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!
This song helped me decide how I would spend my time. My imaginary commodity...
...is also the way I heard it.
Thank you Byrd, I think you've summed this up rather neatly (and concisely)!
I just wanted to add a factoid: new potatoes are potatoes that are harvested when they're still very young, before their sugar content has converted to starch. I'm sure we all know what this signifies, especially when you're driving that caboose behind the new potatoes.
I've always heard "above my doorknob," which may be a mondegreen, but to me means that this song is about "my" immediate experience. The lyric is not cosmic, it's what "I" perceive right now. Of course, what I perceive right now is that winter is fucking like time standing still, which may be a cosmic statement, or may be poetical, a metaphor.
And I wanted to point out that Pigpen may have been suffering from mondegreenanity himself ... he wrote it down the way he heard it.
Alternate lyrics, intentionally changed lyrics, misunderstood lyrics, extra lyrics, rewritten lyrics. These are all so much fun.Wikipedia has a wonderful story about mondegreens, which are misheard lyrics and words.
I got involved in a discussion with someone once about the lyrics in Playing in The Band, the question was if when they were up in treetops were they Looking For Their Kites or Looking at the Sights. I believe my response at the time was both!
I remember years ago I was listening to a college radio show and then a Dylan song came on and it was an acoustic version of Tangled Up In Blue with different lyrics. Later, internet research showed this to be an outtake from the Blood On The Tracks sessions. This after the original lyrics had been burned into my brain.
There are so many examples of changes to lyrics; I remember hearing about Hunter once talking about Garcia leaving out a verse from Friend of The Devil.
And why did Garcia start leaving out the verse about Ginger from West L.A.?
This could go on for a long time!
David, perhaps you could talk about lyrics in general sometime.
Blue visions all a seer can own...and touching makes the flesh to cry out loud....when the voices of the storm sounds like a crowd... YOU'RE ALL ALONE . Who else gets flashbacks that encompass around three quarters of the original experience when sampling this bizarre gem ?
What a great comment! Thanks for taking my brain on a fun ride, there, Byrd!
If Time, as Dali depicted, were to either stop or get pretty darn atomic clock close to it, what might the logical mechanism be to restart it again, if we even wanted?
Perhaps we'll consider the latter while we also consider exactly what forces might be required to have stopped it in the first place.
Quite a little puzzle, but so far this is the best solution I've been able to come up with:
"Hello, Dali. This is me, Dali. It's so nice to have you back where you belong..."
Hint: An Even Briefer History of Time, St. Stephen...
The new strontium atomic clock is said to be the most precise ever built and will not lose or gain even a second in 5 billion years. Now think about that for a moment, because this is a pop quiz and that’s all the time you’ve got: Are you measuring real, progressive Time, or are you simply repeating a single, stacked interval, moment or instant, while real Time goes flying by at the speed of Light? Hence, the Darkness, now separated from the Light.
Andy Warhol gave us each 15 minutes to play with, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Universe as we know it wasn't quite so generous.
If Time, as evidenced by this clock (also existing in Time), fails to gain even a second in a billion years, well, I’d say that’s a pretty good indication that Time – at least for all(?) of us here on Earth - has stopped. We’ve apparently been reading and looking at the experiment results backwards, so deep-sixing the wristwatches is back on the table. (...at least I always liked that song.)
Everything dies in the moment, else it just continues on...
But you can't solve the equation by simply stuffing both life and death into the same Space/Time/Conscious moment or instant without tearing things apart by creating a paradox, so sometimes you just have to let go...Little Wing... (We can intellectually recognize and appreciate a paradox when we see one, but things work a bit differently in - Holy Fibonacci, Batman! - singular(?) Space/Time, without Mind or consciousness involved to resolve and bring order to the chaos.
Life is hard, but death is Light...as is a feather...and everything else...
- Old proverb (slightly revised)
Dali perhaps gave us the best graphic depictions and left his evidence behind in some pretty cool ways, as did Michelangelo with his famous gap we can't quite seem to breach. The Grateful Dead tell the story in music with "One More Saturday Night"; the Jefferson Airplane in "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" (Trans-Love Airways flies a bit faster than that); Dylan in "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again", and a reference to the repeated interval can also be found in Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade":
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.
I'd say that's pretty darn slow progress for a Light Brigade, as they charged the batteries at Balaclava:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke
The questions are: Exactly what kind of batteries did they charge? AC, DC, Lithium, Plutonium? Granting Tennyson poetic license as any writer, the exact type of cannon is a bit vague as well, and exactly what kind of line was broken? For instance, what might happen if a Light Brigade were to encounter an ambush of canister shot loaded with the entire periodic table of elements? Holy Batman, Alfred! Why, they could have literally been swept completely under the table...
When you attempt to stuff both life and death into the same space/time/conscious moment or instant, you're essentially creating Schrodinger's Box and you're the cat inside. Time, in the incremental state as we know it, is a function of Mind and nothing more, programmed since birth at the specific interval of the second hand of the clock: We were born at this time and died at this time and the whole damned thing is infinitely divisible.
So what would you do if you were the cat?
...and if that cat, like the famous monkey with the typewriter, only wrote a conveniently Brief History of Time before attempting to escape that box, would anyone give a flying fuck?
(Not to worry, folks: I'm a cat person. Just don't particularly like boxes or anyone who would even consider constructing one such as this. In fact, perish the very thought...)
“Look for a while at the China Cat Sunflower…”
You’ll know the last train has left the station before it even arrived when the New Potato Caboose rolls by…because this train is none other than the Wabash Cannonball and I have it on highly dubious authority that the monkey's got the locomotive under control.
Great. A monkey's driving the train. Well, if you think that's something then you should see 'em climb trees. Any room left in the caboose?
(So hopefully, as soon as that narcoleptic switchman corrects his mistake and we figure out how to uncouple this thing, we'll be on our way. Engine? We don't need no stinkin' engine.)
Finally, were I to take an absolutely wild-hair guess as to what’s really happening around here, first taking a REALLY HUGE giant step back, I would say that Earth, in its sentinel position on an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, may have already made contact with the outer reaches of Andromeda which, like our own, extend far beyond the visual representations, and it would appear that our two galaxies are absolutely incompatible. And considering all of the empty space out there, I see no reason why two galaxies should ever collide in the first place and it’s probably something that we don’t want to see happen. Time as we know it may be nothing more than a phenomenon created in the tidal eddies formed as these galactic forces collide and merge. So it’s entirely possible that we’re stuck in one of those eddies similar to the eye on Jupiter, just waiting for the Ebb Tide, or as Jerry called it, Eep Hour, to pass, where the swirling of Space, Time and Light (the latter of which apparently does have mass), over countless eons and revolutions, have literally stacked up like waves upon the sand, resulting in what we perceive and experience as solid matter.
If a time differential does indeed exist between Jupiter and Earth, from Jupiter's perspective we may look exactly like that Great Red Spot, just as the colors of Jupiter appear striated and smeared from Earth. And for all we really know, we are that reflected smear, or maybe splinter, in Jupiter's eye: If you take our "bright blue ball just spinnin' free" and slow things down on one side or the other, that high frequency blue's wavelength shifts to lower frequency red - the famous red shift. I also seem to recall from old stories that there used to be a god running around here by that name. Hmmm. Wonder whatever happened to him.
Kinda makes me wonder about Mars too...being red and all...and us being blue...at least in all the pictures I've seen that weren't black and white. Maybe the Mars Rover will come up with some answers.
So where, oh, where, has our history gone? It's all literally underfoot - in the caboose, if you will - and we haven't lost a thing. We just have to unpack the stack. Now there may someday be a way for a merge like this to occur gracefully, but both galaxies slicing through the other at ninety, forty-five, thirty-three degrees or whatever, as depicted by Dali's bent clocks and in NASA's simulations, is probably not the optimum choice.
So how do we resolve this? Well, the idiot generation before ours that built and exploded the friggin’ atomic bomb listened to their music at 78rpm and we listen to ours at 33 and 1/3 (time ripped), so to use railroad terms we apparently have different track gauges that the Really New Potato Caboose finds only morbidly amusing. So, on the galactic scale what we’re really looking for here is a harmony of the spheres, just a bit bigger than we’re normally used to working with, but when you're dealing with things this big and complex, as the Grateful Dead so aptly and consistently demonstrated while on the Road for over thirty years, the harmony among not just the players, but all concerned has to be anticipated and established not after, but long before the concert even begins.
Now, if you take all of these seemingly insurmountable galactic problems and measure them in the mind's eye with two fingers as you might pinch a guitar string, you might also begin to see that things aren't nearly so insurmountable as you might well and reasonably have feared. Not quite done yet, but we're getting there and I suspect that most of the walls left standing are nothing more substantial than phantom residuals of the mind standing between us and the light switch.
And as for my answer to the Live/Dead album art: Drop the Holy Hand Grenade (see Wiki for proper arming instructions if you happen to think about it). Slam the lid on the coffin. Save the girl. It's what Hopalong Cassidy would do.
These guys played some really good songs, when you think about 'em. Nice artwork too.
All graceful instruments are known: You bet. We just haven't unpacked 'em all yet and we've actually grown kinda fond of the ones we've been playing.
Well, this has been a lot to think about over the past few days. Wonder where the next song might lead?
wind yells among the stone
This "song" really sucked me into the Anthem album. I liked the first album but wasn't totally convinced. The imagery and music in New Potato and the rest of Anthem really got my little mind wondering what these guys were all about. I started to play this album in our crazed gatherings in the old dorm room. Some of our little group of ravers got on the bus-some didn't. The rest, as they say, is history.