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?