Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Comes A Time"
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!)
(At the request of Bolo24.)
When I was first listening, hard, to the Grateful Dead, I discovered the Jerry Garcia album Reflections, and pretty much disappeared into it for several weeks. I am pretty sure it is now completely part of my cerebral cortex, ingrained into my consciousness in a way that is as deep as anything else I would expect to find in there. And there was one song that resonated so strongly in so many ways that it holds a special place for me, among all the Dead’s songs: “Comes a Time.”
It begins, for me, with the particular resonance of Phil Lesh’s big note at the outset of the song, as it lands and then decays, filling the room in the way that only Phil can do. It’s an announcement that something big is coming, in the same way that the bass run up into “The Other One” is an announcement.
And then, that voice, singing a set of lyrics that only gets better with time — a song about time, but also about a specific moment in time that each of us may at times reach. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be a big exception for someone not to reach the place where the only way out is to tap into the wisdom of things beyond logic: as in, a blind man asking us if we can’t see.
“Comes a Time” is what I would call a “nexus song.” I want to try to explain what I mean by that, and see if it rings a bell for anyone else.
A nexus song is a key song within any song repertoire, unlocking the content of multiple songs by offering parallel entry points into the subject matter of the songs. I believe that within the body of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, we can identify several songs that serve this function (not to say that they are purpose-made songs, or that seeing them in this way is anything intended by the author—it just works that way for me, and maybe it would work for you).
What songs are, in some way or another, contained within the body of the lyrics of “Comes a Time”? What are the entry points from song to song—the tunnels, doors, and bridges to be found?
Blindness and seeing:
“When the blind man takes your hand, says ‘don’t you see?’”
“I was blind all the time I was learning to see”
“And closed my eyes to see…”
“You’ve got an empty cup only love can fill.”
“Reach out your hand, if your cup be empty”
“Gotta make it somehow, on the dreams you still believe”
“It’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago”
“Without love in the dream it’ll never come true”
“Ten years ago I walked this street, my dreams were riding tall…”
The song provides a bridge between “Ripple” and “Wharf Rat,” and foreshadows “Black Muddy River.” It takes its place with the songs in the Grateful Dead repertoire that can help us out of a place of profound sadness or despair. I believe that there are many of these, some of them couched as story or character songs, providing a narrative into which we can place ourselves. “Wharf Rat” is a perfect example — you can easily imagine the singer of “Comes a Time” addressing either of the main characters in “Wharf Rat.”
Another is “Stella Blue.” Or “Black Peter.”
How is it that simply imagining ourselves into a position of hopelessness, via the character, for instance, in “Wharf Rat,” can leverage us into a position of seeing a way out of that hopelessness? Things are clearer both from a distance and in hindsight—when we can see the situation without being involved in it, until the point at which we do become involved in a similar situation. Then, the songs can help. I think they can also serve a preventive purpose of cautioning us. (Hmmmm… “though I could not caution all, I still might warn a few…”)
“Comes a Time” was never a frequent one in the rotation through the years. It debuted on October 19, 1971, in the show at the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, which saw the first performance of a slew of songs. (Hey, that show would be a good candidate for a Dave’s Picks, maybe—I’d love to hear a show with six breakouts, and the show that featured Keith Godchaux playing with the band for the first time!)
The song appeared a total of 66 times over the years, often with several hundred shows between performances. It was played for the final time on October 9, 1994, at the USAir Arena, in Landover, Maryland.
As noted, it appeared on Garcia’s solo album, Reflections, four and a half years after it was first performed by the band. The track was really a Grateful Dead recording, with the full band participating.
There’s a plot to this song, though it seems even more elusive and faintly sketched than most of Hunter’s story songs. There is regret, undefined as to precise cause: “Never in my mind to cause so much pain,” as the narrator walks in the wind and rain (another frequent set of motifs…), not being able to tell the difference between the dark and the light (an entire essay has been written on that dichotomy in Dead lyrics).
The big verse in this song, for me, is the second verse, beginning with “From day to day…” The lines: “You can’t let go / ‘cause you’re afraid to fall / but the day may come / when you can’t feel at all” really hit home for me. And those lines encourage me to be honest with my feelings, to welcome them and not to be afraid or ashamed of them.
Finally, just a note on the structure of the song. It starts with the chorus, and then alternates with verses, ending again on the chorus. Garcia’s use of the solo to provide a gut-wrenching statement is very effective, and underscores the meaning of the song.
Back in the spring of 1977 I worked in a grocery store in Browning, Montana. A fellow worker liked to use the expression, "I see says the blind man". I also kind of remember a scene from the James Bond movie Dr. No where three dudes shuffle along to the song "Three Blind Mice". Filmed in Jamaica where Ian Fleming lived. "Comes A Time" is yet another genius masterpiece from the scribe, Robert Hunter.
Wind inside and the wind outside
Tangled in the window blind.
In and out the window like a moth before a flame.
I love how Reflections is "now completely part of my cerebral cortex, ingrained into my consciousness in a way that is as deep as anything else I would expect to find in there."
Lots of Good Food for Thoughts-eh?
Good Inspiration to build good old Love and Understanding into our souls
I had this album on 8 Track ( and its annoying "brutal cuts") and Vinyl and CD.
"Nexus" is a new word for my vocabulary...thanks.
Here are some references that come to my mind in relation to
" When the Blind Man...says Don't You See":
-We may be Young we may be Blind
but Even a Blind Man Knows when the Sun is Shining
- Turn on Your Love Light
Let it Shine on Me
-Once in a While You can get Shown the Light
In the Strangest of Places if you Look at it Right
and the Classic
-Sometimes the Lights all Shining on Me
Other Times I can Barely See
and another comes to mind...
-Maybe been Seen before through Other Eyes on Other Days
and in conclusion
-The Sun was Screaming HEY YOU
how much the development of better recording technology was driven by the sheer pain of all those tape flips. Which rarely fail to happen at the worst possible moment.
Wisson, the 5/4/77 version is hard to beat, I agree. The first time I heard that I was listening to a CDR I'd traded for. I was on my floor, in front of the speakers, in tears during that solo - some of his most transcendent playing from any era, any show... when BAM, a CUT! ARRRRGH!!! Just a brutal cut with loud static, silence, then the end of the solo. That was like, psychically damaging. I immediately began a quest to find a patched version. Boy those pre-Archive days were fun.
LS3, thanks for the 9/7/85 tip. I'm listening to it now, very nice version. And the show looks good too - and it's an Oade AUD, yeay!!!! Any 85 Oade AUD with a a CT and a Crazy Fingers is going to be a good listen. Thanks thanks thanks for this tip.
I wrote an essay in college about this song. Fun project. One of my favorite songs to listen to. Hundred Year Hall was fantastic. 72' is my top year for listening and the vocals that year are great. 76' and 77' I believe have some nice ones as well. Only have heard partial of this night, but check out 8-19-80 folks. Playin > Comes A Time > Playing. Could be my pre game jam before NFL football starts today.
Yes! That '85 Meadowlands show was the first time I saw it live and remains my favorite. Another one that springs to mind is Worcester '87...Spring tour...the same show where they did Willie and the Hand Jive and Morning Dew. I saw it at a Kaiser show in '86 as well.
Neil Young's Comes a Time springs to mind as it has done in the past. I feel that there is a similar vibe in his song perhaps. I am reading Waging Heavy Peace now and it is great!
I am also reminded of Mission in the Rain, which David wrote about recently. Maybe because there are good '76 versions of both? But the one that stands out for me from my old tape-collecting days is Roosevelt Stadium '72. That Dark Star>Comes a Time is great. The funny part is that I got a great soundboard that had a super-harsh cut right in Comes a Time, but somebody actually spliced in an audience recording that cued in right after the cut and continued the music...how awesome is that! Dedication, right?
And yes, the Jerry solo is the sweet part...but then again, so is the singing. :)
....my favorite version is from 4/26/72. The guitar solo is simply stunning!!
Out of the couple that I heard this one was the best. It was a killer show with lot of rock-out moments but this gentle ballard is the one I caught myself humming ceaselessly the rest of the night after the show.
But to focus on Mr. Hunter's words:
"From day to day
Just letting it ride
You get so far away
From how it feels inside
You can't let go
'Cause you're afraid to fall
But the day may come
When you can't feel at all"
This always struck me as going to the heart of Jerry's condition. Except that the song was written before Jerry had his condition. It doesn't matter. It still makes a perfect comment.
I guess maybe you wouldn't get it if you never had the condition...
In any case between the words and the melody and Jerry's soulful voice and playing this is one of the Grateful Dead's special songs and at something like 75 times played it was pretty rare if you got to hear it.
After reading Mr. Dodd's entry and all the inspired comments, I was moved to throw on 10/19/71 - at 7:30 AM! I know and feel this song so strongly that when I start thinking about the words and chords I'm always overwhelmed. From the amiably strummed opening A to the gut-wrenching F# minor/G chorus where Jerry agonizes again and again on his Strat only to resolve on the home key, time stops. When Jerry sings "dreams", is it D or D minor? Guess Bobby knows, eh? And the word "cup" is hammered with that F# minor until it's filled with "love" by the G. My fave versions are the ones that make the hair on my arms stand from shortly after Keith's addition to the band, namely 12/05 and 12/10. I heard them first in raw radio broadcast form so that's the way they resonate best.
10/19/72, 10/19/73 and 10/19/74 also will be heard today. What a date in Dead history!