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!
The original Europe '72 version is the one I connected with too, and I have yet to find one I like better. It was recorded on 5/3/72 in Paris, and if I am not mistaken, the live vocal is the one used on the newer box set and individual show release. It's not all that different from the overdub except for a few inflections. It's fun to listen to the new-mix-with-live-vocal because the musical nuances you know so well are there, but in a slightly different context. It certainly sounds more live. I don't know if any guitar parts were overdubbed. In any case they are off-the-charts great. In this modern flood of archival releases it's easy to forget how much better the versions chosen by the band themselves really are. There's a reason they picked them and worked so hard on mixing them.
...and Bobby's transition into IKYR are usually pure bliss for me. I always thought that RH wrote the words during or soon after a LSD trip. For some reason I was under the assumption that not much comprehensive thought went into the words, other than they blended very well together. All together a fantastic psychedelic tune, if there ever was one.
We should all know the story of the Gordian Knot and how the riddle of its impossible untying was solved by Alexander with a single swipe of the sword. Slice and dice as you might, however, Hunter’s little China Cat Sunflower Gordian Knot can neither be actually untied nor constrained along the line by a singular definition because its nature is intellectual rather than physical: The solution to its riddle can never be found, but it can (as Jimi famously noted) be experienced. You can get inside that knot and crawl around all you like, even take it to another universe or reality all together for alternate opinions, but when you step back outside again the riddle of that little china cat, hopefully without a scratch as in the old days, revealing all and nothing, like the Sphinx, will still be sitting there. No doubt laughing its ass off.
Nice work, Hunter.
the opening riffs by Jerry and Bobby always put a smile on my face.
like B2B says, there are no dud CCSs.
Aoxomoxoa's version is awesome, as well.
CCS is pure psychedelia.
a leaf of all colors plays a golden string fiddle to a double e waterfall over my back.
Always a crowd favorite... I don't believe I've ever heard a sub par China Cat in concert. It has never failed to get everyone up and dancing.
I love the old-school treatment Furthur gives it, with Jeff's organ fills that harken back to Pigpen.
And I'm pretty sure that it was Europe 72's China Cat playing on the stereo when I first 'got it' some 30+ years ago.
a wild heady flash a clarion call to new spaces within. I love this song-never tire of it( always like "Cosmic Charley" too but of course "China Cat" to me is not ironic-just a pure blast). A fellow traveler along this path may be Jefferson Airplane's "If You Feel". Heady, cool days indeed perhaps the likes of which may never be glimpsed again.
This song was a product of it's time and was just dripping with psychedelia. It doesn't really matter what the words were or if they made any sense. Some times I think words were included with some songs just because that was the way things were done, when in truth, for certain of Hunter's compositions, Jerry made them irrelevant. This one just screamed with hipster terms.
The only historical error of fact was the amount of times China Cat was played solo after Rider was attached for the first time. There were more than a handful of occasions and surely more than the reverse - when Rider was played without China Cat. One example in addition to the one David mentioned is 7/28/88: China Cat>Crazy Fingers>I No U Rider. I can't find more of them at the moment. Not that it matters.
Dead trivia. It's endless.
In any case, China Cat was a great song with a mostly faithful mate and surely a crowd-pleaser that the Heads never seemed to tire of, despite it's 500-plus renditions.
Many may argue, and with good cause, that Dark Star is probably the Grateful Dead's seminal work, but China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider on Europe '72, as David said, is what did it for me and, even more than Sugar Magnolia, I wanted to hear it at every concert. Bob's and Jerry's signature riffs are the first things I usually play whenever I pick up my guitar. A true masterpiece that sits right beside Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and White Rabbit in the pantheon of songs that both molded, and as we now look back, defined the psychedelic experience. I suppose to a large extent that the music defined the experience, but psychedelics further refined the sound and music into songs such as this which, if you were to actually sit down and try to write words and a melody to adequately describe, and more importantly, creatively accompany the wonders of a trip on LSD or mescaline, China Cat Sunflower, both alone but preferably with I Know You Rider, is about as close, mind-blowingly friendly and succinct as you're ever going to get. White Rabbit blew down all the doors (with exceptional Grace, I might add), Lucy painted the kaleidoscope landscapes, and the China Cat Sunflower took us "proud-walking jingle" through our imagination from there.
Were I to pick one recording to put into a time capsule to epitomize all of the hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations of the entire psychedelic evolution in human consciousness, like the Tao itself, China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider from Europe '72 would be the One, because on that particular night in the City of Light, and with exceptional thanks to Bob and Betty for countless cosmic days and nights with the stereo thereafter, the Grateful Dead, for an oft-described garage band, really nailed it. And that goes for a few other songs on that album as well.
I don't know, or maybe it's just because it's the One we Riders of the Rainbow all rode together.
Carl Sagan should have thought of that when he was compiling Voyager's album. I'm actually more surprised that he didn't...
Hmmm. Wonder if a Dead Head somehow managed to find a way onto that team before the hatch was closed, which would make Cumberland Blues the first contact with whatever lies beyond instead of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. You just never know when it comes to these kinda things. Triple album couldn't really weigh that much more or less than a gold disc, now could it... ;)
(Insert mental picture of Ice Cream Kid here.)