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.