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!)
In the fields around Olompali, just north of Novato, California, on the ancient site of the home of the native peoples, where the Grateful Dead briefly held court, you see swaths of lilies in spring, lining the creekbeds, fed by the water flowing down off the mountain on its way to the San Francisco Bay estuary. A little bit of research tells me that the lilies growing in the creek are unlikely to be natives themselves—pretty sure they are calla lilies run rampant, but it does seem likely that these lily fields may have been in evidence during the Dead’s residency at Olompali. And, interestingly, there are lilies native to Marin county - the Tiburon Mariposa Lily, which has only been found growing in the wild in one place in the world.
The imagery conjured up by Bob Weir, in his portion of the suite, “That’s It for the Other One,” on Anthem of the Sun, is clearly and intentionally a psychedelic ode to the Pranksters and all that entailed. Whether the singer was “escapin’ through the lily fields,” or “tripping through the lily fields,” or “skipping through the lily fields” (all versions of the line sung by Weir at various points, according to several extremely careful listeners), the fact is that it was akin to Alice’s rabbit hole, because of where it led.
“The bus came by and I got on...that’s when it all began.”
That line captures so much, in so many different ways, in so few words, that it is a model of what poetry can do—over time, and in a wide variety of circumstances, the line takes on a wide spectrum of association and meaning.
For instance, I got on the bus in what I believe is an odd way. Straight as an arrow, I was just out of high school, traveling through Europe on a one-month Eurail Pass, and reading Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Not sure how I came to be reading it, even. But I believe the book itself, and Wolfe’s writing, acted as a kind of psychedelic catalyst, because I had a brief episode of cosmic consciousness induced by the book alone. No other mind-altering substances were involved, and I never again achieved quite the experience of that first glimpse of the oneness of everything. From then on, and it was a year and a half until I finally saw the Dead play, I was on that there bus. Firmly.
The Dead, of course, were quite literally on THE bus, along with Cowboy Neal (see earlier blog entry on “Cassidy”) and Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs and Mountain Girl and many others whose names are legend among our tribe. What must that have been like? Surely, worthy of a song or two. And Weir came up with a couple of winners, between “The Other One” and “Cassidy.”
There are probably as many stories about getting on the bus as there are Deadheads. I hope to read a few in the comments on this post.
There is something wonderfully cartoonish about the scenes described in the lyrics. A “Spanish lady” hands the singer a rose, which then starts swirling around and explodes—kind of like Yosemite Sam left holding a lit firecracker, leaving a smoking crater of his mind. The police arrest him for having a smile on his face despite the bad weather—clearly, this kid is doing something illegal. Weir’s interview with David Gans (along with Phil Lesh) cited in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics refers to a particular incident:
Weir: Yeah, that was after my little...
Lesh: Water balloon episode?
Weir: I got him good. I was on the third floor of our place in the Haight-Ashbury. And there was this cop who was illegally searching a car belonging to a friend of ours, down on the street—the cops used to harass us every chance they got. They didn’t care for the hippies back then. And so I had a water balloon, and what was I gonna do with this water balloon? Come on.
Lesh: Just happened to have a water balloon, in his hand... Ladies and gentlemen...
Weir: And so I got him right square on the head, and...
Lesh: A prettier shot you never saw.
Weir: ...and he couldn’t tell where it was comin’ from, but then I had to go and go downstairs and walk across the street and just grin at him...and sorta rub it in a little bit.
Gans: Smilin’ on a cloudy day. I understand now.
Weir: And at that point, he decided to hell with due process of law, this kid’s goin’ to jail.
And following on that verse, after the “Comin’, comin’, comin’ around...” chorus, a verse in which our hero skips through a field of lilies, finds “an empty space” which explodes into a bus stop—and hey, here comes a bus. He gets on, and that’s when everything starts. At the end of the song. With Cowboy Neal.
The same interview with Gans has Weir explaining that the song was written over a period of time, but that the current version of the song, the verses we now know, came to him in a flash, and the band played its show, including its first performance of the finalized version of “The Other One” that night on a Pacific Northwest tour, and “when we came home we learned the news that Neal had died that night. The night that I wrote that.”
(The Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder includes a wonderful set of all the various permutations of the lyrics sung during the development of the song. I highly recommend taking a look at that. It includes versions from October 1967 through February 1968.)
So, as to the debut. If we take Weir and Lesh at their word, that the first performance of the song as it now stands coincided with the night Neal Cassady died, in the early morning hours of February 4, 1968. And sure enough, there is a performance of “The Other One” on February 3, 1968, whose verses correspond to the verses as we all know them, for the first time, at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. The song was a fixture in the repertoire from then on, performed at least 586 times that we know of. The only year in which it was not listed as being performed was 1975, the hiatus year.
The roiling music, with its tumbling 12/8 beat, can sound like it’s in a fast three or a slower four or even a moderate six, and the drums pound out the 12-beat figure in preparation for Phil’s famous run into the opening chord. Who doesn’t love that? Never failed to set me spinning off into a whirling dance. Kreutzmann shares the music credit with Weir on the tune, and it is a percussion showpiece.
The song was often performed as part of a suite, and appears that way on Anthem of the Sun, bracketed by Garcia’s “Cryptical Envelopment.” But it stands alone most of the time in performance—“Cryptical” was dropped completely from 1973 through 1984, reappeared for five performances in 1985 (the 20th anniversary period—it was broken out following a lapse of 791 shows at the June 16, 1985 Greek Theater show in Berkeley), then disappeared again for the remainder of the band’s career. I’ll get around to “Cryptical Envelopment” someday. (And I’d be interested in any speculation linking the two songs thematically.)
At the risk of planting an ear-worm in the mind’s ear of anyone reading this blog, I have to say one last thing. When my kids were very young, I was always able to get them to laugh by singing “The Other One” in an Elmer Fudd voice. Try it. You will also laugh, I can almost guarantee. “Spanish wady come to me, she ways on me dis wose... It wainbow spiwal wound and wound, it twembo and expwode!” And you can go on. Go ahead, give it a try....