Greatest Stories Ever Told - "China Cat Sunflower"
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!)
I wasn’t sure exactly why, but I had been saving “China Cat Sunflower” for a special occasion. Celebrating the start of a new year seems like an appropriate occasion, so let’s look at what is probably my number one desert-island song. I mean, if I had to whittle it all down to just one song I could bring with me, this would be it. And in particular the Europe ’72 recording.
This song opened my ears to the band in a big way. And I have spent many hours with it over the years, never getting tired of it. I don’t tire of it musically, or lyrically. I don’t tire of the interplay between the words and the music. I relish each new dive into this song.
And I’m not sure why this is. I do remember when it “happened” to me. I was home for Christmas break from college, and a friend and I went shopping for records. She was a huge Deadhead, and I was a neophyte. She told me I should buy the triple Europe ’72 album, so I did. And that night, I put it on my parents’ record player—an old Magnavox console--when they were somewhere out and about, and listened. I lay on the floor of their living room, and stared at the cottage-cheese ceiling, and watched the patterns form and re-form there, to the music that was playing—such a delicate constellation of intertwined guitar notes. I couldn’t believe the intricacy! I couldn’t fathom how it was being done.
And I don’t think I actually understood very many of the words—they were more like part of the instrumentation, like the poetry of HD Moe that I later came to love because he used words in this way to create a stained-glass verbal image.
Learning the words took awhile.
First, I started in the time-honored method of lifting the needle from the groove and setting it back just a bit to try to catch the words. My transcription didn’t get very far using this method. It wasn’t until David Gans published an interview with Robert Hunter in BAM magazine, which included the lyrics to “China Cat Sunflower,” that I had any real inkling what was being sung.
That said, actually having the words didn’t do that much to clarify anything, and I think that’s just exactly what Robert Hunter would have wanted.
Hunter’s statements about the song include this, from his lyric anthology, A Box of Rain:
“Nobody ever asked me the meaning of this song. People seem to know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s good that a few things in this world are clear to all of us.”
And, from an interview with David Gans, in his Conversations with the Dead:
“I think the germ of ‘China Cat Sunflower’ came in Mexico, on Lake Chapala. I don’t think any of the words came, exactly-the rhythms came. I had a cat sitting on my belly, and was in a rather hypersensitive state, and I followed this cat out to—I believe it was Nepture—and there were rainbows across Neptune, and cats marching across the rainbow. This cat took me in all these cat places; there’s some essence of that in the song.”
The song is part of what was a set of lyrics sent by Hunter to the band when they recruited him to be the lyricist for the group. A note on Alex Allan’s Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site says: “Robert Hunter played Saint Stephen>Alligator>China Cat Sunflower>The Eleven>China Cat Sunflower on 18 March 2003 to illustrate how the songs had originally been conceived.”
The kaleidoscope of imagery in the song does seem fairly clear in the overall state of mind it’s communicating. Hunter referred to the effect as something along the lines of a “glittery image bank,” saying: I can sit right here and write you a ‘China Cat’ or one of those things in ten minutes. How many of those things do you need…?”
Given that’s true, still—I’m endless fascinated by the selection of images in the song, and the way they play off each other and off of my own state of mind or place of being at any given moment or stage in my life.
Hunter mailed the lyrics to the band in mid-1967, and by January 1968 the band was performing a medley of songs that included “Dark Star,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and “The Eleven.” The first known live version of the song dates from a Carousel Ballroom performance on January 17, 1968. The song evolved over the ensuing months, including changes in key, tempo, and arrangement, until sometime in the summer of 1969, when it was paired, for the first time, with “I Know You Rider.” Once that pairing became the standard, it was locked in, with the single exception noted in DeadBase being a March 9, 1985 version where it went into “Cumberland Blues.” “China Cat” remained steadily the repertoire, with the exception of the years 1975-1978, when it was played just once, in 1977. Overall, it was performed live 552 times that we know of, making it the fifth most-played song by the band, and number one in songs sung by Garcia. Its final performance was on July 8, 1995, at Soldier Field, in Chicago.
The song was released in its studio version on Aoxomoxoa, in June 1969.
Looking at the lyrics as a whole, and comparing them to a kaleidoscope in the effect they have on the mind, I see a range of accessible and yet mysterious associations and cross-references. Maybe it’s a reflection of Hunter’s mind in the self-described “hypersensitive state,” but it works fine for any listener who can picture silk trombones, violin rivers, Cheshire cats peeking through lace bandanas, and crazy quilt star gowns. I see crazy quilts, and lacey patterns, and weaving in and out of everything, cats. No commonality seems to link the imagery, except that they can take us on a journey.
We see Leonardo da Vinci’s mirror-script, for instance. If you happened to be holding the album cover for Aoxomoxoa in your hand, the mirroring is the theme both of the album’s title and of Rick Griffin’s artwork. Mirrors feature in a couple of early Hunter lyrics, from “Dark Star’s” shattering mirror, to the window-mirror in “Rosemary.” The mirror in “China Cat” is introduced only if you find yourself thinking about the “Leonardo words.”
As far as the cats go, we have a number of possibilities. First, there’s the China Cat of the title and first line. There’s a whole ceramic artform in Japan, dating to the 17th century, devoted to creating and decorating china cats, called Kutani, in which ceramic cats are beautifully painted. A related version of these cats is called Satsuma.
Some things just resist logic or understanding—how the particular journey Hunter was on transpired is completely out of our reach, as is that of any one of us taken as an individual. And yet we can share the sense of the experience, understanding that there is something beyond reason, something vast and visual and auditory that is ready to be tapped at any moment, if only we can access that place and state of being.
I am very happy that Robert Hunter gave it a go. And I’m glad to know that there are those who understand without needing to understand.
Happy New Year, everyone!
I know I'm a little late to this discussion but I wanted to contribute. It took me a few listens to really appreciate China Cat. The lyrics were (and continue to be) such a befuddlement that I didn't really know what to make of the song. But then I was at a show one time and really in the right 'frame of mind' when they played it and it was like having a knockout blow hit me square in the chin. I freaked out over how amazing the song is.
It is such an incredible feel good journey. It makes me happy every time I hear it. Even all these decades later I still only remember about half the lyrics because they are so f'n esoteric. I don't care because inserting my made up lyrics as I happily sing along is just so goddamned fun.
I love the intricate guitar interplay in the beginning. The transition to Rider is always so cool. The version recorded in the Philly Spectrum featured on Dick's Picks 31 is pretty righteous. Phil's bass playing during the transition is really rad.
Greatest Band in the History of the Universe!
The lyrics struck me as not that odd because they were chosen seemingly for sound and rhythm with the disparate effect created by the meaning as ordered chaos, creating imagery where the imagery abstractly created the narrative rather than providing a nice neat narrative understood linearly. Maybe Schoenbergian, maybe Cagian, maybe a little bit of Borroughs mash up. I don't know perhaps growing up with a post 12 tone piano composer for a grandfather recalibrated me. Certainly there was beat poetry or on the fringes of it that had a similar flavor, with perhaps a bit more linear presentation.
My first experience of CCS might be my first experience of GD. In 1973, my little sister's babysitter left a copy of E72 at our house. I found an old record player in the basement and drag it up to my room in the attic, fired it up, waited for the tubes to warm up and put on that side. I wasn't know what to expect and that album changed my life. I had to get a second copy pretty soon because that record player would go 2/3rds of the way through the side and then stick, resulting in some aggravation and damage. Forever I'll hear Tennessee Jed with "My dog he, my dog, he, my dog, he, etc."
First time I heard it live was in the September 1979 MSG shows. Never thought I'd ever hear it live, so that was a treat, but I was kind of disappointed that Jerry took over Bobby's riffs in the transition and to my ear didn't do a great job at it. It was a light and lively dance that turned into a heavy lumber. I've always wanted to ask Bobby why that happened.
Great, great, song, though. One of the best.
just essence of the Dead. Lyrics are colorful, happy, major chord happy. crazy quilt stargown comic book colors on a violin river? That is major league stuff..then the ikyr. sign me up for life
A Separate Reality Tune; never ever will grow tired of the China Cat. I also had many of the lyrics wrong but not the point of the song.
The launch into China Cat by the boys always brought the crowd to attention and off we went.
A poster this morning (his post has since disappeared) turned me on to the version from 5/26/72 and I have to say I think it grooves even more deeply than the original E72 version. It's just a tad slower and the singing and playing are more free. Billy is very active at the top, before Bob chimes in. Phil delivers some nice chord bombs in the middle. Weir's outro transition part is not quite as articulated, but the song proper is right up there with my all-time faves now. Check it out!
As you can tell by my handle, I have a special love for China>Rider. I had heard some Dead and didn't understand the great attraction until I bought Europe 72 and first heard Chinacat into I Know You Rider. Not being familiar with Jazz I had never encountered any band who could so seemlessly transition from one song into another. It was hard to tell where one song stopped and the other started. As a young teen this was a revelation for me. I played it for everyone I knew and when the band came around on the next tour I went with my brother and his friends. The rest, as they say, is history.
There is nothing like a Grateful Dead Concert.
They aren't the best at what they do, they are the only ones who do what they do.
Whenever the Dead would play China Cat Sunflower it was like an old dear friend appearing out of the crowd. Many exhilarating journeys would fly from that reference. So many great versions starting with the album Aoxomoxoa. In particular I think of 8/27/72 and 12/29/77 as outstanding. And yes the jam from China Cat into I Know You Rider could be downright spiritual in the sense of either spiritual song/music and or spiritual/mystical/religious experience. Another Grateful Dead anomaly situation was the 3/9/85 Berkeley Community Theater version of China Cat played into Cumberland Blues.
I'm sure I read an interview with Garcia once where he told of a guy with a tape-recorder coming up to him pre- or post-show and asking what the lyrics to CCS were. Jerry speaks them, the guy says "Thanks" and wanders off.
If this Song tells us Anything
It tells us how Brilliant is the Imagination
of Robert Hunter
( or maybe its always been his Cat....hmmm )
Then comes the Creative Genius of the Band, especially the Jerry and Bob Interplay that gives this song such Energy and Brings these Images to Life.
Hunter's words open up a World of Wonder that , like David says,
I Understand that I don't Understand...but its so Fun to Try!
Someone said that
"Perception is a Projection of the Mind"
and I've 'got mine and you've got yours'
Robert Hunter has an Amazing Percption
China Cat is a Projection of Hunter's Mind.
One can only Wonder at what other Thoughts were Racing through his Mind on that Hypersensitive Day that couldn't be put into Words.
Robert Hunter's Gift is finding the Words to Express his Thoughts
and a Deep Understanding of many many Subjects.
(utilizing assonance and alliteration and all that poetic artistry)
China Cat is like a Free Flowing Stream of Hunter's Consciousness.
I just so happen to be Re-reading Carol Brightman's "Sweet Chaos-The Grateful Dead's American Adventure"
In Chapter One she gives an account of Hunter's experience in 1959&60 undergoing the Government's Experiment with "Psychomimetic [Madness-Mimicking] drugs" at the VA Hospital in Menlo, Ca.
How would You have liked to be an Observer of that Whole Scene??
Or would you have Dared to be a Participant?
Page 21 of the book says this :
"During one session, tears had poured out of his eyes,
and the clinician asked why he was crying.
'I'm not crying,' Hunter explained.
'I'm in another dimension.
I'm inhabiting the body of a great green Buddha
and there's a pool that is flowing out of my eyes.' "
WoW What a Trip!!
Hunter was On the Bus before there Ever was a Bus!!
Nothing makes me happier than a China Cat in Europe.