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 think Joan Osborne singing this with Phil & Friends on the Live At the Warfield DVD is marvelous. It's a great performance, she gets the angst behind it just like Pigpen did. And the gender-bender aspect of her singing it adds to it so much. Of course she doesn't have Bobby and the young Phil giving all they've got to the "All you need" chorus.
According to Tom Wolfe in 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test', Paul Foster liked to make punning signs and placed one that said, "No Left Turn Unstoned" at the entrance to Kesey's driveway in La Honda.
Is that really a reference to an abundance of street signs saying "No Left Turn" or simply a play on "No Stone Left Unturned?"