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 have an extremely clear auditory memory of “My Brother Esau” in performance in the early 1980s at the Greek Theater in Berkeley—extremely clear, but still somehow fuzzy around the edges, with Bob singing the line “shadowboxing the Apocalypse, and wandering the land.”
From first hearing it, I loved the song, and wanted to solve its lyric mysteries, but the concert tapes were unsatisfactory—I was really hoping for a studio recording. So when In the Dark came out, I fully expected “My Brother Esau” to be on the album. Hmmm. At the time, I was very happy that the song at least made it onto the B side of the “Touch of Grey” single, and I did buy that. And now, looking at the online Grateful Dead Family Discography, I see that “My Brother Esau” was included on the cassette tape release of the album—something I never even considered looking at, as well as the Japanese release of the album on CD. And, finally, it was included on the release of the CD in the 2004 “Beyond Description” box set release, which I bought.
By then, Barlow had long since published the lyrics to his Grateful Dead songs, so I was able to read the lyrics. But the story remained vague and ill-defined to me, instead of becoming clearer with the possession of the words. Then, in 2012, at a TRI Studios broadcast, Weir brought it back, with some alterations in the lyrics, meant to make the song more lucid.
From Alex Allan’s Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site:
Weir revived the song playing with members of The National in the Bridge Sessions at TRI Studios in March 2012. Thanks to David Gans for the info. Weir commented:
"It was the National's idea. I had to finally address the [lyrics of] the bridge, which was why I stopped doing it back when."
The new bridge is:
Esau won't miss his birthright anyway
Ain't like it's worth all that much today
So, I would like to keep that in mind in this post about the song, even though it’s not the version we all have available to us on recordings.
There are several essential background components necessary if we’re going to have a conversation about the lyrics of this song.
First, there’s the Biblical reference to the story of Esau and Jacob, twin sons of Isaac, himself the son of Abraham. This is a wonderful and complex story from Genesis, and it deals with the birth order of Esau, who was born first of the twins, and was therefore entitled to inherit Isaac’s wealth. Jacob, however, pulled a double trickery—first, he prevailed upon Esau, who was hungry after a hunt, to deed over his inheritance in exchange for a bowl of lentils; and secondly, he tricked his blind father Isaac into bestowing his inheritance upon him rather than upon Esau by disguising his own smooth skin with hairy goatskin, thereby impersonating the hairy Esau. Esau, however, is so furious with his brother Jacob that he vows to kill him, forcing Jacob to flee. Eventually, Jacob is allowed to return home (quite a few years later) and Esau forgives him.
Second, there’s the clear reference to a division among brothers during the Vietnam conflict, which Barlow sets in 1969. Their mutual father issues a set of “wild commandments” which apparently include going to war. Esau is the one of the two brothers who actually obeys these orders, but nevertheless loses his father’s favor when he fails at war. As a clue, it’s worth noting that the studio single opens with the ominous sound of a helicopter—seemingly lifted straight out of Apocalypse Now—and hence alluding to the song’s chorus: “shadowboxing the Apocalypse…” And not to forget—the Rhythm Devils did help provide the soundtrack for that movie (released in 1980—“My Brother Esau” was written by Barlow and Weir in 1982).
Third, and, I think, key to the song, is the oblique reference to the events at Altamont, which somehow merge with the impulse towards violence exemplified in the human tendency towards warfare: “My brother Esau killed the Hunter, back in 1969…” The Hunter killed in 1969 was Meredith Hunter, who was killed by the Hell’s Angels at Altamont. Reconciling that event has been a major motif in Grateful Dead lyrics, which makes sense given that they are frequently credited with (or accused of) having put forward the Hell’s Angels as security for the event.
But Barlow, in particular, has taken up this overall theme on other occasions, most notably in “Throwing Stones.” What I love about Barlow’s urge to treat this theme lyrically is that it fits in with a huge overarching theme in Grateful Dead lyrics, and, I believe, in Grateful Dead culture and iconography: we are all capable of whatever it is that humans do. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence: “Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.” (“I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”) That statement sums up so much that is crucial to art—the willingness and the obligation to own the entirety of human experience. In “Thowing Stones” Barlow writes: “Nightmare spook, piece of heat / It's you and me, you and me.” And in “My Brother Esau,” it’s “The more my brother looks like me / The less I understand / The silent war / That blooded both our hands,” and the preceding lines: “I would say that the blame is mine / But I suspect it's something worse.”
Barlow is owning the violence, engaging in a shadow dance with the opposite, with the Other. I like the approach in the latter part of the song, in which he says that he is beginning to understand, late at night, and then: “well, more feel than understand.” Exactly—this is not something very much subject to a rational approach in terms of comprehension—it’s something we inch our way towards, in a shadowdance.
There are a number of anomalies about the transcription of the lyrics. Maybe they make a difference, but more likely they don’t mean much. Is it “a piece of moral land,” or “decent moral land,” for instance?
Weir has continued to toy with the lyrics over the years, substituting different lines, changing the year referenced from 1969 to 1959 to 2009, but the core of the song is consistent—there is conflict between brothers. One steals another’s birthright, and is later reconciled with him. There is a fundamental split personality within the whole personality of humanity. How we deal with it is more a matter of feeling than of rationality.
I would love to hear your thoughts about this song, and about the story, or stories, it tells.