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.
(In my personal and social lexicon, the "South Bay" is/was Milpitas, San Jose, Santa Clara, Campbell, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, maybe Mountain View and Los Altos, and so on, and probably Fremont and environs on the east side of the bay. Palo Alto is maybe not South Bay, or maybe it is - we might have to do a time-traveling lexical survey to know what the common usage was in the mid-'60s. But Belmont, San Carlos, San Mateo, and so on, I would call, now and back then, mid-Peninsula, or just towns on the Peninsula, not "South Bay" - though they are in the urban geography of the southern body of San Francisco Bay, south of the Bay Bridge. [In my understanding, that was never what "South Bay" referred to.] Do folks nowadays consider the whole area around the southern portion of San Francisco Bay [maybe except for the "East Bay," of course!] "South Bay"?)
(now, another fine point to pick: the highway isn't "CA 101" but "U.S. 101")
- I don't mean to harangue, gosh (and hope you aren't feeling that I am); just going slightly bullheaded toward correct minutiae....
working overtime today, my new coworker who is about 57, related a story to me about the day of his birth. He was born on the same day as his parent's wedding anniversary and his father, who was a dump truck driver for a Milwaukee construction company at the time, was working that day and trying to get home so he could get to the hospital. On his last run to a construction site, he was trying to get across a deeply rutted RR track crossing with a full load and trying to beat an oncoming train. The truck got stuck - with a Hiawatha (now Amtrak) headed right at him. The passenger train hit the truck so hard that it split the cab from the body and pushed it from the tracks, which was the only reason that he survived. He finished by saying that the long standing joke on his birthday was the ongoing argument over who had it rougher that day.
Guess I don't have much to say about this. One of my favorite lines in a Caution is from the one on Dick's Picks 16 when they go back into Caution from the Main Ten Jam. Pig Pen's lady told him she would have told him the same thing the Gypsy Woman told him, so Pig Pen "said shucks, I guess I didn't need to go all the way down to that Gypsy Woman after all."
And also, when Phil and Friends was at the Capitol Theater back in November they opened the second set with a little bit of Feedback > Caution, and from the front row it was really something awesome to witness.
In the 1960s, and today, El Camino Real is as mark-mumper describes it: a 4-to-6 lane (2-3 each way) urban thoroughfare that runs up and down the South Bay, with many stoplights. Back in the 1920s, however, Old County Road, the site of the long-gone In Room, served that function (Old County Road goes under different names in different South Bay cities).
What we now call El Camino Real was built on the opposite side of the SP train tracks, to act as the main North-South highway between San Francisco and San Jose. As various planned bridges were increasing traffic in the South Bay, road capacity needed to increase (the only existing N/S road was what is now Skyline Boulevard). The road was named the Bayshore Highway. The concept of controlled-access freeways didn't really exist on a broad scale prior to WW2, and not for some time after.
After WW2, when traffic demands expanded, "the Bayshore" (known as "The Bloody Bayshore" since it was so dangerous) was moved and expanded over time to its current corridor, nearer the Bay itself. El Camino Real was re-named, to distinguish it from the newly built Bayshore (now CA 101).
The point I was trying to make originally was that Old County Road had been the main local road, on one side of the tracks, and the "other" road (now El Camino Real) was the main highway. Even by the time the Dead were playing the In Room in 1965, that geography was just a hazy memory.
jbxpro, good mention of that Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks) in the Phil and Friends Warfield performance. Joan's rendition of bereft relationship loss is matchless, I think. Seems from a deeper emotional truth, in the moment it appears, than anything I know from Pigpen renditions of this song; more like something deep and hurtfully true that he revealed in The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion). His Cautions seem more narrative (and ritual chant) than emotional lyrical speech (to get blah-blah-blah about it...).
Hmm. Some of this is news to me (which may not be saying much).
I grew up in the Bay Area, lived there for years, traveled these roads a fair amount (in the '50s and '60s, '70s). But I'm a post-war child, and to my mind, maybe historically uninformed, the term "freeway" is something (for the Bay Area, anyway, if not southern California) for postwar usage....Now the name Bayshore Highway rings a bell, as in "Old Bayshore Highway," a name I'm familiar with (but couldn't at the moment say certainly what it referred to in the '60s - though I would guess something eastward of the El Camino Real I'm familiar with).
El Camino Real, the road as I knew it, was an urban thoroughfare running up the Peninsula and through the hearts of most of those Bay-side Peninsula towns - not an expressway, and certainly not a controlled-access freeway, but a regular (mainly four-lane?, two each direction, if I remember correctly - or maybe only two lanes in some in-town stretches, I can't recall; but those stretches included side-of-the-street parking - not a freeway!)
You're sharing a lot of info here. Is it simply knowledge you bring up from memory and experience (which is only what my descriptions are from, other than a quick map check to confirm the relative locations of modern-day El Camino and Hwy 101), or are you including some other source's info? It reads a bit like something from a transportation-infrastructure history.
What is now known as CA State Route 82, usually called El Camino Real in most South Bay cities, was primarily the Bayshore Freeway prior to World War 2. As various Bridges were built and South Bay auto traffic increased, the Bayshore Freeway was moved further East, to what is more or less the current corridor for Highway 101. Much of the current Highway 101 is on Bay landfill that was water prior to WW2.
However, when it was built, what is now known as El Camino Real was largely the Bayshore Highway. Different stretches of road were migrated to the current Freeway path, and eventually the newly named El Camino Real and the Bayshore Freeway (later Highway 101) became the separate roads they are today.
The Bayshore Freeway was/is (don't know whether it's still called that) U.S. Highway 101, not the same road (through Belmont and most of the Peninsula, anyway) as El Camino Real. El Camino runs northward further up from (that is, west of) the bay shore and 101.
The precise address of the In Room in Belmont is lost, but I know the approximate location. It was on the odd (Eastern) side of the 700 block of Old County Road, in Belmont, CA. If you googlemap to 707 Old County Road, Belmont, CA, 94002, you can see the apartment complex that replaced the block with the In Room.
Old County Road, the original main road of San Mateo County, was superseded by El Camino Real (CA State Route 82) in the late 1920s, then called the Bayshore Freeway, which runs from South San Francisco to San Jose. In Belmont, the old Southern Pacific train tracks run right between El Camino Real (on the Western side) and Old County Road (on the Eastern side). The SP tracks are still heavily used today, although they are the province of Cal Train.
The Belmont CalTrain station is at El Camino Real and Ralston, just about a mile South of the old location of the In Room. So if any of you Northern Californians commute by Cal Train, put on your iPod and crank up "Caution" right before (from SF) or after (from Palo Alto) the Belmont Station, and maybe you can pick up the exact vibe that the Warlocks got.
No Turn Left Unstoned