• October 2, 2014
    http://www.dead.net/features/greatest-stories-ever-told/greatest-stories-ever-told-loser
    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!)

    "Loser"

    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.

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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!)

"Loser"

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.

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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Loser"
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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.”
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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.”

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Way back when I was in college, I took a course called Tragedy, that really informed my critical sensibility. The central question was why people throughout the period we studied enjoyed tragic works of art so much, something we music lovers see most often in "the blues." Possible answers are that a) we enjoy hearing about someone who's worse off than we are, this makes us feel better by comparison, and b) that we're able to see hope and/or a chance for redemption in situations seen as hopeless by the antagonists, and this helps us reconsider bad situations in our lives. A perhaps related question is why artists often set things in the past, or in a "simpler" milieu when they're really trying to talk about the present day. A good answer to this is that they're trying to make the point that things haven't changed much over the years. Loser slots right into both of these themes. It's sometimes strange for me to read about the "characters" in Hunter's lyrics, since to me they aren't characters so much as archetypes. This "loser" who lived in another time, in another place, is really all of us. He's thinking that a little money, a little faith, is what he really needs to get over this hump he's looking at. He scolds people for braggadocio and vice when he's guilty of the same. And most of all, when it gets to the end, he's got faith in himself, that the inside straight has gotta turn up for him sometime and it might as well be now. So this great song is a step beyond "tragedy." We're not just looking at some poor cuss who's got it bad, we're looking in the mirror. And when it gets right down to it, the situation isn't hopeless; the truth is that I got no chance of losing this time (though this line is properly sung as a blues wail)! This is an ultimate example of a blues song that uplifts us. Do yourself a favor and listen to Dave Alvin's cover of Loser on his West Of the West record, his tribute to the best California song writers.
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Not much I feel I can add to your great post, David. Just a small observance, that Bobby sang this for a bit with Furthur, but on 11/11/11 in Syracuse he botched the words so badly that in subsequent performances Kadlecik would sing it. Not sure that's a direct cause-and-effect correlation, but at the time I could just picture Hunter pulling his hair out listening to Bobby falter through it; still a very well played performance, and we all love Bobby for his mistakes!
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I always thought (and still do) this song was about Pigpen. Also, I completely agree with jbxpro about feeling better by comparison especially if it could be assumed as fictional. Also, thanks for pointing out Dave Alvins cover. Great stuff. Another good cover is from an album that I feel is somewhat on the same level as DD's proposed "Loser" album. Which is Emory Joseph's album Fennario: Songs by Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter.
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I was pleasantly surprised to find Loser among the songs on this Cracker album. Funny thing is, I "won" it on my first quarter playing the spinning wheel at the Jersey shore back in 1993. They did a great job evoking a kind of tripped out western, desert, peyote feel from it. Another keeper.

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One of the Grateful Dead's most perfect songs. And one I truly feel just got richer with age.
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I always thought they were singin, "I got no chants of losin this time". In another times forgotten space (perhaps trying to tune in too much), I took it as those around me chanting, chanting, chanting "LOSER". So hey, no chanting, I must not be pissing too many off. In the same way I thought Jerry was telling me to turn around and tend a sea...I like the post coma/pre Vince Losers the best.Chord wise the verses are pretty easy- A minor,G,C,D,C,E minor. Indeed the bridge is tricky. That took me a lot of practice on guitar, but super rewarding.Actually an excellent composition. One of my very favorites to play. Can anyone tell me what show in 79 "sweet susie" was sung? Maybe that can be a November song to guess. I thought I was "deader than thou" knowing the "sweet susie" version. Kind of like in I Know You Rider, knowing the "I'd rather drink muddy water" verse.
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Jerry was having some vocal hoarseness, but he did mention Susie during the performance of Loser in Uniondale, NY on 1/10/79
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of the first two lines. Absolutely classic Hunter in condensing entire epics to two lines. Also, I just hope Hunter has gotten at least as big a kick as I have over the years from "I could arm a town the size of Abilene." What a phrase. What a visual.
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After the third "well, I got no chance of losin' this time", you could hear him turning up and add an effect, and then rip that first note, often as a harmonic, and then just agony, agony, agony. I find the 9/03/77 solo to be particularly earth-shattering. Not many minor key ballads sung by our hero.
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I'm always reminded of Robert Johnson's Last Fair Deal Gone Down. "If you cry 'bout a nickel, you die 'bout a dime, She wouldn't cry, but the money weren't mine."
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I see Deal and Loser as bookends of the same story in which we go from tales that will burn off both of our ears, to a gambler begging for money to get back in the game. Our con man in Loser has fallen for his own con where he now believes he can pull the Queen of Diamonds and fill an inside straight. When he tells us “You know I'am only in it for the gold.” Is it a moment of truth from the con man, or the addict's lie: You know I'am only in it for the gold, I only drink socially, I can quit any time? What do we have: A con man, a loser, an addict? Is this a cautionary tale about the road to ruin, or just another character residing in the shadows? This is the beauty and frustration with Hunter's lyrics. You start peeling back the onion until you get to the point where you are no longer sure which onion it is that you are peeling, Hunter's or your own.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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?
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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."
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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.
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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.
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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
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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..
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The queen of diamonds is what triggers his programmed hypnosis.
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    Clarke W. Griswold
    1 year 9 months ago
    Manchurian Candidate
    The queen of diamonds is what triggers his programmed hypnosis.
  • Au_Prospector
    1 year 11 months ago
    Excellent write up
    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..
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    TheBeam
    2 years 9 months ago
    Loser - St. James Infirmary
    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
  • marye
    3 years 11 months ago
    classic Hunter
    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.
  • greenknight
    3 years 11 months ago
    I thought the same thing as handjive - he's a cheat
    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.