Grateful Dead

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!)

"Blow Away"

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.

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Joined: May 9 2012
Real Love

Brent had the ability to raise the whole concert to another level. Much like Pigpen in Lovelight. The concert would be going along, and Brent would kick in his Hammond, or play a pedal steel lick on around & around or Big River.It would kick the whole show up a notch. Brent, unlike the other guys would sing from so deep in his heart it was startling compared to the not so emotional other guys. His Blow Away "rap" would get the whole crowd clapping along. Talk about creating a band/audience bond. I would kill to have his singing voice. After Brent passed it was hard to listen to Vince with his high squeaky voice harmonize with the band. After years of hearing Brent with maybe the best voice of the lot. One reason I like 80's Dead is Brent's ability to get real trippy (yet stay right along with the band at every turn). Such as 85 Riverbend 87 Kingswood, among many,many other shows. Blow Away was/is a relevant- good song. Like in Uncle Johns Band, "like the morning sun you come, like the wind you go". Can't you spare just one god damn minute? Yeah, Brent was the man.

deadbass36's picture
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Joined: Jan 4 2009
Ned Lagin

Lagin's a unique player here. He was a part of some of their most interesting stuff from '70-'75, but he gets little to no official credit. According to his Wikipedia page he plays on the Beautiful Jam from 2/18/71,and he contributed synth parts to Mars Hotel. I guess thats him making those jet sounds on Unbroken Chain. Did you now that? I didn't.

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Joined: Jun 5 2007
One more keyboardist

I do believe Merl Saunders snuck into a few Dead albums as well

scott1129's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Blow Away

One combination that was overlooked
Is the Pigpen/Keith combo (Europe '72, etc.)

As this is a discussion of songs
Here is the lyric to
Blow Away

Lyrics: John Barlow
Music: Brent Mydland

A man and a woman come together as strangers
When they part they're usually strangers still
It's like a practical joke played on us by our Maker
Empty bottles that can't be filled

Baby who's to say it could have been different now that it's done
Baby who's to say that it should have been, anyway
Baby who's to say that it even matters in the long run
Give it just a minute
And it will blow away
It'll blow away

You fancy me to be the master of your feelings
You barely bruise me with your looks to kill
Though I admit we were sometimes brutal in our dealings
I never held you against your will

Baby who's to say it could have been different now that it's done
Baby who's to say that it should have been, anyway
Baby who's to say that it even matters in the long run
Give it just a minute
And it will blow away
It'll blow away

Your case against me is so very clearly stated
I plead no contest, I just turn and shrug
I've come to figure all importance overestimated
You must mean water when you beg for blood
(Also sung as "You must mean water when you get on your knees and you beg me for blood" )

Baby who's to say it could have been different now that it's done
Baby who's to say that it should have been, anyway
Baby who's to say that it even matters in the long run
Give it just a minute
And it will blow away
It'll blow away

Like a feather in a whirlwind
Blow away
Just as sure as the world spins
Blow away
[etc]

The following is Brent's rap from Dozin' At The Knick:

Gimme just a little piece of your time
Gimme just a little second now
All I'm asking for is just a little minute
A minute for you to listen, listen to me
Listen, listen to me closely
Come on, gimme an 'm'
Are you out there? Can you hear me?
Let me know
You wanna love me, wanna love me
You think you got love
You think you got love right here in your hand
You're holding on tight to
You think you got love
You think you got love right here in your hand
And it's like you wanna out 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
It's like you don't think love can get out
Get away from you so long as you hold it inside
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
Let it come and go, let it do what it wants to
Do you wanna know love?
Do you wanna know real love?
Real love you don't hold inside you
Real love you can let go
And it'll come back, it'll fly right back to you
That's real, that's real love
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

Brent's Birthday is October 21
only four days away

Nice Tribute David
Thanks

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
to marye in the voice of Napoleon Dynamite: Lucky.

I met JB at an event at a local university back in the day. He was singing the praises of technology. Electronic Frontiers Foundation, methinks.

I asked a question about the whole technology thing being a money grab for the Microsoft/HP/Apple corporate machine, being forced upon us. He seemed a little baffled by my question. "another schmuck in the crowd."

My cynicism continues to this day, but I have consumed my share of the (non-electric) Kool-Aid, and I use technology regularly. Adapt or die, grampa.

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Joined: Nov 15 2010
Am Glad I Made The Trip.

I have no more to add that would be any different than what has already been posted.

I just really glad that I was there to make the trip. Saw shows from '76 - '90.

The last one was at the Capital Centre on 3/15/90. The show that ended up being released as "Terrapin Station".

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
Barlow/Brent songwriting

As it happens, during this period (89-90, essentially, leading up to Built to Last) Barlow was doing a boatload of interviews for the tech magazine I edited, with the result that I spent a lot of time driving him up and down the Valley and listening to tales of writing songs with Brent. They had a pretty strong bond and were often coming from a similar place.

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
first one I heard was on a tape of 7/2/88; liked it

not too crazy about the rib as jail cell rap...to each their own, ya know.

The song itself is good brentski.

fragility: give it just a minute, and it'll blow away.

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Joined: Dec 3 2012
More keys

Didn't Bralove contribute on latter-day Space segments with keyboards/synthesizer? And who can forget Wier's playing on the first Promised Land from Apr 1, 1980?

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Joined: Mar 28 2014
Additional keys

Bruce Hornsby also gets an earlier shout-out for his accordion work at the MSG Rainforest Benefit 9-24-88. Though five years younger, I feel cosmically blessed to share my birthday with the illustrious Mr. Weir.

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