Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Lazy Lightning/Supplication"
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!)
Oddly enough, for me this pair of Bob Weir / John Barlow tunes instantly conjures up a memory of Jerry Garcia, standing onstage at Winterland during the song, wearing his dark glasses and seemingly focused on a place deep within, or somewhere far away, as he blazingly played behind Weir’s singing. At that moment, Garcia struck me as someone with access to a very different place than any I might have known up until then. His extreme focus, combined with his virtuosity, made me want nothing more than to be able to access that same level of what might be called the deep unreal, to borrow from another lyric. And then, in the chorus, he stepped to the mike and sang “my lightning too” along with Donna, seemingly over and over, as the music, in its strange and rolling 7/8 rhythm, got stranger and stranger, until it eventually burst into “Supplication.” And not for the last time, I thought to myself and this was a band that was completely unafraid of being exceedingly weird. And that was a very good thing.
The pair of songs was recorded on the Kingfish album, with Bob Weir as a member of the band. Barlow notes that he wrote the song in Mill Valley in October 1975. The two tracks opened the album, which was released in March 1976.
The Grateful Dead first played the pair in concert on June 3, 1976, at the Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon. That show also included the first performances of “Might As Well,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “The Wheel.” “Lazy Lightning” was always followed in concert by “Supplication,” and the final performance of the two songs took place on Halloween, 1984, at the Berkeley Community Theater.
“Supplication” was played by itself, according to DeadBase X, on one occasion subsequently, although it was also played as an instrumental jam more frequently over the years. The final “Supplication” was played 597 shows after the last “Lazy Lightning>Supplication,” on May 22, 1993 at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. Interestingly, “Supplication” was played one other time separately from “Lazy Lightning,” on September 24, 1976, when it was sandwiched in the middle of a “Playing in the Band.”
Barlow seemed to enjoy writing lyrics of obsessive love for Weir to sing, over the course of the years. “Lazy Lightning” describes a seemingly ill-fated and unreasonable fixation on a person who is either unavailable, or unstable, or both. If lightning is the best metaphor for a persona, then what might be in store for the one who falls for her? Over the course of the lyric, Barlow seems intent on transforming the energy of the object of obsession into a shared energy, which might, possibly, form the basis of an actual relationship: “all that lightning will be my lightning too…” But it seems to be nothing more than a delusion, and a self-destructive one, too. “I’d fly a kite if I thought--thought that would do.” What happens to people who are not Ben Franklin who fly kites in lightning storms?
I think a very strong case could be made that “Supplication” is no more a separate song from “Lazy Lightning” than “Sunshine Daydream” is from “Sugar Magnolia.” It’s a coda, carrying forward the same themes—only the form of the verse has changed. (Weir’s setting maintains a 7/8 time signature over the course of both lyrics—another unifying element.) Again, it’s an obsessive love, and again, the reference to lightning striking (“Little bolt of inspiration / The way you strike me now”). The title, and the manner of delivery, seems to indicate greater desperation on the part of the singer. Weir spits out the words in a rapid stream, cramming the syllables together in a hurry to get them all out.
On the face of it, Weir’s chord progression is nothing all that out there. I think, though, that the two-chord structure of “Supplication” is what makes for some very interesting jamming possibilities, with the back and forth from D to Fmaj7—a deliberate and calculated reversal of musical expectation, where we might more logically (logic?) have expected to hear an F# minor or B minor. So glad for the unexpected!
What songs belong in the series of Weir/Barlow compositions with similar themes and motifs? I’m thinking of songs that feature a singer/narrator/lead character who is unreasonable, in some fundamental way, about love relationships. I’d love to read some of your thoughts about that. There’s something in these songs that makes me uncomfortable, and I think that may be exactly what was intended. Being uncomfortable makes us understand—or maybe more feel than understand—what it is about relationships between people that is often so fraught with pitfalls and danger.
Barlow’s afterword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, describes, very poignantly, how Barlow himself only came to understand much of his own work after he finally, rather late in life, really truly fell in love with someone.
“The songs revealed themselves over time, even to us. … When I wrote ‘Looks Like Rain,’ I had never fallen in love. I had certainly heard a lot of love songs. I had been to an opera or six. I was not unfamiliar with the huge literature of amorous helplessness. But I remained skeptical.” He goes on to recount how he wrote “Looks Like Rain,” despite being personally unfamiliar with the feelings it captures. And then, he describes how the song suddenly made sense, when he was at a Dead show with this woman he loved: “Bobby started to sing ‘Looks Like Rain,’ and I started singing it to her myself so that she would get all the words. About halfway through, I realized that I was getting all the words for the first time. I finally knew what the song was about. I finally meant it. Or perhaps one could say more accurately that it finally meant me.”
What a wonderful and intimate thing to share with us. That he, the lyricist, finally learned directly what his own song meant.
And that phrase: “it finally meant me.” Wow.
Sorry—this particular post, though it started by looking at “Lazy Lightning > Supplication,” seems to have turned into something else. Looking forward to your comments, as always.
...great band-have all the LPs-even the Relix ones. I never heard one of these combos performed by the Dead that I didn't love. Jerry went to some amazing places in those jams.
"I thought to myself and this was a band that was completely unafraid of being exceedingly weird. And that was a very good thing."
I love that quote sir!
btw, I always felt the song as if it were describing a lead up to a shared psychedelic sensual/sexual energy...
My dog has no nose...
Some people may be familiar with the phenomenon, but I always wondered if a "loop" of lightning was a real thing. Turns out yes and no (quoting from http://stormhighway.com/lightning_bolts_loops_knots.php here, which has pictures):
"Sometimes a lightning channel will have the illusion of 'looping back' on itself or having bright knots in it. The reason behind this phenomenon is quite simple. Lightning is three-dimensional- it 'zigs' and 'zags' in all directions. Most of the time, you'll view a lightning channel from the side, and it'll appear to travel in one general direction only. However, if that lightning bolt (or part of the lightning bolt) is coming straight at you (that is, you are looking at it from one end), it will appear to loop back on itself, sometimes even appearing to go back upwards."
Well, isn't this what the song is about? Very good imagery from Barlow!
And how often have "velvet" and "thunder" appeared together? Quick Google search for this phrase turns up a sound system, a band, a street singer, a romance novel, another song, a type of lily, etc. Maybe it's a primal feeling to think that there's a soft space between the sharp edges, a silver lining to every cloud (though every silver lining's got a touch of grey).
I always thought the tandem was about LSD, Lazy lighting being the explanation of the feelings and sensations and supplication being the journey of a trip.
I understand why some songs where dropped but why a crowd favorite and one the band seemed to enjoy playing. Mysteries that intrigue but are better left remaining mysteries for me.
I agree with the other posters SPAC 85 Crazy>SUPP>High Time what a great show and DON'T HANG OFF THE BALCONY!!!!!!
I'm a big fan of the original Kingfish album. Robbie Hoddinott is/was a great guitarist. Dave Torbert was an incredible lead singer although he sounded better live than on this release, where his vocals seemed a bit tentative. I've spent hours staring at the LP cover... a painting of Neptune *the kingfish* on his throne. Philip Garris was the artist, the same guy who painted the BLUES FOR ALLAH album cover.
The opening Lazy Lightning/Supplication was a bit mellower than what was performed onstage, but I like it anyway. It features a weird instrument called a "String symphonizer" performed by the mysterious "J.D. Sharp." I've never seen this synthesizer on any other albums. I suppose it was replaced by more modern electronic gadgets of the late 70s.
My favorite Kingfish track is "Hypnotize" which, as its title suggests, is a completely hypnotizing song!!
The Dead were basically on hiatus in 1975-76 but I really dig what Kingfish did during this time.
You are right, But it was unusual and and it did fit. If they had done instrumental on both ends it would have been unique and noteworthy. Bobby should have relented, partially. It was still a great show!
man, jerry was BEGGIN' bobby to play lazy lightning, but bob wanted no part of it. jerry just said...f-it, i'll play high time then...!
The Deep Unreal - exactly my terminology for exactly the same thing. The Dead were so fortunate that they could tap into the Deep Unreal, and we are so fortunate they could share it with us.