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.