Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Eyes Of The World"
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!)
Given that last week’s post was “Estimated Prophet,” it seems appropriate to move right into “Eyes of the World.” The two became almost inextricably linked through hundreds of concert performances, and I’ve always wondered a bit about that…the musical progression didn’t seem particularly natural, with the disintegrating jam out of Estimated eventually giving way to Garcia’s invocation of Eyes via its easily-identified set of opening chords.
Thinking about the juxtaposition of the two songs, we have “Estimated Prophet,” with its maniacal raving deluded character, very much inwardly-focused, and then, bam: “Wake up!” as the chorus begins in “Eyes of the World.” Of course, the prophet in Estimated does accuse his listeners with the line “you all been asleep, you would not believe me...” but “Eyes” seems to say that the sleeper may have been the prophet.
Or, as usual, maybe I read too much into these things.
“Eyes of the World” is a Robert Hunter lyric set by Jerry Garcia. It appeared in concert for the first time in that same show on February 9, 1973, at the Maples Pavilion at Stanford University, along with “They Love Each Other,” “China Doll,” “Here Comes Sunshine,” “Loose Lucy,” “Row Jimmy,” and “Wave That Flag.” Its final performance by the Dead was on July 6, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre, in Maryland Heights, Missouri, when it opened the second set, and led into “Unbroken Chain.” It was performed 381 times, with 49 of those performances occurring in 1973. It was released on “Wake of the Flood” in November, 1973.
(I have begun to notice something I never saw before in the song statistics in Deadbase—the 49 performances in 1973 made me look twice at the song-by-song table of performances broken out by year in DeadBase X, which clearly shows the pattern of new songs being played in heavy rotation when they are first broken out, and then either falling away entirely, or settling into a more steady, less frequent pattern as the years go by. Makes absolute sense!)
Sometimes criticized, lyrically, as being a bit too hippy-dippy for its own good, “Eyes of the World” might be heard as conveying a message of hope, viewing human consciousness as having value for the planet as a whole. There are echoes in the song of a wide range of literary and musical influences, from Blaise Pascal to (perhaps) Ken Kesey; from talk of a redeemer to the title of the song itself.
Pascal seems to me to be the most significant echo. In his Penseés, published in 1680, he wrote: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” Hunter mirrors that thought with “The heart has its seasons, its evenings and songs of its own.” Going outside of the reason of the mind can allow an awakening. “You don’t have time to call your soul a critic, no” Hunter has Garcia sing. Hunter is asking us to trust in something that we can’t comprehend.
And then, he points to our daily lives and concerns and environment, such as the birds, which we might wonder about (where the heck do they go in the winter, anyway...and how do you pronounce “nuthatch”?). Sometimes things are fairly ordinary. Sometimes we live in no extraordinary way—just “no particular way but our own.”
In an interview, Hunter made an interesting statement about the “songs of our own,” which appear twice in “Eyes of the World.” He said that he thinks it’s possible each of us may have some tune, or song, that we hum or sing to ourselves, nothing particularly amazing or fine, necessarily, that is our own song. Our song. I know I have one—it’s a tune I think I’ve been humming to myself when I’m out walking by myself or just abstractedly doing some chore, for well over 30 years. Whenever I think to try to capture it, it’s gone—I really can’t sing it on command, but there it is, when I stop paying attention to it directly. I’d love to hear if others of you reading this have had a similar experience of having a “song of your own.”
I love the evocation of the song “Goodnight, Irene,” in the lines...
Sometimes we live no particular way but our own
Sometimes we visit your country and live in your home
Sometimes we ride on your horses
Sometimes we walk alone
Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.
Goodnight Irene’s lines:
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.
(Thinking about these Goodnight Irene lines, in turn, makes me think of Ken Kesey, and his novel Sometimes A Great Notion, and David Gans and his song “River and Drown”:
Let's go down to the river and drown
Ain't nothin' shakin' in this old town
Get out on the highway and follow that sound
Come on down to the river and drown)
Once again, that’s just how my brain works—maybe it’s how everyone’s brain works—and I just tend to let it wander and have its fun.
The title has an antecedent, in a novel, Eyes of the World, by the obscure Harold Bell Wright (1914), which was subsequently made into a film twice, in 1917 and again in 1930. From what I can tell, the relationship ends with the title, although I admit that I have never made it through the book.
The song leaves plenty of room for our own interpretation of certain lines and sections. The verse about the redeemer fading away, being followed by a clay-laden wagon. The myriad of images of birds, beeches, flowers, seeds, horses....
So, let’s hear it—and don’t hold back (no calling your soul a critic, no)—what does the song say to you? Does it have any particular relationship to “Estimated Prophet” outside of being a good musical companion? Which wins out in your inner arguments, your reason or your heart? Or, maybe, they are aligned in your life.
And while you’re at it, since it seems to have become a theme of these conversations, what is your favorite “Eyes of the World” and why?
I agree about art having a personal meaning beyond the artist's interpretation. Here is mine; I have always thought that the song was about the narrator contemplating birds and their place in the world. It starts off with the narrator explicitly wondering about the life of nuthatch. Then as an epiphany, begins to realize that birds don't have time to worry about all the stuff that humans do such as vanity, criticisms, etc and he begins to see himself as a bird. They only follow their hearts and sing them out in no particular way but their own, but this puts them beyond control of their environment. Humans affect their environment and because we are aware, some of us redeem our injustices of habitat destruction by being conservationists. But, they and their wagons of clay fade away in the great circle of life, like the habitat of flowers that burst into bloom and decay and just like when the night is close on the heels of the day. In the end, life is fleeting. Enjoy yourself, but keep that in mind. The birds don't have to. They just do what they do. And maybe we should too. Sometimes we visit your country or live in your home. Sometimes we ride on your horses and sometimes we walk alone. They are the song that the morning brings. Maybe we are not so different from wild birds after all. I love the Grateful Dead.
I love these lyrical commentaries. Please keep them coming. It's hard to pick a favorite Eyes. I absolutely love Eyes from 74' with the extended form (i.e. GD movie, 6/16/74, 7/31/74, 5/21/74 etc.) but in terms of uniqueness and just crazy energy I have to go w/ 10/31/79 Nassau. Brent and Jerry are just on fire, I lover the disco beat on it and it's followed by probably my fav. GD space ever (I'm usually not a fan of drums and space but on this show they were smoking. 10/31/79 is just all together one of the best shows I've ever heard and for me the best part is the Eyes.
I see the key paradox in the song as the idea that we are the eyes of the world, and yet each heart has its own seasons, evenings and songs. This seems to be saturated with psychedelic wisdom, and evokes an early morning expedition when the world chuckles and sparkles the within you / without you nature of existence.
Oh yes, I love Tons of Steel.
While we're on the subject of Brent songs, I would love to eventually see a blog on "I Will Take You Home." Maybe it is having a four year old daughter, or maybe it is the fact that I always recall the picture of Brent smiling down at his little girl while he plays... but I love this tune.
That's funny, Claney, I was just listening to Dick's 3 a few days ago and noted that long intro! Was driving to work, so I was thinking it was the middle of the song and that I'd lost my place on the verses, when the first verse begun : ) Great one, indeed.
Tons of Steel.........sure! So glad to hear that Marye loves it, given the raunch of some of the lyrics (but isn't that all the classic blues metaphors, anyway?).... A really well put-together song musically, I always enjoyed it, and seemed like the band did, too (Bob used to put harmonies on it live). Then it disappeared from the repertoire almost overnight.... I guess to make room for that next batch of Brent tunes?, the crown jewel of which was Blow Away. Having caught one of the only Gentlemen Starts, I always thought that was a lost gem, too.
Glad for a Brent song. Being a very young Deadhead, it took me a really long time to get into all of Brent's Songs. But even way back when, I always liked Tons of Steel.
I second the notion of Tons of Steel. Not because I love the song, but in support of Marye and to shine a little light on Clifton Hangar.
Tons of Steel. I'm serious. Not just because I love it, but because I've always thought that it was a quintessentially Grateful Dead song for which Brent did not get sufficient credit.
Thank you all for the thoughtful responses to this post. I am continuously amazed, even though I should be used to it by now, by the level of intensity with which we Deadheads listen, and then form our opinions. I am wondering about one thread of the comments, and that has to do with the early jam which did resemble Stronger Than Dirt in some ways, but was definitely its own thing. Does anyone have a title for that jam that might have been semi-"official"? And does anyone know why it was dropped? I get the sense that elements of songs that made things more complex were frequently dropped from live performance--in fact, entire songs were dropped or rarely played for that reason.
Also: I am open to suggestions for the topic of this week's upcoming blog post. I would like for it not to be a Jerry tune, but am open to any other suggestions / requests!