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Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Scarlet Begonias”
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!)
It’s a bouncy, bubbling song. It seems to be about one, thing, then blossoms into being about everything. It’s got lyrical motifs aplenty (flowers, nursery rhymes, gambling, shapes, colors, musical forms, precious metals, and more). This song, come to think of it, has it all.
Do you need encouragement and inclusion? “Everybody’s playing in the heart of gold band.”
How about some hard-fought wisdom? “I had to learn the hard way to let her pass by...”
Or maybe some cosmic teaching? “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
This song is laced with memorable and meaningful lines, showcasing Robert Hunter at the height of his songwriting chops, and paired perfectly with a similar accomplishment from Jerry Garcia. Few songs in the Dead repertoire can get at us in so many ways, make us see our lives from so many angles simultaneously, and immediately launch us all into a groove of furious dancing.
“Scarlet Begonias.” It’s the one Dead tune I’ve heard played repeatedly at San Francisco Giants games.
It debuted on March 23, 1974, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California—a show that also featured the first “Cassidy,” and the sound test for the Wall of Sound. After that, it was never long out of rotation, and from 1977 on, it was rarely without its mate, “Fire on the Mountain.” The song’s final performance by the Dead was on July 2, 1995, at Deer Creek Music Center, in Noblesville, Indiana. “Scarlet Begonias” was played 316 times in concert.
The song was recorded on Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel, on June 27, 1974, and it opened side two of the LP. It was the first song I played on my new stereo system at college. (Who cares? I do—it was a memorable moment in my music listening life.)
This is definitely a story song. Like most of Hunter’s story songs, it has an uncertain outcome, and the sequence of events is a bit up for grabs. Our narrator is in London, walking around in the neighborhood of the US Embassy, and sees a pretty girl—his gaze is drawn to her. They meet, she either is or is not impervious to his charms, they engage in a (likely metaphorical) game of cards, and he learns to let her pass by—but what is meant by learning the hard way? “Do they, or don’t they”, as I believe Blair Jackson summarized the central mystery of the song.
But does it matter whether they did or didn’t? Clearly, he wanted to. He was drawn to her. There is nothing wrong about it, it’s just the way of the world. There’s nothing wrong with the way she moves, there’s nothing wrong with her other charms, and there isn’t anything wrong with the reciprocating look in her eye. After all, sings the narrator: “I ain’t often right, but I’ve never been wrong,” adding, “It seldom turns out the way it does in the song.” Hmmmm.
I’ve gone round and round in my head about all the clues in the song.
“She was too pat to open, and too cool to bluff.” Sounds like a card game metaphor for a one-night-stand courtship. But what might it mean, exactly? Your speculation welcome, as always, here. One idea I’ve heard is that the sensible formulation of the lines would be “She was too cool to open, and too pat to bluff,” and maybe Hunter is just switching up the meanings—along the same lines as the sky being yellow and the sun, blue. And if he’s picking up his matches at the end of the evening (I always envisioned the old use of matches as stand-ins for chips, used to bet in a poker game, but maybe the matches were used for something else…), is he a winner or a loser?
The sense of déjà vu our narrator experiences as he “picks up his matches” and closes the door—is that a sense that he is doomed to repeat this longing, this pursuit (successful or not) on an endless basis? OK—that’s what I get from it, I admit. “The open palm of desire,” as Paul Simon refers to that aspect of the human condition, “wants everything, wants everything.” This song is laced with desire, innocence, lost innocence, regret, and recurring longing—and self-revelation.
And then, the magic.
That last verse takes the entire story—sad or not—that has gone before: the story of the human condition of falling prey to desire and then moving beyond it again only to know that one will fall again, and blows it all out of the water.
The glee that pervades a crowd when that verse is sung! We can look around the room, and see, not just a crowd of crazy happy dancers, but an actual community of fellow-passengers on the planet, all playing in the Heart of Gold Band. Shaking hands with each other, though we feel like strangers. (“Shake the hand, that shook the hand...” comes to mind, from side one of the album...)
And, like the imagery in “China Cat Sunflower” that Hunter is glad no one has ever had to ask the meaning of, we are presented with the perfect line: “The sky was yellow and the sun was blue.” The condition of altered perception allows us to break out of our straightjacket of loneliness, and to connect with our tribe, and, by extension, to the entire world of beings.
Musically, the song has magic to match the words, and more. The bouncing opening riff, the verse, the bridge, and then back into that riff for an extended jam that can lead anywhere before settling, usually, into “Fire on the Mountain.” And, at the end of “Fire,” a quick return to the “Scarlet” riff. Such satisfying sonata form happiness!
Looking forward to reading your thoughts about the song. Was there a time when something about this song, in the immortal words of The Beatles, “zapped you right between the eyes”?
I think it is a metaphor for the narrator's drug addiction. Sober but on the brink of relapsing...that want...that need...that desire...that's what I read
i read somewhere that Hunter just wanted a rhyme.
Always thought that “to pat to open” meant that she would not make the first move, and “to cool to bluff” meant that she would not pretend that she wasn’t interested. Consistent with her “calling his eye” in a way that “could have been an illusion.” But what’s with picking up his matches while closing the door?
I fell in love with the Dead in 1966 and loved them all the way through, but I think the song that most affected me over time is this one. The lyrics - as beautiful and mystifying as they are (I really don't care whether the two people did it or not - I think it might be about a prostitute, which also deepens the question about human connection) only make sense in the context of the music. Jerry's solo before the last verse is meant to open the door to an altered and much friendlier world. I can't imagine Hunter having written it without taking account of tha. And in many cases the band does it perfectly. Here is what I wrote about May 21, 1977's version - one of the best in my opinion -
"A chunky emphatic Scarlet with Jerry finding the space between the beats early, then he swings into form without losing any power. Phil does the early pyrotechnics - sets the song on its up and down and up journey of the soul, then Jerry's solo - powerful, soaring, searing, he carves the meaning of the words in the sky, with all of the loss - "let her pass by"- transformed into joy - "strangers stopping strangers..." - in the 3rd chorus, with the ecstatic celebration of the last verse beautifully introduced - he opened the door as we just entered an altered world. The crowd heard it, too - they love it. And the transition is similarly perfect, gently insistent and perfectly laid down. It's a new world alright. I used to play this for my 5 year old girl on the way to school. She's 17 now and she has developed astonishingly good musical taste and a deep interest in the disasters and redemptions that humanity is prone to! Sometimes you get shown the light indeed."
The magic DD refers to - the sudden transcending of our daily dilemma(s), disappointments, missed connections, bitter wisdom and ever-repeating loops into a yellow sky world with the heart of gold band - is the essence of the Dead for me. The way the song is structured is no accident. Jerry's solo always mediates the transition, which is of course exactly as it should be.
Of all the incredible music out there - containing the soul of man you might say - Mozart, Coltrane, et al., my favorite music in the world is when Garcia "takes off"and soars among the stars (or sometimes, oddly, it feels as if he's running head up and headlong through a primeval wood, sun glinting through the tall trees, able to get above the canopy, feet falling on the soft ground, no underbrush, deep silence all around). It doesn't happen all that often, but it's why I joined up. To be specific, It happened for a time during the St. Stephen/the Eleven jam in Live/Dead, in "Beautiful Jam" (I was there!!) in '71, at various times in Sugaree and Franklin's Tower and even Peggy-O, and in lots and lots of other - some unexpected - places, but where it happens most predictably for me, though still rarely enough, is in the Scarlet solo before that last glorious verse. In Dick's Picks 29, in the 1980 Fox Theater show, and elsewhere (you find 'em!), he soars - takes off - and when you land, you are in a different place. Magic, as the man says. The good ones are usually followed by a very dreamy but alert and peaking coda/jam into FOTM.
I love doing good things for people even those I dont know. I always feel better after helping others.
This good feeling often happens in the strangest places if I look at it right.
So have a grateful day, spread the love, peace.
"those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
From the first time I "remember" hearing all the words of Scarlet it has been my "theme" song ... "she's not like other girls".
As you can tell from my username Scarlet is one of my all time favorites. I have to admit that I am partial to its pairing with Fire. My most favorite Scarlet lives on 7/31/82 from Manor Downs in Austin Texas. WHAT A JAM!!!! My friends and I have always called it the "Never Ending Jam". This moniker is due to an early evening road trip through the Northern Adirondack Mountains. The Boys ripped into Scarlet and as Jerry began the solo we approached a lengthy curve in the road. The combination of the curve, Jerry's extended blazing solo and a certain chemical made this experience unforgettable!! Man he just went on and on and on!! (And so did we!!!) We certainly "got shone the light" that night! Scarlet Begonias in one for the ages!!
I think I loved this song the very first time I heard it and ever since. It was certainly the studio version with its very unusually articulated guitar and keyboard parts, then later on some of the very first live tapes I received from kind schoolmates. Remember when those were like gold? The anticipation of hearing each one was electric. This many years later, I have to agree with several other posters that the stand-alone versions are the ones I crave most. I do love the pairing with "Fire" on Dave's #8 (11/30/80). Something about that one just takes me there. I also was lucky enough to catch this tune at my first show on 5/13/79. That one is no slouch, either. The aud tape I have isn't terrible (at least by that point in the show) but I would kill for a great matrix. This is certainly in my top few Garcia/Hunter tunes.
But you know, Jerry never struck me as much of a ladies man and this song has him inhabiting the character of a sexually curious dude. I wonder if he was comfortable singing it. It certainly seems like he was. I just don't think of him that way. He was always this oddly asexual mega-hippie figure to me.
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand. Reminds me of Crocodile Dundee walking down the sidewalk in N.Y.C.. As for the feeling of the song , it embraces a certain amount of naiveté and that's not a bad thing. It has an energy of the old days similar to the feeling of China Cat and Crazy Fingers. When I first heard Crazy Fingers live my thought was "Good Old Grateful Dead". Some of us continued to carry some kind of innocence into the future long past "back in the day". A heart of gold will protect a person in many ways. "but baby don't get burned". I loved hearing Scarlet Begonias live in 1974 as a stand alone work. A Scarlett-Fire that I saw live that stands out in my memory would be from Las Vegas in 1991. During the October 1974 Winterland shows my friends and I used to walk by the Mars Hotel. Music lives.