Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Not Fade Away"

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!)

“Not Fade Away”

Once in a while, I like to spend a blog post considering a worthy cover tune. And what is more appropriate for Valentine’s Day week than “Not Fade Away”?

The Bo Diddley beat. The clapping. The sing-along, and then the clapping and singing of the crowd as the band faded from the stage…knowing that we would bring them back eventually.

The endless riffing by Jerry as he tore it up on guitar time after time—that’s the astonishing thing, when I listen to concert recordings—to hear the fresh take each time during his solos. How did he manage that?

“Love is real.” That’s quite a claim, when you think about it. Bordering on arrogant, really. But I guess if anyone had the right to that kind of hubris, it would have been Buddy Holly, who likely wrote the song alone, despite the co-credit to studio owner/engineer/producer Norman Petty. (Petty was himself a recording artist, who scored a major hit with the Duke Ellington tune “Mood Indigo” in 1956.) Holly himself is named as Charles Hardin, his first and middle names—Charles Hardin Holley (yes, with an “e”) being his given name. There’s another occasion for bringing up this song—Holly’s plane crash on February 3, 1959—55 years ago this month.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded the song in May, 1957—I would have loved to have heard them play live. I bet they rocked it. The song was picked up by many bands over the years. The Rolling Stones recorded it in 1964, and they charted with it, as their first US single. It’s been covered by everyone from James Taylor to Florence and the Machine. There’s a Wikipedia page for the song, enumerating the many cover versions both recorded and live, and on that page, the Dead only merit a short footnote.

I have to think, though, that the Dead’s overwhelming number of performances and recordings make them the song’s owners in many ways—although I admit to being prejudiced.

“Not Fade Away” ranks as one of the top ten most-played songs by the band. There are hints that it may rank higher than the 7th place position it occupies in most lists—including a reference by Alex Allan to a 1966 version, with different words, that predates the first performance noted in DeadBase and elsewhere, which is given as June 19, 1968, at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco. At any rate, there were very likely many versions played before and between the earliest noted performances in DeadBase.

NFA was a performance staple right to the end. The song provided a platform of celebratory rhythm and changes that served as a launch pad for intense, joyous jamming. The final performance of NFA took place on July 5, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

The band included NFA on its Skull and Roses live album, and it appeared on many subsequent live releases.

I love this song. The big opening chords, the swagger of the lyrics, the deep philosophy, really, of the song’s message all combine to add up to something much bigger than the two simple verses would convey. That is the nature of rock lyrics, quite often: look at them on the page, and they seem simplistic or banal. Sing ‘em from the stage as rock and roll, and they come to life.

(By the way, I’m pretty sure there’s a “how” missing from the first line of the lyrics as cited in the link at the top of this post. “I wanna tell you how it’s gonna be.”)

There’s even some story in this song, wouldn’t you say? The singer is trying to convince the object of his affection of the truth of his love. And yet, it’s so down-home. “My love is bigger than a Cadillac.” Someday, and it probably won’t be too long from now, no one will get that line, because it is so topical and of the time in which it was written, when Cadillacs were really big flashy cars. Even now, they’re looking fairly mid-sized. “My love is bigger than a…Hummer…”? Hmmmm.

But when he tries to demonstrate his affection, he gets pushed away. “I try to show you but you drive me back.” The singer really tries hard to make his case, insisting that her love for him has to be real. And then there’s that kicker line: “You’re gonna know just how I feel.”

Love is real.

Not fade away.

Happy Valentine’s Day! (And hey, the song is the same age as me. Cool.)


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marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
my memory may be off

But I seem to recall that at a certain point in the Dead conference on the WELL, there was a thread called "The Chant: Boon or Bane?" or some such. Opinion was pretty evenly divided.

It's a tricky line to walk between Evergreen Cultural Meme and Annoying Ubiquitous Cliché. By the time this had gone on for quite a few years, I would have been perfectly happy never to hear it again, but now, of course, it's entirely different. (And part of the mixed feelings at the time were due to the fact that one knew perfectly well that today's situation would be upon us all too soon.)

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Don't Fade Away, Play GDTRFB!

What a tragedy that Buddy Holly died, he seemed to have the Hank Williams touch of producing simple lyrics that expressed an entire cosmos of feeling. who knows what he would have produced in his career?

My impressions of NFA seem to run counter to the prevailing thoughts. For one thing, I've never heard this song without hearing it as a Holly/Stones cover. To say the least, Jagger got that bravado/menace several people have mentioned. Part of the magic of the song for me was that it was such primal rock; it belonged to the canon, not the Dead, and validated them as a band who could play the old stuff fucking well.

Another impression (perhaps even less popular!) is that the fading off-stage and leaving the audience clapping was an incongruous bit of showmanship. I would rather have heard GDTRFB. Not to say that I don't agree with the commenters who see NFA as an expression of the bond between the fans and the Dead, and not to deny the folk process ... songs can change in meaning. But come on, what I've always liked about seeing the Dead (etc.) was that it was a concert, not a "show."

Apologies for being so crabby! Just the perspective of one of those old Deadheads ...

Joined: Apr 26 2009

I first encountered, and came to enjoy, the song as a Buddy Holly performance, and I must say I never considered it to be even remotely romantic, that is, appropriate for Valentine's Day. More vaguely threatening, domineering. I'm pretty sure that's not the way the Dead meant it, and absolutely sure that's not the way the fans heard it or sang it back to the band, and I understand that we're discussing the Dead's transformation of it, and what that meant to fans. But I think a disinterested reading of the original lyrics, which say 'I'm GONNA tell you...' not 'I wanna tell you...', as Mr. Dodd has it here, paint a different picture. I think Mr. Dodd came closest to the heart of the original song in his analysis when he wrote: 'Bordering on arrogant, really.'

Too bad the Dead didn't also cover 'Rave On', a more rocking song with a more genuinely loving lyric.

My thanks go out to jazzmonkie as well.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
Why fade away...

...when we could all go out in a psychedelic bang like an Orange Sunshine or in a Purple Haze? Remember that stuff? Pink Double-Dome was even more screwy. Now you know I just half to wonder about that "double-dome" thing...but I'm still of two minds about it. Pretty heady stuff and we had a blast. It would appear that their little cuckoo nest army experiment in messing with people's minds had some unexpected consequences that we've now turned to our favor. Tough bus to get under control, no matter who was driving.

So what did that stuff really do to us? I highly suspect that it shot a pretty good chunk of us all directly in the Existential mailbox. Perhaps once you've been beyond the very concept of life and death itself, the question of whether you're dead or alive becomes a rather moot point. Good mailbox, by the way...after a bit of tweakin'...Here, There and Everywhere.

"So we all went through the Wall: No one uses doors any more."
- Grace Slick

Not Fade Away is a great song on it's own, but it's the lead-ins and transitions to Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad that remain some of my favorite times...


Billybookbag's picture
Joined: May 23 2013
9/3/77 Englishtown

By far to me the best version ever played! The whole band is just simply on fire from the opening note to Bobby and Donna wailing to Jerry's guitar and Phil dropping bombs all over the place to Billy and Mickey and Keith this NFA has it all!! Long live the Grateful Dead!!!

Joined: May 9 2012
slow not fade aways

82 us festival, seattle 82 they slow it waaaay down. at least i think they did (maybe my maxell was wonky?). I think I remember some slow ikos too. anywho, Skull fu** nfa/gdtrfb is BEAUTIFUL. Alpine 89 is pretty sick as well. agreed on Jerry always seeming to play something different..sometimes after we clapped they'd come back and sing "oohm bop bop", we'd clap, "oohm bop bop". I don't think they did this every single time. good love or bad wasn't fading away........

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
Ally Pally

Dick's Picks, Volume 7 has a blistering version!

bobby's picture
Joined: Jul 16 2008
Binghamton '83

I may be wrong Bach 2 Bach but I believe that Binghamton '83 show was the first time they ended w/ NFA w/out completing until the encore (w/ the audience participation in between). And it didn't seem planned on the band's part; I got the sense that it just sort of happened. Of course it became a bit of a staple for some time after that.

ddepace's picture
Joined: Apr 8 2013
Not Fade Away, Indeed!

This song is yet another indication of the magic of the Grateful Dead. It takes the love that I believe comes from the sixties hippies and continues it to this day. I was not even a thought in the sixties, but I think I know what that love was like because of the Grateful Dead. Unconditional love of life! The Golden Road or the Golden Rule or "Playin in the Heart of Gold Band." Its all love! That is really what this band is/was all about.

I want all the people (particularly the older heads) who read this to know that their input to this discussion board is so important to me and many others. It lets us know we are not alone in this "Brokedown Palace" and definitely not alone in our love of the Grateful Dead! It offers a perspective that is slowly fading away.....the ironic reality is that we will fade away, but our love will survive! Thank you Grateful Dead of all ages and times. Love this real WILL NOT fade away. You can take that to the bank!

Happy Valentines Day to all and Happy Birthday to my good buddy, Tom Weed!

Joined: Jun 5 2007
Our Love Is Real

David, this is the song I thought you would write about right after Throwing Stones... lol

My second show was Binghamton 4.12.83. I'd had a year to prime myself for the experience. At the end of an amazing second set, a tender Wharf Rat led us into a rousing Not Fade Away. My memory is a bit hazy, but I seem to remember that the band didn't quite end the song, rather they just kinda filtered off one by one. The audience kept up the beat the whole time they were offstage however, and when they returned for the encore the band went back into NFA for a couple minutes before giving us a very sweet It's All Over Now Baby Blue. I remember being awed by that audience/band interaction, having never seen anything like it before.

That show and its ending helped cement my love for this band.

I always thought that NFA was kind of like a group hug that we and the band would give each other at the end of a show.


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