Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Passenger”
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!)
There are several original songs in the Grateful Dead repertoire with a one-time-only lyricist. In the case of “Passenger,” the added quirk is thrown in of someone other than the composer singing the song. So we have a song written by Peter Monk, with music by Phil Lesh, and sung by Bob Weir and Donna Jean Godcheaux on Terrapin Station.
Lesh wrote the song, admittedly based on Fleetwood Mac’s riff for their song “Station Man.” Lesh said, in an interview in Dupree’s Diamond News, “What's weird about that song is I sort of did it as a joke. It's a take on a Fleetwood Mac tune called ‘Station Man.’ I just sort of sped it up and put some different chord changes in there..."
Monk’s lyrics for the song have been the source of quite a bit of debate. There are quite a few alternate hearings, especially around the line: “Terrible, the only game in town,” which many, including myself, hear as “Parable, the only game in town.”
The brief biographical essay about Peter Monk included in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics was contributed by Alan Trist. It notes that Peter Richard Zimels, aka Peter Monk, was born in March 1937 in New York City. He studied philosophy and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1958, and then served in the US Navy until 1962. After leaving the Navy, he traveled extensively, especially in Asia, where he became an ordained Buddhist monk. Therefore, his adopted surname is more of a trade-based honorific (think “Peter, the monk”). He returned to the States in 1967, and acted as a spiritual figure in the extended Grateful Dead family, attending births and performing wedding ceremonies (he officiated at the wedding of Jerry Garcia and Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams, for instance). He died in 1992. His songs were performed by Mickey Hart (“Blind John” with Stetson on Rolling Thunder), the Dinosaurs (“Strange Way” with Barry Melton on Friends of Extinction), Country Joe and the Fish, Richie Havens, and Peter Paul and Mary. A posthumous collection of his poetry, Idiot’s Delight, was published in 1992.
“Passenger” was first performed on May 15, 1977, at the St. Louis Arena in St. Louis (released on the May 1977 box set). It was performed regularly through1981, with its final performance on December 27, 1981, at the Oakland Auditorium.
Terrapin Station, which included the studio version of the song, was released on July 27, 1977. “Passenger” was released as a single, with “Terrapin Station” on the B side. It’s interesting to me that the relationship between Fleetwood Mac’s “Station Man” and the Dead’s “Passenger” extends beyond the musical similarities, into the lyrics themselves. “Station Man” opens with the lines:
I've been waiting
Can you tell me
When we're leaving
As compared to the “Passenger” lines:
Don't you hear me?
While “Station Man” is clearly about a train, “Passenger” is only tangentially about anything at all, but there does seem to be a train involved, or at least some mode of transport that could accommodate the “passenger” who is the subject of the song.
I’ve always thought that the “passenger” is, as are all of us, a passenger on the planet we inhabit, hurtling through space at some ungodly rate of speed. The song’s lyrics address more than just human beings—the opening verse is addressed to a firefly. We are all passengers together—after all: “what is a man, deep down inside, but a raging beast?”
Given Peter Monk’s vocation as a Buddhist monk, perhaps the song could be seen to address the mysteries of reincarnation, and of the large perspective on time we find in Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t claim to know enough about the topic to make a case for it, but surely someone might. Or someone with sufficient knowledge might take a completely different view.
That one line: “What is a man, deep down inside, but a raging beast, with nothing to hide?” hit me hard when I first heard it. I internalized it in a big way—and given the manner in which it was performed by Bobby and Donna on Terrapin Station, it seemed to be meant to be heard as an important line. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the silhouette of a man, set against a sunset sky, rampaging across the horizon, swinging some kind of hammer or sword, and this image seemed archetypal, proceeding from “deep down inside,” and carrying with it the potential for the seed of understanding of who I might be, and who my fellow-travelers on the planet might be. That Grateful Dead sense of light and dark, or roses and thorns, of the totality of existence all seemed wrapped up in those lines and in the imagery they brought to my mind.
And while Terrapin Station doesn’t really seem to be a concept album, I do find that the songs on the album build together as a group into something larger than the sum oftheir parts. “Passenger” seems much more powerful taken in the context of the rest of the songs on the album, particularly “Terrapin Station” and “Estimated Prophet.” There’s a sense of being headed somewhere, towards a place we can’t quite fathom, which may have dire consequences or which may be some of paradise, common to all three songs. Even Donna’s “Sunrise” seems to fit in with the general mystical feeling evoked in the listener by these songs, whether intentional or not.
i read somewhere that phil said he wrote the song because he wanted a song to hear jerry play slide guitar...
Every passenger needs a bit of reading material or food for thought, so here's a little true/false twister for the journey:
True or False:
Q: In what way does the study of physics differ from the study of philosophy?
A: One sends our best minds down a rabbit hole and the Other doesn’t.
And now the question:
If Time itself, and not just the endless continuation as we experience it on Earth, but Time itself was in fact standing still, would the conscious mind either perceive or be affected by it in any way…other than perhaps pestered by an incessant, monotonous ticking…?
Time can stop completely within music, yet the entire band and everyone listening picks up the rhythm again without losing the beat as the same song continues. Are we any less?
Extra credit question:
Warning: It’s kinda tricky.
Quite a nasty little time bomb: B Om B.
Separate the first b and you lose your past. Separate the second b and you lose your future.
The eternal reverberating moment...meaning, of course...that mind and/or consciousness is constrained by neither time, space nor…death?
Ah.....(better than OM in every Way)
Hint: When it comes to Existence taken in its totality, Time, to borrow a computer programming term, is really nothing more than a feature...or perhaps a bug.
So to recap, two b's, or not two b's? At least I think that was, and apparently remains, the question.
Anyone care to shake the spear?
Ah. Guess there really is no place like OM.
(Note: I suspect that Mary's probably going to ask me to move this, but that okay too!)
There's one strange footnote to the minimal career of "Peter Monk" as a Grateful Dead lyricist. David notes that Monk co-wrote "Blind John" on Mickey Hart's 1972 "Rolling Thunder" album. Monk's co-writer was "CJ Stetson." Since three members of the Jefferson Airplane sang the song (Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg), I had always assumed that CJ Stetson was a pseudonym for them. After some research, it turned out that CJ Stetson was a pseudonym, but not for anyone in the Airplane.
To make a long story short, CJ Stetson was the writing name for one James Stalarow. Stalarow had an interesting career in his own right--at one point he managed the legendary 13th Floor Elevators--but back in the 60s he was known as "Curly Jim." To be clear, Curly Jim Stalarow was a different person than the late James "Curley" Cooke, a fine guitarist who was in the original Steve Miller Band. Anyway, Curly Jim Stalarow's significance in Grateful Dead history was that he taught Bob Weir "Me And My Uncle," which, as we all know, the Dead played 600 plus times.
Stalarow was hanging out with Mickey in the early 70s, and that's how Monk wrote some lyrics for him and one of his songs ended up on Rolling Thunder. The Airplane actually performed "Blind John," at least once (at Winterland in '72), but I don't think they played it 600 times.
weird, I was listening to Desolation Row. I posted earlier about a girlfriend being the only game in town. In my mind I thought the lyrics to Desolation Row were "is Cinderalla 'sleeping' up on desolation row". Alas to have row envy, wrong row... I liked in d-row when Jerry would chime in "between the windows of the sea, where lovely mermaids blow". The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face..I'm on a 93 tilt lately..liking the acoustic midi. As alas i ramble.. next song....Robert Johnson's Walkin Blues? and Bobby's right for a white boy to sing the blues?
Nice post. Same goes for Anna rRxia.
Rare song. Was lucky to see the Dead play it live twice, 12/30/77 and 12/27/81. Great song for two drummers. Upside out, inside down.
Very Interesting, Giantnerd, to run into Shakespeare again
relating to the message of this song!
This morning I was thinking on that classic line
"To Be or Not to Be-That is the Question"
I Choose "To Be"
and like to think there's More than One game in Town.
Sorry...if the Only Game is Terrible then I don't want to play.
There's much More to a Man or Woman than a "Raging Beast"
I don't claim to know much either David,
but I do hold to a completely different view on life and all that.
I do find it Fascinating how Passenger fits in the Overall theme of the Terrapin Station Album.
There was some kind of Collective Inspiration going on for Sure.
"Faced with Mysteries Dark and Vast..."
"What is a Man...?"
Passenger generates an anxiety and a tension that feeds the anticipation and excitement of reaching Terrapin.
...at least that's what I was thinking this morning!
David...maybe this would be a good time to explore "Terrapin Station"
and figure out if its the End
or the Beginning!
"What is a man if his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more."
Have you done The Eleven or any of Help/Slipknot!/Franklin's? Discussion of the words to Slipknot! would be interesting.