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!)
Expecting to find all kinds of strange time signature and key changes, I opened up my copy of The Grateful Dead Anthology to page 21, “Born Cross-Eyed,” words and music by Bob Weir.
And there is strangeness in the music, for sure, but it is cleverly disguised as a quarter-note triplet rhythm against a steady four-four. Although it is possible that whoever notated the piece simply chose to represent it that way, because whenever the time signature changes from 4/4 to 2/4, it’s notated as a quarter note triplet over the two beats: in other words, really moving into 3/8 or 3/4 time.
It remains in two sharps throughout (supposedly the key of D), but other than that, it really displays nothing of the characteristics of a piece in the key of D.
Everything about the arrangement is stretched to the limits of weirdness. The opening rests on the downbeat, followed by the sforzando and decay of the opening chord. The odd accidentals forcing the chord to a C major, and then on to an E major, despite being ostensibly in D. The countervoicings on the second verse, singing in dupal time versus the triple time of the main melody. The plethora of odd chords and voicings.
Where the heck did this thing come from, I have always wondered? And looking at the music more closely, I wonder it even more. (Although in some ways I have a pretty good idea of “where” it came from. I think I’ve been there.) It’s always been enigmatic to me as a listener. I am really kind of daunted by the idea of ever actually playing it with a band. It’s typical of the complex music that always flowed from the brain of Bob Weir—even when he was 20 years old, as he was when he likely wrote this song.
There are only a few recorded live performances, according to DeadBase X, but I have learned to be cautious when it comes to relying on DeadBase for stats on early songs. They all date from the first few months of 1968, and 13 performances are listed, beginning with the January 17 show at Eagle’s Auditorium in Seattle, Washington, and ending with the final one on April 3 at Winterland in San Francisco.
Its recording history has a twist or two. It was released on Anthem of the Sun, and also as the B side of the “Dark Star” single. The single version is virtually the same as the album version, except for an extended bit of feedback beginning at 2:03 and going till the end of the track at 2:55 or so. (The fade at the end goes on for quite awhile—I think you’d need better equipment than mine to know exactly when it’s over....) And Alex Allan’s indispensable Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder tells me that the single had a mono mix, where Anthem was in stereo (although it was remixed in the mid-70s, which was the LP I bought, so that the original mix sounds strange to me).
Anthem of the Sun was released in July 1968. The single was released in April. Confusingly, the single credits The Grateful Dead as the songwriters, while the Anthem label and the Anthology state it’s a Bob Weir song all the way. Guess they fixed that mistake on the album release.
OK. So, that pause you get hear and there throughout the song? One of those pauses, and I suspect it’s the one right before “My how lovely you are, my dear...” was the place where Weir famously asked for the sound of “thick air” in the silence of the pause. Or maybe it was right before the big final chord came crashing down. Either way, that was the last straw for the harried studio producer Dave Hassinger, who reportedly stormed out of the studio shouting “Thick air! He wants thick air!”
The studio performance is a virtuoso demonstration in many ways. As noted, the sheer rhythmic complexity is stunning, but the playing overall is tight and complex. And then there’s a point where Phil Lesh breaks out the trumpet on a proto “Spanish Jam” of just six bars! Just insane.
The big draw here for me is definitely the music—the sheer exhilarating forward motion of it (a sense of motion also captured in “The Other One” during Weir’s part). The words are just fun, it seems to me.
First, the title itself. I’m fairly certain that Weir was “born cross-eyed,” or with some sort of not-quite straight-ahead parallax in his vision. I’m sure there’s a medically correct term (as well as a more politically correct one, since “cross-eyed” seems pejorative to me....) for Weir’s optical alignment. I’ve read interviews with Weir in which he indicates that he is dyslexic. So it would appear to be a self-reference.
The song opens with a statement of déjà-vu. “Seems like I’ve been here before...” although it was fuzzy then, and it’s still obscure. And later: “think I’ll come back here again, every now and then.” So it’s a place he can get to on purpose, it sounds like. Hmmm.
Though there are a couple of literary or song references in the song, I somehow can’t see them as being really germane to the any “meaning” one might ascribe. I mean—“sweet by-and-by”—sure, it’s a phrase used in a song, or in a number of songs (whether or not the song being referenced is any particular one), but does it mean anything because of that? Same with “about the time the sun rises west”—a stock phrase meaning: never. And what is the ball game? And who is he singing to, actually?
In other words, a very complex, almost unplayable, and either very obscure or very evident in its meaning, and therefore not a great candidate for sustained presence in the repertoire.
But one thing is certain: this piece is all about the band being in the “transportation business,” as opposed to the entertainment business. I’d love to hear where this piece, or others from this era, has taken you. Maybe to a place you might get back to every now and then...?