Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Black Throated Wind”
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!)
Happy birthday, Bob Weir! (October 16.) Cue up “Beat It On Down the Line” with an insane number of opening drumbeats. Seems like a good time to take a look at “Black-Throated Wind,” if ever there was one.
Here’s one of at least three hitchhiker songs in the Dead repertoire. (The others I’m thinking of are …? Your responses welcome. Maybe there are more than I think. ) Does anyone hitchhike anymore? I have a ton of memories about this mode of transportation, dating mostly from the late 1970s when it was the only way, in some cases, to get from point A to point B. Get your hitchhiking stories ready—there are bound to be some good ones out there.
In the case of this particular song, the singer is reminiscing about a failed relationship while trying, unsuccessfully, to hitch a ride—but the cars, the buses, and the semis won’t pick him up. He is, it seems, running away from a situation in which he did not get the better deal. He’s out on the edge of an empty highway…no wait—that’s the other one…no, not The Other One. Oh yikes.
This gets complicated, this stuff about the Dead and songs about being on the road or jumping onto buses or not being picked up by buses. (It has been a long several days, frankly, and I’m winging it here. I apologize for any incoherence in advance.)
Also, as a former hitchhiker, I have to ask: did anyone ever get picked up by a commercial trucker? I know this happens in “Me and Bobby McGee,” but..really? And then in “Pride of Cucamonga,” there’s a hitchhiker getting on board a Diesel Mack—another commercial truck.
John Barlow, in this early lyric written for Weir, which appeared on his “solo album,” Ace, in 1972, makes passing nodes to several icons, including, I would say, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., with his line containing the phrase “Ah, Mother American Night,” (caps Barlow’s) which brings to mind Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night. It’s also been suggested that this is a double nod, and includes the ultimate icon of being on the road, Jack Kerouac, who wrote these lines in On the Road:
"The stars bent over the little roof; smoke poked from the stovepipe chimney. I smelled mashed beans and chili. The old man growled... A California home; I hid in the grapevines, digging it all. I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night."
I’ve gotten into a number of disputes, over the years, about the lines
“It forced me to see
That you've done better by me
Better by me than I've done by you”
The meaning seems obvious to me: “done better by me” means “treated me better.” For some reason, some people insist on reading it as “you’ve gotten the better of me,” which is just sort of exactly the opposite of what is being said. Sigh. But, you know, it’s a lesson I seem to need to learn over and over: people will hear in these songs what they need to hear.
So, the singer is stuck in the middle of nowhere, having left his lover in St. Louis, thinking that he may have misbehaved, and maybe he should head on back there, possibly to grovel and ask to be taken back.
I don’t think Barlow was satisfied with the lyric, or maybe Weir wasn’t, because of the fact that the song’s extremely uneven performance history (from The Grateful Dead Family Discography: “‘Black Throated Wind’ was first performed by the Grateful Dead in March 1972. The song was played over 70 times in 1972 and then just under 20 times in each of 1973 and 1974. It was not then performed again until 1990 after which time it was played between 6 and 12 times in each of the following years through to 1995.”) gave rise to an attempt, when the song reappeared in 1990, to use a fairly extensive reworking of the lyrics.
Not sure how many times Weir sang those new words, but I think the attempt was abandoned before long. The newer words don’t seem either more lucid or more evocative than the original lyrics.
It does make me wonder, though, how often it occurred in the Dead repertoire, that there was proposed a significant re-working of lyrics once the song had been in performance for quite some time. It’s easy to find variants among early versions of the songs, and sometimes we come across lines that get changed with the times (“Throwing Stones,” “One More Saturday Night,” etc.), but aside from “Black Throated Wind,” was there another that reappeared in significantly different form?
I know Hunter wrote additional verses to “Truckin’,” but I don’t know that they were ever broken out in a show. Any others? It would be interesting to know. I think Hunter also rewrote “Mountains of the Moon” at some point, but again, I don’t think those new words ever made it into the Dead’s performance—or Furthur’s, when it comes to that song.
There’s something very quirky about the song. Looking at its musical notation in Grateful Dead Anthology II, I wonder at the contortions the transcriber had to go through to get at Weir’s melody line, which is often triplets sung over the four-four time signature (“alone with the rush of the drivers that won’t pick me up…”). And the chord progression is not exactly straightforward, either, with a song ostensibly in the key of E incorporating C major, G major, and D7 chords.
It’s the kind of strangeness, musically, that is quintessential Weir. He seems to manage, throughout his songwriting career, to challenge himself to not be happy with the easy answers when it comes to the music itself, and I really like that. Someday I will have to write about “Victim or the Crime,” which is perhaps the strongest example of this. Or even “Easy Answers” itself. There’s lots to play with in his songs—lots to challenge the ear and to make us, in a strange way, pay more attention to the lyrics than we might if the music was simpler, more straightforward.Am I making any sense whatsoever?
Over to you all, for your thoughts on this song, which I hope will be more clear than my own. Topics: hitchhiking; the song’s plot line; reworked lyrics; Bob’s birthday. Go!
I tried to pretend it came to an end
Cause you weren't the woman I once thought I met.
-> He tried to pretend that it was her fault their relationship ended, because she had changed.
But I can't deny that times have gone by
When I never had doubts or thoughts of regret
And I was a man when all this began
Who wouldn't think twice about being there yet.
-> But he realizes that it was he who has changed – he was a man at first, who was there for her without doubt or regret.
It's forced me to see that you've done better by me,
Better by me than I've done by you.
-> The black-throated wind makes him see that she did better by him (treated him better) than he did by her.
What's to be found, racing around,
You carry your pain wherever you go.
Full of the blues and trying to lose
You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know.
-> He is speaking to himself, of himself.
So I give you my eyes, and all of their lies
Please help them to learn as well as to see
Capture a glance and make it a dance
Of looking at you looking at me.
-> This is the most telling part: He gives her his eyes so that she can help him to see what he was like. “Looking at you looking at me” = what she sees when she looks at him.
The black-throated wind keeps on pouring in
With its words of a lie that could almost be true.
-> The lie is that he is the one who was wronged and he almost believed his lie but the BTW made him see the truth.
Goin back home that's what I'm gonna do
That's what I'm gonna do
-> He is going back to her because he realizes that she was good to him.
This is my favorite dead song (love the 72s) and this is what its about: The reason he is hitching the ride is because he's leaving the woman. That's mearely the beginning of the song. He explains why in the choruses and other verses. "You've done better by me than I've done by you" means the exact opposite as you say. It means "you HAVE (been) done better by me....than I have been done by you. Meaning he treated her better than she treated him. He left st Louis to get away from her (being with her and leaving her was the storm he'd never forget). He tried to pretend (to make it work) but it still came to an end. She was not the woman he thought she was initially ("I once thought i'd met.")
Although he still doesn't deny there were times he didn't have doubts or regrets about her. "I was a man when all this began who wouldn't think twice about being there yet" He's saying he never thought it would come to this.
And now speaks about how the girl is racing from place to place pretending to be happy to run from her problems, but it doesn't matter where she goes because she'll still carry her pain.. she's "full of the blues" but she doesn't even realize (ain't gonna learn what you dont want to know.) So the black throated wind forced him to realize all this and now he's turning around,he's going back home (away from her) because she's (been) done better by him than he (has been) done by her.
has a designated stop for HH'ers still.
It happened to me once in the early 70s. He was hauling a big sand blaster that they used on roads. It was a White Freightliner and the first time I ever rode in a big rig. I eventually became a trucker but that time was special.
How about on 10/29/73 when playing in St. Louis, after the "I left St. Louis, city of blues" verse he sings "But I can't deny, times have gone by full of babies and bottles and debt." I kind of like that line. Although I don't know what he's thinking in Veneta Oregon on 8/27/72 (the Sunshine Daydream show) when he starts the song with "I'm running around this cloverleaf town"! Maybe the heat was getting to him.
I also spent a lot of time with my thumb out in the northeast in the mid/late 70s.. I did once get picked up by a commercial trucker. I remember his mack truck statue atop the radiator pushing through the northern fog.. and he was nice enough to use the CB radio to get me another lift as he dropped me off.
Might have happened once or twice after that. But I remember that one best.
And yes, Black Throated Wind captures that side of the road feeling quite well.
sounds like something tom robbins would have written...
that's a great story. Post a picture of the t-shirt!
Not far from my house, a BART station entrance is his art.
Copied from my comments on the 9/3/77 Raceway Park page:
Long Strange Miracle Trip
My buddy and I hitchhiked our way down to this show from Kutztown State College, w/o any tickets and hoping to meet our friend who had our tickets. Also attending the show from K-Town was a good party friend of ours - some kid named Keith Haring - who had made a slew of t-shirts featuring what was to become his trademark curlicues inside a "steal your face" type skeleton. He took a different journey than us, but lo and behold, not only did we find the guy who had our tickets on the road to the raceway among the mass of humanity, but we also found Keith and helped him to sell his shirts. I still have one of them - which he unfortunately did not sign (who knew what he was to become as he was only a Kutztown High School kid at the time). I fortunately did get a little drawing he had done titled "Cosmic Charlie" which he did sign. I only found it recently and hope to get it appraised some day.
It was a stupendous show w/ NRPS (Charlie Daniels not so much) and the Dead putting on a great show as detailed above.
Definitely a trip to remember all my days!
"You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know" is one of the best lines ever.