Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Crazy Fingers"
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.
“Life may be sweeter for this, I don’t know…”
Think for a moment about how often those three simple words pop up in Grateful Dead lyrics: “I don’t know.” Not-knowing is somewhere close to the center of the lyrics, in so many ways. We’ve danced around that idea over the first nine blog posts—mostly in the form of avoiding any claim to THE interpretation of any given song, but also in terms of being open to what is coming down the road or around the corner (where it’s been waiting to meet you…).
I have an essay on the topic on my Annotated Lyrics site—maybe I should go read it, but generally I think I remember that I took the opportunity to point out the prevalent use of “I don’t know” sprinkled throughout the lyrics, and what that might point to. Ambiguity is seen as a value in and of itself.
“Crazy Fingers” is one of the mysterious pointers to new places—looking at the Blues for Allah album, you might say that about the whole body of songs on the record.
According to DeadBase X, “Crazy Fingers” debuted on June 17, 1975, at the Bob Fried Memorial Boogie, at Winterland. “Crazy Fingers” opened the show, the band’s first since the SNACK benefit back in March at Kezar Stadium, and their first full show since October. Clearly, they had been working during their hiatus. “Franklin’s Tower” and “Help on the Way” (without words, according to DeadBase) were also played for the first time that night. It was played for the final time on July 5, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatere, in Maryland Heights, Missouri. Its performance history is interesting—after 1976, it was dropped until mid-1982—a gap of 417 concerts. And it was dropped again between October 1983 and April 1985. It’s intriguing to me to see how often it was played as a followup to “Victim or the Crime” in later years…sort of an antidote, perhaps?
The structure of the lyric is, well, unusual. By my count, there are twelve verses (or maybe six, if you taken them as pairs), and one chorus, which is sung twice. So, thirteen verse-like blocks. The verses starting with “Gone are the days…” function as a bridge. The melody is consistent—really, it’s set up and sung as two verses, then a chorus, then two verses, followed by the bridge, the chorus, and a final verse. Hunter, in an interview with Blair Jackson, stated that “ ‘ Crazy Fingers’ was, in fact, all written before-hand. It was a page or two of haiku I’d been working on in a notebook. Jerry looked at them and said, ‘Hey, this might fit together as a song.’”
I have seen at least one line-by-line exegesis of the song, and that is fun (you can read it on the Deadsongs site on the WELL at well.com/deadsongs. But I’m with Hunter when it comes to line-by-line interpretation and explication: mystery ripped away, not-knowingness undone. I’d rather keep my fresh ears for as long as possible, and be open to the way these songs change meaning over time or according to the circumstances of our lives.
The phrases that leap out for me include “Recall the days that still are to come,” “Cloud hands reaching from the rainbow,” (!) “Peals of fragile thunder keeping time,” and “Reaching for the gold ring down inside.” Disconnected phrases, but resonant, somehow. Well, the whole song is.
There are a few references in the song, intended or not. (Meaning, they are reference points for me, as a listener, and maybe for you, or maybe not.)
“Hang your heart on laughing willow,” brings vividly to my mind’s ear my mother’s voice singing “There is a Tavern in the Town.” My mom sang constantly around the house when we were growing up, and she was known for being able to launch into a song given almost any verbal prompt. The line in that song was “I’ll hang my harp on a weeping willow tree.” So in that line, we get the harp (makes me think of “Ripple,” of course…), and the willow tree (brings to mind both “Scarlet Begonias” and “Brokedown Palace…). And that makes me think—the way Hunter transposes “heart” for “harp” in the line, of a “mistake” made by Chris Hillman when he recorded “Ripple,” where he sang “heart of a strum,” instead of “harp unstrung.” Kind of a cool re-wording.
“Crazy Fingers,” amazingly, is the title of a tune on an album by Crazy Otto. So there you go.
And, finally, there’s the whole “reaching for the gold ring,” concept. It is down inside. Inside ourselves—is the sense I get, though what it is I have no idea—definitely something to aspire to. There’s a wonderful old-fashioned carousel on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with the brass rings you can reach for, snag, and then toss into a target. Nothing spectacular happens, but it’s a thrill anyway.
So tell me: what do you know? Are there any certainties? Is there wisdom in “I don’t know”?
And, if you have any thoughts about the poetry, as always, please share.
Crazy Fingers, like many Grateful Dead songs, was inspired by and is an expression of the psychedelic experience. "Life may be sweeter for THIS...I don't know". "THIS" is the psychedelic experience.
Jerry once said that he would often rearrange Robert's lyrics so they would make less sense. With Crazy Fingers, I believe Robert was originally writing about Jerry, "Your fingers fall like crazy rain", and Jerry made him change it around. "Peels of fragile thunder keeping time," and all the rest makes a lot more sense from THIS point of view.
Thanks for posting this one Dave. I try and write my interpretation before I read anyone has written. And I haven't read that far yet in the Annotated Lyrics so I'm eager to see what the rest of you get from this one.
For me song is the tale of an epiphany, when by Grace the Soul is touched and surrenders. The crazy fingers are the lightening which cleaves Your reality. The thunder is the heart beat of the Universe keeping time. You must lay your heart bear upon the willow and enter the unknown waters of the ONE LOVE. You must be careful not to lose your self completely in this chaos of bliss. " Life may be sweeter for this, I don't know see how it feels in the end." Once you have been disintegrated and remade you are new and things are never the same. Life has new sweetness and new pains and it can't be stopped you are reborn and although it's sometimes dark the Light of LOVE is always with you. Now you must let go and go with the flow..just ride. "Gone are the broken eyes you saw through in dreams Gone both dream and lie."You see what is really important and cast off the rest if you dare.Similarly " crippled but free I was blind all time I was learning to see."...Now you must be who you are truly meant to be, you must try to be your very best self impossible as it is to reach that prefection which is the Gold Ring of our true shining immortal spirit.No matter how many times we fail to achieve it we must continue to try. So there you have it. Love still rings true. Now I can't wait see what everyone else thinks.
Per Robert Hunter's lyrics do not necessarily make him a zen master trying to destroy that lattice-like structure of thought conceptions. More like an incurable country bumpkin without much schooling seeing lots of contradictions. While some Beats made the passing nod to zen, very few went on to become a zen priest. Gary Snyder being the only one I can think of.
More like the simple-minded becoming more simple-minded for a certain reason... "Don't know" that!
Attaining a state of I don't know mind is a common theme in Zen Buddhist teachings. Being in the space where there is no judging and there is complete openness. The Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn wrote to a student “So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand."
Robert Hunter was inspired by the poetry of Lew Welch, one of the lesser known Beat poets. Lew roomed with Phillip Whalen and Gary Snyder at Reed College in Portland. They studied and shared interests in poetry (especially William Carlos Williams), calligraphy, Asian Studies and Buddhism (especially Zen). Snyder is world renowned as a poet, cultural change agent and thinker. Whalen became a Zen priest and poet as well. Lew wandered off into the woods and was never seen again.
I found this one in your site David, in a interview of Hunter by Steve Silberman.
SILBERMAN: What was the quality of Lew Welch's poems that spoke to you?
HUNTER: There was a beautiful line in one of them, "Trails go nowhere, they end exactly/ where you stop." There was a lot of wisdom in it, and an easiness, and a fluidity of language. Very, very appealing. I would say that was my beginning turn-on. I was ready to get bonked over the head with something, and that book was there for it.
Do yourself a favor. Read Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone, his book of collected poems. A new edition was just published last year. Then read and listen to Robert Hunters lyrics. Have you found I don’t know mind?
"Trails go nowhere, they end exactly/ where you stop."
Gone are the days we stopped to decide
Where we should go, we just ride
Since we have a few cat owners onboard here, perhaps you could add China Cat to the queue- if it isn't there already...
...I rang a silent bell
beneath a shower of pearls
in the eagle wing palace
of the Queen Chinee...
This song gets my vote for 'The Most Lysergic Lyrics Ever'!
For marye, here is a remarkable factoid I lifted from wikipedia:
Elizabeth Cotten began writing music while toying around with her older brother's banjo. She was left-handed so she played the banjo "backwards". Later, when she transferred her songs to the guitar, a unique style was formed, since on the banjo the uppermost string is not a bass string, as on the guitar but a short high pitched string called a drone string. This required her to adopt a unique style for the guitar, which she first played with all finger down strokes like a banjo. Later this evolved into a unique style of finger picking, and her signature, alternating bass style is known as "Cotten Picking".
Syracuse78--already did Ripple--take a look at the list under the "Greatest Stories Ever Told" link.
And Mary--good idea! I love her. Took me on a whole trail through Fred Neil and his version of Elizabeth Cotten's song, and onwards. One thing I have truly loved is the way following the Dead has led me into so many musical byways and highways. I'll put "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie" into the queue.
See how it feels in the end....
Feels like it might be alright.
of an early-'80s set by Elizabeth Cotten. I have a very clear mental visual of her telling the back story of "Oh Babe," which she wrote as a little kid, and the image is in black and white, which my TV was at the time. I don't think she told it quite the same way in SF later.
I vote for "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie," partly because Reckoning was part of my intro to the band, and this was one of my favorites. It caused me to learn a bit about Elizabeth Cotten and actually get to see her once in SF before she passed on.
She also wrote "Shake Sugaree," of course. Lyrics are very different from Hunter's, but in the big picture not wholly unrelated...