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!)
Early on in my career as a Deadhead, I remember getting into a conversation with a fellow Deadhead, my minister, actually, who was upset at the time with the band for not banning the bikers from the scene. Never having really been in “the scene,” I was taking the issue on from a purely idealistic, theoretical perspective, pointing about that the Grateful Dead encompass both light and dark, roses and thorns, and that the presence of the Hell’s Angels, or other bikers, at shows was just an example of this.
I did have some firsthand experience of at least one show which seemed entirely dominated by bikers, at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon, in June 1978. The bill comprised Eddie Money, The Outlaws, Santana, and the Dead, and it seemed like everywhere I looked (and I was, as they say, in a sensitive state of mind at the time) all I saw were leather-clad, threatening-looking biker dudes. I remember leaving the field level where we had pitched our blanket, climbing to the top of the stadium, and looking out over the parking lot, where a line of choppers stood parked, stretching for hundreds of yards. The drum solo at that show included a motorcycle revving through the sound system—or at least, I’m pretty sure it did. It sounded like it. Eventually everything was ok, but it was touch and go for me for awhile there.
I asked my friend the minister if he didn’t think that it was better to have the bikers be around the Dead’s energy than, say, Black Sabbath, and he admitted that I had a point.
The Bob Weir / John Barlow / Brent Mydland song “Hell in a Bucket” directly references the biker scene, and I’m sure that somehow Barlow just wanted to put that element into the band’s repertoire somehow. After all, there are plenty of outlaw elements sprinkled through the band’s songs.
In the case of this song, though, the singer/narrator seems to be wishing a sorry fate on his erstwhile main squeeze, with the argument being that once she has a biker charging up and down her halls on his chopper, she’ll realize that the narrator was really pretty good, at least by contrast.
What a fun argument! I mean, could that ever actually happen? No, but it is an interesting scenario to play out in fantasy.
“Bucket” debuted on May 13, 1983, at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. I wasn’t there, but I did hear its second performance, later that same weekend, and I remember enjoying reading Alice Kahn’s wonderful review of the show, in which she promulgated one of the best-ever Mondegreens, referring to the song as “Police on a Joy Ride.” The song frequently featured as the show opener over the course of the next two-plus decades, although it wasn’t used in that role until about a year after its first performance. It was performed by the Dead for the final time on June 30, 1995, at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Hell in a Bucket” appeared on In the Dark, released in July 1987. I have to admit that, until just now, I did not realize that Brent Mydland was co-credited with the music for the song. In fact, it’s something that will need correcting in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, if I ever get the opportunity to put together a revised edition (there are a number of other mistakes, as I’m sure anyone who regularly reads this blog would suspect…).
The song features a number of verses that were ultimately cut from the performance version (you can find ‘em in the lyric link above). Back in 1997, David Gans posted this note on rec.music.gdead (remember newsgroups?):
I was hanging out at Weir's a bit in those days, and there were some gnarly ideas batted around for that song. Gerrit Graham (who wrote "Victim or the Crime" with Bobby) was around for some of these sessions, too.
I was actually able to contribute a little to "Hell in a Bucket": I suggested to Bob that he change "You imagine me kissing the toe of your boot" to "You imagine me sipping champagne from your boot." Barlow seemed slightly miffed about it, but I'm pretty sure he got over it.
So, maybe it should be credited to Weir/Barlow/Mydland/Graham/Gans…?
The most fun reference in the song, for me, is Catherine the Great. (Although I really enjoy the backwards self-reference to Saint Stephen: “bucket hanging clear to hell…”). It’s worth finding some biographical information about her reign as the Russian monarch in the late 18th century, and about her personal life. “Ravenous” seems like a pretty apt word for her appetites. But she was also a promulgator of the Enlightenment, and advanced the nation in many important ways, so that her reign is considered to have been the Golden Age of Russia.
And then there’s the official music video that came with the song. Go find it and watch it if you haven’t for awhile—there is a wonderful duck with a slave collar, tigers, pigs, bikers, and all filmed at New George’s in San Rafael. Bobby is wonderfully over-the-top in the video.
When all is said and done, though, I guess I would have to go with the sense that this song was meant to be a call to “enjoy the ride,” no matter what might be going on in our lives. And as a show opener, it was the perfect way to start what was bound to be a crazy crazy night….