Greatest Stories Ever Told - “New Potato Caboose”
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!
gold. from 50 years hence-ish, wonder for starters if our youth in their 20s write with pens and paper
New - Potato - Caboose
"new potatoes are potatoes that are harvested when they're still very young, before their sugar content has converted to starch."
(courtesy of mbxpro)
Aftermath of the peak -- on the plateau?
The beginning of this song is so awesome! If I had to describe the feeling of just coming off the peak of a doze, this is it!!!
Here in my neck of the woods (Syracuse NY) we call them salt potatoes- Generally they are golfball-sized or smaller, and boiled with the skins on in salt water (a packet of salt is included in each bag- generally 1 lb. of salt per 4 lbs. potatoes). The result is creamy and delicious, and is usually served with melted butter. It's been a regional dish here for well over 100 years.
The surrealists were on to something. "I don't use drugs, I am drugs" Salvador Dali. The image of the train shows up yet again in a Grateful Dead song. Check the painting "Time Transfixed" by Rene Magritte. The melting watches painting by Salvador Dali or "Persistence of Memory" evokes a landscape of imagery that could be one of the many inspirations of the beat poets although the action painters or abstract expressionists were contemporaries. New Potato Caboose was written by Bobby Petersen at the height of psychedelia. His solid foundation in poetry and his connection to the beat writers combined with the beat-hippie bridge placed him in the company of Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady. The lyrics of the song are spare and stark. Two Eagles hang against a cloud reminds me that eagles mate for life. The Black Madonna cult is fairly wide spread in Latin America. Bobby spent time in Mexico and Taos,New Mexico. Wind yells amongst the stones reminds me of all the years I've spent in the mountains. It evokes that power of the high country in a storm. The storm sounds like a crowd (of wind spirits). The song starts as the calm before the storm. The jam is fantastic. Two From the Vault version from the shrine has that evolving and building progression that reminds me of "Maiden of the Cancer Moon" from Quicksilver Messenger Service on Happy Trails. The jam from New Potato Caboose relays the sense of Astral Projection. Then one breaks through the bardos to "Born Cross Eyed". Anthem of the Sun side one was my first true in depth introduction to the Grateful Dead in 1968. I met Bobby Petersen a few times in the 80s and we talked mainly about Taos. I have a signed copy of his book of poetry "Far Away Radios". And now to trains and cabooses. In 1978 I was hitchhiking north from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where I had been backpacking and I rode on the famous train the Tucson, Cornelia and Gila Bend Railroad. Passengers rode in the caboose. It was a 43 mile run from Ajo, Arizona to Gila Bend and stayed the same price for most of its existence, 97 cents. It was in operation from 2/20/1916 until 4/12/85. It was a copper ore train with one run per day. I love trains, I love the desert and I love the song New Potato Caboose.
Maybe since Pig was kind of the "leader" in the beginning, he might have been originally pegged to sing this tune...who knows?
For as long as I can remember, I always thought the intro to this song was one of the most beautiful things the Dead ever did.
Not totally certain where all that last stuff came from, but couldn't have stopped it had I tried - I'm a philosopher and guitarmaker, not a physicist. I don't even keep copies of this stuff because it's all subject to instant revision, could all change tomorrow and if it doesn't, well, then I'll just be wondering about that too. I consider music (and most specifically, songs played on instruments, with words and melody) to be, if not the highest (though we certainly tried!), the most honest form of human expression, and as our thoughts and futures should be, totally unconstrained: Just so long as you remember we've got'cha covered in all the best ways....and always mind the ricochets.
The true path through Chaos is always paved with music.
"...and you know I would not feel so all alone: everybody must get stoned..."
It's sometimes hard to look forward to and recognize the future...when you're buried up to your neck in shit from the past.
So, feed your head, Hal.....I mean, Alice.
This is indeed a rich vein in lyrical studies (gee, that sounds pompous!)--and there have been a ton of wonderful threads in various posts, discussions, etc. over the years. It would be a blast to try to collect 'em all, but likely an impossibility. Alex Allan does a great job in his Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site of collecting variants in performance and recording, as well, occasionally, in hearing.
An entire chapter of The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics devoted to Mondegreens was deleted prior to publication. Not sure if I still have it somewhere.
And I've written quite a bit about lyrics in general over the years, jojo, but usually in hard to find places like program notes or conference papers.
Thanks to all for the great conversation about NPC!
New Potato is definitely the Coup De Grace of Anthem, by my standard. Bobby Peterson wrote this and Unbroken Chain? Far out! Wish the Dead had taken up more of his contributions.
I don't know if I could have handled 500 mg of Owsley's sunshine during a particularly good version of this song. Jerry's comments seem so cogent -- a way to express something without blowing people's minds...
Byrd's comment was stimulating but hard to know if the space/time continuum is what is being explored here. Good guess. But my bet is that this has something to do with Egyptian mysticism.
Professor Byrd reminded me of the Metaphysics Class I took back in College!
Made me wonder if a Clock really Ticks in the Woods if there's no one there to hear it....I'm sure Stephen would Answer if he only knew How...
as the time "twixt now and then" moves on at a "petty pace"
"To Be or Not To Be"...OM....??
and in one of those Flashes at the Door ,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking Words of Wisdom
Let it Be
See...there's only One Be (not Two)
The Time is NOW
an Eternal NOW
as we ride 900 Thousand Tons of Steel of a Train with NO Brakes in a Ring Round the Sun with Conductor Neil's Monkey at the Wheel
I'd be Enjoying the Ride More if this
Earth Suit weren't Wearing Out so Fast!!!