Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Days Between"
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!)
A generation was defined by knowing where they were, what they were doing, at the moment they learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have had a similar experience of the “generation” of Deadheads, over the years, talking with fellow Deadheads about August 9, 1995, the day we learned that Jerry Garcia had died.
I was at work, at the Kraemer Family Library at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The campus is situated high on a bluff overlooking the city of Colorado Springs, with a view to the west of Pike’s Peak, surely one of the most impressive views I have ever spent time with on a regular basis. When a co-worker came to ask if I had heard the news, I first spent a little time online, making sure that it was indeed true, then I had to leave my desk, leave the building, and go for a long walk. I headed for the open space on the bluff above the campus buildings, where you could go and get a long view, and walked for about an hour, I think. My eyes blurred with tears, and the view shimmered.
“Days Between” has come to be an anthem that makes us remember Garcia in a particular way, and, in particular, the days between his birth date of August 1 and his death date of August 9. It’s a fitting song for such thoughts, with its big sweeping chords and its lyrics heavy with nostalgia and longing.
There’s a word in German, sehnsucht, that lacks a proper emotional counterpart in English, but which means, roughly, “longing.” It carries a sense of wishing you could see something—see something again, see something at all—that something is missing from your eyes and from your presence. I find that “Days Between” belongs with a raft of songs that induce this feeling in me.
“Days Between,” a late song in the Robert Hunter / Jerry Garcia songbook, was perhaps their last collaboration on a big, significant song, one that ranks with “Dark Star” and “Terrapin Station” as ambitious and intentionally grand. (I was talking the other day with a friend, about Garcia’s playing and songwriting, and the thought came up that Garcia, like few others, was unafraid of grandeur, and could successfully pull it off. Same with Hunter.)
It was first performed on February 22, 1993, at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the middle show of a three-night run. The night before, they had premiered three other new songs: “Eternity,” “Lazy River Road,” and “Liberty.” Its final performance was on June 24, 1995, at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. During its relatively short time in the live repertoire, they played it 41 times, always in the second set, and fairly frequently rising out of the Drums.
It appeared like the ghostly ships it describes, as if gradually from a fog and only slowly revealing itself as something very big, towering above everything around. It’s hard to say it any better than Phil Lesh did in his autobiography, Searching for the Sound:
“Achingly nostalgic, ‘Days Between’ evokes the past. The music climbs laboriously out of shadows, growing and peaking with each verse, only to fall back each time in hopeless resignation. When Jerry sings the line ‘when all we ever wanted / was to learn and love and grow’ or ‘gave the best we had to give / how much we’ll never know,’ I am immediately transported decades back in time, to a beautiful spring morning with Jerry, Hunter, Barbara Meier, and Alan Trist—all of us goofing on the sheer exhilaration of being alive. I don’t know whether to weep with joy at the beauty of the vision or with sadness at the impassable chasm of time between the golden past and the often painful present.”
Each verse in the song contains fourteen lines, and each evokes a different season of the year, although not in sequence. The first verse contains the lines “Summer flies and August dies / the world grows dark and mean.” I can’t hear that line without thinking about August West, in Wharf Rat, and, by extension, Garcia himself. “The singing man is at his song / the holy on their knees.” Who is the singing man, if not Garcia, when it comes to Hunter and his words?
There is something wave-like in the repetition Hunter employs with several key phrases: “There were days, and there were days, and there were days between…” like the waves upon the sand. And “when phantom ships with phantom sails set to sea on phantom tides.”
This is a song in which Hunter leaves wide open the individual assignment of meaning, as with many of his lyrics. But there is something so tender in his evocation of the past—of each of our pasts—that I really hesitate to say anything that could possibly put any of that into my own personal box of meaning. So I am going to err, possibly, on the side of not writing enough about this song, in hopes that I might not say too much.
I still miss Jerry. Where were you on August 9, 1995?
I heard the sad, bad news on the radio. I got PISSED-OFF!!! You junky MOTHER FUCKER! Being just 6 years clean and sober at the time, I could be a judgmental asshole. Then I just broke down, had to go to the tool shed and cry my eyes out. Spent a lot of time over the next few weeks at the polo fields in GG Park watching the memorial grow.
I still listen to the old shows now and then. I still miss Garcia like crazy. Some late nights when I just can't quite go home yet I drive up and down The Great Highway blasting WinterLand 12/29/77 - back when everything was "just exactly perfect."
Your story really has touched me...the juxtaposition of the aggressiveness and toughness with the quiet understanding of your DS is extremely powerful. Thanks for sharing.
Well all we have left are phantom ships with phantom sails sailing on phantom tides these days - the song is truly prophetic. I am just honored and Grateful to have been a witness - they were truly a beast alive and a site to behold.
of the time Hunter did a poetry reading at the Great American and read "An American Adventure." Which, blue endive and all, is sort of the upbeat-er flip side to "Days Between."
I disagree with what you wrote in "Annotated Lyrics" about the order of the seasons in the verses of "Days Between." To me, the first verse, when "Summer flies and August dies, the world grows dark and mean," is the fall, when the days are getting shorter and the world is growing dark. But that verse could also be winter. The next verse is spring, a "Springtime wet with sighs." Next comes summer. It's a verse about growth, to learn and love and grow, and about adventure, when we "stood upon a mountain top, walked barefoot through the snow," because in summer there is snow on mountain tops. The final verse is about winter, although it looks back on summer with longing: "Hearts of Summer held in trust, Still tender young and green, Left on shelves collecting dust, Not knowing what they mean." But it could be about fall, which would put the verses in the order of the seasons.
Wow - I was driving in a car with a co-worker to lunch. She was talking and I heard the blurb on the radio. I froze. I heard her voice but had no idea what she was saying. She was not on the same plane, she knew who Jerry was but, she didn't get it. All I wanted to do was hug and be hugged. We went to a cafe and there was a friend who knew Jerry in a small way. I had to convey this to her -- a small release to these unreal words -- Jerry died. When I returned to work a coworker who knew and kind of understood my feelings came with his sympathies. There were messages on my machine offering condolences. Yes -- I had lost family. It was surreal. Great friendships richly adorned our little group -- all was not lost. Jerry lives on in so many ways altho we miss his presence in this world -- there are days between -- our next meeting.
I was 46 years old back then, and had the summer off from work as I recuperated from spinal surgery. A friend called me and asked had I heard the news. When she told me, I flashed on American Pie..the day the music died. I felt like I lost a big brother, a friend I had "known" since 1968 without ever actually meeting. I was mad at him, even though I knew he died in a rehab. I got over my anger, and tried to imagine what pain he was trying to numb with the drugs. I had taken my (now deceased) wife to her first show in 1980, at Glens Falls civic Center in upstate New York. I took my 16 year old daughter to her first and only show the last time the band played The Knick, in ALbany. I still laugh at what I told her...I said you're sitting with your dad, so if someone passes you a joint, make your own decision. Then I said but for gods sake, if anyone offers you anything to drink or eat, DON'T TAKE IT!! I miss Jerry, I remember all the good music, all the wild and weird shows, and his 1000 watt smile.
This was one of those things that will stick with me. On this date I was finishing up my AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Ft. Sill Oklahoma. Being 19 years old and surrounded by a bunch of guys who were being encouraged to be aggressive all the time, it was easy to fall into that mentality. Sitting down to dinner a friend of mine who was reading the paper stopped eating, put his head in his hands and just sat there. Cautiously, I reached over and took the paper, more than a little afraid of what I would see (this was only a few months after the Oklahoma City bombings, so I was more than a little worried). As I scanned through the paper I found the blurb mentioning Jerry's passing. I moved over and placed my arm over his shoulders and just sat there. Before long a few of the other guys noticed and reacted in different ways. Some offered sympathy while others offered jeers. Soon our Drill Sergeant came over to see what was wrong. Our DS was an Alabama native, and proud redneck, so I braced for the worst while he looked at the paper. His comment is something I will never forget, "Workingman's Dead was one of my favorite albums growing up. I'm sorry." He then walked away. After that, everyone gave my friend and I some space. We sat and dealt with it for a few minutes and then resumed the life of a soldier, as we had to do.
In recent years "The Days Between" have taken on a different meaning. Summer coming to an end. School getting ready to start. Transitions. On the 9th I always remember where I was and what it means to lead. That Drill Sergeant earned my respect that day. It wasn't because I feared him, and he was one tough SOB; rather because he knew you treat everyone with respect. And that, to me, is one of the key qualities of a true leader. Kind of a silver lining to one of the most significant passings of my life.
I have reach and I am now older than the age that Jerry passed. It seems so long ago, 18 years, yet I am still transported back in time 30-some years when I listen to shows I attended in my youth. I was in Nantucket, working for the University of Florida’s Preservation Institute. The pay-phone rang in one of the dorms, an old flame, my first love called to see how I was doing. She had called my parents, who have had the same phone # forever, found out where I was and called. Not knowing that I didn’t know, she was very kind, but not having spoken in years, I knew something was up. When she told me, I was numb for a bit, no true sadness until much later. I had stopped touring in 91’, and was removed from the engrossment of the scene. I had finished Grad School in that 4-years and had collected a few tapes; The Dean Dome in 93’ was pretty good and I had just picked up Dick’s Pick Vol. 2 for the road trip to Nantucket. We had quite the listening party that night, some people who never heard of the Dead were very moved. Alone, looking at the stars late that night was when I cried.
I am listening to this right now at work, tears rolling down my face, thinking about the many people in my life who have gone on beyond the horizon.