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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Joined: Nov 12 2007
9/19/70 Fillmore East- Darkness Darkness

I really love the "Darkness Darkness" Jam in the NFA from Fillmore East 9/19/70. There is also a brief China Cat jam that follows. The entire soundboard recording is sweet, which is comprised of DARK STAR>ST. STEPHEN>NOT FADE AWAY>TURN ON YOUR LOVELIGHT.

Somewhere during 1970, NFA became the official replacement of the William Tell Bridge/The Eleven. I prefer The Eleven, and don't know why the Dead decided to drop it.

Joined: Feb 14 2014

Check out this version of NFA from the encore of a JGB show in Asbury Park, New Jersey on July 9,1977. Only JGB NFA IIRC.

Joined: Jan 21 2014
Saw them preform it countless

Saw them preform it countless times with the monster version from Englishtown still, almost, ringing in my ears. I agree with you that the Dead own the song because when they played it live it was so obviously a promise and contract between the band and the audience which both parties were willingly signing on to. The Cadillac line is fine in the same way say a T-Model Ford is in Katie Mai, while hopefully dinosaurs like cadies will be a thing of the past soon anyone with a sense of cool will know what they were just like with Henry Fords contribution to American road history.

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Yikes! My mistake...

Well, that is completely a mistake on my part, for which I apologize to the memory of Duke Ellington. Petty had a major hit in 1956 with the song (which he of course did not write), and it was the money from that which allowed him to expand his recording studio and take on many artists as an engineer and producer. Thanks so much, jazzmonkie!

jazzmonkie's picture
Joined: Apr 16 2008
Mood Indigo

I hope the comment in the article about Norman Petty writing "Mood Indigo" was a joke. I could hear Duke Ellington spinning in his grave when I read it.

Joined: Jan 3 2009
not fade away - oxford plains speedway, me

the encore on 7/3/88 was not fade away and it was the most amazing bit of audience participation on that song I have ever experienced. after the band left the stage, we continued to clap and sing long after The Dead flew off in their helicopter. I love this song too!!


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