Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Feel Like a Stranger”

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!)

“Feel Like a Stranger”

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?


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Joined: Apr 16 2014
barlow AND "meaning"

when i hear the song it seems like it's about bob being on stage with jerry, him sensing his inner fire and starting a trip with him through their show together.

if you've ever been part of any improvisational jam, the way you don't know what will happen next does feel like "running a red light." and if you were ever in one with jerry i have a feeling that sense would be amplified by 1,000x.

that's not all the song is, and what makes the lyrics great, is that they are perfectly relatable to the audience on the flip side of the coin, interacting with each other, because we are all really "strangers" to one another anyway no matter how close we get.

Joined: Jul 15 2013
Dancin and Midnight Hour

Williwox - your forgetting Dancin in the Streets and Midnight Hour (and of course the 9/21/82 Playin' opener, which was pretty nice).

mustin321's picture
Joined: Aug 12 2011
let it grow

Never hated this song but it really has grown on me a lot over the years.

Joined: Jan 13 2010
this song describes the psychedelic experience

long long crazy crazy night

your eyes tell more than you mean them to
lit up and flashin' like the reds and blues out there on the neon avenue

many of us have been there...

always jams for me.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Who are the Grateful Dead and why do they keep following me

And yet another wild and crazy bumper sticker from waaaaaaayyyyyyyy back. Not original on my part. Just my "rain man memory". Muchas Garcias. (Gippies from Gila)

iceninedawg's picture
Joined: Jun 15 2007
Reply to strider88-Very Nice

A great mix of the revered Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and The Grateful Dead...nicely done

Joined: May 9 2012
30 days of Dead

Got to admit, been trying to guess the songs this month. Stranger is fun to jam to. B A B D F#, is that a sharp sign? I guess F sharp is G flat. I may be way off. Another killer Weir/Barlow song. Resin blues? Resin bliss? reds and blues? I only saw them open with Stranger, seems disconcerting at the end of a set. I thought first songs were about setting volume levels and such. Which is why I liked Jack Straw at the end of first set, versus opening. If you toured in the 80's,and it was Bobs turn to open. You pretty much knew you were getting either Bucket, Stranger, or Straw.

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011
Some Strange

They were all long and crazy nights, no matter what song opened. This was as good as any. The typical ending was a bit flashy for our normally more-ragged GD. I was okay with it at the time. I'm going to seek out that Furthur show from Boston because that sounds like my cup of tea. Foliage12, will you PM me please? I have an idea...

Joined: Jun 5 2007
birthday stranger

One of the best and worst shows of my life. Best because it was my birthday and I was given the tickets as a surprise gift. It opened with Stanger/Franklin which I loved because I got my first taste of these two songs from Dead Set. The worst part was that I had to go with this person who I didn't really like. The person who gave me the tickets told me that Tom was part of the deal.
I figured how bad could it be? When I showed up to get him he was on his backside drunk and yelling because The Dallas Cowboys were losing. On the ride to Providence he just kept sqwaking and smoking this rotten weed, I was not in a good mood. Now he has never been to The Civic Center and was out of it that he had no idea where he was. We get into the Civic Center and he goes and gets three Jack Daniels and Cokes and I turned my head for a second and he was gone.
I hoped that we would meet up at our seats but that was not the case. Great seats on Phils side in the first Loge or whatever it was called. I figured that at some point Tom would show up so I just started groovin with the folks around me. Intermission, no Tom. I decide to take this 20 minutes and see if I can find him, I know needle in a haystack so of thing. Well, I started in the bar that is in the top of the Civic Center and low and behold there he is passed out on the floor. I get Tom up and decide to call it a night, I told Tom that the show was over and he bought it. Of course I wanted a shirt and this causes Tom to argue with the lady selling the shirts about the price. I drag him out of The Civic Center and the fresh air must've done something to him because he runs off.
Let's not forget that Tom has no idea where he is. I go after him because I know that he will get picked up and put into protective custody and somehow I will get blamed for this.
Bottom line I got him into the car and told him to shut the hell up on the way home. I was very angry when I heard a boot of the second set.

foliage12's picture
Joined: Sep 3 2013
Just like a Stranger

The first time I realized how good this song is was at a Furthur show in Boston back in 2012. I had heard it before, but it had never really stood out to me until that night. It was part of a 3-song sequence that closed the first set: Just a Little Light > Feel Like a Stranger > Viola Lee Blues(!). I could tell they were staying pretty funky after Light, and they absolutely punted my brain into space when they kicked this one off. To me, one of the biggest pay-offs for this song is coming out of the jam at the end with Jerry (or in this case Kadlecik) calling out the "Feel like a stranger" line on the guitar a few times, and then the whole band snapping into the end. In this version though, they didn't end on the Stranger chord, but rocketed into that dissonant, bone-jarring Viola chord.


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