Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Friend Of The Devil"
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!)
Once in awhile, writing this blog, I check my list of songs I’ve written about so far, sure that I must have covered this or that particular song, only to be amazed that I haven’t. I mean: “Friend of the Devil”? Come on! It’s the definition of a story song. It might BE the Greatest Story they ever told.
I thought of it today because I recently had the wondrous opportunity to see Robert Hunter play a solo show here in the North Bay Area, and one of the songs he played was “Friend of the Devil.” Along with an amazing selection of other tunes, including rarities like “Doin’ That Rag,” and “Ruben and Cherise.”
There’s a lot of great background to be found in many places, detailing the evolution of the song. Suffice it to say that it was a collaborative effort, and that the title line was not part of the original lyric by Hunter, but was contributed by John Dawson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Hunter’s original chorus went: “I set out running but I take my time / It looks like water but it tastes like wine.”
Wow. For Dawson (aka Marmaduke) to have come up with that line—what an amazing inspiration! Here’s how Hunter described it in his online journal back in 2006:
"We all went down to the kitchen to have espresso made in Dawson's new machine. We got to talking about the tune and John said the verses were nifty except for "it looks like water but it tastes like wine" which I had to admit fell flat. Suddenly Dawson's eyes lit up and he crowed "How about "a friend of the devil is a friend of mine." Bingo, not only the right line but a memorable title as well! We ran back upstairs to Nelson's room and recorded the tune.”
So—the line that gives the song its soul, as it were, came from seemingly nowhere (although my vote is for the espresso as a catalyst). Sure, the song describes, in the words of the first-person narrator, an outlaw who is on the run, but the “friend of the devil” idea—that seems big, and truly expands the level of outlawry implied by the overall story.
The other great part of the origin story for the song is that Garcia turned one of Hunter’s verses, originally sung as a verse, into one of the most beautiful bridges in a repertoire full of beautiful bridges. “Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night…”
Here’s a picture of Hunter’s original handwritten lyrics:
Hunter said once, in an interview, that if he and Garcia had written a song that might become a standard, it was probably “Friend of the Devil.” And I’ve heard it done by enough different bands in every kind of setting, that I have to agree. No other Dead tune gets played quite so often.
The character in the song is on the run—a theme that comes up again and again in Grateful Dead songs from “Sugaree” to “Bertha” to “Jack Straw.” And, as in some other tunes (“Loser,” “Candyman”) the historical setting is some vague place in America’s past. I have speculated that, since he lit out from Reno and then spent the night in “Utah,” it could be that the song was set during the period when Reno was in the Utah Territory. Here’s a map that shows the boundaries of the Territory, with modern-day state boundaries:
So, if the narrator set out running from Reno and then spent the night in Utah Territory (of which Reno was a part), it had to have happened between 1850 and 1896. Other place names in the song provide enticing clues, but I really doubt that Hunter was sitting there with an historical atlas, making sure that future scholars would note no discrepancies. He was giving a sense of the Wild West, with outlaws and jail time and wives in different towns. And that’s what we get.
Hunter, in his performances, has always included a verse not on offer from the Garcia performances:
You can borrow from the devil, you can borrow from a friend
But the devil will give you twenty, when your friend got only ten
It’s a great couplet, and I like to think of it, lately, in terms of mortgage lenders who loaned more than people could afford to pay. Something very satisfying in thinking of the large lenders as satanic.
When the band started slowing up the tempo of the song in a big way in the late 1970s, it took on an entirely new character. And indeed, the song does well at almost any tempo. It can be a blazing bluegrass number, a gentle folksong, or a ponderous and majestic piece, as it was in later years. (If you still have a turntable, you should play “Friend of the Devil” from Dead Set at 45 rpm. Garcia sounds like Dolly Parton!)
Quite a few artists have covered “Friend of the Devil.” I think my favorite is Lyle Lovett on the Deadicated album—he gets something just right about the song. And Tom Petty’s Live Anthology version is great—I especially like the change in the paternity question line from “it don’t look like me” to “she don’t look like me.” Always nice to have a baby referred to as “he” or “she” rather than “it,” even if the use of “it” is consistent with the character of the narrator.
It’s a story song for the ages. One for the campfires and the hoedowns and the tributes and the masses.
If I had to pick one GD song, I guess it would be this one. It is just perfect in every way. A modern classic that will be played forever. The studio version is probably my fave. After that, some of the live acoustic ones from 1970. The two guitar parts are wondrous together. But I also can get into the slow post-hiatus versions if I'm in the mood. I wish they had thrown in a few fast ones in the later years, just to mix it up. Can you imagine one in the style of the Reckoning album? I can. And when I hear someone singing about "the devil" I don't think they really mean evil incarnate. It's just a figure of speech that adds a certain edge. Beck, Van Halen, Charlie Daniels, Little Richard, endless metal bands, etc. all have songs "about" the devil. None scares me (except maybe the Louvin Brothers because they meant it in a fundy Christian way). There has to be some darkness to define the light. Steer toward the light and it will be all right.
I thinks its funny that a lot of people don't like the slow version...to each their own. I think at this point, I prefer the slower versions. More space for everyone in the band to do beautiful things. If anyone is on the fence about the slow versions, the version from The Closing of Winterland is by far the Holy Grail to me. When Jerry starts on his solo, its like the whole universe is exploding...but I'm sure y'all have seen it a hundred times.
I've still never heard the Kenny Loggins version of it...hopefully I will someday.
Ooops, last for me was actually Ratdog, 2014-02-25 at HOB Boston, another great version.
There's so much to like about this song. One thing that's always made it seem epic to me is the day > night thing. In rapid order: night, morning, daylight, tonight, night, night, life. This is about a trial of the soul that happens over a length of time, and maybe will extend for the narrator's whole life. You can almost see the sun going up and then the sun going down in the Utah desert.
And it's not just a narration, he's talking to someone. He addresses her as "baby" in one verse and then as "babe" in the next. So how many women are there here? There's the one he's running from, there's sweet Anne Marie, there's the wife in Chino, the one in Cherokee, and some might say that the devil he's running from is a woman ... maybe the devil is all of them, or maybe he's running from himself or his own conscience (excuse me for the cosmic digression). And where does the one he's addressing fit in with all this? If he's talking to her about the devil, maybe she's an angel (or from Saint Angel at least, which is near Utah according to my map).
Can't say I liked it when they slowed this down in the mid-70s, but the new version grew on me. The last time I heard it live was second song in Furthur's first set at the Vibes in 2011, which was a wonderful performance. Bobby sings the "borrow from a friend" verse too.
But his little girl sure wish she could. What can you say? FOTD is Truly one of the very very best tunes. Dead Set version resonates with me maybe more than any other tack I have ever heard. I like to think of living life in balance and employ the "sometimes naughty, sometimes nice" philosophy. Perhaps I am an acquaintance of the devil. That line would be tough to sneak in. Same thinking brings to mind the name of Ben Harpur's band "the innocent criminals". Any head at the tail end of a long strange trip can relate to "I get home before daylight, just might get some sleep tonight." Truly one of the very very best.
always and forever my favorite song. Perfectly ambiguous. So is the guy a deadbeat dad or is there a reason the child "don't look like me"? The refrain "Friend of the devil is a friend of mine" could be willfully defiant, or a plea of desperation. The tone of the song, the melody, gives no clue. It could go either way. It's whatever you want it to be. I never knew Marmaduke came up with the "friend of the devil" line. That is amazing to me. I always just thought it was one of Hunter's great classic inspirations. What a great example of the power of collaboration!
I wrote about my favorite live experience of this song on Blair's old blog, but I can't resist repeating it. I saw Marmaduke sing this in Reno around 1987 or so. The show was billed as NRPS but McDuke was the only original member, I think. It was at a little hole in the wall joint in Reno. Only 3 musicians showed up for the show, including Marmaduke. He explained that the rest of the band got busted for weed the night before. They played a show the previous night in Tahoe and were unaware of the strict MJ laws on the NV side of the state line. Naturally, he then launched into "Friend of the Devil". So that was my quintessential "FOTD" experience. Marmaduke, in Reno, with sheriffs out on the trail!
David Dodd mentions that New Riders of the Purple Sage's John Dawson and David Nelson were co-creators of song with Hunter/Garcia. Recently David Nelson, and pedal steel/lead guitarist Barry Sless played with Bill Kreutzmann in Sonoma County, CA. They played a country twanged "Friend of the Devil" with Sless on pedal steel and Nelson appropriately on vocals. Nelson included the "you can borrow from the devil, you can borrow from a friend..." omitted verse.
It was a special treat to hear this speedier FOTD that evoked the earlier renditions of the tune. Indeed an important piece of Americana. From 1970 to 2014, forty five years later honoring an important collaboration in true country rock history.
The slow 'ballad' version of "Friend Of The Devil" was introduced in late 1975 with the Jerry Garcia Band, and the arrangement was picked up by the Grateful Dead when they returned to regular performing in mid-1976. Around that time, it came out somehow that Garcia had gotten the idea for the slower arrangement when he heard a tape of Kenny Loggins performing the song as a slow ballad. I had two thoughts about this at the time:
1) really, Kenny Loggins?, and
2) who tapes Loggins And Messina?
This peculiarity remained mysterious for several decades, but conveniently, the Internet was invented and all the pieces finally could be put together. The answers appeared to be:
1) yes, really, Kenny Loggins, and
2) Betty Cantor
Loggins And Messina, touring behind their debut album, opened for the New Riders Of The Purple Sage at the Memorial Auditorium in Kansas City, KS on June 30, 1972. Loggins And Messina were a CBS act, just like the RIders, so it was a logical pairing for the time. Betty Cantor was there, probably working for the Alembic sound crew with the Riders, and she taped Loggins And Messina's set. They played pretty well, it sounds great (naturally) and Loggins did the slow version of "Friend Of The Devil."
It's a pretty good bet that Betty played the version of the song for Jerry, and it stuck in his mind. For a deeper dive into this subject of great historical importance, see here: http://hooterollin.blogspot.com/2012/04/june-30-1972-memorial-auditorium...
If I have the chronology correct, "Friend Of The Devil" appears to have been written around March 1970. At the time, Garcia and Mountain Girl were sharing a house in Larkspur with Hunter and his girlfriend. David Nelson apparently mostly stayed with them. This sounds inconvenient, but remember that the Grateful Dead were on the road much of the time. According to Robert Greenfield's book, John Dawson lived across the street. So that accounts for Hunter, Nelson, Dawson and Garcia hanging out and making espresso while they talked about Hunter's new song.
Bobby's rhythm guitar part on the studio track is incredible
I think it was on gans/lamberts radio show they had barncard the studio producer on and he isolated Bobby's part in the mix and played it alone
that dude can play