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.
A swift undertow under the calm face of the sea...who can stop the new something waiting to be born...
Life may be better that nothing is ever as it appears and always changing. Sense hindsight is 20/20, lets see how it looks in the end. Until we get there, its definitely sweet knowing that love rings true because we need it as we are constantly looking for that thing down inside. Whatever that gold ring is, i dont know...happiness, comfort, understanding...
I have always loved this song. I know the Grateful Dead are pretty unique but, to me, this song just doesn't sound like anything else I've ever heard. The words, the music, the way Jerry sings it...everything is just perfect somehow. I think its somewhat good that the
song kept getting dropped for a while. Every time I hear this song it is completely refreshing and exciting.
Many of us from a certain generation will probably think of There is a Tavern in the Town. That line brings back memories of my mother and father singing it in the car in the 1950s. An old song that tells an old story, revived by Rudy Vallee in 1939.
I have recently come acrioss a strange connection to one of the striking images from Crazy Fingers.
Cloud hands reaching from a rainbow
Tapping at the window
Touch your hair
So swift and bright, strange fingers of light
Float in air
Standing on my desk here is a statuette of an Adaro, a sea spirit from Solomon Islands, carved in stone. Adaros live in the sun, and travel to and from the Earth by sliding along rainbows. They are not benign spirits, gaining their substance from human wickedness.
Here's a link to a beautiful version Jenna Mammina did with Justin Eddie for the Dead Covers Project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0NzeQtfr8w