Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Caution"
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!)
If I ever find a vintage sign at a railroad crossing that actually says “Caution: Do Not Stop On Tracks,” I will be sorely tempted to steal it. Maybe that’s why you don’t see signs with those exact words—they’ve all been stolen by Deadheads. (This is one of two early “signage” songs, the other being “No Left Turn Unstoned,” aka “Cardboard Cowboy,” a reference to the unbelievable number of “No Left Turn” signs in San Francisco, I believe. Are there more songs based on street signs? A new motif!)
“Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” dates back to the very early days of the band—1965. It’s the second song in the Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which is organized chronologically (although I am positive, given the crowd I’m writing for, that this will be corrected in short order). It’s also the second song on the So Many Roads anthology set, which features the studio version of the song, recorded in November 1965 at Golden State Studios in San Francisco, as part of the Warlocks’ Emergency Crew demo for Autumn Records.
The first note we have of a live performance is November 3, 1965, at Mother’s in San Francisco. Or, at least, that’s what some source told me at some point. DeadBase X lists the first known performance as January 8, 1966, at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. It was likely played many times during the largely undocumented 1966-67 era, and remained in the repertoire through 1968-1969, dropping to only occasional performances in the early 1970s, ending with a performance on May 11, 1972, at the Rotterdam Civic Hall in the Netherlands. The song appeared as an instrumental jam occasionally, in 1974, 1978, 1979, and 1981.
The credits for the song are confused and variable. Ice Nine credits The Grateful Dead with the words and music in most situations, but in the Annotated Lyrics book, we credit Ron McKernan with both words and music, probably because the Anthem of the Sun album does the same. The Golden Road box set credits “Garcia/Kreutzmann/Lesh/McKernan/Weir.”
Phil Lesh’s autobiography, Searching For the Sound, contains this origin story:
“At one point, we were standing out there, entranced by the rhythm of the wheels clickety-clacking over the welds in the rails; Billy and I looked at each other and just knew—we simultaneously burst out, ‘We can play this!’ ‘This’ later turned into ‘Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks),’ one of our simplest yet farthest-reaching musical explorations. Based on the train rhythm, it had only one chord and was played at a blistering tempo…”
And Bob Weir remembers it this way:
"How the Caution jam developed is we were driving around listening to the radio, like we used to do a lot, and the song Mystic Eyes by Them was on, and we were all saying, 'Check this out! We can do this!' So we got to the club where we were playing and we warmed up on it. We lifted the riff from Mystic Eyes and extrapolated it ito Caution, and I think Pigpen just made up the words."
What I love about these two stories is that though they involve different plot elements, they share that “Aha!” moment when they realize: “We can do this!” or “We can play this!” And that is a little window into the enthusiasm behind those early explorations into pure sound—whether it was replicating another band’s sound, or the sound of a train. Anyone who has challenged him or herself as a musician to explore new techniques or sounds is familiar with that sensation, that buzz from trying to get to a certain level or achieve in the real world a sought-after sound.
Dennis McNally’s biography of the band relates that "As the band continued to play their grueling sets at the In Room, they noticed that the trains on nearby tracks rolled by at consistent times every night. Rather than waiting for the trains to pass, or trying to drown out the noise, they chose to play along with the rumble of the trains. Within a few nights, they took that train noise, combined it with a fragment of the song "Mystic Eyes," by Them (whose lead singer was Van Morrison) and created "Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)."
One last version, again from Weir, in an interview with Jas Obrecht: “We, late in ’65, got into the studio. Ah, wait a minute – come to think of it, we played something that was pretty loose. We put down a track – I don’t think it was ever released anywhere – it was called “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks).” Or we just referred to it as “Caution.” That was sort of an ironic name for the tune, because caution was anything but what the tune was about. And it was just, I guess, our loose interpretation of the ride – and THE RIDE in capital letters.”
“...Pigpen just made up the words.” A fun thing to think about. Pigpen made up so many different words to this song that any attempt to nail down the “actual” lyrics is doomed. There are lengthy transcriptions of many variants of Pigpen’s renditions of “Caution” over the years, but the basic plot line involves consulting a Gypsy fortune-teller about the singer’s problems with his girlfriend, and coming away with a charm, a mojo hand, to solve his problems. The words make no attempt to conform to any rhyme or rhythm scheme—they are more or less spoken over the jam, and Pigpen could embellish to his heart’s content.
Simple yet far-reaching. Nicely put, Phil! Listening to the studio version of “Caution” tonight, I felt the raw power of the band, testing its wings, immersed in the blues, and with that amazing, driving train-based rhythm. Warlocks, about to transform themselves. Time to enjoy THE RIDE.
I loved reading about them playing along with the train. It reminds me of seeing them once in Ventura (can't remember which year or day, though - saw so many great shows there.) The train tracks ran right behind the stage, and it sure seemed like they knew the train schedule perfectly - they did play in time with the train. Now I understand a little more about that, thank you. Hey, they may have been having their own kind of flashback!
What IS a mojo hand, anyway? I mean, I know you put some mojo in a bag and call it gris-gris, but what about the hand part? Is it a mummified monkey hand? Did Pigpen know what he was singing about? I bet he did. He still surprises me to this day with his wisdom. Every rap seems to contain some little tidbit that I could not have predicted. How about that Lovelight on DaP 6 (the one from 12/20/69)? He gets into some very intense abuse and even gunplay there, and I did not expect all of that. But anyway, if you need "just a touch of mojo hand", does the gypsy woman take it out of a box and stroke your cheek with it? Or does she grind up some of it for your gris-gris bag? I need to know and Google is not helping.
Sometimes Ill be listening to certain shows and I'll think "Is that Caution?!" Glad Im not crazy. I know they went into the Caution Jam on the Movie soundtrack, I know because that is what the track listing says! Ha! But I always thought that was kind of an homage to Pigpen since it was right after He's Gone. I don't think any other releases that have tidbits of Caution Jams are labeled as such, maybe that helps prove the homage. I dont know...good stuff though.
Many Thanks, Many cartoon cats from the 50s,60s. My next guess was gonna be Felix the Cat.(Righty Oh). Fritz the Cat is a whole other story. Now lets see, Cats Under the Stars, Cat Balou, Cat Scratch Fever, Cat Claw Acacia. I love Caution. Looking forward to the Pigpen lovefest release in May.
Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse.
David, that "first note we have of a live performance" of Caution, purportedly at Mother's in San Francisco on Nov 3 1965, is actually - I mean apparently! - a mistaken attribution to that venue, given in early DeadBases (and maybe some prior set-list sources), of the Warlocks' Autumn Records demo session of that date (but DeadBase III, anyway, while giving the location as Mother's, does note it as the demo session). Mother's was a club owned by Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell, owners of the Autumn Records label; quickest reference I have to this is Dennis McNally's A Long Strange Trip, pp.96-97. But Nov 3 evidently wasn't a live club gig but a studio date, at Golden State Recorders south of Market Street. That's the corrected location given in DeadBase VII, if not earlier, though named there "Golden State Studios" (which is the name also given in the So Many Roads and Birth of the Dead CD sets); its official name, though, appears to be Golden State Recorders: refer to the tape-box labels or note sheets reproduced on p.104 of The Deadhead's Taping Compendium Volume 1 (which are from 1966, mainly of live-gigs recordings elsewhere, go figure); McNally names it Golden State Recorders.
Wow--I love the group of commenters here. What a treasure trove of memory and information. Thanks!
I love the train roaring by analogy. Now where did Phil get that bass line. I know it was some 60s TV cartoon. Top Cat?, Crusader Rabbit?
Yes, the Bayshore is US101, not CA101, my mistake. Good catch.
As to the "South Bay" versus "Mid-Peninsula" argument, that is mainly for locals, and mainly for locals of a certain age. I was looking for a generic term that would make sense to readers, and since El Camino Real goes from South San Francisco to San Jose, I chose "South Bay."