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.