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.
How about Scarlet Begonias?
Though I wouldn't naturally agree it fits into a concept called Terrapin Station, except in so much as a "Passenger" rides a train. Sunrise could have been an epiphany of awakening from sleep to one's seat.
Still, Bob Dylan's jealous friend always comes to mind:
Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood With his memories in a trunk Passed this way an hour ago With his friend, a jealous monk He looked so immaculately frightful As he bummed a cigarette Then he went off sniffing drainpipes And reciting the alphabet
So, If Phil's Einstein The lyracist is a jealous monk Who is Jerry and who is Bob?
Built to Last would be a good one
Taking suggestions for the next post--I need to start writing soon!
I took the lyric as commentary on the transitory nature of our lives. We borrow these bodies, move through a brief span of time and our destination can't be known. It's a concise summary from a monk. Musically, it is set against furious rock. Maybe that's not what most would expect but why not? The Dead needed a rocker and Phil gave them one. I prefer the Godchaux-era performances. The one from 4/24/78 (see the corresponding Dave's Pick) went so far off the rails that it almost couldn't be stopped. There is a bonus bout of jamming there, and you have to catch your breath at the end.
Certainly we are all like fireflies; our souls, or true selves, glowing. False alarm and terrible, the only game in town. There's really nothing to worry about. We can taste positivity and infinity at any time rather than fearing, doubting, and focusing on the negative. Ain't no time to hate. For now, we are alive in these bodies.
Best Brent Passenger. I think after he joined they really upped the ante, even adding a second solo, to (as another post commented) jam it up.
Keith versions are fine but can be plodding. Plus something about hearing Donna sing "What is a man, deep down inside"... is less powerful than Brent's blue eyed soul punch.
I am reminded of this line from Macbeth...
"Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."
My first exposure to Passenger was Dead Set. My initial thought;after all the cool kids raving about the Dead, was that Dead Set was a rather sleepy/slow affair. I initially took to Passenger. I like Brent's versions better. On Dead Set I loved the space/fotm. They rocked the Passenger HARD, sick slide. Upon re-visiting the lyrics, it seems to me it speaks of jaded people, coming in and out of your life. "That same night be on your way." The whole world is burning, seasons were frozen into our soul. Yet, at the end;hope, cuz you'll never find the only game in town. I was breaking up with a girl, to me she was the only "game" in town. Alas Monk and Weir were right by golly. There are other games in town. It took a few years for me to appreciate all of Dead Set, and it took really listening to Little Red Rooster, intricate weaving and smoky. I always thought the lyrics were upside down inside out you'll never find the only game in town.