Grateful Dead

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!)

“Dark Star”

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.


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jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Presenting Dark Star

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!

Joined: Jun 13 2007
Got to see one!

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.

foliage12's picture
Joined: Sep 3 2013
The Grateful Dead Machine

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.

Joined: Mar 15 2013

What never ceases to amaze me are the "Tighten Up" and/or "Feelin' Groovy" interludes in the '69->'70 versions. Out of all that weird psychedelia such soulful playing. See esp. 9/19/70 and 11/2/69 - the latter of which is some of the sweetest playing I've ever heard.

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Constanten quote

Bach 2 Bach--that quote about entering and leaving Dark Star is from Tom Constanten. Always loved that!And yay for Grayfolded! Love that piece of creative work.

Joined: Dec 31 2008

The closest I came to a Dark Star was at Soldier Field 1991 with many teases by Bruce throughout the second set. I was at first ecstatic-- "Yes, Dark Star"-- and then annoyed over the next 30 minutes or so as Bruce kept trying, but it was obvious Jerry wasn't going there that night. Alas, Dark Star was not meant to be heard by me while Jerry was alive. I saw Furthur do it at Allstate Arena two years ago, but it just wasn't the same.

Dark Star is a song I have to be in the right mood to give it a good listen. I can't say I am always in the mood for a 35-minute spacey jam and I almost always have to turn it off depending upon the company I am keeping at the time. I can't wait to hear the Veneta version tonight (got in the mail last night but no time) and like the Europe 72 versions a lot, but for me the late 1968 (From the Vault II in particular) and 1969 versions are the bomb. Those beautiful 12-18 minutes of bliss without dragging down into a space where the band seems to be trying to figure out where to go next. It seems from late 1968-70 they know where they are going without knowing where they are going-- effortless improvisation.

Joined: Nov 12 2007
9/19/70 Fillmore East

My favorite Dark Star is the one from Fillmore East, 9/19/70. The day after Hendrix died. And Led Zeppelin was uptown at MSG doing their thing, the Dead downtown at Fillmore East doing theirs! The house crew's tape is pristine, captures an intense "Dark Star" in all its glory. There's a spacey part to it near the beginning, which just got to be heard. Then the tune takes an up tempo turn.

There was also a Dark Star on 9/17/70 during the same run, but I've yet to listen to it! Perhaps later or this weekend I'll give it a listen though it's a rough audience source.

Joined: Jun 5 2007
searchlight casting

-Did I hear that Hunter wrote Dark Star before the discovery of black holes?

-Not sure who said this, maybe it was Garcia, and I'm paraphasing here: "You don't start Dark Star so much as you enter it, and likewise you don't end it, you merely leave. There's always a Dark Star going on all the time somewhere..." I think Garcia also described it as "it's open, a mandala."

-Check out Gray Folded, the compilation with samples of many Dark Stars over the years merged into one... there's even a timeline showing where each snippet comes from.

-Depending on the mood at the time of performance, DS could be a litmus strip of sorts- spacey & laidback, fast & furious, or anywhere in between. One of the latest Dave's Picks (I forget which one)featured a Dark Star so quick and frenetic I almost fell out of my chair. Certainly not the DS I was accustomed to.

-And then there's the mondegreen of 'dog star' in Lost Sailor...

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008

i think I'll dig out the "Grayfolded" and listen again today while I drive to work.

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
my favorite...

jogging in the woods with headphones meditational song, bar none.


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