Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Just A Little Light"
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!)
Brent Mydland brought a certain something to the gestalt of the Grateful Dead. Onstage, he could be boyishly enthusiastic, or darkly intense. He lent pure high vocals as well as growly-voiced blues singing to the mix. And with “Just a Little Light,” he and Barlow collaborated to capture light and dark, hope and despair, bluesy and soaring Brent in a single song.
Barlow, for his part, seems to be generating a lyric meant specifically for Brent to sing. I’ve often wondered about this—whether most lyricists who wind up collaborating with composers tailor their words to the person who they know is going to be embodying them in voice, or if they always write from their own perspective, and then leave it to the singer to come up with a way to inhabit the song.
In the case of Barlow, I really think he wrote songs specifcally for Weir or for Mydland to sing. For one thing, Barlow, to my knowledge, does not perform as a musician. This is in contrast to Hunter, who, though he may have crafted his lyrics in such a way as to be specifically meaningful in certain contexts to his major collaborator, Garcia, nevertheless is also a singer in his own right, and delivers the songs from his own perspective.
Storytelling through song is a multi-faceted endeavor. Writing this weekly mini-essay about the songs has begun to make several aspects of this clear to me in ways I hadn’t thought of before. Weir once complained, probably facetiously, about being the singer in the band who always wound up getting the assignment to sing the cowboy songs like “El Paso” or “Me and My Uncle,” in which he portrays a character prone to violence—completely unlike Weir himself. But when he delivers the songs, he becomes the character singing the songs, becomes an element in the story. Becomes an actor. Weir, more than others in the band, wound up portraying more diverse characters: the rogue, the murderer, the prophet, etc. Garcia, though tasked with signing from the perspective of many different characters, seemed more consistent, even in his choice of covers. I’ll need to think this through some more, clearly.
But with “Just a Little Light,” Barlow wrote a lyric which, though vintage Barlow, was aimed at Mydland in some way. Not “at,” him, maybe, but at his manner of delivery. At his most effective, Mydland would deliver a scorching, angst-ridden message, often accompanied, as in “Just a Little Light,” by a rave –up at the conclusion of the song that built in intensity. He brought great integrity to his emotional delivery—perhaps a clue to all of us that this was not just an act, that he really was facing demons.
The very title and refrain of the song express a muted hopefulness.”Just a little…” Not too much light--as if to introduce the idea gradually. And in the song, it’s the singer who is trying his best to reverse his own tendencies and to bring some light to the situation—to bring some sweetness to his beloved, even though he has been a solider in the armies of the night and all.
It’s the story of someone who knows how he should behave, but who acknowledges that it is not something that comes easily for himself. He knows better, intellectually: “I’ve always heard that virtue ought to be its own reward…” But. It’s hard.
However, the general drift of the song tends towards hopefulness, I think. There’s the mighty flower that will wear the stones away. There’s the sweetness in her look, undermining his contempt for all things beautiful and bright. And there’s the “worry” that perhaps the love the singer has driven underground might catch fire. It’s unclear what the result might be, but there is light from fire—right?
I love the bridge. It unfolds beautifully, and the harmonies provided by Garcia, Weir, and Lesh make it downright majestic. It’s in the bridge that the explosive hope is expressed—through a tingling recognition.
And then, the first verse repeats, and the brief rave-up begins, focusing on sweetness and light, while the music, the vocals, sound quite desperate. It’s a contrast of form and content that communicates a bittersweet emotion. Watching video of Brent singing the song today was a hard thing. Why is it that so many young singers who are deeply in touch with the blues wind up self-destructing at such a young age? I believe that there is, quite simply, no separation between their art and their inner selves. That what we hear in these singers’ voices is the pure and naked truth.
When all of their salvation is pegged on loving or being loved, it’s likely that things will go wrong. Love isn’t an easy road—the object of a person’s affections could become just another deer caught in the headlights, dooming both driver and deer.
It will be 24 years this coming month that we lost Brent. That seems unbelievable. I remember walking around the Berkeley campus that day, feeling very alone in my grief—it wasn’t the big deal that Garcia’s death invoked in the media, so it seemed that the world thought this a minor event. For me, it was a huge loss. And it is a huge loss every time another young, talented but tortured artist, seeking some kind of peace in this life, leaves us.
Brent Mydland was so talented he had the worlds greatest blues band backing him.
There was a point in time and I don't know exactly how it came to be
that Jerry and Phil switched their place on the stage
so that Jerry would be right beside Brent when they Performed.
On one of the videos there was a point where Jerry turned to Brent and Smiled.
Brent's whole Countenance immediately Brightened Up and Smiled right back. I mean Brent just Beamed!
Then when Jerry turned away Brent's Face returned to its normal expression much like the picture that David posted here in his Essay.
To me it encapsulates what the Artistry and Heart of Jerry Garcia and his ability to get people High. To Lift us Up and Brighten our Faces.
I think think a songwriter can't help be affected by the way they write knowing who might be singing their lyrics. Its kind of like knowing what to say to a friend to make them laugh or make them mad, or an inside joke or something like that...Somewhat of an extension to a personal bond. Just my opinion.
I Must Say All These Posts have Been Most Enjoyable for me to Read!
Especially David's Essay which really gets the Diamond of my Heart Spinning at 77 RPMS with Just a Little Light Bouncing in an Off the Wall Way!!
Shine on All You Crazy Diamonds
its what Sharing the Light is All About after All!
Mr JBX...My first show was that Billerica one.
I wasn't a Dead-head then, but loved how the place was a Hockey Rink!
I felt right at Home and sat in the Penalty Box.
I've always wondered how far removed Keith and Donna were.
Looks like I climbed on board the bus the same time as Brent
I do know that Show Ignited a Fire that still Burns.
So...last Saturday Noel Paul Stookey was at Poor David's in Dallas.
Yes- he's the one who sang with Peter and Mary back in The Day
(speaking of song writing inspiration)
He is Terrific not only Singing his Songs but also Explaining how the Song came to Be.
Like "Cue the Moon"
and how that statement from a friend
turned into a Brilliant Song which required Noel to invent "The Most Perfect Chord Ever"
somewhere up on the 12th fret!!!
His Face Lights Up Every Time He Strums It
Well...You really have to be There.
Noel has another song with the line
"One Fire-Many Candles, One Sky-many Stars, One Sea-many Rivers, One Love-many Hearts"
"Inspiration...Move me Brightly"
Somehow a Good Songwriter is able to tap His Soul into the Spirit that Flows and Express it in Wonderful Ways.
I don't think its possible for anyone just do it on their own.
Many try I'm sure; but there's something Lacking.
I think The Flowing Spirit inspires the Words in the Lyricist's Heart and the Melody in the Musicians Heart
and The Spirit Inspires every Soul that Plays or Sings in a very Personal Way.
Thank You David for the way you Direct our Attention to all these Fascinating Points of Interest.
One more comment on Brent and his Whole Trip as expressed in "Just a Little Light".
I'd say he was Living the Dream and a Nightmare all at once.
I do Think Artists like Brent are Super Sensitive Souls.
Delicate like a China Doll
Or...like the song on Reflections
"I hear you talking 'bout your troubles;
Everybody's got there troubles too
but you can make them just like clouds
If you know just what to do.
I'll take a Melody and Sing...
Shine On Keep On Shining"
( and now I'm hearing Echoes of the Dear Departed Nicky Hopkins' Delicate Piano Playing)
Yesterday after planting corn the clouds moved in with rolling thunder. Precursor to the monsoon season here in the southwest. Then a little rain (water is life). This morning at sunrise while driving along the San Francisco River I came around the bend and 12 bull elk were crossing the highway. All with full antlers in velvet. Not one cow elk in the herd. This does not happen everyday.
Interesting Brent was born in Germany. A very competent musician.
It's sad that artists so excellent as Brent and Vince can feel such pressure when they're giving joy to others, and it's even more sad when this ends in tragedy.
I was at the Billerica (MA) Forum in May 1979 for Brent's first tour. There were lots of negative notes to this concert, all related to the stadium "security" ... 'nuff said. We were finally sitting on cardboard laid over ice on a cold Spring day, and then the band came on at last. We all knew Keith was no longer with the band, but didn't know the new keyboard player ... this was before the internet. Though Brent had a cold (as did we, from the ice and the pigs), the boys picked him up and the show was excellent. This was the show where Bobby apologized for no encore, because their "new keyboard player" was exhausted. Even then I could imagine the incredible pressure that that (as yet un-named) guy must have been feeling, to try to fill that seat for the Dead.
ckcoffman, I would love to go to the London Bowl ... people need to see P&F. Have tickets for Bobby in Boston too, I'm totally psyched after seeing RatDog at House of Blues back in February, though I would be very surprised if the Pavilion downtown can come anywhere near the incredible sound quality of HOB-Boston.
David, Love this column--thanks! For Bralove performing check out Dose Hermanos--with TC. [tangent: I haven't seen the hermanos, but have tix in hand for Phil in London next month and Bobby in Boston in August. Anyone else around for London Bowl? I can't believe it's not sold out yet.] I always had mixed feelings about most Brent tunes, even after the end of the GD. I saw Furthur do Just a Little Light just last year and that uncertainty is still there for me. Of course, he also nailed it for me plenty of times, in backing vocals, with I Will Take You Home, on keys, etc.
I don't remember what I meant to comment on due to a huge flash of emotion regarding my feelings when Brent passed on, and then Jerry, and then the end of the Dead and the inside issues regarding Vince whichI sure led to his horrible action. Oh my. I do recall very clearly returning home after the Tinley Park shows and only a couple of days later Brent was gone. God how that still stings at this moment. Yes Jerry's passing would affect my life in ways still not played out and I did enter a period of severe depression where I couldn't go without the music, any music, but to hear Jerry singing had both a melancholy and soothing aspect. Sidetracked, many of us knew Jerry's number was up but Brent's wasn't. I love this song, always have. It sort of spoke to me personally too as before I was tormented darkly and gradually I sort of happened upon the scene and, oddly enough, our sacrament independent of each other. The two fueled by the music allowed my more "light" side to ignite and started to "grow the stones away". I'll close this because I never did ramble into my thought out addition to this post and I need to attempt to make it to a Ratdog show too many miles away for the time. Thanks for discussing this song. Just wondering if anyone else has been unable to access this video on YouTube lately. All the other videos accessible, even the Foolish Heart I never knew about, but I can't bring up this one anymore.
Warren Haynes sang Just A little Light with Phil and Friends 7/3/2000 in Albuquerque for the encore and nailed it. That was my first off-shoot Grateful Dead concert since Jerry's passing. Very uplifting and emotional. Saw every GD key-board player from TC and Pigpen to Vince. I liked them all. And all had their weaknesses. With all the deer and elk in the country "Just another white-tail blinded by my brights" holds a lot of truth.
I remember my sister telling me about "the Grateful Dead guy" dying. I thought she meant Jerry, but found out later it was Brent. Having worked with old folks for a long time (many of whom died while i was working with them), i wasn't shocked, just bummed.
hey hey hey hey pocky way
like that groovin' in my car