Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Rosemary"

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!)


When my Deadhead friends learn that my daughter’s name is Rosemary, they sometimes ask—is she named for the song? And, while my wife can truthfully and vehemently answer in the negative, I have to wonder if the name might have made the final list of potential names for our possible daughter-to-be had there not been the song, “Rosemary.”

For one thing, I definitely had already done the research on the name, its history and meaning, the significance of the herb, the Shakespeare connection, and all that, before we had to grapple with creating our list of possible names. Some obvious ones never made the list, like, say, Cassidy, or Althea… Too obvious. But Rosemary is a beautiful, under-used, old-fashioned name, and it has good botanical associations.

Rosemary graduated from high school today (I’m writing this on June 7), and so, I want to write something in her honor, since she is on my mind a great deal. I promise not to dwell too much on my fabulous wonderful daughter, but I do just want to say how proud I am of her, and how I so look forward to following along as life goes forward. I am a lucky dad. So, she is not Clare, and she is not Grace, and she is most definitely NOT Iphigenia, but she is perfectly Rosemary.

Aoxomoxoa contains so much treasure to be sought and mined. Really, the whole album offers jewels to the sunset. The delicate tune and words that are “Rosemary” always seemed to slide into my brain sideways, almost as if sneaking in through a door that was shutting. The filter on the vocals, as with at least one other song on the album, does quite a bit to obscure the actual beauty of the melody, but in the case of “Rosemary,” I think the obscurity is an excellent effect.

Just listened to the (only?) live version from December 7, 1968, at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky. Extremely quiet recording—had to crank up my volume all the way on the computer to hear it. But wonderful. Delicate, sensitive performance.

I think this is one of those songs constructed intentionally by Garcia (and Hunter?) to be a fragment. They’ve talk in interviews about loving the old, collected songs that were fragments. But there is a story hiding in there. Or, more likely, a riddle seeking to be solved. The form is evocative of elaborate story-riddles, whose solution is always a surprise, but self-evident once revealed. I’m hoping that we can engage in a collective attempt at solving the riddle that is “Rosemary.” Or at least, have some fun trying.

It seems that what we have is only a roughly-sketched description of the “she” (Rosemary?) in the lyric. At first, it seems she is only the reflection of the garden itself, which, eventually dying, leaves a walled enclave that is destined to remain devoid of life henceforth. But the first line indicates that she has boots of leather—or, at least, that there are leather boots somewhere. Maybe they were not hers?

Reflections abound in Aoxomoxoa, which is, itself, a mirror-word. The album artwork, name, and imagery scattered through the songs speak to reflections. We encounter this motif throughout Grateful Dead lyrics and iconography—beginning with “Dark Star”: “Mirror shatters in formless reflections of matter…” So the mirror that is a window shows a reflection of the viewer that is really that which she sees through the window. I am reminded of the acid test saying: “Inside is outside. How does it look?”

I think that the object for which the riddle is trying to provide hints at identification is the “there” referred to in the final line (and the legend on the wall) of the song: “No one may come here since no one may stay.” So, what is the walled garden? It holds plants (perhaps even rosemary—the herbal symbol of remembrance), as well as colors (scarlet, purple, crimson, blue) and fragrances (a breath of cologne).

“She came and she went, and at last went away.” Hmmm…. In and out of the garden she went. We all were, by Judeo-Christian mythology, banished from The Garden, so we all went away at last. What was contained in that Ur-garden? Innocence, surely. A state of un-knowing, since it was by eating of the tree of knowledge that we were banished.

That space enclosed by the garden walls has been a riddle since the beginning of recorded stories. Maybe, actually, the greatest story ever told, since it seems, at its core, to relate to what it is that makes us human. What is our consciousness? What is knowledge? We cannot stay in a place of unknowing, much as we might try to empty our minds, through any number of spiritual paths, to reach—what? Nirvana, heaven, whatever form of enlightenment. Home, perhaps? In its deepest sense? A place to which we might try, but never really will be able to get back?

OK—I am speculating far too much here. I would really like to hear what everyone else might have to say. Is this a riddle? Does it have an “answer”? (And what would be the answer to the Answer Man, anyway?)

Mirrors within mirrors. Time to reflect!


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jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Visceral Metaphor

David, congratulations to your family and to Rosemary. Having your child graduate from high school is a wonderful feeling, as is graduating from high school!

I love the sequence of colors quoted; some might say that scarlet is to crimson as blue is to purple, though some might disagree vehemently.

Another quick note about the lyrics themselves: I can’t help but think of Dylan's song when "boots" and "leather" are paired. Could it be that Rosemary is the one who asked for boots of Spanish leather from her love across that lonesome ocean? Doesn't sound right to me, but wanted to point this out. Dylan's song was commercially released in 1964 by the way.

To me, the garden is a metaphor for the mind, in a visceral way. The mirror/window are her eyes, her view of the world (hmm, sounds like a song). Some would argue that nothing is real unless perceived by a mind, so when she thinks she's looking out the window she's actually just experiencing her own perceptions in a mirror ... or is it the other way around?

It's a visceral metaphor in that it's about the physical structure of a mind. The brain grows ("all around her the garden grew") with age and experience; perhaps the red and blue imagery is veins and arteries. Finally she died and the cranium (or tomb?) was sealed and the flesh rotted. If you look at the wall of the garden (the skull), you can make out a warning. No one can inhabit that skull again, and no perceptions are permanent.

I guess this isn't the cheeriest valedictory speech ...

Joined: Nov 12 2007
11/27/70 The Syndrome, Chicago

The website mentions at this show:

"The New Riders opened this show. The first Dead set opened with the Jam into Casey Jones. There was an acoustic set or acoustic segment of the show, possibly involving Mountains Of The Moon or perhaps Rosemary."

Perhaps there were two live versions of Rosemary!!!

Joined: Nov 15 2010
Interesting post...

...on the song, its origins, and its only performance here

In the summer of 1969, Garcia tells Michael Lydon:
Garcia:...People who work at listening dig that record [Aoxomoxoa] – well, the new record now, it’s like, I’m in a different place than I was the last time, and this time, the songs, the words are Bob’s, but the melodies and all that – the way they grew, the way those songs grew and the way they happened is like, was really right, you know – like some of those songs on that album we wrote in the studio, we just went in and did it, you know…
Lydon (talking over him): What particular song?
Garcia: Rosemary, we did in the studio – we didn’t even have any such song, you know, we just – like in 15 minutes we had that song down, it was just there.
Lydon: Wow. Did you fuck around with it after that?
Garcia: No, that’s the way we did it, you know, that’s the way it came.


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