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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chuckroth's picture
Joined: Jun 25 2007

I never thought of the singer as a drunkard. Always thought he was a bitter escapee from a woman either formerly innocent or recently revealed as a Z-rated Harpy who mocked his every mistake.The biker would either be a good match or fitting revenge.Still have an 80's "Enjoyin' the Ride" T with a skeleton-driven VW bus. And of course I'm still enjoyin' the ride with music and Tales From the Golden Road.Love to all

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Saint Stephen!!!!

Time to Lower Down That Bucket Again
"Clear to Hell" and see what You will Come Up with Now.

I like to Think, as David noted, The Dead's Energy serves a better purpose
than some of the other sorts of Hell Raising Music. The Dead certainly Can Relate to the Good and the Bad and the Ugly aspects of Life ....One Way or Another.

Yeah Buddy...Keep telling yourself you're Enjoying the Ride.

This Song strikes me as an Alcoholic Ranting and Raging against One who Cares Too Much.

If you've known an Alcoholic well then you've observed the slow deterioration of their well being as the Addiction grows stronger. It takes a long time to get to the point where an Intervention seems in order...and then it is Pure Hell.

I've encountered this sort of thing and know the Dance too well.
Deflect the attention away from My Failures and Magnify Yours Instead.

"Never mind how I stumble and fall"
Lets just attack You instead and find every hurtful thing to say and lay it on so thick that you'll Back Off so I can Remain a Falling Down Drunk and Fool myself into Thinking
"At Least I'm Enjoying the Ride"

Yeah Buddy.

Imagine August West Loving His Wine more than Pearly Baker
and being that "same Old Rat in a Drain Ditch...."

Maybe "You Know Better but I Know Him"

and that's how Hell in a Bucket strikes me and pulls up a lot of resentments and issues with loved Ones who made me Dance this Dance.

Its a real Kick in the Gut and I suspect that's exactly the reaction Weir and Barlow were after.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
The Merry Pranksters. Welcome the Hells Angels"

"The beetles miss you Johnny, all the beetles miss you". According to some online research the term beetles meant motorcycle girl back in the 50s. I think the song Hell in a Bucket was partly inspired by the underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson. " I got junebugs in my nose and I didn't even flinch". Great song with an edge. Hilarious video. Ducks yaz yaz. And on this date 88 years ago Neal Cassady was born in Salt Lake City while his parents were On The Road. "I lost my boots in transit babe, a pile of smoking leather. Nailed a retread to my feet and prayed for better weather", The Merry Pranksters Welcome the Beatles.

Joined: May 9 2012
x rated?

we wrote a song called x-rated music..."its got rhythm, its got rhyme. makes you feel dirty every time..XRATED MUSIC".. beyond x-rated WOW

Joined: May 9 2012
zzzzzz rated

I always assumed the zzz.. was the scene you create..(hopefully nobody falls asleep while you're creating "your" scene). z beyond x? WOW..that's why i keep coming back.! Cool

slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012
Angels and wings...

I like Mary's story about the biker and the bird. It reminds me of a story I heard many times during my childhood; one I related to my son many times during his childhood. One I remind myself of still.

It involves a judge, a book, and a cover.

Enjoy the slow and steady ride down the hill.

**Is that the AFLAC duck?

Joined: Apr 26 2009
Sih lobble

Serrated, of course, is pronounced with accent on the second syllable, the first being pronounced suh, so it really wouldn't work as a mondegreen, as Anna suggests. Also not sure why the variant mondigren; Mr. Dodd has it right.

spino's picture
Joined: Jan 22 2014
Biker Chick

I never resonated to The Dead's biker associations. That being said, my first girlfriend was a daughter of a Hells Angel and although it wasn't "Z rated" it was pretty hot and heavy for our very tender young ages.

Joined: Oct 25 2008
Hell in a buckeet

I was at that show when it debuted. We thought the song would be titled "Enjoyin' the ride" or just "The Ride." Later, my friend told me it was the "ravenous cat from the grave" (not Catherine the Great). Only time I saw a Dead debut performance though I did see the second "Brother Esau."

bgood's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
the song...

For some reason I remember hearing that a lot of Bob's inspiration for this song was because an interview that he did with a female who had it out to peg the Grateful Dead and its followers as bad people. This is what/who he is talking about "There may come a say when I'll dance on your grave. Unable to dance I'll still crawl across it" Along with the rest of the condescending verses. Apparently this reporter published the interview and tried to put down the Grateful Dead and the dead heads who follow them around, they chose to do this song in retaliation. Although I heard this story almost 25 years ago it makes sense to me and gives the lyrics a great meaning. Thought I would share, if I am wrong please correct me or feel free to add to this.


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