Greatest Stories Ever Told - "To Lay Me Down"
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!)
“To Lay Me Down” is one of the magical trio of lyrics composed in a single afternoon in 1970 in London, “over a half-bottle of retsina,” according to Robert Hunter. The other two were “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace.”
Well, first—wouldn’t we all like to have a day like that!
And, second—what unites these three lyrics, aside from the fact that they were all written on the same day?
Hunter wrote, in his foreword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics:
”And I wrote reams of bad songs, bitching about everything under the sun, which I kept to myself: Cast not thy swines before pearls. And once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘To Lay Me Down,’ and ‘Ripple,’ all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper.”
(If, like me, you were brought up short by Hunter’s blithe use of the word “apocatastasis” in the paragraph above, here is a short definition from Wikipedia: “Apocatastasis is reconstitution, restitution, or restoration to the original or primordial condition.” So, a useful word!)
I must not be the only listener for whom “To Lay Me Down” conjures up that wondrous moment of being with a lover, “with our heads in sparkling clover,” that is, in utter ecstasy, and then in the next breath prepares me for the end of that ecstasy: “to tell sweet lies, one last time, and say goodbye.”
The companion “Brokedown Palace” line: “Lovers come and go…the river roll, roll, roll.” And, in line but not identical in sentiment, from “Ripple”: “And if you go, no one may follow—that path is for your steps alone.”
Hunter’s liner notes for the Garcia box set All Good Things elaborate a bit more on the circumstances of the song’s composition:
“‘To Lay me Down’ was written a while before the others [on the Garcia album], on the same day as the lyrics to ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘Ripple’—the second day of my first visit to England. I found myself left alone in Alan Trists’s flat on Devonshire Terrace in West Kensington, with a supply of very nice thick linen paper, sun shining brightly through the window, a bottle of Greek Retsina wine at my elbow. The songs flowed like molten gold onto the page and stand as written. The images for ‘To Lay Me Down’ were inspired at Hampstead Heath (the original title to the song) the day before—lying on the grass and clover on a day of swallowtailed clouds, across from Jack Straw’s Castle [a pub, now closed and converted into flats--dd], reunited with the girlfriend of my youth, after a long separation.”
(photo shows the flagstaff, located at the summit of Hampstead Heath, right next to Jack Straw’s Castle, which is sited at the highest point in London. Jack Straw, leader of the peasant revolt in 1381, addressed the crowd, it is told, from this spot, where he parked a way wagon that was dubbed “Jack Straw’s Castle.”)
The sunlight, the clover, the clouds, the words flowing like molten gold onto very fine paper…reunited with an old love, far away from home, in London—these seem like a fine set of catalysts for the songs composed on that day.
Each song in the group carries a weight of nostalgia, of longing for home and for belonging and for love. The origins of the word “nostalgia” are from the Greek for homecoming (nostos) and pain or ache (algos). We tend to demean the word as a cheap emotion, but it can, I believe, be just as profound an emotion as love itself.
Hunter’s playfulness with words comes through strongly in “To Lay Me Down.” The variations on “lay” and “lie” are carefully used, so that when the singer sings the verse...
To lie beside you
my love still sleeping
to tell sweet lies
one last time
We find the use of “sweet lies” startling. Wait—isn’t this a love song? What’s with the lies—even “sweet” lies? Aren’t they out of place?
The singer “lays” himself down. He “lies” with his lover. Are they both “lying,” then? (And a “lay” is, itself, a type of song—a short ballad.)
Garcia’s setting for the words is, like his music for those other two songs, perfect. The three-quarter time (notated as having a nine-eight feel), coupled with the gospel style of the melody and chords, makes for a dreamy, beauty-soaked song. I heard it on the radio today (yes, on the radio, yes, today—and no, not on a Grateful Dead Hour, but just in the course of regular programming), and it struck me that it was a gorgeous vehicle for Garcia’s voice. By which I mean: for that strongly emotive, sweet but not sappy, rough but not unschooled instrument that was Garcia’s alone.
I have started to think that my usual recitation of where a song was first played, where it was last played, and where it was recorded by the band borders on pointless. All that info is readily available. What’s interesting about the performance history of “To Lay Me Down” is that it was dropped from the rotation for more than 200 shows three times, and that its final performance, in 1992, came 125 shows after the penultimate one. The reappearance of the song, in the 1980 acoustic shows, came nearly six years after the previous performances in 1974. “Ripple” had a similar pattern, reappearing in those 1980 acoustic sets after 550 performances, or nearly ten years. Of the magical trio from that day of molten gold in West Kensington, “Brokedown Palace” had the most solid place in the Dead’s performance rotation, with only one huge gap in its appearances—165 shows between 1977 and 1979.
So, in terms of story, what can be discerned? The short version, for me: even if it’s just for a day, even if it’s just once more, even if it’s just one last time—it’s worth it. It’s golden. It’s home.
I look forward to reading your longer versions of the story, if you have ‘em.
or do they? I suggest they do. I should hope "sweet lies" means "sweet nothings"--that's just the type of guy I am. But "lies" obviously fits much better than "nothings" in many ways. One, obviously, the meter. Two, the alliteration (lies, lie, lay). Three, lie is maybe a bit of a jaundiced or cynical way of viewing nothings, but maybe in this usage does not carry the negative connotation of falsity or at least not something harmful or intended as such (so, "white lies"). Fourth, and here I would disagree, because it's kind of a buzzkill, it really might mean a falsehood ("of course I love you, baby"), as at least a few of Hunter's characters partake of ignoble, yet very human, tendencies and qualities. But again I don't subscribe to this last one. I don't think it's normal or at least think it's not right to long to utter knowing falsehoods once more or one last time to someone for whom you had such other tender feelings.
Interesting "cosmic" coincidence that a certain Sir Robert Hunter (27 October 1844 – 6 November 1913) was responsible for saving Hampstead Heath and other wild places in the United Kingdom
just as Dave eludes, this song strikes me to my very soul, bringing back memories of sweet days and treasured nights with a love that I will never see again. Saying good bye each time I hear it, having never had a chance to say goodbye.
To be with you
To be with you
with our bodies
Let the world go by
I remember days where the world would pass by, so absorbed were we in our love and the moment.
To lie beside you
my love still sleeping
to tell sweet lies
one last time
and say goodnight
Love will live on, memories live on, even though I will never see her again. this song is a sweet reminder of these times that I will never forget
This Song evokes that Feeling of Being Half Awake and Half in a Dream.
When You are Half Aware of the Mysterious Place of Dreams
I tend to just read this column weekly, and enjoy hearing peoples' responses to the song, and David's breakdown of the song. David, thanks for the nice write up. I was surprised by the lack of responses to this song, because I think of it as one of Hunter and Garcia's finest. A couple of thoughts that come to mind:
The song To Lay Me Down may fall into a similar category as Cumberland Blues, in that a person might hear it and think "I didn't know the Dead covered this classic". The lyrics and music are that traditional in feel. Its also one of those songs that even a person who doesn't like Grateful Dead music, or doesn't know Grateful Dead music, can easily like. Its sweet, nostalgic, wistful and, well, likable. "THIS is the Grateful Dead???"
The song stands as one of the only pure Grateful Dead love songs, with not a lot of entanglements and metaphors to cloud the message. For me, its a song simply of a person remembering good days with a lover, as he's drifting off to sleep or something. That's a rarity in Grateful Dead music. The 'sweet lies' part - 'you're as beautiful as the first day I laid eyes on you' - sometimes lies are sweet, between two people with a history together.
This, for me, is the finest piece of song craft on the Garcia LP, although I love the musique concrete segment of the record for its daring(its like a window into Garcia's imagination, unbridled, different entirely from any other 'space'). I totally understand the comment about - wouldn't it be neat to hear the great songs on Garcia fleshed out with a full band. Some of Garcia feels thin, like a demo. That's also it's quality. There is so little studio-produced pure solo Garcia to enjoy and delve into. The Garcia/Hunter/Kreutzmann combo is so clean and pure, its about as close as we get. We hear Jerry's simple piano parts (like the gorgeous intro at the beginning of TLMD) play out as pure melodic ideas direct from our hero's first thought to the page and LP itself.
Looking for songs that should and could take a place in the proverbial American Songbook, this is as strong as any in the Grateful Dead's catalog. Willie Nelson sang Stella Blue on a recent recording (should have been better than it was). I would love to hear his take on To Lay Me Down, stripped down to its essence. He'd be hard pressed to top the versions we get on Garcia and Reckoning though.
“Death is as light as a feather, duty heavier than a mountain”
― Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
Were I to put these songs in a particular order in the setlist, the first would be Brokedown Palace, the second would be To Lay Me Down, and the final song would be Ripple.
These three songs are transition songs between Life as we now know it, and Death, or perhaps the Other Life. I've been through these doors more times than I can count and I've yet to find one locked. Simple and concise songs for a passage far more simple than most suspect or fear. In the End, it's literally like a Ripple, as I finally realized that I could both metaphorically and literally do it standing on my head.
To Lay Me Down is the peaceful transition between One state of being and the Next. The only difference I notice is perhaps a melancholy feeling I sometimes get from the song, but this I attribute to the thought processes that have already been realized as described in Brokedown Palace: The moment the event horizon of inevitability is crossed once and for all and there's just no turning back: You're going through that door whether you like it or not, and this is the exact point where you finally learn how to walk that walk with style and grace, because, my friends, it really is no knock-down, drag-out race, with what we finally perceive as Death passing as lightly as a Ripple in still water.
I love these three songs and will never be able to thank Hunter, Bear, Mouse and the Grateful Dead enough for putting these lessons, teachings, or whatever, into words, images and song, and letting me experience them in this Life, in all their ragged, psychedelic glory, before my final transition into and through the great come what may.
And the fourth song of the Trinity, you might ask? Well, I guess that's where our own choices come into play.
"Truckin', I got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin' like the Doo-Dah Man
Together, more or less in line
I just keep on truckin', mama
Truck my blues away."
Ah yes pre song tuning. And here I was thinking I was some kind of Amazing Kreskin. Now I need to listen to the recording from 10/19/74. Relive the old days yet one more time. Speaking of the olde days , new documentary on New Year's Eve 1980 on Jam Base. The Oakland Auditorium was so much Phun , fun, fhun. Let us remember the wise man wise guy Mr Natural. R. Crumb may not been a fan of the GD but you know the Dead were are a fan of Robert Crumb. Good blessing and much love and respect to all you us Dead Heads , young and old, near and far, here and now. "All lost in dreaming".
don't mean sheeit..
even so, maybe you heard it in a tuning before they played it.
at winterland 10/19/74...i admit envy.
One more tale. I was at Winterland on October 19,1974. It was the first set and I was thinking, feeling, sensing the song "To lay Me Down" and they played it. Heightened state of awareness?, the obvious song choice before semi retirement?, estimated prophet syndrome? More like as Mr Natural once said, "It don't mean shit".
When the album "Garcia" was released in January 1972 I threw a party. We listened to the album three or four times in a row. I think the version on the album "Garcia" is wonderful. The acoustic version on "Reckoning" may be my favorite track on that album. The line "Clouds a-streamin" has so much beauty. "Sweet lies" has so much meaning. I feel the song also alludes to the old saying "It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all". On the night of August 9, 1995 My friend Ob played a pristine original copy of "Garcia". Needless to say it really hit home in the heart chakra. I have also always felt "To Lay Me Down" had a double meaning that also pointed towards death. Death of relationship, death of ego, death of youth, and then the ultimo journey. I love this song as a familiar old friend.