Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Cassidy"
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….
I guess we had something of an unspoken agreement- I would choose the baby's name if it were a girl, and she if it were a boy. Knowing full well the significance of the song, I picked Cassidy, mainly because I had lost my dear sweet grandmother just 5 months prior and wanted to honor her by incorporating her name as well- Cassidy Elisabeth. It had a nice ring to it. Andrew turned out to be a boy, and that was 22 and a half years ago. Boy or girl, I still could not be happier.
But I had to think in the months between her passing and his arrival, that the two might've enjoyed some time together. A couple months ago, Andrew told me that he had dreamed of someone who was his grandmother- it definitely wasn't my mother- but she seemed awfully familiar to him... like he'd met her before.
And I have to confess, I am also a cat lover. Got 5 right now, and the inmates are definitely running the asylum...
As is Iam Grateful, I too am a cat lover and have had many cats in these last 35 years, and as you know, cats come and they go and to have one that stays with you for 20 years, that is a true bond of love and devotion and you can only get with a cat. I had a cat, his name was Bear, he was the most loving and playful cat ever, he would go door to door in the neighborhood and do tricks for the folks for treats, everyone around knew Bear, he would make his rounds and do his little tricks, sit up, roll over, shake hands, just like a dog, only better. Just like his name sake, he died in an auto accident.
Enter Ruby Begonia, a black cat that shone deep red in the sun, she was a beauty. We were going to name her scarlet, but Ruby just fit better. Gone in the wink of an eye, one day she was there, the next, gone and never seen again.
Enter Jerry, big badass tabby, ruled the roost, lived for a short time before ran down by dogs and killed.
Enter Lil Jerry, sweet and cute, black and white, feline lieukemia took him from us.
Enter Phil, PJ for short, best cat ever, lived with us thru three moves, then just vanished in to thin air.
I have a real problem with people who just pick up animals from along side the road thinking that they are helping them, they could be someones pet, just lost or out roaming around, some times these pets do not have tags or leashes or any identifying marking or collar. For anyone who has just lost a pet, there one min and gone the next, this is the worst thing that can happen, there is no closure, you don't know what happened to your soulmate and all you can do is hope that they are in a good place and not all the other horrible things that you can imagine one thinks when their pet is stolen. This has happened to me several times and I for one would like to get my hands on these people just for one day so perhaps I could make them understand just how hurtful it is to "pick up a pet" along side of the road and take it home and make it yours. Now, I am petless for this exact reason and my next pet will never go outside, never leave my side unless they are secure in their surroundings.
Actually, I have heard that there is a bounty out for stray cats and dogs, and in this economic time, people will do anything for a buck, even kill your best friend. So, to all who have had pets stay with them for life, you are very lucky.
my favorite moment was somewhere on the 1987 summer tour, when I overheard some Head in the crowd calling his wandering canine: "Barlow! Here Barlow!"
these songs take on different meanings at different stages of one's life. I guess that's why we all seem to stay interested.
I believe some of us have this wonderful connection through this music and our stories may be similar. I don't have any children. I have cats. Indulge me in the 2 before Cassidy. Going back 20 years ago I rescued a cat and named her China Cat Sunflower. China or Chinacat for short. The vet had a deadhead working there and knew the connection. The vet would say -- is she some kind of show cat with a name like that? Oh well -- he missed out on something. There were several connections with her -- we loved watching her jingle.....like a crazy-quilt star gown for she was the beautiful calico with Egyptian eyes. She was a deadhead -- oh yes she was. No lie -- she came to the music every time we played it. It was amazing. No matter where she was -- she came to hang with us when the Dead were playing. We had such a connection to her with that. She was some reincarnate of someone. She was with us through thick and thin for 20 years. She has left us and gone on to her next journey. XOXO
Next -- StellaBlue. She, also a rescue, had a shimmer of blue with her coloring. Fit the name. Then she seemed to take on the persona of Stella in a Streetcar named desire. Another fit. She was crazy and mixed up yet so lovable and sad. She needed to be close. She is a wonderful soul to have around. I love her with all my heart. She is mine and I am hers and she knows that but when the next one came she was a little upset.
Now Cassidy -- So many things about the "other one" as we called her (Cowboy Neal at the wheel). She has seen where the "wolf has slept by the silver stream." A beautiful Siamese, she was abandoned by someone. A beautiful cat like that isn't a stray. With her 4 kittens she ended up in my basement window well. I had just gotten home from GOTV - Jerry's celebration which in itself is cosmic. Anyway, we watched her care and nurture these babies and were mesmerized by how insightful. She let me help her with them. She showed me how she would take care of them but welcomed me to keep them safe as well. They were but only a few weeks old when I found them. This tells me she had traveled with them through "countless trees". Long story short there but "what you are, what you're meant to be...born to me Cassidy." She and I have a very special bond as though we WERE meant to be. All is well with her here. Her babes, which we have found wonderful homes for -- "faring thee well now - let your life proceed by its own design - nothing to tell now - let the words be yours I'm done with mine." Life goes on. She is happy and so are we.
Next?? Who knows. Certainly we will continue to have the Dead in our lives.
Mr Dodd's writing too. I completely agree with hearing an entire life in the song. And it seems that I learn something new every week on songs I've been listening to for a long time. Its really great reading these blogs and see how differently people feel about each song.
A little story for you ~ I was fortunate enough to perform in a production of HAIR during my sophomore year of college. We all got to choose our own stage names it was then that a part of me became Cassidy forever. Flight of the sea birds ~ scattered like lost words .... she became me, Cassidy
Right--that's the essay that Barlow let me include in the book. Excellent piece of writing! Thank you for the kind words.
Beautiful story--wow! Thanks, Larry! And thank you, Luna and Hal, for your stories as well. And Anna and mustin321, for the comments about this song. Amazingly, I forgot to re-read Barlow's essay before writing this little blog post. And it's probably a good thing I did forget, because otherwise I would have thought how pointless it would be for me to try to say anything!
I like your writing very much. I'll have to catch up on some of your other blogs. And if you hadn't ever seen this, it's an awesome read:
Barlow explains the birth of this great song.