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.
I've recently noticed some interesting (I think) parallels between the music of the Dead and quantum mechanics.
In Classical physics, you can know the entire system, and you can predict with certainty what a particular object will do in particular conditions. In quantum physics you cannot know all the properties of a single particle at once, and you cannot know what any particular particle will do, only the probability that it will do it.
A typical arrangement of music is a certain set of notes that fall at certain beats of particular bars. With the Dead, you cannot necessarily say with certainty that a particular note will fall on a particular beat of a particular bar even if you know all the available information about the song.
If you wanted to accurately describe Dark Star, (or any improvised piece of music) in it's truest form, you would not want to write any particular note on a particular beat of a particular bar, but something more like a /probability/ that you will find a particular note on a particular beat of a particular bar, but you cannot know with certainty what the next note will be until the note is played and the system is measured.
So a quantum mechanical construct might be a more philosophically accurate way to represent the Grateful Dead rather than traditional musical scores.
Well, I spent 45 minutes telling some cosmic stories and then with one key stroke, POOF! It was gone. Maybe some stories are better left untold.
Mr. Dobbs said, "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."
I can relate to that.
The short version is that I didn't want to see the band without Jerry. But I went with my 21 year old niece / God Daughter to the All Good Fest this summer 2013. I was feeling like a stranger. Talked to Jerry in my head because I missed him. He "told" me to enjoy the music because these guys were good. I went with it. Had a smoke and then blew it all out over the guy in front of us when I heard the first notes of DARK STAR!
I was like, no way! I saw 57 shows and never saw Dark Star except for a tease at Richfield. Jerry gave me permission to jump back in and I did. WOW! I tried to explain this to my niece who wanted to know what it was like to see the Grateful Dead. I told her that they hardly EVER played that song, and she should just soak it up for what it was worth. Dancing commenced and then they played St. Stephen! I married up the then and the now, and I think, that my niece got to see a piece of what I was talking about.
After being reluctant to put my toe in the water, I have to say that seeing that Dark Star was All Good. I connected with the song and my old friends Bobby and Phil, with Jerry upstairs and a new guy that was Stellar, it was awesome. I'll be back!
P.S. I told my niece about a friend of mine that went on tour for 3 years just to see a Dark Star. There was one show that he missed because he had the flu. His friends called to say that they played Dark Star that night. He ran to the toilet and threw up. I didn't see him come out of his apartment for two weeks. Poor Ray. But I got to see it at All Good, and I know that Jerry was there in spirit. I was grateful.
Dear Loco (it is Loco, isn't it?),
I can only imagine you said "as a song, I have to say, it's not that great" in order to elicit rabid responses from folks who would obviously (and for good reason) beg to differ. I mean, why would you post on dead.net on a blog for and about the song "Dark Star" and say "it's not that great" unless you were just kidding (or had never heard the song)? I am taking off my deadhead hat now to say that "Dark Star" is one of the most amazing, complex, metaphysical, philosophical, mind-blowing pieces of music ever written both musically and lyrically. Even when listening to the 3 minute (or so) studio version in the context of the WALSTIB greatest hits album one's brain automatically and instinctively perks up and begins to query itself in the manner of the alien on Star Trek attempting to calculate the value of PI. Yet, instead of collapsing upon itself like the alien did and as the Dark Star does the brain discovers an archetypal truism with such depth and breadth of "is" that the meaning of Zen is splashed across the screen of your psyche like waves of violet crashing and laughing
not Gilmore ... it's late at night in Sweden ... or I would never write the wrong name ...
That's where I got on ... it was through "Live/Dead" in November 1978.
I already knew about the Grateful Dead, having purchased Jerry Garcia - "Reflections" in early 1976 and almost purchasing a bootleg in the Spring of 1975 but even though I proclaimed myself to be a Garcia fan from 1976, it took about two and half years before I got "on the bus".
In May 1978 I started to purchase San Francisco music records. By then I have had a desire since about 1976 to one day leave Sweden and move west to the place of my dreams. It had very little to do with the music at first but would eventually mean a lot more musically speaking. So in May '78 I got Jefferson Airplane's "Bless Its Pointed Little Head" and on June 19th I recieved an ordered LP titled "Happy Trails" by Quicksilver Messenger Service and in July another three Quicksilver albums ("Shady Grove", "Just For Love" and "Quicksilver", the latter from 1971).
I had a tiny little encyclopedia where I would read about Quicksilver and the Dead. The Quicksilver article was based on where they were in late 1969. Due to the actual encyclopedia QMS were a quartet featuring Cipollina, Hopkins, Freiberg and Gilmore and I as I used to do back then was to imagine in my mind how the music sounded like before I actually went and purchased an LP. So I would lay on my bed and imagine QMS playing based on what I read about them and then I went to a record shop but they didn't have any QMS albums. I got to look what was available to order and out of the few titles they could get for me I went for "Happy Trails". It sounded cool ... happy trails ...
Of course it didn't sounded like I had imagined QMS to sound in my mind but as I listened with a hungry mind, I was caught by the music and became a big fan from then on.
After two months of heavy listening to Quicksilver I dug into my mind again, this time trying to imagine the Grateful Dead. The article on them was also based of them in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Since I now had been "baptized" by "Happy Trails" I had certain ideas on how the Dead could sound but this time it took a little longer before I went back to the record shop to purchase my first Grateful Dead-record. In early November I was too curious to wait any longer and went and got "Live/Dead". I could have purchased some other Dead record but wanted a live album and thought "Live/Dead" looked really cool, with the back cover "draped" in the American flag.
Went home and put it on ... and BOOM ... I was hit by some really exiting music ... namely Dark Star in all its glory. It resembled some of the sound I had imagined but I hadn't counted with the lead bass from Mr. Lesh. I was blown away by his playing and of course also by Jerry, whose record "Reflections" I had listened to about 50 times over the two and half years I had had it. Here on Dark Star I was taken away to another universe by him and the rest of band.
Before purchasing "Bless Its Pointed Little Head" in May that year I would very often turn down the bass on my stereo. I didn't really appreciated bass guitar as an instrument but begun to with Jack Casady on the Jefferson Airplane record, and even more so with David Freiberg on "Happy Trails" but it wasn't until I heard Phil's playing on "Live/Dead" that I really started to appreciate the bass guitar. And I was a BIG fan of Led Zeppelin since 1973-74!
Over the years I must have listened to Dark Star of "Live/Dead" at least 200-250 times or perhaps more. In March 1979 I went to a music store and purchsed a bass guitar, without knowing how to play but I really wanted to be "Phil Lesh" or at least play like him. Unfortunately I never had the discipline to learn the bass, or any other instrument for that matter, really well, so eventually I traded the bass guitar for an electric guitar about a year later. I would "sell" the guitar to a friend about another year later and have to this day been listening instead of creating my own music, except in my mind - sometimes based on the Grateful Dead music.
what can you say about the best of the best. This is the grateful dead at their finest, complete improv, right there in front of your eyes the dead tell the story, going from the preamble to the first verse, going out into space, past all your favorite watering holes and bring you back to earth, sometimes peacefully, sometimes quite suddenly. Each one a snapshot in time of what was going on inside each and every member of the band at that particular moment in time. Like a very clean trip, you get off, you go up, you see and hear it all and return that same day. I have many favorites, almost all from the Europe 72 tour are excellent, there are many from 73 and even 74 that are also excellent. During my touring days, I only got to see the dark star light live in Miami in 89, very spooky and trippy dark star that seemed to go on forever, last show of the tour and they really went out there, some fine space music that night. I think that dark star became space in the 80's and 90's, that was the only other time the band created the music right there, in the moment, going with a sound, or a grove or a melody and expanding it into the best sound that they could produce that day. I love the Dark stars of the past, but some of those spaces from the late 80's and 90's were dam fine pieces of music, check out Infrared Roses for some fine space music from the 90's, also I concur, Gray Folded, both Discs, are exceptional listening, listen to the first cd, before the creator had been to a dead show, then listen to the second disc, (Mirror Ashes), you will see that he "got it".
A rare (only?) post-Drums Dark Star that has some heavy jamming, almost scary nightmare Dead. I was in the 400s in the Garden and near about hit the ceiling when it started. Crazy jam into the Playin Reprise, then more craziness back into DS for the second verse. And then they came sooooo close to busting out a St Stephen. Go ahead and listen, you can just about hear it start when Bobby veers into the Throwin' Stones. I was thrilled they released it as a Road Trip release (unfortunately only the second set though).
Other Dark Star experiences:
4/1/91 Greensboro - bookending Drums/Space, very hot shows!
6/17/91 Giants Stadium - teased it all show, including in the first set where they basically jammed it for a bit before the Masterpiece, but never played it
9/10/91 MSG - with Branford, another Drums/Space bookend
and 8/1/2013 - Island 16 theater on LI, enthralled watching 8/27/72 30 minute Dark Star on the big screen. Can't wait to get it in the mail!
Not a big fan of the new vocal arrangement Further and Phil does, but always a chill when the intro hits. Like many have said, think I'll have to dig out the Grayfolded version(s). And I will definitely check out some of the versions that people have mentioned. I will point out one other which is the beautifully tight version from 4/28/71. But I don't think you can go wrong with any of them....
Hearing about the experience of Dark Star for different people is great, but I’d like to comment on the presentation and meaning of it.
I hope this doesn't offend people, but there are several aspects of making music that I feel Furthur does better than the Dead did. And one of these is shown in their presentation of Dark Star as a song that they’re all singing and all contributing to. That makes the song even more inspiring for me. Yes, I loved Garcia’s vocals ... I could go on about this but won’t ... and I particularly loved his singing of Dark Star. And all the graceful instruments sang it too, starting with those first four notes; it’s always been democratic. But to hear it as a swelling, crashing, vocal arrangement is great and reinforces the fact that Dark Star is always playing somewhere, anybody can tune into it and we all should.
But to be a pedant, what does it mean? This is a song about as cosmic an event as is possible, at least subjectively. Something happened to halt reason, the singer says, and now we have to get out the searchlight, or brave our way forward ourselves, to find what’s beyond reason. There’s a mirror in the clouds! But suddenly it’s gone, as is the image of the hand in the glass, perhaps the singer’s own hand ... not to mention the receding hint of a lady in velvet. Now it’s definitely time to go through the transitive nightfall, maybe to where she went.
BTW, *I* haven't received my copy of Veneta yet ... jealous of you guys ... but I hope it'll be on the doorstep when I get home today!
I lucked out. I have seen comparably few Dead shows - about 15, with the original line up. I got to see not just a Dark Star, but I also got to see a 'Bid you Goodnight'... along with everything in between. I know few if any dead heads who managed to catch both. As the author mentioned, it can be 10 years between shows.
as a song, I have to say, it's not that great. I appreciate it for its rarity, but it is also 30 minutes of time I could be hearing better songs.
At least that's what I call Grayfolded. Put it on your stereo and watch the animals in your house try to figure out what's going on; why is the house making these noises?!
I think any debate over what period is best for Dark Stars is destined to be futile - unless it's the basic posit that from 1968-1974 is your best bet, but that's like saying that the best time to see the Dead was from 1965-1995. Even my own opinion changes all the time, so any larger consensus is hard to come by. There's definitely something special about 68/69 and 72 for me, but I really can't complain about any others.