Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Dark Star"
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!)
It was very embarrassing, and I was extremely chagrined, and I forever apologize to whoever it was standing next to me on the floor at Winterland that New Year’s Eve 1978, but when the band launched into my first-ever live “Dark Star,” I was so excited that I threw my hands in the air, fists clenched, and bashed the guy standing beside me in the jaw.
The sign that had been hanging from the balcony since I started going to see the Dead, with its ever changing number: “___ days since last SF Dark Star” was taken down amid general mayhem and craziness. It had been 1,535 days. I had pretty much figured that I would never ever get to hear “Dark Star” performed live. Probably a lot of us felt the same way. Of course, the rumors had been flying that night—“They’re gonna play ‘Dark Star’!”—but I just plain didn’t believe it. So when the third set opened with the song, it was pure magic. That four-note motif resonates more deeply, to a Deadhead, than the opening four-note motif of Beethoven’s Fifth, promising brand-new, magical musical adventures ahead.
Hit pause, here, for a sec.
OK, I’m back. Just went and watched the “Dark Star” segment from the Closing of Winterland DVD, and yep, it was an adventurous moment in an evening full of adventure. Clear as a bell, and almost in self-parody, an audience member is captured on the DVD yelling, just before the band starts playing: “DARK STAR!!” Funny. Where the parody of shouted requests usually, these days, takes the form of someone yelling for “Freebird,” my mind always goes straight to “Dark Star!”
Robert Hunter, in his introduction to Box of Rain, discussed writing the lyrics. He had been invited to join the band as their lyricist, after having sent several songs by mail (“Alligator” and “China Cat Sunflower” among them) and journeyed from New Mexico to San Francisco:
The trip took six weeks with a surreal layover in Denver. By the time I hit Nevada I had a dime in my pocket which I put in a slot machine and parlayed into enough to make a phone call and tell the guys I was on my way. I arrived in San Francisco with a case of walking pneumonia and the clothes on my back. The next day I was writing Dark Star, feeling pretty much as the lyric suggests.
Hunter joined the band at a rehearsal in Rio Nido (in Sonoma County), and wrote the initial lyrics to the song while the band was playing. Thus, “Dark Star” is often referred to as the first song he wrote with the band.
Here’s another snippet of an interview with Hunter talking about the origins of the song:
"I was in my cabin. They were rehearsing in the hall, and you could hear from there. I heard the music and just started writing Dark Star lying on my bed. I wrote the first half of it and I went in and handed what I'd written to Jerry. He said, 'Oh, this will fit in just fine,' and he started singing it... [When] I heard the Grateful Dead playing, those were the words it seemed to be saying.... That did it for the time being. Then, a couple of days or weeks later," Garcia said he wanted another verse, so Hunter wrote the next verse sitting in Golden Gate Park.
"I was very impressed with T.S. Eliot around the time I was writing Dark Star," Hunter said, and one line was clearly influenced by a line in 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' - "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky." "Beyond that, that's just my kind of imagery.... I don't have any idea what the 'transitive nightfall of diamonds' means. It sounded good at the time. It brings up something that you can see."
To add just one more little bit to the origin story, Hunter describes elsewhere how he was sitting in Golden Gate Park working on the lyric when someone came by, asking what he was writing. Hunter responded that it was a lyric called “Dark Star,” adding, “This will be important, remember this.”
These blog posts are nothing more than my small attempts to get a conversational ball rolling among the readers—all of you who might stumble over this particular post. “Dark Star” merits an entire book, and in fact, there has been enough ink spilled about the song to put a book together without too much effort.
Musically, the song’s evolution and variations has been meticulously tracked by Dr. Graeme Boone, published in an essay on the development of the improvisational structure in the song between its initial composition and 1972, identifying sequences that appeared and to which were added other sequences over the course of time. An amazing chart elucidates this evolution, with particular sections (each of which is instantly familiar to any Deadhead) identified and labeled. Some say this kind of extreme theoretical analysis applied to a song whose hallmark is improvisation is a contradiction. For me, it’s just another example of someone allowing his enthusiasm to create and expand meaning. Plus, it’s fun! I heard Boone speak in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the “Unbroken Chain” symposium in November 2007, and I still have his handout from the talk, entitled “Dark Star Revisited,” which contains charts of the sequences as well as two mandalas capturing the form of the song. Amazing.
Photo Credit: David Gans
The Dead recorded “Dark Star” as a single during the Anthem of the Sun sessions, and released in April 1968, backed with “Born Cross-Eyed.” The single version, later released on the compilation album What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been, was short, and included the only instance of Hunter’s voice on an official Dead release, reciting a closing “word salad” over Garcia’s banjo as the single winds down.
Along with many other Deadheads, my own first experience of the song was the version on Live/Dead, released in November 1969.
Early live versions of the song, as they worked on the song’s structure and performance, no doubt predate the first recorded live performance, on December 13, 1967 at the Shrine Exhibition Hall in Los Angeles. DeadBase X records 217 performances, with the final one taking place on March 30, 1994, at the Omni in Atlanta. After the 1974 hiatus, performances of “Dark Star” were a rare occurrence. I was fortunate to catch one other performance of the song, at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, in July 1984, performed as an encore.
And as for the lyrics.
It’s hard for me to separate the words from the voice of Garcia singing them. They are a perfect marriage of that particular voice and words by that particular lyricist. The way the opening word bursts from Garcia, eerie or prophetic, just never fails to get me. And the way he sings (yes, still sings...present tense) the line: “Reason tatters...” captures that shredding of logic for me.
The whole world may be falling apart in some cosmic cataclysm (and given what we know about the universe, this does seem to be the case), but nevertheless, we can go, together, “you and I,” through a nightfall of diamonds. “While we can”—as in, live in the now, seize the day.
The lyric, as with other early Hunter lyrics, clearly marks out the psychedelic territory of the band as a whole, lest there be any doubt whatsoever.
I’ve heard many, many interpretations of the words. I leave that to others, generally. Here’s what Garcia said to Charles Reich in Garcia:
“So I have a long continuum of ‘Dark Stars’ which range in character from each other to real different extremes. ‘Dark Star’ has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine...”
Well said, and thank you, Jerry.
My first DS. We knew they had played it on New Years and were hoping it was more than just a one time thing. The place erupted. And paired w/ St. Stephen no less. Not sure if it was a good version or not but that didn't really matter.
Corry seems to provide a pretty convincing case that there was no show at the Shrine on that date. (Nobody has access or the Shrine's billings don't exist?) So, it begs the question, what was the first venue and the date?
I was listening to the former Wolfgang's Vault site about 18 months ago where you could play anything for free and was listening to a very early Dark Star labeled from the summer of 1967. I just went back to the site and it has all changed now - their first Dark Star is 8/21/68 at the Filmore West (not to mention that after a free three day trial you have to become a member to hear anything).
So, the next Dark Star mentioned in Dead Base ('95 edition) is 1/20/68 at Municipal Auditorium in Eureka, Ca.. I would also have to concur that the first Dark Star broke out on the East Coast, probably at the Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston. That is pure conjecture based on nothing. There are five small venue shows in NYC in between.
Interesting historic discussion though. The most fabled Grateful Dead song has a muddy debut date... Does anybody else have a clue?
For some reason, editions of Deadbase dating back to the 1980s listed a Grateful Dead show at The Shrine in Los Angeles on December 13, 1967. Since "Dark Star" was the only song listed for that date, I assume the listing came from a date on a tape fragment of an old cassette. Over the years, this detail has gotten cemented in Dead lore, and Dennis McNally and many others often identify December 13, 1967 at the Shrine as the first live performance of "Dark Star."
However, the truth is that no evidence has ever surfaced of a Grateful Dead show at The Shrine on December 13, 1967. In fact, all of the evidence points to the show never having taken place at all.
--no advertisement, ticket stub, review, eyewitness account or any other clue has ever been cited, to my knowledge
--December 13, 1967 was a Wednesday, and in the 67-68 period I am aware of no weekday shows (other than holidays) at The Shrine
--according to McNally and other evidence, the Grateful Dead were recording on the East Coast and playing a few shows on weekends. We would have to think that they flew to LA to play the Shrine, and flew back East
--the Grateful Dead were infamous, but not famous, and they hadn't sold a lot of records. The Dead had just played two shows (Nov 10 and 11) at the Shrine Expo (not the Auditorium), but they were co-headlining with the very popular Buffalo Springfield. Its hardly credible that the Dead headlined The Shrine on their own, a month later on a weeknight
No one would be happier than me to be proven wrong about all this. I'd love it if someone could find an ad in an old underground paper for some strange benefit, which might explain why the Dead flew back for a single show, and debuted "Dark Star." Unfortunately, for now nothing points that direction. It seems considerably more likely that the Dead debuted "Dark Star" on the East Coast. However, since we have no tapes until January of 1968, and any eyewitnesses or reviewers in 1967 would not have recognized "Dark Star," we may never know for sure.
favorite dark star--jerry's birthday 1973 roosevelt stadium!!!
I witnessed Dark Star twice. 10-9-89 in Hampton & April Fool's Day 91 in Greensboro. I've heard many versions, and think the Two From The Vault version is smoking. Up until this week, the Hampton version was my favorite. It's really hard to compete with seeing the energy in Hampton Coliseum that night when those first notes were played. You could see the electricity in the air. But after listening to a proper sounding version of Veneta several times, I'm really digging it. I hate trying to pick favorite Dead things though. Sometimes my favorite thing depends on what mood I'm in, or sometimes even what era of the band I want to listen to?
nm's quantum reference is spot on. Very nice discussion.
We were the first American generation of European descent to explore and embrace the psychedelic reaches, possibilities and probabilities of inner quantum space and the Grateful Dead had an uncanny knack for coming up with the appropriate sound tracks. Dark Star crashes in instantaneous, absolute chaos, but the true path through chaos is always paved with music, where we find ourselves left with the question dangling just before whatever: "Shall we go, you and I, while we can…?" Or perhaps while the gettin’s good, because in case you haven’t noticed, the whole thing is about to crash into a friggin' black hole (a relatively new concept in 1968) and with the event horizon swirling all around like an audience of whirling dervishes, the rings of Saturn or a vinyl LP, "while we can" becomes the final, fleeting, totally laughable operative concern, but not for long, because the music never stopped as you realize you're comfortably past already gone...
The implosive crash impels you to the threshold of Huxley's doorway, beyond tattered reason and perception through which you arrive from no place special, with no particular place to go and no particular inclination to stop to ask directions, but simply to Be Here Now. It’s a Kierkegaardian swan dive leap of faith acid drop through the Wasteland, Wonderland, nuclear winter, Oz, Armageddon and on past the end of Time itself where, to interpret the album cover, Lady Justice, draped in velvet, her blindfold removed with the Holy Hand Grenade primed and ready, waits to fill the final coffin with Death itself, its nevermore distant glass hand dissolving in a revolving, down-the-drain goodbye, leaving you and I to step beyond its boney reach at maximum warp, starfields falling around us like a "transitive nightfall of diamonds", as we cross to the other side...of the threshold...where we encounter the next verse.
The first verse and question are an ending event, but circumstances have flipped 180 degrees when the question's asked a second time, as poor Alice's looking glass irrevocably shatters before us "in formless reflections of matter." Every direction is now forward and we’re looking exclusively at what comes next, without even a reflection remaining of what has passed, thereby nullifying all possibility of either succumbing to the temptation as did Lot's wife, Edith, or falling down that same old rabbit hole again. Dylan also warned us to not look back, and on all quantum levels the Grateful Dead make certain of it with Dark Star. Music, I believe, has a unique way of transcending all quantum realities.
Finally, I envision Dark Star as looping through a figure eight or infinity symbol until even that is broken and, like Voyager I, we’re removed of all preconceived or determined influence and are free to wander in a place and space where you know beyond caring that you’ll always feel safe: at a Grateful Dead concert, even with a Dark Star crashing - to paraphrase Paul Kantner - through your melting acid-fevered mind witnessing the End of Death, it's cold light poured into ashes...with exceptional style and grace, I might add.
Pretty heady stuff for a little song built around two basic chords just one step apart, with only two verses, and asking but one question.
Dark Star during the Boston Garden run in '91. Wish Jerry had the legs to go the distance in those days to go into and out of space with this vehicle.
1.of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.
synonyms: exalted, elevated, noble, lofty, awe-inspiring, majestic, magnificent, glorious, superb, wonderful, marvelous, splendid; informalfantastic, fabulous, terrific, heavenly, divine, out of this world
(of a solid substance) change directly into vapor when heated, typically forming a solid deposit again on cooling.
"these crystals could be sublimed under a vacuum"
elevate to a high degree of moral or spiritual purity or excellence.
nm, I like your application of quantum thinking to Dark Star. While reason gave rise to classical physics, this way of thinking needs to be set aside, at least for a time, to consider the uncertainties, or probabilities, of particulars. For me, Dark Star is the shining exemplar of all GD music for this very reason. We begin with a structure, which is then abandoned in favor of exploration of the infinite probabilities of a given moment. So, in a way, we can look at Dark Star as a unified theory, in that it synthesizes the classical with the quantum.
... growing up in South Florida, our knowledge of the music scene was dominated by AM rock radio. There was a little FM station in Lake Worth that played deeper cuts from albums, but it was still dominated by, what was then, Pop Music. Then came the Miami Pop Festival December 1968. Me and some of my friends got tickets for all three days, set up a motel room near the Gulfstream Racetrack where the festival was held, and began a week long voyage to the edge of... well that was a long time ago.
I have this vague memory of being fairly well dosed, and being told to go see some band from San Francisco play on the other stage, and that they were really weird! We were able to get reasonably close to the stage as this biker looking dude was singing about "Turning on your love light."
And then they started to play "Dark Star." I was peaking, the music flowed into me, time stopped, and I was instantly hooked. I had never heard anything like that before, so simple, so cryptic, so freeing. Dark Star melted into Saint Stephen which melted into The Eleven which melted into The Other One and "The Bus Came By And I Got On, That's Where It All Began!"
A few months later came the Big Rock Pow Wow at the Seminole Indian Reservation and when I saw the Grateful Dead was going to play, I just had to go. And again I got totally spaced and they played Dark Star the first night. Pirate's World in 1970 saw another Dark Star and again in 1974 at the Miami Jai Alai with the Wall of Sound behind them.
Miami 1989 was the last time I saw them preform Dark Star and by then the whole world had changed. I had stopped ingesting crazy stuff a few years before and realized I loved the music even more with a clear head. The Grateful Dead have provided me with the soundtrack for my life and even though there are other bands, acts, music I like and listen to, I always come back to the Dead. Dark Star is one of the vehicles I use for meditation and I love listening to the Greyfolded Plunderphonic version from time to time.
A thousand years from now, musicologists will discuss, analyze, write doctorate thesis, and generally elevate the music of The Grateful Dead to "Classical" status, and the greatest treat will be when a group of dedicated musicians recreate with authentic instruments a live performance of "Dark Star."