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!)
“Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, when I can hear it beat out loud.” [Italics Hunter’s.]
This is a song that wants us to listen, to give things a minute before we pass judgment on them, to check our negativity. I find it a nice pair, thematically, with “Eyes of the World” — it’s telling us to wake up, and consider the possibility that our perception may be as much at fault as the world, when we see only darkness.
“Shakedown Street” is the title track of the studio album Shakedown Street. When I run into this phenomenon, I pay attention. The first studio album for which the Dead used a song title as the album title was Blues for Allah. And the only other ones besides Shakedown were Terrapin Station and Built to Last.
I admit, the first time I heard Terrapin Station, I was a bit taken aback, as were many of my Deadhead acquaintances, by the use of a clearly disco-oriented sound for “Dancing in the Streets.” I think the harsh criticism the Dead came in for as a result had a direct influence on Hunter’s writing of “Shakedown Street.” As soon as the song came out, the first thing I noticed was, once again, the disco beat. But then the words came as an admonishment, and I believed right away that the song was about disco. So much of disco seemed, at the time, like corporate music—music being made more or less by machine—music that “had no heart.” I remember a song by a local band in Davis in 1977, entitled “Disco Tapioca.”
Hunter seemed to be coming right out and saying that we can’t put the Dead into some box of preconceived notions. We had a responsibility, as listeners, to listen harder, to set aside our negativity. Of course, it’s completely likely and possible that Hunter constructed the lyrics for a different audience, perhaps even internal to the band and its circle, but regardless, the words are aimed somewhere in such a way as to make you sit up and take note.
“Shakedown Street” debuted on August 31, 1978, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It opened the second set in what appears, on paper, to have been an amazing show. And given the setting of Red Rocks, I have no doubt that it was. And its final performance opened the second set on July 9, 1995, at Soldier Field, in the band’s last performance. In between, it was played on a regular basis, for a total of 163 performances of the song. The album was released on November 15, 1979—more than a year after the song was first played. (The song was released as a single, backed with “France,” at the same time as the album release.) Although I surely don’t know every performance, my own favorite has always been the New Year’s Eve opener in 1984, which strikes me as a monster version. (You can find it on So Many Roads: 1965-1995.)
Where “Eyes of the World” seems gentle in its exhortation, “Shakedown” seems like someone shaking a forefinger at you. There is something edgy about it, and the very fact that Hunter acknowledges the darkness, and says he thinks it may be “from your eyes.” “Maybe you had too much, too fast,” he has Garcia sing. Hmmmm. There’s a line that comes back at me now and then, for sure.
I love the echoes of other popular music in the lyrics. It’s as if Hunter is drawing a direct lineage from Chuck Berry to disco. And from even further back—perhaps to Tin Pan Alley and Broadway—with the “sunny side of the street” line. Here’s Dorothy Fields’s lyric for “Sunny Side of the Street”:
Grab your coat, and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street
Can’t you hear the pitter pat?
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street
I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade
But I'm not afraid
The Rover crossed over
If I never have a cent
I'll be as rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street
Quite a bit in common with “Shakedown Street,” there. And the Chuck Berry echo is captured nicely in the “you can never tell,” refrain, in which I hear “You Never Can Tell.”
If Hunter was establishing this musical lineage (and I truly have no idea whether or not he was—it’s just what I hear…), then it was one meant to legitimize disco, or any other over-commercialized music that had its beginnings in authentic music-making. “Used to be the heart of town.”
Of course, beyond the musical meanings, there is always the fact that you can take almost any old run-down part of town and find vitality in its history. Just take the time to poke around(One of my favorite-ever Dead-related personalized license plates was JUSPOKN. That’s a good side-topic—what fun Dead-related license plates have you seen?)
The song became useful in a number of situations. In particular, when the band first played the Bay Area following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a friend correctly called the opener as “Shakedown Street,” which didn’t even occur to me. In fact, that concert was a benefit for the Earthquake Relief Fund. Were there other particular “uses” for the song? You may know of some...please chime in!
Lastly, I think it’s really worth mentioning the album cover art for Shakedown Street, by Gilbert Shelton, of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers fame. It depicts a run-down, crime-ridden street, based loosely on Front Street, where the Dead’s rehearsal studio was located in a seedy section of San Rafael. (Truthfully, this street was never the heart of San Rafael…) Among the images on the street are a cop shaking down a suspect, a couple shaking their bones on the streetcorner to music (possibly emanating from the open warehouse door—the Dead’s studio?), streetwalkers, and a car filled with some very hairy dudes cruising the avenue. Eventually, the parking lot scene at Dead shows came to be known as Shakedown Street, nicely completing the circle.
I always loved the sense of liftoff from a good live “Shakedown Street” when the crowd would chime in with the “Wooo!”
“Shakedown Street” is one of the more successful Dead songs, in hindsight, and in the long run, at least according to this Deadhead. (Although I must admit to a distinct lack of cynicism on an ongoing basis. Not a very picky Deadhead...)
What’s your take? Favorite performances? Other tales to tell about your experiences of the song? First impressions vs. later takes? License plate stories?
Just gotta poke around...