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!)
I can’t resist proceeding on to complete the “Help / Slip / Frank” trilogy with this week’s post.
“Franklin’s Tower” is the most memorable song from my very first Grateful Dead concert, on October 9, 1976 at the Oakland Coliseum, when the Dead opened for The Who. At that point, I was pretty much completely unfamiliar with the songs—as far as I was concerned, we were going to a Who concert, and the Dead were just the openers. They opened, all right. They opened my ears wide open. And although I knew hardly any of the words at that point, I had the distinct feeling that there was something big going on with the way the music and the words worked together.
At the point in the show when they launched into “Franklin’s Tower,” (following, I see in retrospect, an interesting chain from Help to Slip to Drums to to Samson to Slip to Franklin’s), the band played with the Oakland Coliseum in a way that I can still hear, if I close my eyes. They timed the echo off the stadium’s far wall so that it seemed in perfect synch with the song: “Roll away (away….away…) the dew (the dew, the dew, the dew…).” That was my first experience with the phenomenon I’m sure a lot of us have experienced, which is the way the band played the space they were in, as part of the music. If there was a bad echo, they would somehow make it play to the music’s advantage. If it was hot and dusty, or cold and rainy, or whatever—those factors became part of the music for that performance, and it was, somehow, just exactly perfect.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic of “Franklin’s Tower.” I’m guilty myself.
But I have found that the most rewarding writing about the song consists of two completely divergent pieces.
The first is by Andrew Shalit, and I was happy to be given permission to point to it from my “Franklin’s Tower” page on the Annotated Lyrics website. Written as a mock-scholarly essay entitled “Roll Away the Dew: An Exegesis of Robert Hunter’s ‘Franklin’s Tower’,” the piece goes into wonderful detail describing Ben Franklin’s supposed process for casting bells, involving a process called “dewing” the bell.
“Franklin postulated that a process which he called ‘dewing’ could be used to improve the production process of large bells. Dewing basically involves exposing the freshly cast bell to large quantities of steam while the bell is still hot. The steam causes a rapid cooling, producing droplet of 'dew' on the bell. After the dew is formed, the bell is rolled between large cotton sheets. He described this process as ‘rolling away the dew.’
“Unfortunately, Franklin's contemporaries had a very hard time understanding his technology. He showed them sample bells, asking him to simply look at the results without trying to understand the process. This was when he uttered the now famous quote, ‘if you get confused, listen to the music play.’”
Worth reading all the way through, definitely. Even more entertaining than the essay itself, perhaps, is the chain of email queries and responses to and from Shalit, in which he continues to develop the ruse. Wonderful!
The second piece about the song is by Hunter himself. He wrote it in response to a piece I posted on my site, written by Jurgen Fauth, entitled “The Fractals of Familiarity and Innovation: Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead concert experience.” In the Fauth essay, the author refers to some of Hunter’s lyrics as lacking in meaning, using the word “nonsensical.”
Hunter responded with an essay entitled “Fractures of Unfamiliarity & Circumvention in Pursuit of a Nice Time.” In the essay, Hunter addresses Fauth directly:
“Since the concluding remark of your essay stated that the Grateful Dead songs are "meaningless" I choose to reply by explicating one of your examples: "Franklin's Tower." I do this reluctantly because I feel that a straightforward statement of my original intent robs the listener of personal associations and replaces them with my own. I may know where they come from, but I don't know where they've been. My allusions are, admittedly, often not immediately accessible to those whose literary resources are broadly different than my own, but I wouldn't want my listeners' trust to be shaken by an acceptance of the category "meaningless" attached to a bundle of justified signifiers whose sources happen to escape the scope of simplistic reference.” [italics mine.]
He then proceeds to give a line-by-line explication of the lyric. To quote from his essay briefly, here is the first verse:
In another time's forgotten space
your eyes looked through your mother's face
Wildflower seed on the sand and stone
may the four winds blow you safely home.
[You have your mother's eyes, child, the very shape, color and intensity of the eyes that looked through her face so long ago. Borne on the varied winds of chance and change, like a dandelion seed, you may find yourself deposited on barren soil. My wish for you is that the forces that brought you there may sweep you up again and bear you to fertile ground.]
"In another time's forgotten space
your eyes looked through your mother's face."
[Relative immortality of the human species is realized through reproduction. Dominant traits inherited from an ancestor, the lyric suggests, share more than mere similarity with those of the forebear, but are an identity, endlessly reproducible. In other words, when someone says "You have your mother's eyes" they are not speaking in simile nor would it be incorrect to say that "your mother has your eyes," if, in fact, possessiveness is an appropriate term in the context. Poetic license will assume it is, if only for the sake of moving on to the next couplet.]
Beautiful, indeed. And in reading this essay then and now, a couple of things came clearer to me. First, my initial take on the lyrics, namely, that interpretation was not necessarily something to be valued, had implications for my own consideration of the lyrics that stays with me today: I will not say what the lyrics mean. I can say what they’ve meant to me, but to try to be definitive about it misses the point of being a listener. Second, one should never underestimate Robert Hunter.
I love this song. I love the chorus, and, as I have said, I still hear it in my mind as the first time, complete with echo off the back wall of the Coliseum. I love the imagery and the allusions contained in the song (hounds, towers, winds, sand, wildflowers….). I love the simplicity of the music, which makes for such endless jamming possibilities in the hands of Garcia or the large number of inventive guitarists who have had fun with this song. I love the reassuring line: “if you get confused, listen to the music play.” That has come in extremely handy on a number of occasions.
And I am well over my usual self-imposed length limit for these posts. Your turn!