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!)
Stranger and stranger—two meanings for the same word, both used in one song, and to great effect.
I admit that I have gone back and forth over the years in thinking about what this song might “mean.” (Quotes intentional—no explanation of that necessary for anyone who has been reading these blog posts over the past 11 months…)
Here, I would like to crowd-source some interpretation(s).
The trademarked kickoff to this song is instantly identifiable. I always felt, at a show, that if “Stranger” opened the concert, you could count on things getting…strange. Of course, there wasn’t really anything unusual about that, at a Dead show. Things regularly got strange. But they could always get stranger. And if you got into that space of feeling like a stranger, as the words were sung over and over and as Garcia’s guitar bubbled away in the mix, you could revel in the anticipation just a tad bit more than usual, maybe.
So. Why have I gone back and forth, and over what?
I have wondered about the situation painted by John Barlow’s lyrics. Is the singer of the song literally on stage, as in Weir himself, seeing Garcia firing glances across the room (stage) saying “let’s go.” After all, “The Wheel” gets smokin’ round midnight. Hmmm. “Let’s get on with the show…”—more evidence that what is being sung about is the show itself.
Or, is the Barlow lyric set at a nightclub-slash-singles scene of some sort? And if so, what is “the wheel” that gets smokin’ round midnight in that context? In general, the song does seem to be more about the meeting of two strangers at a bar or concert, hooking up and trying to see if this might be love. “If it’s love then how would I know?”
I enjoy the nervous, jittery feel of the song, as expressed both through the music and through some particularly evocative words. I’m reminded of David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” in which he sings “it increases my paranoia, like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car.” Barlow writes about having it feel “like running a red light.” I’ve wondered about the red and blue lights that are lit up and flashing on the neon avenue (“arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street,” anyone?) and whether they might not be flashing on top of police cars.
Barlow wrote “Feel Like a Stranger” in January 1980 in Mill Valley, California, and it debuted on March 31, 1980, at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey. Frequently used as an opener, the song was last performed, in that position, on July 5, 1995, at the Riverport Theater in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
It was released on the Dead’s 1980 album, Go To Heaven.
A big feature of the song, for me, is Brent’s vocal contribution in counterpoint to Weir and the band, particular in the rave-up “silky silky crazy crazy night” portion of the song. The wonderful and fun exchange on Without a Net, where Brent starts singing “long crazy tour,” and it’s taken up by Weir, is a great example of the band being present in the moment and with each other. And it’s a nice complement to the “long strange trip” motif.
Musically, this song has all those great hallmarks of a Weir(d) song. The chord progression is less than straightforward; there are some odd musical bridges from one place to the next; and the music mirrors the subject matter in some sixth-sense kind of way. On an ongoing and continuous basis, the structures of Weir’s songs contain the biggest challenges, and the way they seem to learn their way into the band over time is telling. The biggest example of this, for me, is “Victim or the Crime.” By the time the band had finally conquered that song, it was a monster, rivaling anything else in their repertoire.
Oddly, one of the most memorable performances I heard of “Stranger” was not at a Dead show, but at a Dark Star Orchestra show. In fact, the first DSO show I ever attended, at a little club in Santa Cruz in 1997 or so. They kicked off with “Feel Like a Stranger,” and my jaw hit the floor. It was such a good feeling to be standing in the middle of that sound again.
What do you think about this song? What’s happening in it for you? Did anyone besides me have that particular feeling, when the band opened with “Stranger,” that it was destined to be an especially strange show?