Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Hell In A Bucket"

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!)

“Hell In A Bucket”

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 (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….


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Joined: Oct 27 2017
misogynist lyrics

these lyrics are so bitter - yuk

Inadrainditch's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2015
Hell In A Bucket

When they first started playing this I thought Bobby was saying "A taste of your elegant pie"

Joined: Apr 16 2014

i used to think it was "when the snakes come out your ears"

Did bobby ever do one of those switcheroos to this verse or was i hearing things?

Joined: Jun 13 2007
Hell in a Bucket mondegren

Since you brought up mondegrens, and often being in a 'sensitive state of mind' (or... tripping our balls off) here is something I had heard for a long time when I had the tape. I thought the whole first verse was drinking vessel puns

I was drinking last night with a BUCKET
and I showed him a PITCHER of you
I said PAL, get to know her...

i know, dumb... but kinda cute in retrospect.

sailbystars's picture
Joined: Oct 27 2010
Nominate the Dead for Kennedy Honors!
Joined: Jun 15 2007
A Trip's as Good as a Fall...

...when you're going to Hell in a Bucket...but just 'cause they sang it, doesn't mean it 'twere sewn...OOooo... know...

Au contraire, mon frère...

"Same old friends, the Wind and Rain...", sure sounds like an Ace weather report to me.

I always liked these songs in concert.

Old School Chuck's picture
Joined: Feb 3 2009
Stumble and Fall

I used to have it written down under that name on some early 80s tapes. I just listened to a good '88 version from the recent show on the Dead Hour. One of the favorites that I saw was the second set opener on the first night of Mountain Aire '87 up at Angels Camp in Calaveras County. After the smoking Good Mornin' Little Schoolgirl with Carlos at the end of the first set...I was right down near the stage and I remember pretty clearly that there was a huge biker contingent there! Maybe that's why they chose to play it for the second set kick-off, lol.

Good times. :)

Joined: Jan 13 2010
Hell in a Bucket

Ol' Hell in a Bucket.

I always hated it!

never liked it, and the video is a disgrace.

but as usual, they didn't ask my opinion.


slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012
Helen A. Bucket...

It took some time to jog my memory.
I know her, well. Or at least, well enough.
I slept with her for several years of my adult life.
But I don't remember ever inviting her in.
Or meeting her. Or what she looks like.
It's true, though, she was a fun ride in the beginning,
but looking back, it's easy to see that
she was nothing more than a sinister, self-centered
bitch who demanded all of my attention, all of the time.
When she realized that I had wised-up and was
finally talking to others about her, she left,
for her next fling/victim
and I got better.

share-the-light presents an interesting viewpoint.

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011

I always heard the "charging his chopper up and down your carpeted halls" as a sex reference, if you know what I mean. (Carpet, as in: Does the carpet match the drapes?) Thus, the z-rated scenes. One can only imagine what they are. We are given the Catherine the Great clue. She reportedly had many lovers, and it is rumored she even had a thing for horses. It's a sexually charged song. The singer is repulsed -- it's gone too far. He can't resist though. He's enjoying the ride while he debases himself. It's ugly. I always thought Garcia's guitar lines were by far the best thing about it.


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