• August 21, 2014
    http://www.dead.net/features/greatest-stories-ever-told/greatest-stories-ever-told-china-doll
    Greatest Stories Ever Told - "China Doll"

    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!)

    "China Doll"

    “Just a little nervous from the fall.” Is there a more beautiful, beautifully-sung, and stunningly-recorded phrase in all of music? OK, so maybe in something by Brahms, or on Abbey Road, or in some other exquisite piece of music. But I cannot count the number of times over the years that I have been brought up short by that phrase as performed and captured on Mars Hotel. And there’s so much behind it, by the point it happens in the song, that it just takes my breath away. I think that is what the phrase is meant to do, both lyrically and musically, and it succeeds.

    But what all happens up to that point in the song?

    It’s pretty well-known that the song is “about” (how I hate that concept sometimes…) suicide. Or, maybe, a suicide. Its working title was “The Suicide Song.”

    Hard to imagine tackling a much heavier topic than this. “Seeking all that’s still unsung” is a job not for the faint of heart. I think we can agree that Robert Hunter is anything but faint-hearted. But—suicide?

    What is the story in the song? As always with Hunter, ambiguity abounds, of course, so anything I say should be taken with a giant block of salt.

    A conversation is underway. (Or, perhaps it is a monologue, with the singer/narrator addressing another. I find this unlikely, since Hunter’s version of the lyrics as presented in A Box of Rain contains pretty specifically-implemented dialogue indicators, by way of italicized and non-italicized text. Of course, a listener wouldn’t see those on the page, and the band never used two singers ((as in “Jack Straw”)) to differentiate the voices.) Whichever, a series of events is related.

    There was a pistol shot. It happened at such-and-such a time. The “bells of heaven” ring. Those events could be the voice of a third-party narrator.

    Then: Tell me what you done it for. That sounds like the voice, either of an aggrieved lover, a friend, or perhaps a being at the gate of heaven.

    The response’s meaning is colored by whichever of those possible voices you want to consider. Now we have several potential directions in which the song could be heading all at once. And is heading, because of the number of listeners. I only mentioned three possibilities, and I am pretty certain that only scratches the surface, depending on the frame of reference of the listener.

    As the dialogue is laid out, the conversation goes like this:

    Voice A (The Interrogator): Tell me what you done it for.

    Voice B (The Suicide): “No I won’t tell you a thing. Yesterday I begged you before I hit the ground—all I leave behind me is only what I found. If you can abide it let the hurdy-gurdy play—Stranger ones have come by here before they flew away. I will not condemn you, nor yet would I deny….”

    Voice A: I would ask the same of you, but failing will not die. Take up your china doll. It’s only fractured—and just a little nervous from the fall

    OK—this is a complicated conversation, with a great deal of backstory missing, and no narrative to explain. So the story is ours to create. Is the first voice saying, with the final response, that dying was not the logical consequence of doing what Voice B asked “yesterday”? And what could it have been that the suicide had begged of the interrogator? We can only speculate.

    As with the real human beings we come in touch with every day, we really know practically nothing of their history, what they have through or are currently going through. We are encountering each other in the dark, and that kind of encounter requires extreme care.

    What I really wonder about this song is whether it achieves for others what it achieves for me, which is, as almost always with Hunter’s songs, a feeling of empathy for the characters. There is not a right and wrong here. The interrogator does not offer condemnation, just as the suicide does not. Both characters have reasons for their actions, and both are worthy of our sympathy and understanding.

    The manner in which Garcia set this song is another example of songwriting collaboration perfection. And the Mars Hotel recording, with the harpsichord-like (maybe actually a harpsichord?) keyboard part, supports the concept absolutely. It’s a tender song in every way—things have been fractured, but perhaps they can be, in some sense, salvaged.

    As a final note, I love it that the final line is followed up by a “la la la” tag. It’s reminiscent of the final “verse” of “Ripple.” There is something about the use of syllables that carry no explicit meaning that allows them to be invested with whatever meaning is ready to be heard by the listener. Us.

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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!)

"China Doll"

“Just a little nervous from the fall.” Is there a more beautiful, beautifully-sung, and stunningly-recorded phrase in all of music? OK, so maybe in something by Brahms, or on Abbey Road, or in some other exquisite piece of music. But I cannot count the number of times over the years that I have been brought up short by that phrase as performed and captured on Mars Hotel. And there’s so much behind it, by the point it happens in the song, that it just takes my breath away. I think that is what the phrase is meant to do, both lyrically and musically, and it succeeds.

But what all happens up to that point in the song?

It’s pretty well-known that the song is “about” (how I hate that concept sometimes…) suicide. Or, maybe, a suicide. Its working title was “The Suicide Song.”

Hard to imagine tackling a much heavier topic than this. “Seeking all that’s still unsung” is a job not for the faint of heart. I think we can agree that Robert Hunter is anything but faint-hearted. But—suicide?

What is the story in the song? As always with Hunter, ambiguity abounds, of course, so anything I say should be taken with a giant block of salt.

A conversation is underway. (Or, perhaps it is a monologue, with the singer/narrator addressing another. I find this unlikely, since Hunter’s version of the lyrics as presented in A Box of Rain contains pretty specifically-implemented dialogue indicators, by way of italicized and non-italicized text. Of course, a listener wouldn’t see those on the page, and the band never used two singers ((as in “Jack Straw”)) to differentiate the voices.) Whichever, a series of events is related.

There was a pistol shot. It happened at such-and-such a time. The “bells of heaven” ring. Those events could be the voice of a third-party narrator.

Then: Tell me what you done it for. That sounds like the voice, either of an aggrieved lover, a friend, or perhaps a being at the gate of heaven.

The response’s meaning is colored by whichever of those possible voices you want to consider. Now we have several potential directions in which the song could be heading all at once. And is heading, because of the number of listeners. I only mentioned three possibilities, and I am pretty certain that only scratches the surface, depending on the frame of reference of the listener.

As the dialogue is laid out, the conversation goes like this:

Voice A (The Interrogator): Tell me what you done it for.

Voice B (The Suicide): “No I won’t tell you a thing. Yesterday I begged you before I hit the ground—all I leave behind me is only what I found. If you can abide it let the hurdy-gurdy play—Stranger ones have come by here before they flew away. I will not condemn you, nor yet would I deny….”

Voice A: I would ask the same of you, but failing will not die. Take up your china doll. It’s only fractured—and just a little nervous from the fall

OK—this is a complicated conversation, with a great deal of backstory missing, and no narrative to explain. So the story is ours to create. Is the first voice saying, with the final response, that dying was not the logical consequence of doing what Voice B asked “yesterday”? And what could it have been that the suicide had begged of the interrogator? We can only speculate.

As with the real human beings we come in touch with every day, we really know practically nothing of their history, what they have through or are currently going through. We are encountering each other in the dark, and that kind of encounter requires extreme care.

What I really wonder about this song is whether it achieves for others what it achieves for me, which is, as almost always with Hunter’s songs, a feeling of empathy for the characters. There is not a right and wrong here. The interrogator does not offer condemnation, just as the suicide does not. Both characters have reasons for their actions, and both are worthy of our sympathy and understanding.

The manner in which Garcia set this song is another example of songwriting collaboration perfection. And the Mars Hotel recording, with the harpsichord-like (maybe actually a harpsichord?) keyboard part, supports the concept absolutely. It’s a tender song in every way—things have been fractured, but perhaps they can be, in some sense, salvaged.

As a final note, I love it that the final line is followed up by a “la la la” tag. It’s reminiscent of the final “verse” of “Ripple.” There is something about the use of syllables that carry no explicit meaning that allows them to be invested with whatever meaning is ready to be heard by the listener. Us.

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“Just a little nervous from the fall.” Is there a more beautiful, beautifully-sung, and stunningly-recorded phrase in all of music? OK, so maybe in something by Brahms, or on Abbey Road, or in some other exquisite piece of music.
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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "China Doll"
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“Just a little nervous from the fall.” Is there a more beautiful, beautifully-sung, and stunningly-recorded phrase in all of music? OK, so maybe in something by Brahms, or on Abbey Road, or in some other exquisite piece of music. But I cannot count the number of times over the years that I have been brought up short by that phrase as performed and captured on Mars Hotel. And there’s so much behind it, by the point it happens in the song, that it just takes my breath away. I think that is what the phrase is meant to do, both lyrically and musically, and it succeeds.
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“Just a little nervous from the fall.” Is there a more beautiful, beautifully-sung, and stunningly-recorded phrase in all of music? OK, so maybe in something by Brahms, or on Abbey Road, or in some other exquisite piece of music. But I cannot count the number of times over the years that I have been brought up short by that phrase as performed and captured on Mars Hotel. And there’s so much behind it, by the point it happens in the song, that it just takes my breath away. I think that is what the phrase is meant to do, both lyrically and musically, and it succeeds.

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(JG) Hunter has the right to be able to make those decisions downstream. And change them. Like he's got his version of "Lady with a Fan" and "Terrapin" and all that. He's got one version—he's got several versions of it, but one version at least has a beautiful conclusion, where everything comes together finally in the end. I prefer the open—you don't know what happened, we don't know what happened, it's not... It's like the storyteller makes no choice—and neither do we. And neither do you, and neither does anybody else. I prefer that. I prefer to be hanging. I've always been really fond—in folk music, I've always been fond of the fragment. The song that has one verse. And you don't know anything about the characters, you don't know what they're doing, but they're doing something important. I love that. I'm really a sucker for that kind of song. There's a couple of songs in my acoustic set now, I get a chance to do the originals of some of the songs that Hunter and I later warped into alternate reality. There's a song that I do that—I think it's a Civil War song, although I'm not really sure. Its lyrics sound as though they date from about that period of time. But it's a fragment—it tells very little about what's happening. There's only three verses in it, but by the third verse— (ME) What's it called? (JG) It's called "Two Soldiers." You haven't heard me do it out here. I've loved the song for a long time—but I didn't learn it to do until we went to the East Coast. (ME) What happens in it? (JG) Well, this tune starts off with a Boston boy and a friend sitting around a campfire, and the Boston boy is saying, "I'll do what you want me to, provided you write to my mother, if I—if something happens to me." So we don't know what the other guy wanted him to do, and then he talks about his mother a little, like a good 19th-century boy. He talks about his mother a little, and then they go off to the battle. And then there's a great verse of battle stuff that has incredible lines in it. And the battle is over, and at the end of the battle the people who are dead, left on the hill after the battle, are the boy with the curly hair, the Boston boy, and the person he was talking to. So there's nobody to write to mother, and it ends. There's so little to it that you just barely understand what happened. Undoubtedly it was originally 20 verses. But it's got a beautiful melody and it's just real evocative. It's the kind of thing I'm a real sucker for. It's just a beautiful tune. (ME) "Sugaree" is kind of like that for me. (JG) Yeah, "Sugaree" is kind of like that. I like for a song to work that way. All my favorite stuff is like that. They're like little. . . But that's own my personal bias, and Hunter's really aware of it. So he knows how to really—I mean, if I want him to do something that's mysterious, he knows just what I like.
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David, I like your charge to talk about whether this makes us feel empathy with the characters. I can't explain this song, but yes, it does make me feel incredible empathy for the characters. And (speaking as a person with no clinical expertise at all but what the hell) isn't that what suicide is often about, that no one can understand you? When I've felt most depressed I haven't been able to communicate my feelings. The voice that gets louder and louder in your head is that your experience is unconnected with the world around you, that everyone else is crazy and that no one feels like you do. It seems to me that when a counselor or a friend can break through and help a person express his/her locked-up emotions that that’s when healing can occur. So no, I won't tell you what I done it for. If I could tell you then I probably wouldn't have done it. Details to mention are that I've often heard parts of the dialog as coming from different sources than indicated by published quotation marks, especially the "I will not condemn you" line. Who's [not] condemning (or giving up) on whom? And "stranger" is a weighted, Dead-iconic word, such as in the album title "Only the Strange Remain" and the song titles "The Stranger," "Feel Like a Stranger," etc. To me it's often meant in a sarcastic sense like, "I'm the rational one here ... everyone/everything else is inexplicable to me." I love the annotations on the UCSC page you link to about this song and encourage people to read that. The reference to Brueghel's imagery seems very right-on to me. And I really like Rob Meador's macro-interpretation of China Doll as a commentary on nuclear destruction.
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I always thought someone was murdered,at five o'clock. Didn't connect it to suicide. In fact, I thought the narrator was the one who was shot."Before I hit the ground". When my first daughter was three or four, back in 1994ish. We were partying with friends in one room;not watching our daughter play in the next room. She fell off a rocking horse, and fractured her arm. We took her to the e.r., got her cast, and were heading home. I popped a cassette in, the first lyrics;"Take up your china doll-it's only fractured.Just a little nervous from the fall". I tried to keep an eye on her after that. She's a college grad,going on 24 now. Never forgot that. Chord wise we are in Dm,F,A, the whole song, and then just like Black Peter, we resolve to D major at the end. A lesson in song writing of the highest order.
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I always imagined the China Doll to be the lifeless body, blanched and white due to loss of blood, like a china doll. Someone comes and finds the body, and in shock and denial tries to pick up the body, which is only fractured and nervous from the fall. Like " you're ok...come on get up..." Super dark stuff.
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It seems to me the conversation is occurring on this plane which would indicate an attempted ,rather than "successful", suicide. The line you cite as being one of the most moving Hunter ever penned " Just a little nervous from the fall" strikes me as all that and more. It would be easy to extrapolate Christian theological meanings to the "fall" in the context of the song's topic but I think the preceding line is actually the key "it's only fractured" whether it is the relationship between the two conversing or the China Doll only fractured implies reparable. The beauty of so many Hunter/Garcia characters is while they are loners, misfits or criminals they somehow manage to command sympathy without ever pleading for it. A reprobate in the old meaning of the term is "one whom God has turned away from" ,that may well be but profoundly in my view Jerry and Bob haven't.
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Great posts -- I am getting more out of this song now. I always liked it but never really analyzed the "meanings". The resolution to a major key at the end always made me think Garcia was trying to signal a move into a lighter space, post-death. The deceased (hopefully) feels free of life's burdens and the survivors move on to happier thoughts until their own clocks run out.
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6.0 this morning in Napa, Sonoma. Hope everyone is safe out in the Phil Zone. "Just a little nervous from the fall".
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who woke me, and we just stayed in bed while it shook. This in Oakland. In Napa, much more drama, especially with wine bottles and old buildings. Friend says his old office is not there any more.
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Every fan of the Grateful Dead follows a different path which introduces them to the band. Some people gradually become Dead fans after hearing bits and pieces of the Dead's music from their friends, while others like myself, have a revelatory experience which causes them to take the dive into exploring every aspect of the band as quickly as possible despite the overwhelming nature of the task. Following my revelatory Grateful Dead introduction (an unplanned late night viewing under the influence of psychedelics of The Grateful Dead Movie which was being broadcast for a PBS fundraiser)I quickly obtained as many shows as possible from as many years as I could get my hands on, both official releases and unofficially released shows. Jumping into the world of the Dead head-first it's impossible due to the size of their musical repertoire, the various line-ups, etc. to fully absorb it all and often times it can take a long while for a song to emerge and for the mind to recognize its quality. "China Doll" was a tune I had listened to many times but did not truly HEAR until one evening when after eating some cosmic vegetables I put in Dick's Picks Vol. 10: Winterland-12/29/1977, a legendary show referred to by many as "The Nine". By the time I'd entered the 2nd set (Disc 2) I was fully in sync with this tremendous, roller-coaster of a gig and after taking the ride through the first half of "Playing In The Band" which weaves its way into the triumphant, jubilant return of "China Cat Sunflower" > "I Know You Rider" which had not been played in nearly 3 years, I was immediately entranced when "Rider" led into "China Doll". The radical change in mood and the intense emotional 180 of the transition just blew my mind. I remember nearly being in tears by the conclusion of "China Doll" and thinking, 'wow, why didn't I pay closer attention to this tune a lot earlier?'. From that evening on, every show which features "China Doll" is of special interest to me. The song is simply so dark yet gorgeous and for me resides in the same realm as "Comes A Time" and "Stella Blue" as a perfect track after some heavy-duty, far out jamming. A song to bring us back to earth to enjoy the amazing songwriting of Hunter & Garcia, and on the night of Dec. 29th, 1977 at Winterland to deliver pure magic...
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6-14-85 version.....so fucking beautiful
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Oddly enough, this was the first song I heard after hearing the news of Robin Williams. It's a crushing song lyrically, musically and emotionally. Pure Hunter genius - to search for meaning and answers where they may never be found. But it doesn't stop us from searching, does it? In the end though, the song is strangely soothing given the subject matter. (Melody? La la las? Jerry's delivery? The empathy?)
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I always thought it was about murder. She shot her lover and as he is dying he wants to know why. When she won't tell him he says he doesn't blame her but he won't cover for her, "I would not condemn you, nor 'er will I deny". Hunter's lyrics set the Dead's songs apart from other bands with their depth and multifaceted meanings. They never are fully revealed yet are constantly revealing more.
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"cosmic vegetables" and '77 china doll too a winning combination for shore love that one, evilyn2003 :))) hahahahahahahaha...
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shooby-doo
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To me personally I always saw this album as a view of the world from an aliens point of view, maybe this is due to the time I listened to the album on acid but that is neither here nor there, I see this song as a view of the fall of the chinese empire but that is what my brain concocted so who knows
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I always hear this as a murder. An abused wife ( not sure why I think it's the woman) killing the spouse/abuser at 5 o'clock. "Yesterday I begged you before I hit the ground" she was saying "no more" yesterday. Today she has a gun. She's so fragile because she can't trust anymore- "just a little nervous from the fall". It's so beautiful and so sad at the same time. And maybe a llittle hopeful...
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about an abused wife but the after math. "pick up your china doll".Looked it up on the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics and it was first titled The Suicide Song.
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When Oteil sang China Doll (3rd song, 2nd set) at Shoreline this past June, the fans just erupted in gratitude, enthusiasm and goodwill - the big guy nailed it and brought new energy too. A first!
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    acornaxe
    1 year 1 month ago
    China Doll Shoreline 6/3/17
    When Oteil sang China Doll (3rd song, 2nd set) at Shoreline this past June, the fans just erupted in gratitude, enthusiasm and goodwill - the big guy nailed it and brought new energy too. A first!
  • mona
    2 years 1 month ago
    sschrull thought so also
    about an abused wife but the after math. "pick up your china doll".Looked it up on the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics and it was first titled The Suicide Song.
  • Default Avatar
    sschrull
    2 years 1 month ago
    My Thoughts
    I always hear this as a murder. An abused wife ( not sure why I think it's the woman) killing the spouse/abuser at 5 o'clock. "Yesterday I begged you before I hit the ground" she was saying "no more" yesterday. Today she has a gun. She's so fragile because she can't trust anymore- "just a little nervous from the fall". It's so beautiful and so sad at the same time. And maybe a llittle hopeful...
  • Default Avatar
    BobbyMcGee54
    3 years 5 months ago
    Personal meaning
    To me personally I always saw this album as a view of the world from an aliens point of view, maybe this is due to the time I listened to the album on acid but that is neither here nor there, I see this song as a view of the fall of the chinese empire but that is what my brain concocted so who knows
  • Default Avatar
    stoltzfus
    4 years 2 months ago
    dose-ify
    shooby-doo