Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Bertha"
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!)
“Bertha.” How is it that it took me 90 weeks to get to “Bertha”? I know..I have a long ways to go before the storehouse of tunes is empty. But “Bertha” is so essential, so often played, and so joyously received—at least at every show I was at—that I feel remiss.
“Bertha” is another in the group of songs that I like to think of as the unrecorded studio album—songs that never got the studio treatment. I’ve harped on this before, but I think, because it’s a favorite concept of mine, that it merits a brief re-cap. I’m referring to the post-American Beauty, pre-Wake of the Flood songs that made up a good part of the two live albums, Skull and Roses (for want of a more useable title…) and Europe ’72. This set of songs deepens and further explores the “old, weird America” of many of the songs from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. I love the idea that someday, maybe, they might be recorded in a studio setting as a real “album” of songs—remember that concept?
“Bertha” captures yet another of Hunter’s loveable but somehow downtrodden or down-and-out characters, defiant (“why don’t you arrest me?”) and bumbling (“ran smack into a tree…”) within the space of a song. We all have our moments, right?
“Bertha” has long suffered from what now seems to be a piece of disinformation, which might fall into the “never trust a prankster” category. From an interview cited by Alex Allan in the deadsongs conference on the WELL:
Interviewer: What about Bertha? Is it true she was a fan? An electrical fan?
RH: No, this was after the fact. I don't know where that story ... I think they started calling this fan in the office that would run around and try and catch everyone and cut their fingers off. They started calling it Bertha. But no, this is not true. Bertha, I think, is probably some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation. Cycle of existences, some kind of such nonsense like that. I wouldn't be surprised, but then again, it might not be. I don't remember.
OK, so Hunter alludes, in this brief and fairly vague snippet of interview conversation, to an entirely different possibility. “Birth (‘Bertha’ pun), death, and reincarnation.”
This is one of those songs that can be listened to, and interpreted, and second-guessed at so many levels that it’s almost ridiculous. I’ve read a fairly convincing argument that the song is really a reference to Lady Chatterly’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. And there is a large amount of speculation about what the lines “dressed myself in green, went down unto the sea” might “mean.” So many traditions, so much folklore, about the color green!
But here’s Hunter, lending credence to one of the most obscure alternate hearings for a lyric that I know of. The couplet is “Ran into a rain-storm / Ducked into a bar door.” Many people, over the years, have mentioned to me that they have heard this in a couple of alternate ways. I myself also heard “Ducked back into Novato,” which is a town about 10 miles south of where I live which was, for awhile, home to the band. In fact, oddly enough, and contrary to every other published source, the dead.net lyrics page itself (link at the top of this post) cites the line that way. So maybe that’s got some merit.
However, the hearing that fits with Hunter’s somewhat lackadaisical statement about reincarnation is the version that reads: “ducked back into a bardo.” A bardo! This is a concept from Tibetan Buddhism that there is an intermediate state between two existences, a space between incarnations. Between lives.
In this hearing of the line, the entire song becomes transformed into the adventure of a soul on its way to a new life. Rather than get too deep into that, I’ll just offer it up for consideration.
Say it is actually a bar door that the singer ducks into. Then the song is about someone on the run from someone’s window—what could the singer have been doing at someone’s window, in a rainstorm, in unfamiliar territory (“run smack into a tree”)?
Again—kind of an interesting scenario, with a multitude of stories spinning out in every direction.
And, if it was a bar, then there’s the additional ambiguity of the lines “all night pouring, but not a drop on me,” which could be taken to refer either to the rain going on, or to the drinks being poured in the bar. In which case, if they really didn’t pour in the singer’s direction, he is perfectly ready to be tested for sobriety: “Test me, test me…”
So many different directions for thinking, from one little line and its possible variant hearings. That is exactly what I love about this stuff — it all seems true and possible and correct, depending on your own state of mind or background at the moment you are listening to or singing the song.
If it’s a song about birth, death, and reincarnation, then it is certainly a non-dreamy, rocking song about those topics.
This song is all about dancing—the crowd always “had to move” when it was played, and in a big way. I’ve enjoyed the many different performance practices over the years: the variations in tempo from mid-tempo to upbeat; the times when “why don’t you arrest me?” became a rallying cry resulting in a huge roar from the crowd (as when Garcia first sang it after being arrested for possession of cocaine in Golden Gate Park); the coordinated emphasis on the two, three, or four beats of the measure led by Weir behind Jerry’s singing—all of these added up to an adventure each time the song was played.
And the most fun: the ending. How many times will Jerry sing “any more” this time? Someone must know if it really varied as much as it seemed to, or went on as long as it seemed to sometimes. I remember reading Paul Grushkin’s wonderful set list in The Official Book of the Deadheads:
I HAD A HARD RUN
RUNNIN’ FROM YOUR WINDOW
melody of pure dance
a roaring musical wind in our faces
TEST ME TEST ME
WHY DON’T YOU ARREST ME?
Lesh lets go with a sonic blast
the audience instantly responds
the love vibe, the sex beat
so ridiculous, yet so apparent
everyone knows it
no one can say what it is
THAT’S WHY IF YOU PLEASE
I AM ON MY BENDED KNEES
up red lights everywhere
a real rabble-rouser tonight!
folks flinging themselves skyward
ANY MORE HOR HOR
Just exactly perfect.
I had a hockey coach in the early '70s who once advised me to start humming a favorite tune instead of dwelling on a bad play. I've been humming Bertha out on the ice for over 40 years now.
I liked knowing (thinking) this song was inspired by a crazy fan. Wait...maybe it is. Maybe a different type of fan?
Meant to say 'David'
Hey Blair. I also thought it was "Novato"
Yes folks, it's a live recording that was 'spiced up' a bit with a Merl Saunders keyboard overdub in the studio. And I've always picked it as the best choice to play for a music listener who was not really familiar with the music of the Grateful Dead and wanted to know what the 'Live Dead Thang' was all about....and 95% of the time the listener is VERY impressed.
Always hooked 'em with a tight-sounding one!
The rumor I heard years ago from my late brother-in-law, who was a founding member of the Bill Graham support production company called FM Productions, was that the song Bertha was supposed to be about one of the band's first female fans.......who was none other than the mother of a singer named Huey Lewis.......
I thought Bertha was a cow, thus the band had to "moo". Too easy. I also thought Bertha was telling her old man, or other man, to go get her something; something you couldn't get at the grocery. When one runs around all night to find something; to no avail. Finally ending up in the jailhouse. Running from a window? Did her boyfriend come home? I mean Bertha drove this guy so nuts he had to get out of dodge.
I like the 76-78 Bertha's when they put a funky-kind of- reggae spin on it. Those versions really groove!
I've heard it as "hard-on" many times myself. Bertha is a great song for hearing/listening to however you want to! I've always sung it in my head as "that's why when I sneeze I am on my hands and knees." I've never heard "Novato" in the "bar door" line ... but if it floats your boat then go ahead. Maybe you've got a friend there or had a fantastic trip there and great ... it's fucking Novato!
So many Hunter lyrics are elastic and you can fit them this way or that way. They're one size fits all.
And this is one of those great Dead songs that make you smile. I've never heard this song but I was lifted into eternity by Garcia's leads, remembered the friends I first heard it with (over and over on Skull and Roses, the first track of an incredible album), and then wondered at what it really meant. What it means is that it makes you smile.
Cryptical 70 is certainly correct in calling Bertha a studio recording since it did receive a Merl Saunders organ overdub. I wonder how much studio playing was really involved prior to releasing Skull & Roses and Europe '72? I know vocals were overdubbed/enhanced but were Jerry's solos altered from the live tape? If anyone has any info I'd love to hear about it. My favorite 70's era Bertha is the version from To Terrapin (Hartford '77) and as for 80's I'd vote for Ticket to New Years '87, Jerry is grinning through the whole song while Bobby runs back and forth across the stage with his almost Pete Townshend like guitar windmills.
hang your hard-on, laughing willow.
4 hours to go...I wanna be sedated