Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Loser"
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!)
I am grateful to have received, recently, a somewhat indignant email from a reader of this column, taking me to task for having “overlooked” “Loser.”
It’s true — I haven’t yet written about the song. But I would point out that there are dozens of songs which have yet to be the topic of a “Greatest Stories Ever Told” post, and that I have taken anything but a disciplined approach to the material.
Early on, I tried to follow the rough patterning of a show, in which Jerry tunes would alternate with Bobby’s or other composers’ tunes, and until recently, that seemed to work. However, I am now finding myself running short of songs to rotate in between Garcia selections. Increasingly, there will be multiple Garcia songs end-to-end.
And “Loser” is certainly one of the very best of the greatest stories told in a Hunter lyric.
In it, we encounter the Loser of the title, who is the song’s narrator and protagonist. Or, antagonist, maybe.
I’ve always thought a hallmark of Hunter’s lyrics was that we can, through them, come to see the world from a point of view other than our own—whether we are taught to empathize with losers or criminals or con men or poets.
The tone of this song is set very strongly with the opening line, the arresting: “If I had a gun for every ace I’ve drawn, I could arm a town the size of Abilene.” Somewhat akin to that eternal parental trope of “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard you say….” But much edgier, and, somehow, threatening. This is a man with violence on his mind.
And yet, he appeals to the listener’s love for him: “Put your gold money where your love is, baby.” And his method of trying to convince this person who loves him? Sheer con artistry. Even as he dismisses the braggarts in the game, he himself indulges grandiosely in the same behavior.
Somehow I find this particular character one of the most difficult in Hunter’s lyrics to sympathize or empathize with. Understand, maybe. Pity, maybe. But he’s no August West. Or Candyman. Or Jack Straw. In fact, he doesn’t have a name. Could that be some kind of clue? “Loser” is his designation and his name. It’s who and what he is.
So, what are the characteristics of a loser? He’s a hypocrite—bragging (“I can tell the queen of diamonds by the way she shines”) while putting down everybody who’s “bragging and drinking that wine.” He sees his lover as simply a source of funds. He is a whiner (“moanin’ low…”). All in all, there is very little to recommend this guy.
The song seems covered in the Americana dust of so many songs from this period of Hunter’s and Garcia’s songwriting partnership. Abilene, whether in Texas or Kansas, is a dusty cowtown—at the time in which the song seems to be set, the cattle outnumbered the human inhabitants by a factor of tens. It’s easy to see the scene Hunter so casually sets, of a broken-down gambler in a saloon, with a dirt street outside full of armed cowpokes.
Appearing, as it does, on Garcia, the song seems to pair naturally with the other gambling song on the album, “Deal.” It could be sung by the same character on a different day, in fact. And it fits in, as I mentioned, with a whole suite of songs that might be set in the same generic America of the late 19th or early 20th centuries: “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Jack Straw,” “Mister Charlie,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Candyman,” and others, as well as certain selected covers, such as “Me and My Uncle,” and “El Paso.”
Those songs share certain motifs, and among them are the various accoutrements of a gambler’s trade, whether dice or cards. Money plays a role—and, in the case of “Loser,” the particular money mentioned helps place the song chronologically. Gold dollar coins were minted from 1849 (the Gold Rush!) to 1889. They were tiny little coins. I have one, and it is amazingly small—between 13 and 15 mm in diameter. “All that I am asking for is ten gold dollars…” C’mon! They’re tiny little things. In fact, originally, the line was “one gold dollar,” but that changed at some point to the “ten” we usually heard.
The crowning glory of the song, as in many other Garcia/Hunter compositions, is the bridge.
The song culminates in this cry of hopefulness: “Last fair deal in the country, Sweet Susie, last fair deal in the town. Put your gold money where your love is, baby, before you let my deal go down—go down.”
(It’s noted that “Sweet Susie” was dropped at some point, but then, occasionally, brought back. I think it was an optional decoration to the line. Alex Allan, in his Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site, notes that “Sweet Susie” rarely appears after 1972, but that it’s sung in performances in 1974 and 1979.)
I believe Hunter, with Garcia’s help, created a sweeping panorama of the underside of America, which stretches through these songs and into their selection, as a band, of cover songs. It’s the “old, weird America”—the America of the Basement Tapes, of the Anthology of American Folk Music assembled by Harry Smith. The songs seem out of time—timeless—standing as testimony to collective memory that includes the stuff that’s harder to look at. We come from those places, too. And those places, those people, are all around us still.
Someday, I would love to see an album put together of all the songs from this period, perhaps performed by one of the new Americana bands that are so wonderfully preserving the sounds of our past. Maybe the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Or maybe several bands. I think it would be a wonderful portrait of a certain aspect of our country. And I think the album could be titled: Loser.
The queen of diamonds is what triggers his programmed hypnosis.
Not much more to say on such a great song. It has such an amazing atmosphere to it. Reminds me of the old west or the turn of the century, much like Friend of the Devil. Such timeless music, which is what Jerry and also the Dead were seeking.
I always imagined the lyrics “I can tell the queen of diamonds by the way she shines” as a degenerate gambler's delusion about "knowing" how the queen of diamonds looks. Men covet that card, and maybe it does shine..
Loser has verses similar to those in "St. James Infirmary":
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She can look this wide world over
But she'll never find a sweet man like me
to end a song with "I've got no chance of losing this time" and give it the title "Loser." Sort of like the narrator of Wharf Rat knowing his girl's been true to him.
Especially in light of the lines in the previous verse:
"Well I know a little something you won't ever know
Don't you touch hard liquor, just a cup of cold coffee
Gonna get up in the morning and go"
The "little something" he knows, I figure, is a method of cheating. They are leaving town early in the morning, before the drunks he's about to cheat sober up and realize they've been had.
Apparently, he's not a real good cardsharp, because he needs to wait until his marks are good and drunk before he can get away with cheating, and he ran out of money before they got drunk enough. Now "everybody's bragging, and drinking that wine" - they're getting drunk and stupid - and "I can tell the Queen of Diamonds by the way she shines" - he's succeeded in marking the cards.
Real life gambler in the news, 11/13/2014:
At the San Diego area casino, Karabourniotis was videotaped twice marking cards at a blackjack table. He won $8,000 in one sitting, according to court records.
Deputy District Attorney Andrew Aguilar said Karabourniotis was using his fingers to daub the cards with a substance, marking them in three different ways to signal that the card was either an ace, had a playing value of 10, or was a card worth seven, eight or nine points.
"It gave him a slight edge, but in blackjack, that's enough," Aguilar said. "He was the last to get cards before the dealer, so he could either help his own hand or make the dealer go bust if he knew the value of the card that was going to be dealt next."
has robert pulled one of his fast ones here with the ending? i think so... our friend the loser finds himself at the table in the final verse. perhaps he got his gold? it's finally time to wager on his "sure thing," which he expects to be a queen of diamonds. an accidental corollary to pushkin's famous "queen of spades"? i think not.
for those of you who don't know the story, i won't go into detail, but basically a wily soldier seduces a young miss to gain access to her countess' gambling secret. before he can get it he scares the countess to death. after much trial he finally gains the secret, uses it in a card game, and in the final moment, when expecting an Ace to be drawn, he instead receives the queen of spades, which bares an eerie resemblance to the countess. he's ruined and goes insane. is this the imminent fate of our Loser?
There was a Twilight Zone with a chronic gambler. The silver dollars start talking to him in his hotel room then the one armed bandit comes through the door to strike the final blow.
Love is a gamble as is life in general. The Grateful Dead were willing to take risks at times. Sometimes it payed off. Money aside it was part of the evolution of music and creating something new and at times profound with far reaching influence. (2014)
I love the first Garcia solo album. Real interesting how a previous post described Deal and Loser as bookends. Beautiful concept. It's similar to the person who described Bird Song as the little brother to Dark Star.
The spring of 1971 was a fantastic creative time for the band. Garcia's lead on Loser could penetrate to the soul. The Capitol Theater run was amazing. He played the Gibson SG the 18th and the rest of the run his Alembic prototype. By summer he was playing a Les Paul.
I've been listening to solo album "Garcia" quite a lot lately. It stands the test of time. That Jerry played all instruments except drums is way interesting. Loser has much going on from acoustic to organ to an almost horn sound for a couple seconds at the crescendo. The organ sound during the third verse gives that high plains lonesome sound.
Was recently visiting southwest Oklahoma for a few days somewhere between Abilene, Kansas and Abilene, Texas. Driving back home to western New Mexico I drove all two lane highways the length of the OK panhandle into northeast NM. Real lonely barren country, much like the spirit of the song Loser.
I see the character as being in denial as he is chanting this phrase. After all, he is the perpetual loser. Even trying to win on an inside straight where the odds of winning are unusually high. I Got No Chance Of Losin' This Time...yeah right!
I am shocked, shocked to learn that the line is "where your love is baby"! I've always heard it as "where your luck is baby". Not sure how I've missed that about 10,000 times! Can't rewrite lyrics obviously, but I feel "luck" fits there at least as well as "love" does. Really, what's love got to do with it!?
I don't see the same sort of cheesy whiner that Dr Dodd sees, nor a pathetic addict. I see more of a steely hard-nosed professional, alone out on the mean streets, quietly and stoically doing whatever it takes to make a buck (just cold coffee, gonna get up and go).
And about "I can tell the queen of diamonds by the way she shines". Am I the only one to interpret that as a private confession that the character truly *does* see the queen because he knows that card is marked (thus, she "shines")? That would make him an outright cheater, unless the mark is a result of a lucky accident, but either way it fits perfectly with his assertion that "I've got no chance of losin' this time". In many kinds of poker games it is possible to know you are a sure winner if, for example, you're aware of what the next card to be dealt will be (come to daddy). I feel he is happy and relieved that he knows he will at least win this hand-- his only lament is that he doesn't have more gold dollars to wager on a sure thing (I could pay you back with one good hand).
A solid, timeless, masterful song. Certainly it will appear as part of many more Americana collections in years to come.