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.