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!)
“Picasso Moon. I don’t know why I said that!” These are the words Phil Lesh said while the band was sitting around one day in the studio, according to an interview with Bob Weir.
The two-word combo stayed with Weir, and eventually he and Barlow came up with this song, which was written in Mill Valley between February and May of 1989. Bob Bralove shares a composition credit on the song. I’ve always thought it was a fun song, although the barrage of images, references, and allusions in the lyrics might seem a bit over the top. After all, it’s bigger than a drive in movie, ooo-eee.
In the short space of the song’s three verses and three choruses (each of which is a variant), Barlow introduces us to a rapidly-shifting terrain of ominous ruin—“South of Market,” as he says. But what made me think of this song this week was my recent vacation in beautiful Maine, where, a few times, I drove past a strange sign in front of a country eatery with the cryptic statement: “No Chowder. No Crab. Wrinkles.”
I feel like a terrible researcher, a bad librarian. I never stopped to find out what “wrinkles” were. But I quoted the song out loud to my wife and family and encountered baffled bemusement. “What the heck is Dad going on about now?” they seemed to be thinking.
I had a job trading bits for pieces
We'd make wrinkles, advertise them as creases
Now, however, I find that a simple google search reveals that “wrinkles” is another word for periwinkles. Wrinkles, in Downeast parlance, are pickled periwinkles and whelks. Yum, right? And probably not what Barlow was referring to.in the lyric. But for me, this episode stands as another example of the depth to which Grateful Dead lyrics have permeated my thinking. And, if you are reading this, probably yours, too.
I also think of that pair of lines as a complement to the line in “West L.A. Fadeaway”: “I had a steady job, hauling items for the mob.” I guess just because it’s a reference to previously-held jobs.
Several lines in the song seem to play on other Grateful Dead song lyrics, such as “”Shattered light / Diamond bullets ripping up the night,” which plays on several images and ideas in “Dark Star.” And the “I guess it doesn’t matter, I guess it doesn’t matter,” line, of course, brings “Morning Dew” to mind, as does the line “Strikes the morning, atomic dawn…” And “wheels within wheels” echoes “Estimated Prophet.”
But, generally, what sticks with me about “Picasso Moon” is an overall feeling of creepiness, with its “metal angel” and “tattooed tots” and “leather-winged lover.” (The song pairs nicely in some ways with “Hell in a Bucket.”) That’s if I bother to think about the words. More, it’s just a wash of images and glimpses of interplay between people. Is there a story in there? If there is, it seems to be set in a bar scene south of Market.
If I lived South of Market, I might take offense. I spent a bit of time in the neighborhood in the late 1980s, and it seemed fine to me. The area, for those not familiar with San Francisco, is, well, south of Market St. Market runs at a diagonal across downtown San Francisco, starting at the Ferry Building on San Francisco Bay and running westward, generally, to Castro Street. But the SoMa neighborhood includes several subsets—smaller neighborhoods like the Financial District South, Yerba Buena, South Park, and the Castro. Barlow’s mention of “leather-winged lover” may be an echo of the role of the Folsom Street Fair in making a safe place for leather enthusiasts.
The Wikipedia entry for SoMa notes that “The area has long been home to bars and nightclubs. During the 1980s and 1990s, some of the warehouses there served as the home to the city's budding underground rave, punk, and independent music scene. However, in recent decades, and mostly due to gentrification and rising rents, these establishments have begun to cater to an upscale and mainstream clientele that subsequently pushed out the underground musicians and its scene.”
“Picasso Moon” appeared on Built to Last, released in 1989, on Hallowe’en. It became a staple of live performances.
I would love to hear anyone with a coherent (or even a not-so-coherent!) idea of what the story within this song might be. Maybe for one week we should rename this feature “Weirdest Stories Ever Told.”
(Pretty soon, it might be time to write about “Terrapin Station.” Should I do it as one piece, or break it into component parts for a series? Your thoughts welcome.)