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!)
Steadfastly obscure both lyrically and musically, “New Potato Caboose” presents the work of Bobby Petersen and Phil Lesh, with lead vocals by Bob Weir. It fits right in with all the songs on Anthem of the Sun, with its intricate harmonies, rapid changes in tempo and meter, and other instrumental weirdness. Perfect Phil Lesh composition.
The song has given rise, in my little world of people trying to figure out the lyrics, to an ongoing and I believe insoluble controversy, barring the unearthing of original manuscript lyrics in Petersen’s own hand.
The discrepancies between sung, heard, and published versions of the lyrics begin with the first line of the song: “Last leaf fallen, bare earth where green was born,” is the version given here on dead.net. And the second line is given as “Above my doorknob, two eagles hang against a cloud.”
The version of the song as published in the Grateful Dead Anthology songbook gives the second line as “Black Madonna, two eagles hang against a cloud.”
Many have listened hard to a wide range of early recordings, and they swear they hear Weir singing “Above Madonna, two eagles hang…” Where I always swore I heard “Above my door now, two eagles…”
Frankly, pretty much any of these versions makes about as much sense as another. Unless you buy into the thinking that there was a stained glass window showing eagles in the sky above the front door at 710 Ashbury.
The “Black Madonna,” “Above Madonna,” “Above my door now,” and “Above my doorknob” versions of the second line each prompt ongoing conversations about what might be meant, beyond the stained glass window theory. I did a lot of work following the Black Madonna through history and folklore. Sigh. And Mount Madonna is a California place name—maybe it’s a geographical reference—something Petersen often includes in his lyrics and poetry.
More interesting to me is the variant of the first line of the song, which surfaced a few years back via an auction of Grateful Dead-related items at a San Francisco auction house. Included in the auction listing was the following item:
A Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan page of handwritten lyrics for The Grateful Dead song, 'New Potato Caboose,' circa 1968
Penned on a single sheet of paper in blue ballpoint ink by Pig Pen (though lyrics were conceived of by Bobby Petersen), piece reads in full "Last leaf fallen, bare earth / Where green was, bone/ Above Madonna two eagles hang / Against a cloud / Sun comes up blood red - wind / Yells among the stone. / All graceful instruments are / known / When the windows all are broken and / Your love's become a toothless crone / When the voices of the storm sound / Like a crowd / Winter morning breaks you're / All alone. / All G I A K --- / The eyes are blind blue visions / All a seer can own / And touching makes the flesh to cry / out loud - / This ground on which the seed of / Love is sewn / All G - .0" (Please note paper is folded a number of times and is yellowed due to age.)
So, Pigpen had this version. (Why did he write out the lyrics? We don’t know, but I imagine if anyone wanted his own copy of any given song, he would have to make it himself: pre-copy machines.) I think the first line as recorded here by Pigpen makes much more sense: “Bare earth / Where green was, bone.” In particular, the use of the “bone” image is much more effective and vivid—Petersen is painting a picture of a landscape, once green, now the color of bone—or, perhaps, now the bones of the trees are visible, where once they were covered in green foliage. The rhyming works better, too: bone, stones, known, crone, alone, own, sown.” (Yes, Pig wrote sewn—oh well.)
And yes, this version says “Above Madonna.”
What a beautiful, harmonious poem, conveying a vision from Petersen’s to our minds’ eyes. And that phrase: “All graceful instruments are known.” Not sure what it might mean, but I love it.
In his book, Searching for the Sound, Lesh says “New Potato Caboose” came from "a little thing I had pecked out on the studio harpsichord when we were at RCA for our first album - which later, with some lyrics from my mad beatnik college buddy, Bobby Petersen, became ‘New Potato Caboose’... It didn't spring into being all at once, but rather amalgamated itself over time, with small but crucial contributions from the whole band. Pig added a celesta part to the intro, Jerry a melodic phrase for the verse, and Mickey a glockenspiel riff and a very important gong roll. Bob sang lead on the song, since I wasn't ready to try singing leads yet."
The song’s first recorded performance (here I’m very likely to be corrected—a feature of this blog that I truly enjoy!), according to DeadBase X, was on January 27, 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. This performance is not listed in The Deadlists Project, which shows the first NPC performance on May 5, 1967, at the Fillmore, in San Francisco. Both sources agree on the date of the final performance: June 8, 1969, at the Fillmore West. DeadBase X lists a total of 26 performances, while Deadlists gives 25. At any rate, the song was only performed for a year and a half, and not very frequently.
As noted above, the song appeared on Anthem of the Sun, released July 1968. I do have to wonder if Petersen had anything to do with the song’s title—it just doesn’t really match up with anything in the poem itself. However, I wouldn’t put anything past Petersen, from what I know of his writing.
Garcia has been quoted talking about the song:
"It's a very long thing and it doesn't have a form, in that it doesn't have a verse-chorus form. It has two or three recurring elements, but it doesn't have a recurring pattern; it just changes continually, off of itself and through itself in lots of different ways - rhythmically, the tonality of it, and the chord relationships. There's lots of surprises in it, a lot of fast, difficult transitions. And there are transitions that musically are real awkward. They're not the kind of thing that flows at all, but we're trying to make this happen by taking something that's jarring and making it unjarring. Making it so that it happens without anybody losing their minds when it happens. And just to see if we can do it. As it is, it's a little stilted, cause it's all so utterly odd. But it has its points and I think that's one direction that we'll be able to move successfully in."
The discussions of “New Potato Caboose” from The Grateful Dead Guide (aka deadessays.blogspot.com), have been very helpful in sorting through all this. There remain numerous controversies—mostly around the music itself, including a long series of back-and-forth comments about the possible origin of a Lesh bass snippet in some of the later performances that seems to be quoting a classical theme—but one which no one has been able to identify!