Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Blow Away"
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!)
I’m hoping to do something a little bit different this week, given that it’s my 88th post for this blog. 88 is a magic number: the number of keys on a standard piano keyboard. I hope to live to be at least 88, so I can celebrate that magic number in my life, having played piano since I was too little to reach the keys, at which point I apparently used a toy hammer I had, and wound up chipping the ivory on the family piano.
So, while this week’s post is ostensibly about “Blow Away,” it’s really meant to be an homage to all of the Dead’s keyboard players through the years, some of whom might never be mentioned here in a blog about songs, since at least two of ‘em have no Grateful Dead songwriting credits at all.
Let me try this off the top of my head—I can rely on the readers of this blog to correct me if I get things wrong, after all. Pigpen, Tom Constanten, Ned Lagin, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby, Vince Welnick. I don’t think Ned was ever counted as an actual band member, but he did play with them both onstage and in studio, so I’m adding him to the list. That’s seven keyboard players over the years, some of whom overlapped with each other, like Pigpen and Constanten, and Vince and Bruce.
The keyboard seat in the band is sometimes called the hot seat, due to the high mortality rate of those who’ve held that position. Pigpen, Keith, Brent, and Vince—all gone before their time.
When I hear recordings of the Dead, it’s the keyboard sound that cues me into the era most quickly. Each of these players brought a distinctive sound to the band, and I am very partial to much of what each player contributed, in the context of that particular incarnation of the band’s sound. Pigpen’s swirling organ and repetitive motifs on much of the early work; Constanten’s delicacy; Keith’s romping style and incredible fills; Brent’s mix of color and rhythm; Bruce’s majestic approach; Vince’s synthetic sound—each brought the band into a different kind of focus. Maybe some listeners take that same approach to listening to Garcia’s tone over the years as it developed; or to the difference between one drummer and two. But for me, it’s the keys.
Brent’s songwriting for the Dead is something I have been thinking about for awhile. I have a feeling that he contributed, through his songwriting and especially through his singing, a certain authentic anguish that gave the band a special edge in the years he played with them.
“Blow Away” is a good example. I know the lyrics are credited to Barlow, but either Brent completely internalized the character, or Barlow wrote the perfect lyric for Brent. (Hmmm…I just noticed an interesting phenomenon: some of the band members and lyricists seem to demand to be called by their first names; for others, the surname seems more appropriate. Wonder why that is?)
When you listen to (and read, thanks to the transcription efforts of careful listeners like Alex Allan of The Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site) to Brent’s closing rap / rant from the version of “Blow Away” captured on Dozin’ at the Knick, you have to acknowledge that, whether the words were improvised or not, they come from the heart, and have a strong sense of immediacy and urgency. And they are startling in places:
You think you got love right here in your hand
And it's like you wanna put it inside you
It's like you wanna put it deep inside you
It's like you want to keep love in your heart
And the only way you're going to do it is not to let it go
It's like you think your rib cage is a jail cell
It's like you don't think love can get past your ribs
And the words, this sung cadenza, move from pain to hope:
But you're wrong
The only thing you're doing
Is keeping that case out, keeping love out
Keeping it out, keeping it away from you
You gotta open up the door
You gotta open up the door, let love in
And into an exhortation:
So help me out, help me out a minute
Would you help me out
Sing it after me
I want real love
Say I want real, real love
I want real, real, real love
I want real, real, real love
Gimme real love, real love
Real, real, real, real love
I think this is amazing lyrical improvisation, if it was improvised. And you know what? I don’t really care if it was completely planned out, and repeated night after night. The delivery was authentic to the bone. You believed him.
I was devastated when Brent’s death was reported. I remember where I was (on campus at UC Berkeley, during my stint at Library School) and how it felt. It felt like the wind was taken from my sails, to tell the truth.
And I felt much the same about hearing of Keith’s death, although it came after he had left the band. And about Vince’s, though the band was no longer at that point. I was too young to register Pigpen’s passing, and could only mourn in retrospect. Sending out my thanks to the universe of those who serve Grateful Dead music through keyboards. There are more names to add to those I’ve mentioned. Jeff Chimenti. Bob Bralove. Jackie Greene. Rob Barraco. Jason Crosby. Let’s keep expanding that list—each one of these keyboard players has something completely different to offer. Perhaps the fact that so many different keyboard players were band members over the years has made this particular avenue of exploration even more open to the contributions of a wide variety of players. Bralove brings extreme experimentation. Chimenti brings gospel and jazz. And so on.
Here’s to those 88 keys.
Is what us dancing bears refer to as "Church".
I enjoyed Brent as both a major contributor to the bigger picture as well as his ability to own big powerful songs, albeit never gave him the complete devotion the younger late-comers and their stupid "dancing bears" thing would praise on him. Saw Hornsby play with them about 20 times, maybe 2-3 occasions his playing was actually paid attention. That accordion thing he would lope around with like Lawrence Welk was just a train wreck, and the first show they played as "the other ones" or "the dead" whatever, at Alpine-- when Hornsby took one of JGs tunes- Sugaree- and he played and sang as if he never heard nor played the tune with JG-- cuz it was just awful. He was so far off any mood, feeling, volume, and just fucked up a tune and so unaware of his Justin Bieber like approach to a song it was disheartening and yet illuminating at the same time. I was mad, ticked, that the other members would allow such crap to be represented, and probably way too irrational in my stand in not giving a hoot to ever see Bruce again... Keith had a few great years and added a unique and distinctive power to the music where all were motivated to improvise and find areas to take to new levels. Vince bless his eyes that were drawn to darkness and the rest of him couldn't get him the hell out-- he had a couple good tunes and would shine now and then with the jam that was able to inspire... Still, JG and Brent, sucked in and taken by that random raging whirlpool, are indeed missed still all the time... I mean c'mon-- there was nobody that Jerry would consistently and with large scale animation make eye contact, connect, smile, watch, impress, be impressed, dance, show blatant emotions, and appear to have a helluva lot of fun with and share-- than Brent.
Played organ on part of Good Lovin' on, at least, one occasion during the Europe 72 tour.
Maybe if he wouldn't have done that, he would still be alive. Just kidding, bad Joke! Too soon? Always...
It was Jeff Chimenti's birthday yesterday too. Do we call him by first or last name?? Probably last, so we don't confuse him with JeffP. Also "Barraco" since there are two other Rob's in that band.
Thanks for mentioning Nicky Hopkins, David, another great keyboardist who played with everyone, and who was slowed down by drugs and depression ... and Crohn's disease to be fair. Which reminds me of Ikey Owens passing away the other day. Please take care of yourselves people!
The Milky Way crosses the dome sky on this dark of the moon birth date. The man knew passion. Great song.
Rest in peace, brother.
Right now while the sun shines on the crest of the hill
With a breeze in the pines and a grey whippoorwill
Making music together that guitars never caught
Let me show how I love you, believe it or not
Somehow, saying Happy Birthday doesn't seem exactly right, but I did want to recognize the day of his birth, and once again mourn his early departure.
Thanks for the great series of comments.
I am so sorry to have left out Merl Saunders from my listing of keyboard players--certainly a soulful addition of "Wharf Rat" on Skull and Roses, and a vital part of the Dead's musical family.
Garcia seemed to have a knack for attracting fantastic keyboard players. Melvin Seals absolutely nailed the gospel-tinged sound Garcia always seemed to be seeking. Nicky Hopkins's work with the Garcia Band was untouchable.
I too was deeply saddened when Brent died. I didn't see the band again until one last show during the final tour. Blow Away was probably my favorite of the later-era songs of his, but I love Easy To Love You and enjoy Far From Me and Tons of Steel (Dear Mr Fantasy, Blackbird, Gimme Some Lovin, Keep on Growing, etc.).
TC is interesting to me as a musician, and I've appreciated Pig more as a keyboard player with recent high-quality releases (e.g. Dave's Picks 10). I also like Hornsby, but not so much on the accordion, lol ("TC", "Pig", and "Hornsby"...funny how we refer to 'em, yes? Keith and Brent...). I remember one of Dick's Picks with some '74 Phil and Ned space. I have a bootleg tape with an entire 45 minute side of it!
I also enjoyed the family piano anecdote. I was thinking of ours earlier when I called my mother in Maine from Thailand. She has a beautiful limited edition rosewood Steinway baby grand in our house there. I miss my stereo, music collection, 3 bass guitars (2 amps), and trombone; all there as well. She dropped out of music school in her youth, and gave up on her dream of going into music therapy, although she did have a good stint in her later years as Assistant Dean at the Yale Music School. The title of my BA is "Music in a Cultural Context". I thought seriously about getting into music therapy myself, having taken a course in Music Perception & Cognition. Now I find myself working at a drug & alcohol rehab here...perhaps I'll try and implement some real music therapy in our program (I currently try to sneak a little in!). Peace.
I was there and I knew Brent and that was the one song that has always stood out to me at the Knick shows that year and I have talked about it over the years since he left us. He stood up while singing and playing Blow Away that night. I felt he was crying out. I still get goose bumps when I hear that song from that night. Not only do I miss Jerry but miss Brent too! I agree he added lots of COLOR to the music. Just my take on it. Love all, Scott
Of all Brents songs Blow Away is by far a lifting point at any show with or with out the rap. Its hard to talk about all that Brent brought to our bad of misfits because to me he was truly a master of his art. When I went to my first show I thought I was going to be seeing Keith & Donna and me & my buddy where like wow they have a new keyboard player and we where floored! To see that leslie wheel spinning from the B3 I thought it was gonna go thru the cabinet.