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!)
Several times over the course of their career, the Dead would comment, through their songs’ lyrics, on the idea of being a band—and in particular, on the idea of being none other than the Grateful Dead. This is one of them, and many of its phrases seem...just exactly perfect.
The Bob Weir / John Barlow composition always got the crowd clapping (we were already dancing!) when they hit the “come on children, clap your hands” refrain. There’s something that I always loved at shows — that certain point in certain songs where certain things would happen in the crowd. The “Woo!!” at that point in “Shakedown Street,” or the roar at particularly important, evocative, or timely lines. Or the sheer, audience-wide sense of anticipation during the build-up to “Inspiration, move me brightly” in “Terrapin Station,” or the mutually-acknowledged space following the line in “St. Stephen”: “One man gathers what another man spills,” born of repeated listenings to Live Dead. But I digress—unless digression is the point, in which case I’m not really digressing. (Right?)
“The Music Never Stopped” premiered at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on August 13, 1975, in the performance captured in One From the Vault. During my college days, this show circulated, on vinyl (!), as Make-Believe Ballroom, so that is always how I have thought of it. Blues for Allah was released on September 1, so the performance at GAMH was pretty much simultaneous. After its introduction, the song remained steadily in the repertoire thereafter, with the final version performed on June 28, 1995, at The Palace, in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Since this blog is about stories, my “Music Never Stopped” story is a simple but abiding memory I have of receiving the lyrics, handwritten, as a gift from a Secret Santa friend at my college co-op dorm, who turned out to be my good friend Chakka. That’s when I first saw the verses as a stand-alone poem, and it was a lovely thing to behold.
What Barlow did was risky. He painted a self-portrait for the band to play and sing, one which encompassed the entire experience of being on the road, playing in town after town like a traveling circus, along with the experience of the Deadheads, who would gather and behave much as he described: “People joining hand in hand, while the music plays the band,” and “Old men sing about their dreams. Women laugh, and children scream…” throughout all of which the band just keeps chugging along. And when they pack up and go, their previous presence seems doubtful, unlikely—how could such an amazing thing have occurred in the midst of our mundane lives?
That kind of sums up my feeling about the Grateful Dead, generally. What an unlikely confluence of musicians in the right time and space. In a time and space, which, in fact, seemed to be hostile to the whole notion of such a cultural institution. And how lucky I was to have experienced it—to be experiencing it still, even though the band’s all packed and gone. ’Cause the music never stopped.
Barlow’s invocation could have been corny or hackneyed or pompous, but instead he lent it a light, whimsical touch, giving the song a strong sense of a rural American setting with corn in the field, and fish in the river. There are roosters, and mosquitoes, and farm families making do in the intense summer’s heat. And here comes a road show, complete with fireworks, calliopes, and clowns. It’s the clash, or, better, the melding of the two—the mundane and the extraordinary—that lends the song an appeal that goes directly to the experience of both band and Deadhead. And what I found was, that once I had tapped into the music, it truly was always there, ready to be released at any moment.
And here, I think, it gets really cool. I must not be the only person who has had repeated and wonderful dreams of being at Grateful Dead concerts; in fact, entire concerts, with fabulous seats, where the music itself was the substance of the dream. What kind of Grateful Dead dreams have you had? I’m not asking you to sing about them like the old men in the song, but maybe you have some particularly vivid memory of a Dead-related dream, where the music was part of your subconscious.
I remember an interview with someone (Phil, I think…), in which he said something about the music always being there, always going on, so that when they played, they were accessing the music that never stopped. Not a very scholarly reference, but the idea is what’s important—that the band felt that way about the music, as though it had a life of its own, and was actually, in some way, playing the band.
Side notes I find interesting:
• Blair Jackson’s early biography of the band, from 1983, bore the title Grateful Dead: The Music Never Stopped.
• Robert Hunter’s lyric entitled “Hollywood Cantata” (included in his collection of lyrics, A Box of Rain) was originally written for the same set of changes by Weir, but was abandoned in favor of Barlow’s lyric. You can hear it in the outtakes included in the Beyond Description box set. Hmmm. “Beyond Description.”
• “Band beyond description” has been altered on bumper stickers and t-shirts to read “band beyond prescription.”
• Musically, I like it that this song has two distinct spots for jams.
• I enjoy the reference to calliopes. That makes three in Grateful Dead songs. Calliope: a strange musical instrument, often found on carousels (connection to at least one other song, right?), and the muse of lyric poetry.
OK—over to y’all: Dead dreams? Special moments in songs? Stories about waking up to find the band all packed and gone? Does the music ever stop? Anything else that strikes your fancy?