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!
OK... first the great thing about lyrics and songs is that they are open to interpretation and sometimes can meld into different meanings for different people depending on that person's perspective, emotional state, needs, etc.
That said, BTW has been a big favorite the past few years coinciding with my decision three years ago to end an almost 20 year relationship and marriage, and I have thought about the lyrics and the song a lot. So here are my thoughts, subject to the above disclaimer thats the song belongs to the listener...
"Cause you've done better by me Than I've done by you" I agree with the few dissenters here...I believe the storyteller believes that he has not been treated as well as the other in this relationship. Whether he is right or wrong, that is his view. He's sees the other one as racing around and not coping with their pain. I also believe the storyteller ended the relationship. The first verses show him at a new low, which is very common at the end of a relationship even when one has initiated the end. It's always gets worse once more before it gets better.
My favorite verse is:
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.
Kind of a harsh statement, yet often very true. In my case I could see someone with pain who was always running around trying to medicate or conceal the pain instead of doing the work necessary to address/heal the pain and almost looking to fail. "You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know"... all about being in denial... It's a sad state but unfortunately very common.
I think the storyteller is ready to move on and the final verses reflect that. It's not about going back to the relationship. "Going back home" I take as going back to what he was before, "home" being the self and/or where he came from. "Turning around" I take as turning things around in his life and moving forward. This is supported by the 1990 final lyrics saying "I'm going right on ahead, that's what I'm gonna do." The overall tone of the song is harsh, but that is just where he is right now. ("drowning in you") More akin to Dylan (Don't Think Twice and Positively 4th Street come to mind) or some Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Some times the harsh songs are therapeutic too. It was for me at that time.
Although the song is harsh, there is a transformation from the new low that opens the song, to a more optimistic ending of turning around. And in the middle, almost a therapy based analysis and self-revelation. I think it's a great song. Never paid much attention to it until I needed to. That's what's remarkable about music. Something can speak to you profoundly at one point in your life that did not before. So keep listening!
Moved to the SF East Bay in '76. No car and my sister lived in Santa Cruz. Many "thumb" rides down hiway 17, now called 880 to visit her. On one of the first rides I found that some exit ramps did not have corresponding entrance ramps. One guy that picked me up told me that different contractors built different sides of the freeway to different specs. Who knows! More than once I had a long walk to the next entrance ramp.
Last hitch, I got stuck in Los Gatos, the other side of the hill from Santa Cruz, during a down pour. Had my laundry with me in hopes of doing it for free during my visit. Turns out that thumbs aren't seen so well in the rain. After a couple of hours a guy in a motorcycle pulls up and, seeing me drenched, asks me if I want to chance it. Seemed like I had no alternative but to say yes. Next thing I know I'm flying over a winding mountain hiway on the back of a Harley with my backpack in one hand and my laundry in the other. Only my knees were keeping me on the bike. At one point I looked down and saw my laundry just a few inches off of the pavement at about 70 mph as we made a turn. Right then I decided I had to stop hitching.
I love how BTW has two meanings in the text world. Love the song and the various takes on the lyrics!
This song must be popular, people are always referencing it in texts, e-mails, tweets, etc. Hitch-hiked cross country late '70's, early '80's. Last time was about 4 or 5 years ago when car broke down on way home from work. It was a nice walk. Now my brain hurts on this "done better by me", I've always thought that you made out better by your association with me than I have made out by my association with you. Black Throated Wind, (or BTW, as the kids text) I enjoy the column, keep 'em coming,
i am a fan of this song, especially the great '72 versions, but i don't think bobby and barlow were. i apologize if this ground has already been covered, but in the extended interviews that aired in the showing of the "gd movie" in theaters a few years back, when asked about their songwriting, barlow responds (i'm paraphrasing here) "every now and again you get a good one like "mexicali," and every now and again you come up with a dog like "black throated wind." surprised me to hear, as again, i like the song and wish it hadn't been dropped from the rotation for so long.
I would definitely agree with David's assessment that the lyrics "It forced me to see That you've done better by me Better by me than I've done by you" are a lamenting of the storyteller not treating his lover the way he should have and regretting it. I have always loved those lines and still sing them out load every time I hear them. In the best examples you can feel the pain in Bobby's voice as he belts out those words.
as i frequently say:
i know way too much about this band.
Mickey's 42nd birthday?
42 on 9/11/85
what do i win?
...of the Ayatollah and the Shah of Iran - a favorite lyrical change-up.
I hitched a ton in the seventies. By the early 80s the scene changed as I lived it. Going to a friend's funeral in 1984 took a lot longer than it should have and I got attacked twice - my last road trip by thumb. I think part of the Reagan Revolution was a fundamental meanness, but I digress.
I did get a few great rides from long-distance truckers. One got started from Albuquerque and then traded seats with me so I could drive into Oklahoma while he slept - in a fridge truck full of strawberries. His partner had bailed on him and he had to be in Indianapolis by a strict deadline; and he was out of "Trucker Driver's Friends."