unsung. Searching for the sound. Having tried to write songs, I am in deep awe of a good song. A song that stands the test of time. In the Neil Young book he mentions writing "Old Man" for a farm hand on his ranch. Neil's dad thought he'd written it about him. Neil never told his dad. The song should speak to each individual person, that person can glean/interpret for their own. I thought that was cool. I appreciate spending time in the Hunter/Garcia house, being shown their attic. Where are the pages are my days, and all the lights grow old.
I have a different take on old music. I am an amateur, I enjoy playing guitar and singing, but I am no pro. I have a love for the song and for the song's sake I enjoy playing it again and again. I can not play note for note, or chord for chord, or bar for bar; but I feel the muse and play for all I've got.
I understand some people don't want to get into a rut, remember John Mayall's intro comment on Jazz-Blues Fusion? paraphrasing, " What did you come here for?, to hear an old record or something?". And that opinion is fine, always looking for something new.
For me, I relish the old and the new.
Just checked out the Levon Helm band video you suggested (beautiful). I stopped posting around the Terrapin Station stuff. Too deep for this simpleton. I thought Terrapin was slang for trippin. Attics is beautiful on so many levels. One thing (among many) I liked about touring was being around so many people smarter than me(i?). I will switch gears. Yesterday I stopped in the library and was reading the book Neil Young wrote a few years ago. He mentioned getting back with Crazy Horse and writing new material. Neil said it HAD to be new, or he was just reliving his past. That hit me hard. I went home and played Althea, Land of New Rising Sun (Jimi), the weight on guitar, and thought "man am I lame". I'm reliving their past. So I strove to try to write a song, and though not great, just creating something made me feel a little better. One last thing. The Dead did this til the end. Picasso Moon, Lazy River, the 93 acoustic tone, etc. Oh, JBX- that Larry Campbell guy is killing it on the vid you suggested. thanx man