Greatest Stories Ever Told - "I Need A Miracle"
By David Dodd
I distinctly remember, when we heard that the Grateful Dead would be the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, back in 1978, discussing with my roommates what we could expect in the way of song selection for the show. Would they do a selection of “greatest hits” (“Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band…”) or would they go for surprises? I predicted they would play their latest attempt at a top-40-friendly song, “I Need a Miracle,” from the just-released “Shakedown Street” LP. And yes, they did play a greatest hit—“Casey Jones,” but they also played “I Need a Miracle.”
Seemed like a future “greatest hit” to me! It had a big, catchy hook, and a memorable refrain. It had hyperbole. It was rock and roll.
That album, “Shakedown Street,” produced a few tunes with staying power in the ongoing live repertoire, most notably, of course, the title track, which turned into something really special. But the over-the-top lyrics of “I Need a Miracle,” along with what became a link to an ongoing tradition, has its own long-term appeal. And it, too, stayed in permanent rotation through the duration of their career, with the longest hiatus in performance being a 43-show gap from late summer 1982 to early summer 1983, for a total of 271 performances.
So: 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. With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.
When I built the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics website, I actually did not even bother to annotate “I Need a Miracle.” It doesn’t have much in the way of the kind of literary or historical references that are the bread and butter of annotations. Really, the lyrics seem to me to be something Barlow might have written to one-up the image of women in other Dead songs, notably in “Sugar Magnolia.” Or it may have been an attempt to get away with the kind of sexism that doomed “Money Money” from the get-go.
“Miracle” seems light-hearted and self-aware—the character singing the song (and I do think it’s a character singing, not the persona of Weir, or of Barlow…) seems to be making fun of himself. “I need a woman ’bout twice my weight…a ton of fun who packs a gun with all her other freight.” I mean—what? And “It takes dynamite to get me up….too much of everything is just enough.” A nice turn of phrase. The miraculous is synonymous with the excessive, the transcendent with the hyperbolic and overblown.
“I Need a Miracle” signs by Deadheads.
But, despite the sense of the lyrics on the face of it, what “Miracle” did was to put something into Grateful Dead culture, just by way of introducing the word: miracle. I wonder who the first Deadhead was who thought of making a sign saying “I need a miracle,” and putting a finger in the air outside a show, asking for a ticket. But it soon became commonplace, and “miracle” became code for a last-minute, sometimes free ticket. I had the pleasure of giving out a miracle ticket a few times, and I have also received them, and it does feel miraculous, from both ends—giving and receiving.
Beyond that, though, and bigger, is how the word “miracle,” in common use, gave us a way of thinking (and sometimes talking) about what went on onstage. Being open to something miraculous occurring in performance had always been a part of the Dead’s playing. The X Factor, as it was sometimes called, was present when the music was playing the band. The idea of “needing a miracle every day” seems at first borderline ridiculous, but over time, maybe it seems less so, and even something to be expected. Certainly, from my own experience, the Dead delivered a miracle more often than not. And I became more open to finding the miraculous in daily life.
Like peeling away at an artichoke. Gettin' down to the heart of it. The majority of the song seems like a vehicle to get to the title. "I need a miracle" seems like the destination. Many applications. Another song comes to mind, but I'll wait for you to call it Dave.
Oh, and welcome aboard. Love the theme.
As a long-time fan of the Annotated Lyrics project, I look forward to reading these blog entries!
The transformation of "I Need A Miracle" to "Give Me A Free Ticket" is a sad wonder. I know looking back that I went to a sold-out Deer Creek show in '93 (weren't they *ALL* sold-out shows in those days?) two days after college graduation and I made an "I Just Graduated College And I Need A Miracle Really Badly" sign and didn't get in. In retrospect, I should have made a "Cash For Your Extra" sign because, let's face it, at some point the vernacular shifted and those of us who were still using "Miracle" to mean "Please Sell Me Your Extra And It Will Be A Miracle To Get Into A Sold Out Show" were usurped by those who meant "Free Please"...
And now, of course, most shows are not sold out, so fingers in the air only mean one thing: I'd like one for less.
(I should note that I often put my finger in the air if I'm selling at a show, typically with the intention of interfacing with someone who might want to trade a ticket for something I'm selling because at $70 / ticket, exorbitant gas and lodging costs, dwindling crowds and less income from vending, it's tough to do a whole tour and go in for full price every night, but I make an effort to avoid offering someone less than what they paid for a ticket. Rather, I say I'll give more than face in trade because my cost of goods is low enough that trades are still a better deal for me than paying out of pocket.)
The lyrical sentiment of needing a miracle every day has remained in my heart, though. The Dead always brought with them a sense of wonder and with that, a belief that the magical and miraculous was not only possible but entirely probable. I'll always appreciate that they made an effort to cultivate that.
(where she also premiered "yuppie"), around the time of the first BCT run, I think. Pre-Internet, of course. Paul probably has a copy still.
Hi Mary--Wow, I didn't know about her article on the topic. Gotta dig that up. And you're right, I think there was a transition, but you have to admit that it is miraculous either way....
Nice to be welcomed. I'm not at UC Santa Cruz, but they have kindly hosted my website for many years now, since 1998! Looking forward to hearing everyone's take on the songs.
I'm with Marye - I would love to know more about that transition. I can only remember 2 shows for which I did not have a ticket where I was unable to score and got shut out - but I was willing to pay face or more. I have on other occasions given my ticket away for nothing or at a greatly reduced price to someone in need. After a while, it seemed there was almost a sense of entitlement among the ticketless for any extras, and that turned me off completely. At one particular show (not the Dead), some guy was actually angry that I wanted face value for my extra seat. I said something along the lines of how could he expect me to want to sit next to him and I went in and ate the ticket. And I felt bad once I got inside, which sucked.
About 20 years ago, I worked for a guy named Andy Maricle, whose wife was named Annie, and they had two daughters named Amy and Angela. At the time I worked for Andy, Annie was pregnant with their third child. I suggested that if the baby was a girl, they should name her Anita, but they didn't like the sound of Anita Maricle, so they went with Amelia instead.
is the process by which "I Need A Miracle" transitioned from "I need a ticket to a sold-out gig and I'm willing to pay for it" to "Give me your ticket for free." In my early experience, it seemed to be more the former, but after Alice Kahn (she who coined the term "yuppie"), quoting my friend Paul Hoffman, published an article saying "I Need A Miracle=I Want A Free Ticket," that was pretty much it.
and greetings to deadnet. I was interested in your first blog post and really did not know who you were, so I searched your name and found out you are with the library at santa cruz, did the annotated GD lyrics website and a deadhead too, how cool. Glad to see you here and good luck with this blog, hope you are as successful as Blair was with his. I too have given and received Miracle tickets, it is an awesome feeling. Peace