Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Picasso Moon"
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.)
Diamond bullets ripping up the night. Last participation. Everyone has to figure these songs out for themselves anyway. Some interpretations lead down curious roads. Some down others.
So long...and thanks for the songs.
on Marie Helena, the live performance of which had me sobbing behind a pillar at the Great American when Hunter did it live.
Long before I was into the Dead, I was into Ian and Sylvia, and the first time I heard Terrapin Station, the album, it was about a verse in when I went holy bleep, it's the Lady of Carlisle! I always loved Hunter's spin on it, especially "you decide if he was wise." I was so happy when Hunter tied it all together so nicely.
Not only the extra verses and twists on the Jack o'Roses version (crawling as a viable option for arrival at the station), but also consider the wonderful rendering of Lady of Carlisle, the old folk song that spurred the opening section....(don't let me down, sweet lord, don't let me down! saith the sailor as he follows his heart into the lion's den--that added passion and faith has been central to my feel for the song ever since, so much stronger than "at least a try")
While following the Hunter moon here, when you get really ambitious you could tackle the Marie Helena......a neglected masterwork, with its involving story (the rich, reflective version of what may have occurred between "ten years ago" and "tonight") and its sweet Garcia lead colorations.
Dave I enjoy your comments and insights. In this issue I was very intrigued by the possibility of dissecting terrapin. Can I request to look into the entire lyrics? I saw Hunter sing it many moons ago, would love to see / discuss this lovely song. THANKS
The last post by Russell is beauteous, beatific, and beautiful .
The Picasso Moon has several phases, beginning its cycle as a Blue Moon, showing respect for the great American songbook, as well as paying homage to the Blues. It morphs into a Rose Moon, elemental Grateful Dead iconography, where new life is watered by the rain and love blooms. Next is an African Moon, tapping elemental percussion, powering the dance. Then comes the Sugar Cube Moon, an angular perspective, acid that strips away pretence and artifice and exposes the truth of lust, greed and revenge alongside hope, kindness and enlightenment, where murder coexists with play. Finally, the Surrealist Moon illuminates a world where everyday experience takes on new meaning, where shadows lean towards the light and there are ripples on still water.
...in a pig's asshole moon? A pretty darn nasty sight indeed to behold and yet harder still to actually play.
The universe will be fine tonight my dyin' ass. Got to hear them play this song on their final tour at RFK. Always wanted to hear it in concert. Kinda like Passenger, it put a bit of punch into their playing that I once read Phil seemed to prefer over the all the ching ching shit. A bit of crunch.
Good song to play as Chaos descends at the end of Time.
Cool! My folks have a place in Sedgwick, and we've seen that sign more times than we care to count, and have always found it to be oddly comforting, though it never brought this song to mind. I do, however, have a very distinct memory of listening to the Playin' in the Band from Rocking the Rhein while driving by there.
be sure to devote some space to the extra material on Jack O' Roses. Ivory wheels on a rosewood track, indeed.