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!)
The sheer unlikelihood of a song about an early Christian martyr as rock anthem makes “Saint Stephen” a wonderful and intriguing and endlessly fascinating piece, both lyrically and in its many musical variants over the years.
The song credits go to Robert Hunter for the lyrics, and to Jerry Garcia for the major part of the song’s music, with Phil Lesh composing the music for the coda. The first documented performance, according to DeadBase X, took place on May 24, 1968, at the National Guard Armory (shades of “One More Saturday Night”!) in St. Louis. In and out of the repertoire it went, dropping away in 1971, reappearing from 1976 to 1979, then brought back for several performances in 1983. It racked up a total 289 known performances.
“Saint Stephen” appeared on the Dead’s third studio album, Aoxomoxoa, which was released on June 20, 1969. Notably, it was captured and released on Live Dead, as part of a blockbuster suite including “Dark Star,” “The Eleven,” and “Lovelight.” In that performance, the coda (included in italics in Hunter’s Box of Rain lyrics anthology as part of “Saint Stephen”) provided a bridge between “Saint Stephen” and “The Eleven”: “High green chilly winds and windy vines in loops….”
An interview in Relix magazine contained this exchange:
Relix: Was Saint Stephen anyone specific?
Hunter: No, it was just Saint Stephen.
Relix: You weren’t writing about someone, you were writing about something?
Hunter: Yea. That was a great song to write.
He also discussed the song in an interview with Jeff Tamarkin:
I had been working on this a long time before I gave it to the Grateful Dead, before I took off for New Mexico, which is where I originally sent them the lyrics from. I don't know what to say about this song, except that it was very important to me. It seemed to be saying oodles. It's still one of my favorites. I didn't know who the real Saint Stephen was until I wrote it.
Of course, the imagery the song gets across is more or less branded into the cerebral cortices of Deadheads everywhere, and we see this saint with his rose going in and out of the garden, and we see the wishing well, and the golden bell, and the ladyfinger writing “what for?” across the morning sky. (Although, I almost hesitate to point out, some of us may visualize the “lady finger” as a lady’s finger, some of us as a celestial pastry…)
In fact, the song is full of nothing but questions. Answers aplenty in the bye and bye, but for now, it’s questions all the way down that well.
Unanswered questions run through the song, and not even this giant of early Christian history knows how to answer the first ones posed: “Did it matter? Does it now?”
The Relix interviewer was very likely probing Hunter to see if he would say anything about the speculations over the years that the song was really about Stephen Gaskin, the Haight Ashbury spiritual leader who eventually founded The Farm, and who led a well-attended discussion group during the heyday of the Haight. The discussion group was known as the Monday Night Class, and at its peak during 1969 and 1970 it drew up to 1500 attendees. (It was held at a location out by the Great Highway. Lyrics within lyrics…)
But neither Hunter, nor anyone else, has had anything positive to say about such speculation. Nope, it’s about the Christian martyr.
And who was this martyr? He was the first deacon ordained by the apostles, one of seven deacons. “Stephen” is derived from the Greek for “crown,” (“country garland”?) and his career is documented in the biblical book of The Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6-8. (“And Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people.”) He was stoned to death for preaching that Israel had deviated from God’s word, around the year 34. His feast day is celebrated on December 26.
An 1833 hymn, “Saint Stephen Was a Holy Man” (credited to “traditional”) contains this verse, bringing to mind the line: “Wherever he goes, the people all complain:
But when they heard him so to say,
Their hearts in sunder clave,
And gnashing on him with their teeth,
Like madmen they did rave;
And then they all so sharp and shrill,
With violence gan ran,
That there, without the city-walls,
They ston'd this holy man.
(This hymn’s chorus bears some resemblance to “Mason’s Children.” Hmmm….another time.)
Interestingly, both Stephens were preachers, in a way. I love the line, “Wherever he goes, the people all complain.” No one enjoys being told difficult truths. They can get you killed.
The music accompanying all of this imagery, all these questions without answers, can be at times grandiose, at times, rollicking in its initial verses, but then it melts into the bridge: “Lady finger, dipped in moonlight…” These lines were characterized by the writer Ed McClanahan, in his piece about the Dead in Playboy magazine, “Grateful Dead I Have Known,” “…the sweetest, tenderest, loveliest thing anybody had ever said to her, ever in her life.” (McClanahan was relating a speculative story about a young woman’s experience while in the act of conceiving a child she later claimed was Garcia’s own “true” child. You have to read the piece to get it.)
But there’s that very strong image, staying with us stubbornly, of a finger, dipped in moonlight, writing a question across the morning sky. And the daybreak brings a splatter of answers, doesn’t it? And can’t you just see darkness shrugging, turning, and bidding the day goodbye? It may not “make sense” but it makes perfect sense.
And then, where does that speeding arrow come from? And who is that babe being wrapped in scarlet, like some character in an ancient ballad? In fact, so much about this song feels ancient and at the same time hallucinatory, we are left in an altered state of consciousness by the words alone. And the music just helps that along.
The song seems to come to some kind of conclusion, only to have its own lyrics undercut that conclusion. The very determined declamation of “Saint Stephen will remain, all he’s lost he shall regain” is followed by a verse that ends with an answer to a question that is then questioned itself: “But what would be the answer to the answer man?”
The coda that follows seems like some lost fragment of Celtic song, or maybe that’s just the memory I have of staring at the words that were including as an insert to the Live Dead LP, which were written in a very Celtic-looking script with large elaborate capitals.
Here’s where the song’s own garden appears—appropriately, since our saint is going in and out of said garden holding a rose. Vines, lavender, ivy, and manzanita…plenty of plants for your Grateful Dead garden, all languishing for lack of water in the barren landscape.
The song has remained very much alive in the repertoire of the various post-Grateful Dead bands, and it’s always wonderful to hear, and especially to hear the big crowd reactions to certain lines and the roaring out of others in a huge chorus.
It definitely seems to be saying oodles. And in my mind, it’s one of those Hunter lyrics that shows how wide open the lyrics can be, even with very specific imagery. One of these weeks, I’m going to get around to “China Cat Sunflower.”
Here’s the craziest story I have to go with “Saint Stephen.” At my first Dead show, in October 1976, when the band played the first, ringing, opening notes of the song, the sun blinked. I mean, there was a moment of complete darkness in the middle of an outdoor, sunlit Day on the Green show at the Oakland Coliseum, and then the sun came back on. Believe it if you need it…but I did go on to become a reference librarian, and what is a reference librarian if not an answer man?
A final connection to note here, although I am certain there are many more. Garcia’s memorial service was held at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, Marin County, California, with Mathew Fox presiding.
Over to you.