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!)
"Lady With A Fan"
“Terrapin Station.” Kind of a big song. When Terrapin Station, the album, came out, it seemed somehow too big, too produced, too slick and orchestrated for many of us. But hearing it in concert made it clear—this was the real deal. The song suite could be delivered with a huge impact in concert, and it was, over and over through the remaining years of the band’s performing.
As a suite, I thought maybe we could discuss it over the course of two, maybe even three weeks, because there are a lot of moving parts to deal with, and I think there will be some very interesting discussion!
So, here goes….
“Lady With a Fan” opens the Terrapin Station suite with an invocation to the muse, asking for inspiration.
The invocation of the muse is a device from the classical tradition, and the invocation was traditionally asking for inspiration from one of the goddesses called Muses who governed the arts, science, and literature. The very word is the root for so much of western civilization, including music itself, as well as museum, muse (as in think), and more. A poet invoking the muse was giving a conscious indicator to his or her listeners that that the poet was about to embark on a work within the accepted traditions and forms, as in Homer, invoking the muse in Book One of The Odyssey, or Virgil in the Aeneid, on through more modern classically-inspired poets such as Milton.
Hunter has often referred to his muse in interviews, but this is the only song in which she is consciously and conspicuously invoked. The opening lines lend a grandeur completely atypical of rock and roll in general to the verses that follow. The tradition within which he is working, though, is specific: he will use rhyme (as a token—perhaps as in a method of remembering, which is the purpose of rhyme in poetry); he will adhere to some metric principles in order to suggest rhythm. I love the way that line rolls off Garcia’s tongue: “in token rhyme, suggesting rhythm…”—indeed, the rhythm is not only suggested by the line, it is mandated by it, especially the word “suggesting” itself.
Hunter goes a step or two further in his request of the muse, asking that the inspiration he seeks should not be fragmentary, but should last until the “tale is told and done.” In the light of the way in which the song came to be realized on Terrapin Station, I find this very interesting, and later lyrics have a different significance viewed in the light of this part of the invocation. Bear with me, here—I am trying to get at just a few salient points in a post about a song that could, I believe, be the subject of a very long essay.
Last week, I asked whether readers of this blog felt that a post about “Terrapin Station” should be a single post, or broken into its component parts. I’m opting for the latter, but it seems necessary to point out certain relationships between the parts, for instance, in the invocation of the muse. So, I would note that the second section of the suite, “Terrapin Station,” also begins with an invocation, calling for inspiration to move the poet.
Having established, basically via a prayer, that he intends to tell a story that can be sung and remembered, Hunter proceeds immediately into the story itself.
It’s a version of a 19th-century ballad, “The Brave Lieutenant,” and much ink has already been spilled demonstrating how Hunter’s version begins with the rough outlines of that ballad but then proceeds on a different course. (Alex Allan’s wonderful “Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder” website gives the words to “Lady of Carlisle,” as sung, according to traditional words by Hunter on his Jack o’ Roses album, and traces the sources back to an actual anecdote recorded in a volume of essays published in the 1750s, "Essais Historiques sur Paris", by Germain-François Poullain de Sainte-Foix, a compilation of the authors explanations of the origins of place names in Paris. Allan translates the following note himself:
Rue des Lions, near Saint-Paul
The street took its name from the building and yards where the large and small lions owned by the King were kept. One day when Francis I was enjoying watching a fight between his lions, a lady dropped her glove, and said to de Lorges: if you want me to believe that you love me as much as you swear every day that you do, go and pick up my glove. De Lorges climbed down, picked up the glove in the middle of these fearsome beasts, climbed back, threw it in the lady's face, and since then, despite all the advances and pleadings that she made to him, would never see her again.
The story remains much the same through telling by the German poet Schiller, a version by Leigh Hunt, and one by Robert Browning, and eventually into the ballad which Hunter sings, fairly true to the traditional versions, on his album.
Some of Hunter’s lyrical touches in his version of the ballad are touchstones for listeners. Captured in that first invocation verse is the wish that “things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.” I think that sums up quite nicely certain aspects of the Grateful Dead experience as a whole—we come to a place of familiarity (“family”) in the context of a Grateful Dead concert, which can seem most apt when things are the strangest.
Then, a “door within the fire” opens, and a girl is standing there. Her appearance is left to the individual listener’s fancy—whatever that fancy might paint as fair.
The course of the story itself seems a simple one of one potential partner taking a risk for love, whether or not that might have been wise. We are not told the end. The storyteller’s role is described as one, not of mastery of the situation or control of it, but of shedding light on it, allowing others to see it more clearly, or differently. I always particularly loved that—it seems a good description of the role of any kind of artist.
Recently, in writing about “Rosemary,” I discussed briefly Hunter’s and Garcia’s, but especially Garcia’s attachment to and affection for the fragment, as a particular form of sung poetry that has the power to raise the hair on the arms in amazement and surmise.
Looking at the entire suite for just a moment, we can see that Hunter breaks up the movements into Part One (“Lady with a Fan,” “Terrapin Station,” “At A Siding”) and Part Two (“Return to Terrapin,” “Ivory Wheels, Rosewood Track,” “And I Know You,” “Jack O’ Roses,” “Leaving Terrapin,” and “Recognition”). He wrote the following as an introduction in his Box of Rain:
I wrote Terrapin, Part One, at a single sitting in an unfurnished house with a picture window overlooking San Francisco Bay during a flamboyant lightning storm. I typed the first thing that came into my mind at the top of the page, the title Terrapin Station.
Not knowing what it was to be about, I began my writing with an invocation to the muse and kept typing as the story began to unfold.
On the same day, driving into the city, Garcia was struck by a singular inspiration. He turned his car around and hurried home to set down some music that popped into his head, demanding immediate attention.
When we met the next day, I showed him the words and he said "I've got the music." They dovetailed perfectly and Terrapin edged into this dimension.
Part One was for free. A good deal of Part Two, the essential idea, was contained in the first writing, but was too irregular to be easily set. I went through many approaches and versions over the years, having lost the original typescript, attempting to recapture the initial spark and place it in a lyrics context.
"Jack O'Roses" and "Ivory Wheels/Rosewood Track" are examples of subsequent attempts to complete the cycle. They are included here as part of the suite since they do have pieces of the resolution within them, but they did not really satisfy the initial inspiration. I've omitted or changed a few lines from "Ivory Wheels/Rosewood Track," as I originally recorded it, feeling that they do not serve the rest of the work well.
And, in the second edition of the anthology, Hunter added this note:
It is notoriously difficult to return to the particular space of a spontaneous vision--but I wasn't content with my earlier attempt to complete the Terrapin cycle. Cycle is the key word. The piece seemed to demand a legitimate return to its starting point but just how to accomplish this evaded me. The problem was that I was looking outside the song for clues when the solution, implicit in Lady With A Fan, lay in plain sight the whole time.
With the following revision, I feel as near as I'm likely to get to the initiating flash, this far removed in time. It's a moot point whether my continuing engagement with the suite is symptomatic of my own attempts to Return To Terrapin, but a feeling of deep relief comes with the sense of finally getting it closer to heart's desire--concluding and adding this annotation just as a good hard storm breaks.
So, for those of us utterly familiar with the recorded and performed versions of Terrapin Station as played by the Grateful Dead, there exists, beyond those versions, this expanded body of material that attempts to fulfill the promise of the tale “being told and done” in the run-up to the story of the lady with a fan.
Reading Part Two almost gives us too much in the way of keys, hints, clues, and possible resolutions, not just for Terrapin Station, but for a number of Grateful Dead songs (originals and traditional songs) whose stories seem fragmentary. You get the sense of Hunter putting a bow on the repertoire in some way.
I would really recommend that everyone just stop right now, and read the entire set of lyrics for the suite, which can be found conveniently compiled on Alex Allan’s Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site.
If you did that just now, you’ll see what I mean about Part Two. We have Billy Lyons, Peggy-O, Venus rising from the sea, the setting of the bayou, smokestack thunder, and other characters, phrases, references, and notions vying for their place in the bigger story. And if you read on down through the other parts, there’s even more resolution.
But I almost wish that Part Two didn’t exist, because so much is perfect about the lack of resolution. A big part of the Hunter / Garcia collaboration wound up being the space between everything that happens, and the space after it happens, where we are left filling in the blanks in our own minds or coming up with ways the stories might yet play out—the charm and the lure of the fragment of a story. After all, “since the end is never told…”
Next week: we pay the teller off in gold, in hopes he will come back….