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!)
As I write this, it is April Fool’s Day.
There are quite a number of fools in Grateful Dead songs.
“You thought you was the cool fool...”
“Don’t lend your hand to raise no flag atop no Ship of Fools...”
“Heaven help the fool...”
But the one that sprang to my mind today was “Foolish Heart,” a song that bounced onto the scene in the wake of the success of “Touch of Grey,” somehow in the same lyrical and musical family of Hunter / Garcia collaborations.
Both songs seem to be a bit on the preachy side, for want of a better word. But the preacher, in each case, might be seen to be a bit like an unreliable narrator in a well-written novel, with the plot completely thrown off or at least jaundiced by the narrative voice.
The advice being dispensed must spring from a place of deep hurt. The narrator is wounded, and therefore unreliable and, well, willing to be wrong. The singer, the character being portrayed, through Garcia, by Hunter, is willing to do any and everything rather than make the same mistake in love again.
I imagine we can all identify, to a point.
In “Touch of Grey,” the singer seems to have found himself at a point in life when all he can really do is make the best of a bad lot (kid can’t read, rent’s not paid, etc.) and note that at least he will get by—he’ll survive, if only just. (I’ll have to get around to “Touch of Grey” one of these days soon....) The line: “Light a candle, curse the glare” would definitely not be out of place in “Foolish Heart,” where we are told to “bite the hand that bakes your bread.”
Hunter loves to take us by surprise, to take cliche’s and turn them in on themselves—a signal feature of both songs.
Not all the advice seems ill-advised. “Speak with wisdom like a child, directly to the heart.” I like that. But “Shun a friend, shun a brother and a friend” not so much. The Annotated Lyrics notes a number of possible allusions in the lyrics, mostly looking at the revisionist approach to tried-and-true sayings such as “out of the mouths of babes...” and “bit the hand that feeds them,” and “where angels fear to tread.” I especially enjoy the caution “never look around the bend,” since it brings to mind, for me, the legend that Neal Cassady could actually see around corners while driving.
So. All this begs the question—what is a “foolish” heart? What kind of person is the narrator referring to? Hunter does get specific at one point (in the bridge—almost always the dramatic, or most significant lyrical part, of any given song):
A foolish heart will call on you
To toss your dreams away
Then turn around and blame you
For the way you went astray
A foolish heart will cost you sleep
And often make you curse
A selfish heart is trouble
But a foolish heart is worse
The characteristic seems to be a sort of hypocrisy—first urging you to do something crazy, then chastising you for that insanity. “Go ahead,” the foolish heart tells us, “take a chance! Take a risk!” and then, when we do: “What, are you nuts? You’re throwing everything away!” I think I can understand that, although I might call such a heart cruel rather than foolish. If the fool, however, could also be the trickster, or even the prankster, then definitely: never trust a prankster.
“Foolish Heart” was first played in concert on June 19, 1988 at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin. I remember thinking, when I first heard it, that we might be seeing a reinvigorated songwriting era from Hunter and Garcia. And yes, there were some excellent songs in the final years of the collaboration, including at least one great one, “Days Between.” The song stayed in the repertoire for the remainder of the band’s playing days, with its final rendition taking place on June 27, 1995, at The Palace, in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Its studio version was released on Built to Last, released on October 31, 1989. The song was the album’s only single, backed with “We Can Run.”
There’s a wonderful exchange about the musical structure of the song in an interview with David Gans, dating from September 1989:
JG: I write a song from the top down. That is to say, I usually start with a melody, and then the chord changes, and somewhere in there -- or else Istart with the text that Hunter gives me, and I work out from there. I don't present a song to the band until I have a basic rhythmic feel for it, the melody as I imagine it to be sung, and the chord changes. That has to be in place before I feel like I've got a song....
Sometimes I'm more diffuse than others. My diffuse song on [Built to Last] was "Foolish Heart," where my original notion of it was much more stringy. I had a kind of Pete Townshend kind of acoustic guitar thick rhythm notion, something between that and that kind of the U2 uptempo roll – the fingerpicking roll. Something along those lines -- I sort of wanted it to have something like that. But it's the evolution of the parts in the band that made me completely rethink it. I eventually abandoned that idea totally.
The thing that's interesting about "Foolish Heart" is it doesn't have any pads in it. Nobody's playing chords in the song, not anybody. Everybody's playing lines, and the lines hook up and tell you all you need to know about the harmonic content of the song. You don't wonder where it's going. It's so beautifully designed, it's like a clock.It's really lovely. It surprised me it came out so interesting and so perfect and so totally its own personality. That's the Grateful Dead in action, really.
DG: Brent came up with that line that really made it lock into place. But then you came up with an answer for it on the album, and that was the thing that emerged. The first time we heard it I thought, "Yeah! He locked it. That covers that last little bit."
JG: Well, it started with Weir's little thing. I wanted Weir to play the little hook here, which is [sings] into the first chord [of the verse]. And I wanted the suspended thing there. So I wanted that tonality there, and Brent played that line, and I had Weir play that other line, and all of a sudden it was starting to -- "Oh, I see!" So now there's room for me to do a little thing that's going to fit in there. But the unpredictability of Bob's part in there is one of the things that makes it really interesting to listen to....
DG: Is your answering line going to come back out onstage now?
JG: Yeah, to some extent. It doesn't really appear very often; it seems to characterize it just because it's there at all. I was not going to have that at all; in fact, I almost thought, "I don't think I even want to play the guitar on this tune." During the body of the tune I only play a few notes and a few chords on the one, and a couple of little answers in the chords, and a couple of little licks in the body of the tune -- that is, against the vocal. Apart from that, it's hands off, mostly, and most of what you perceive as the rhythm are the little things that Mickey's doing, which is like a net of teeny-weeny rhythm instruments that occur once every four bars, some of 'em.Just little sounds, but they add to the overall groove. And Phil's part is incredible, the way it comes up in between Brent and Weir's, in their holes. But it still maintains the feel of the tune rhythmically on a certain level; his part is really remarkable too. It's another one of those things -- it's pure Phil and it's also just totally absolutely appropriate.
While working on this piece, I came across a Joss Stone song entitled “Victim of a Foolish Heart.” First off, it seems an odd coincidence to have the words “victim” and “foolish heart” combined, since the two songs (“Victim or the Crime” and “Foolish Heart”) were fairly frequently paired in concert, and appeared on the same album. But I can find no particular clue that the two (or three) songs might be related in any way. The song appeared on her debut album, Soul Sessions, in 2003. All very well—but of course, there has to be more. Turns out she was covering a 1972 song by Bettye Swann, an American soul singer and songwriter. So hmmm....now the combination of the words “Victim” and “Foolish Heart” precede the Hunter/Garcia and Weir/Graham songs. So, who knows? Maybe there was some inspiration there, or some kind of in joke in pairing the songs in concert. Maybe everyone got the joke except me!
OK. Enough speculation. As always, have at it. And don’t hesitate to fool me or make a fool out of me (I deserve it after last week’s giant mistake about Santa Fe...).
Furthur! And remember, never trust a prankster....