Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Brokedown Palace"

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!)

"Brokedown Palace"

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be at a backyard house concert featuring Mark Karan, playing acoustic and mostly solo. He ended his show with a beautiful version of “Brokedown Palace.” A friend of mine, standing next to me, turned to me when it was over and said, “Just in case—that’s the song I want played at my memorial service.” I told him, “Me, too.”

I have heard it played at a couple of memorial services over the years, always to excellent effect. It’s a song that begs to be sung again and again, and there have been some excellent cover versions over the years, including, in particular, versions by Joan Osborne, found on her album, Pretty Little Stranger, and a gorgeous instrumental version by Jeff Chimenti with Fog.

The lyric to “Brokedown Palace” was written by Robert Hunter as part of a suite of songs that arrived via his pen during a stay in London in 1970. He entitled it “Broke-Down Palace,” and now that it exists as a piece of writing, it seems to have always existed. It was composed on the same afternoon as “Ripple” and “To Lay Me Down,” with the aid of a half bottle of retsina.

Its first performance was on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and became a staple of the live repertoire. After the 1974 hiatus, “Brokedown Palace” appeared almost exclusively as the closing song of the show, as an encore. It had the effect of sending us out of the show on a gentle pillow of sound, the band bidding us “Fare you well, fare you well…”

The story the song may be telling for any one of us is wide open. Hunter doesn’t give us much. The song can be a song to someone departed from life, or just from the relationship with the singer. Or maybe the singer is departing, and possibly departing this life, or possibly departing a relationship. Some have suggested it is a song about reincarnation, and the journey through existences (“…many worlds I’ve come since I first left home”). So, regardless, the song appeals to us repeatedly throughout changing life circumstances and, in different contexts, rings true over and over again. (I’ve harped on this idea of hearing a lyric differently at different points in our lives repeatedly over the course of my dead.net posts, but it’s kind of a major theme, I think. Let me know if I should stop pointing this out….)

For me, the “many worlds” line always spoke to experiences I had inside the many worlds to be found in the human brain, when we can unlock those experiences. Enough said about that, although I suspect several of you may wish to share stories about your own “many worlds.”

In The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, I quote from a note I received from a reader, recounting hearing Ken Kesey speak at the University of Virginia in 1998. I just spent a little time tracking down a transcript of that talk, and here’s the part about “Brokedown Palace”:

I lost my son in a wrestling accident. On the way to a wrestling meet, the van went off a cliff. I remember the feeling….I’ll get back to that… ok I’ll tell it….You know, if anybody knows the song "Broke Down Palace," (fair thee well, fair thee well, I love you more than words can tell), after Jed had been dead a few months we went to see the Dead. They were playing at our opera house. They did their usual stuff and got their big ovations and then, they started playing "Broke Down Palace" and they all turned toward me and all our family was sitting up there. They all turned toward us and the guys in the audience began to turn toward us. And that song was sent from the Grateful Dead to our bruised hearts. And it was like having somebody reach out and putting their hand on your shoulder and saying, "Yeah we feel it." And when it was over there was no applause. Everybody knew it. We were all crying. And how many bands do you know that could do that? Like when Eric Clapton begins to sing "Tears in Heaven," this is real. This isn’t rock and roll. This is the heart speaking out to other people whose hearts have been wounded. And there are a bunch of us.

While the song does stand alone extremely well, it also inhabits a particular place on the American Beauty album, rising out of “Ripple,” and leading into “Till the Morning Comes.” It echoes bits and pieces of “Box of Rain” (“such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there”) and lends emotional background and depth to “Operator.” Even “Truckin’” resonates with “Brokedown Palace”—“Back home, sit down and patch my bones…” The entire suite of songs holds together incredibly well, and I believe that “Brokedown Palace” is the glue.

The act of planting a weeping willow, of doing something that won’t be fully realized, or grown, in any immediate sense, is a key to the song. While there are plants in other songs on the album (last week I counted eight in “Sugar Magnolia” alone, including a willow), this is the one where the singer plants the tree. Stays. Makes a home—another recurring theme throughout the album. The singer is going to plant a tree by the water’s edge and thereby see continuity and change in one view—the tree standing in one place, “the river roll, roll, roll.” Of course, the tree will “grow, grow, grow,” so it’s not truly standing still, not static, but it is, at least, stable.

Ready to hear your stories of how this song has resonated for you, what comfort you may have taken from it, or anything else that you might care to relate about “Brokedown Palace.”

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marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
hey

it sounds like you belonged there just fine.

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Joined: Feb 23 2011
Greatest Story Ever Told - Might As Well

On our way from Minnesota to California my dear friend Melissa and I stumbled into Red Rocks in 1982 - too new to the scene to know this was RED ROCKS and that all 3 nights were sold out. Still we waited in the rain and actually made our way through the school and the cemetery and the searchlights and the parking lot and got to hear a few songs the first night. We thought we were so cool! We could tell our friends we got close enough to hear the band!

The second night we found tickets and went to the show. The first set closed with Might As Well. We looked at each other and realized that indeed we had "never had such a good time, in our life before". Maybe we didn't belong there, but there we were.

I have a silk screen print of the 1982 Red Rocks shirt in archival framing on my wall - as if I needed a reminder of that oh so special night.

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Joined: Feb 23 2011
Greatest Story Ever Told - Promised Land

I nagged my local record store in 1981 to get me the single Promised Land by Elvis - the one I had heard on the local country station. After 6 months he finally came through. in 1982 at my first Greek show the Dead played Promised Land. Well of course they did....

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Greatest Story Ever Told - Promised Land

I nagged my local record store in 1981 to get me the single Promised Land by Elvis - the one I had heard on the local country station. After 6 months he finally came through. in 1982 at my first Greek show the Dead played Promised Land. Well of course they did....

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Joined: Feb 23 2011
Greatest Story Ever Told - Promised Land

I nagged my local record store in 1981 to get me the single Promised Land by Elvis - the one I had heard on the local country station. After 6 months he finally came through. in 1982 at my first Greek show the Dead played Promised Land. Well of course they did....

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Joined: Feb 23 2011
Greatest Story Ever Told - Promised Land

I nagged my local record store in 1981 to get me the single Promised Land by Elvis - the one I had heard on the local country station. After 6 months he finally came through. in 1982 at my first Greek show the Dead played Promised Land. Well of course they did....

hammerflygirl's picture
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Joined: May 21 2013
This song got me through

This song got me through the deaths of my best friend, my mother, and my sister. It's been 9 years. Then I heard Phil speak at Further, All Good 2013. He told everyone to look to the person next to you that you love. I put my arm around my 21 year old niece. He asked that everyone consider organ donation because a fine young man gave him a liver and he was grateful to be alive and singing on stage for us then. I was grateful too. It was beautiful tribute.

Strider 88's picture
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Joined: Jun 20 2007
Home is the river

Escaping the town of noise where I work I travel to my small piece of land on the Gila River and always take relief with the sound of the water in gentle rapids. Also the bird songs of morning and evening as the sounds of joy. Have planted hundreds of red willow cuttings for stream bank restoration and stabilization and many times remembered "Brokedown Palace". Goin Home Goin Home. Also an interesting juxtaposition from this song is from Workingmans Dead. Easy Wind- "And the river keeps a talkin but you never heard a word she says." Thank you Pigpen. I also see the word palace as interchangeable with the word temple as an allegory of the ageing human body moving towards the great beyond. Going to leave to brokedown palace. Make myself a bed by the waterside. The river of life always flowing and recharging. The banks green edge as a place of healing and reflection and preparation for the next stage. Neal Cassady didn't die, he just stole another body. American Beauty is a masterpiece for the ages. Jerry's use of pedal steel guitar on Brokedown Palace is poignant. Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.

ddodd's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Listening, and listening, and listening...

Thanks to all for the thoughts on this song. Each week, because of the opportunity to write this blog, I have the gift not only of being able to spend some time thinking in depth about a song, but then the additional and amazing gift of hearing the thoughts of everyone who takes the time to comment on the post. So it's an exponentially enriching experience. I will be very interested, when and if I get through to the end of this project, to then go back and re-read, and then rewrite and rethink yet again. Thanks, everyone, for the ongoing conversation!

jbxpro's picture
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Joined: Dec 4 2012
Brokedown in Context and Alone

Some albums you listen to over and over and American Beauty probably tops my list. Mr. Dodd has nailed it again, the way the songs such as Brokedown can mean different things at different times and the perfection of the suite of images presented by the various songs. The first half of the second side was always the most affective to me, with the validating images of Ripple leading into the intense loneliness of Brokedown before the uplift of the other songs.

Brokedown is about aloneness, solitude, living in a world where you’ve said farewell to all the singing birds, even you. Whether this happened because the narrator died (or is dying and is telling us about what’s going to happen, the way I’ve always heard it), because his lover left him and he’s totally bummed, or because of an apocalyptic event doesn’t matter, the point is that he is facing a solitary world beyond. But on further reflection, perhaps this is a return home, and perhaps giving actions like creating a symbol (planting a weeping willow) and singing a lullaby will see us through.

And then the morning comes and you realize that you’re not alone in the world and that there’s someone watching out for you while you watch out for her. Maybe this is as simple as the narrator finding a new lover, but I think the first three songs of the second side are parables that work together to tell us that love, validation, and self-sufficiency will all happen … they aren’t always easy and there will be fear and loneliness mixed in, but look for them and you'll find them.

I've got to say too that this is one of the most covered Dead songs to my experience. I especially love Ollabelle's and Adrienne Young's versions of this song, both of which are on YouTube.

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