Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Casey Jones"

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!)

“Casey Jones”

In the Charles Reich interview with Jerry Garcia, published as Garcia: Signpost To New Space, Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it.

He replied: "Sometimes, but that's what it's supposed to do. It's got a split-second little delay, which sounds very mechanical, like a typewriter almost, on the vocal, which is like a little bit jangly, and the whole thing is, I always thought it's a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like. A little bit evil. And hard-edged. And also that sing-songy thing, because that's what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head."

Let’s focus on the typewriter for a minute, because frankly, I think every aspect of this song has been pretty much talked through from beginning to end quite a number of times! Seriously. Upcoming generations will draw a blank when they encounter this typewriter analogy—although the characterization of the vocal mix having a mechanical-sounding split second delay is pretty evocative. Someday, scholars will have to add a footnote to Garcia’s statement, explaining what a “typewriter” was, and what kind of sound it made, and why it is or is not an apt metaphor for the way the vocal track sounds on the song. Maybe someday someone will write a song called “Daddy, What’s a Typewriter?” to go with “Daddy, What’s a Train?”

Trains. What was it Phil Lesh said about Grateful Dead songs? “Trains, cats, and cards..” or something like that.

“Casey Jones” is one of the band’s classic story songs, and it utilizes a classic American folk hero as its subject—AND it is about a train. How could things get any better?

I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented. (You can jump on over to http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/kcj.html#casey if you really want the background.)

Robert Hunter, it is said, thought of the line: “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” and wrote it down, stuck it in his pocket, and pretty much forgot about it until it struck him that he might write a song around the line. Speculation abounds that Hunter wrote the song as a cautionary tale, with many hidden drug-reference meanings tucked away into the lyrics (including a wonderfully byzantine theory that if “white lady” is a nickname for cocaine, then “lady in red” is a reference to intravenous delivery of cocaine). Some have said that Hunter may have written it during the Festival Express tour, while the band was on a train, possibly high on something or other, making their way across Canada.

There is the whole thing about the word “jones,” itself, which was later used in the addiction sense by Barlow and Weir in “Throwing Stones.” Could “Casey Jones” be a reference to that sense of the word?

Did it matter? Does it now?

Well, I guess I have to think it could matter, depending, or else—why bother to think about the lyrics at all?

The irony of the song is that it is viewed as a druggy song by a druggy band, when there could be nothing more anti-drug than a song about someone who is involved in a disastrous and legendary accident while under the influence of drugs.

Double irony: it seems that many listeners and fans also embrace the song as a druggy song—witness the band’s performing it during their November 1978 appearance on the coke-drenched “Saturday Night Live.”

And, triple irony: band members themselves became embroiled in cocaine use, with Garcia himself arrested for possession.

Or maybe none of that is ironic in the least. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

In truth, the song is a catchy, bouncy rocker that, in concert, could gather tremendous momentum and power, especially during the build-up to the final “and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”

It’s been pointed out that, among the band’s potential top-40 hits, “Casey Jones” joins others like “Uncle John’s Band,” with its airplay-unfriendly “Goddam, well I declare,” and “Truckin’,” with the “living on reds and vitamin C and cocaine” line, as yet another potential hit that would never be allowed on the radio in most markets. “Wharf Rat,” with its groundbreaking F-bomb, was likely never a candidate for the charts, but the others—who knows?

I found a discussion of the song that claimed Hunter actually did try to clean up the song—substituting lines like “carried propane” for “high on cocaine.” But in the end, it was after all the initial inspiration for the song that did get written.

This is one of their “disaster impending” songs, as opposed to the “disaster narrowly averted” songs of the “Monkey and the Engineer” variety. (Are there other disaster narrowly averted songs? I’ve wondered idly at times.) Some songs are simply disasters described—“Jack Straw,” or “Me and My Uncle.” “Candyman” feels like disaster impending. But I can’t, offhand, think of others of the “narrowly averted” variety.

“Casey Jones” does have one of those aphorism-rich lyrics, though, and those can come in handy at the best and worst of times. “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” “Better watch your speed.” “Trouble with you is the trouble with me” (similar, perhaps, to “Can’t talk to you without talking to me” from “Althea”). “Take my advice, you’d be better off dead.” Well—maybe not that last one….

How does this song resonate for you? Do you have kids, and do you, like I did, sing it to them and change the words just a little bit? I’m pretty sure I managed to sing it as a lullaby at some point, cradling a small one in my arms.

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maddog95603's picture
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Joined: Nov 5 2014
Casey Jones and other averted radio hits due to the lyrics

I for one am glad that the lyrics were never changed. It may have cost the band top Billboard ratings but they have shown,over time, by sticking to what they felt the song should sound has sold and continues to sell far greater volumes of recordings than Billboard could ever count.

marye's picture
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then there's Dave Van Ronk's "Cocaine"

running all round his brain.

"Cocaine is for horses, not for men/ They tell me it will kill me, but they don't say when"

zepthompson's picture
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She No Lie

" "
Eric Clapton describes "Cocaine" as an anti-drug song. He has called the song "quite cleverly anti-cocaine", noting:

It's no good to write a deliberate anti-drug song and hope that it will catch. Because the general thing is that people will be upset by that. It would disturb them to have someone else shoving something down their throat. So the best thing to do is offer something that seems ambiguous—that on study or on reflection actually can be seen to be "anti"—which the song "Cocaine" is actually an anti-cocaine song. If you study it or look at it with a little bit of thought ... from a distance ... or as it goes by ... it just sounds like a song about cocaine. But actually, it is quite cleverly anti-cocaine.
—Eric Clapton
" "

unkle sam's picture
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she don't "last"

I've heard JJ sing she don't last, she don't last, she don't last.... don't get me wrong, "Evil" is what I call it, and Robin Williams was right, but if you get into it, it will break you, financially and emotionally so you won't have too much money for long.

A.Cajun.Head's picture
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She don't like..

I've heard J J sing "She don't lie, she don't LIKE, she don't like.... cocaine..."

zxtttxz's picture
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JJ Cale and cocaine

What are the anti-drug lyrics of cocaine? I think I know all the words...the entire song sounds like a celebration of cocaine to me. I can't find any negative connotation in there. "Down on the ground" maybe? I don't know...it all sounds good to me. I'd like to get down on the ground with a nice pile of cocaine. Who wouldn't? I look at Cale's "Cocaine" as a pro-drug song. Kind of like AC/DC's "Have a Drink On Me." It's a celebration of drinking, isn't it? Even with that great line, "Forget about the check, there'll be hell to pay".

foliage12's picture
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Two Good Eyes

A friend of mine from school always took the "two good eyes but we still don't see" line to be a reference to the psychedelic side of things, not cocaine; "You gotta open up that Third Eye, man." I don't know how much I buy into that interpretation myself, but that notion always crosses my mind when I hear the song.

Definitely a hard song to sing when you're walking around town trying to seem like a trustworthy guy who likes the Dead. I've tried substituting other lines, but nothing rolls off the tongue as naturally as "drivin' that train, hiiiigh on cocaine!"

unkle sam's picture
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and you know that notion just crossed my mind.....

Love the sniff in the beginning. Kind of an anti drug song from a long time user. Lady in red, better off dead, I believe this is Hunter at his best, is this line about a lady, or the Lady in the syringe, in red from the pull before the boot, or a hooker, better off dead, either way... for sure. Switchman sleeping, sometimes you nod from a bit too much, on the wrong tracks and headed for you, sometimes you do really stupid stuff when you're too high. Driving that train, well, we all know how that feels, especially after a snoot full. Watch your speed, maybe you had too much too fast, kinda the same story there. Trouble ahead, trouble behind, the life of a drug user. And u know that notion just crossed my mind...sure could use a little bump. The second verse, this old engine, the user's body and soul or the train engine. Hits river junction at seventeen to at a quarter till ten you know it's driving again, that's a fast turn around, you better be fast for that one. Trouble with you...trouble with me got two good eyes still don't see, one junkie to another not seeing the light. Come around the bend you know it's the end, sounds like coming down hard and seeing the lady there, beckoning you, screaming at you, and there's your rail, gleaming in the candle light. Yes, antidrug song, from someone who can't put it down.
Richard Pryor once said:
"Cocaine addictive? no way man, I've been doing that shit for 20 years and I ain't addicted."

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RIP Robin Williams

“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you make too much money.”

jbxpro's picture
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Driving That Train

What to say about Casey Jones? There hasn't been a lot said about it so far, so let me try to blunder forward.

To me this song was always confusing. As a white suburban teenager, I'd never heard many songs about drugs, when this became a titillating sensation back in the days when the world was changing rapidly. Sure there were the bad boy Stones, and Cream's cover of Spoonful, but wasn't music supposed to be about happiness?

And to me, cocaine was never a happy drug. Sure I've enjoyed it, but it was always about intensifying an experience rather than improving it.

So what were the Dead singing about? Was it an objective account of a train wreck? Hard to believe since I'd heard the ballad often (the New Christy Minstrels, etc.) and there was nothing in their renditions except heroism. Was it a commentary on cocaine? That was hard to believe too when there were so many moving parts to the song besides just the drug, like the Lady in Red. And were they coming down on the pro-cocaine or anti-cocaine side ... or what??

Finally it comes down to having two good eyes but still not seeing. The fireman screams and the engine just gleams. Maybe it is about cocaine ... in the sense of commenting on how it intensifies experiences but doesn't lead to enlightenment.

Enough rambling. Let me say that I've always really enjoyed this song (though some Deadheads I know groan at it, because of its sing-songiness and because many pseudo-heads have seized on it as a glorification of irresponsibility/drug culture) because the bridge is such a great setup for a ripping Garcia lead. I've always been vastly entertained by it.

As touched on above, this is also a great song for fueling people's misunderstanding of Dead culture. As evidence, look at the infamous cartoon where a guy says to his dog, "Play dead" and the dog whips out a guitar and starts singing this song (Google it man). BUT what he sings is "Riding that train ...." There's a huge difference between riding and driving, especially when it comes to understanding what this song means.

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