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.
Former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins had this to say about poetry itself:
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,…
- From “The Trouble With Poetry.”
In the Bob Weir / John Perry Barlow composition “Cassidy,” Barlow sets himself the task of comparing a newborn baby girl, named Cassidy, with the legendary “Cowboy Neal” who previously appeared in “That’s It For the Other One.” In this case, the comparison is a study in contrasts, even as the two Cassidys intersect in the life of the band. “There he goes, and now here she starts — hear her cry.”
I think each of us, listening and singing along, can hear our entire lives in this song. We arrive and we are lost to the world, eventually. I love the contrasting images of the colt drawing the coffin cart, of the scorched ground being grown green again, of the night-time washed clean.
Barlow wrote this song for the newborn Cassidy Law, daughter to the band’s beloved office manager and early archivist and caretaker of the Deadheads, Eileen Law. Neal Cassady died in February, 1968, near San Miguel de Allende, apparently from the effects of exposure to the elements. Cassidy (note the different spelling) Law was born in 1970. In the song, the two are linked in the way we always link those who have passed away and those who bear their names into the future.
The Dead have quite a few songs about the arc of birth to death. “Black Peter,” “Ripple,” “Crazy Fingers,” and others all mention these salient facts of our existence. I believe that the knowledge we will die is what defines us as humans, though of course it seems that other animals must know this. (I’ve always said that I want these words on my gravestone: “I knew this would happen.”) I think maybe the band’s name has something to do with this.
I know several people for whom this song is particularly evocative of a sense of comfort in the passing of loved ones. And maybe it’s the sense of things going on despite the deaths of friends and family—or the wonderful way that the flight of the seabirds in the song, scattering like lost words, convey the beauty we can find in the midst of things falling apart. I don’t know.
Kesey and Cassady
“Cassidy” first appeared on Weir’s solo album, Ace (1972), and it has appeared on many live releases. It’s been in the Ratdog and Furthur repertoire steadily.
The Grateful Dead played this song a lot (334 times), and continuously, although they did not debut it until 1974, when they played it once, on March 23, at the Cow Palace. (This was the show where the Wall of Sound first appeared ((“The Sound Test”)) and the other first-time-played in the show was “Scarlet Begonias.”) From 1976 on, it remained in steady rotation. The song’s final performance by the Dead took place on July 6, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights, Missouri—the band’s third-to-last concert. It was almost always a first-set tune.
“Cassidy” contains a nice wide-open jam spot, and the band ventured quite a distance in those jams, reaching into space before coalescing back, as if by magic, into the “Flight of the seabirds” reprise.
Here’s a talking point for everyone, if poetry, Neal, and life and death don’t get you going: how many children, dogs, cats, etc. have been named Cassidy since this song was written? I have known quite a number myself. And it’s not just “Cassidy.” I have met many others with Dead-inspired names. I myself have had cats named China and Cosmic Charley. There must be Stellas, Altheas, Shannons, Delias, Ann-Maries, and so on. Maybe you ARE one of these! I would love to hear some good stories about names. I think there must be a number of Jeromes out there.
Barlow seems fascinated by names and naming: “What shall we say, shall we call it by a name?” he asks in “Let It Grow.” “I will sing you love songs written in the letters of your name,” he writes in “Looks Like Rain,” as well as this song’s “Speaks his name, though you were born to me, Cassidy.”
In Oliver Trager’s The American Book of the Dead, he quotes Eileen as saying she had picked out the name before the birth, because “I thought it sounded good for either a boy or a girl.” And Weir, who was strumming the incipient tune in the room next door to the birth, says “I named in ‘Cassidy’ because it was born the same day as Cassidy Law.”
One thing writing these weekly blogs posts is teaching me, is that no matter how long I have lived with these songs, they have more to give, and I have more to learn about the songs. I’ve been corrected on at least one point every week by the most excellent folks who take the time to comment on the posts. I take time to re-read the material I can lay my hands on (having given away most of my Grateful Dead library a few years back to the Marin History Museum…). And I stumble across some gems in the essays and entries I do find. Richard Gehr, in the liner notes to “So Many Roads,” writes beautifully about the lyrics, and has enlightening things to say about “Cassidy.” He describes the song as “[tuning] in to the lively, lonely frequency of “Cowboy Neal” Cassady.”
Well, that’s enough. Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine….