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!)
This song represents the best reason I have to be grateful to my parents for getting me started with all those years of piano lessons. Well, maybe Beethoven and Chopin, too, but definitely “Stella Blue.” It’s a song I can lose myself in, whether listening to it or playing it myself. It delivers new layers of meaning as the years combine, and depending on the situation—true of many Grateful Dead songs, but particularly true of “Stella Blue.”
This Robert Hunter / Jerry Garcia song seems to me to constitute the apex of their joint songwriting partnership. If it were possible for me to choose one song about which I could have a focused conversation with Robert Hunter, this would be the one, without a doubt. I can think of many questions I’d like to ask him, but as always, I would fear that asking the questions and getting the answers would not be such a great idea.
For instance, there’s that perennial question, “Who (or what) is Stella Blue?” What if Hunter’s answer was “I just liked the way the words sounded together.” And that doesn’t seem entirely unlikely. As long as I don’t ask, I can be free to speculate, as we all have, listening to the song. Maybe it’s just a variant on the words “dark star,” only “blue star.” That would neatly link “Dark Star” to “Standing on the Moon,” with its three blue stars. Or maybe it’s a blue guitar, with the Stella trademark—see picture. Or a blues guitar. Maybe it’s code for a real person, known only to insiders—that does seem to happen sometimes.
One of my favorite interactions ever at a public library reference desk was when I was taking a request from a woman one day, who gave her name as Sloopy something or other. “Sloopy? Like the song?” (I may have even hummed a bar....) “Yes,” she told me. “I am Sloopy from the song. He wrote that song about me.” And I really think she was telling the truth.
So maybe someday I will have a patron standing in front of me named Stella, and I’ll say, “Stella? Like the song?” and the same thing will happen. “Yes,” she will say. “I am Stella from the song. He wrote that song about me.”
The Annotated Lyrics book goes on for quite some time about all the various associations with “Stella Blue” as a name, even pinpointing an actual fictional character by that name from a Vladimir Nabokov novel, Pale Fire.
Other questions for Mr. Hunter: tell me about the character in the song—is he the broken angel? Or is that his muse? Was he a once-successful musician, or “just” a dreamer? Did he spend his life dreaming about what might be?
I’d also like ask Hunter what he meant by “blue light cheap hotel,” exactly. I mean, I get it—I think we all do. And it’s kind of a picky thing, but I’ve never been able to find any real definition that satisfies me in terms of Hunter using the words “blue light” in relation to a cheap hotel. I have always associated this line with the famous hotel in New York City, the Chelsea, where Hunter wrote the song, according to his own note in Box of Rain.
“Stella Blue” was first performed on June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. That show was also Pigpen’s final show with the band. They played it five shows in a row, and in the fifth show, it moved into a second set position, where it mostly remained thereafter. Its final performance was on July 6, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre, in Maryland Heights, Missouri. They played it in concert 328 times.
The song was released on Wake of the Flood in October 1973.
As seems to be always the case in Hunter’s songs, this one is character-driven, with the narrator portrayed as someone who is down and out, and who may have been so for quite some time. But there is somewhere in his past where he was, it seems, a guitarist, and the absolutely gorgeous bridge encourages this broken angel to “dust off those rusty strings just one more time,” and make them shine. The narration is ambiguous—it seems to me that the singer is encouraging himself to dust off the strings, after saying that he has stayed in all those cheap hotels. Is there a story line that accommodates two narrators? It seems to me there might be, but it is just out of reach. Again, fodder for that imagined interview with Hunter.
In performance, “Stella Blue” could take on a number of moods, or, more likely, fit easily into a number of moods I might be bringing to the show as a listener. It could be wistful, mysterious, even angry once Garcia got to the solo. It demanded a certain degree of quiet from the audience, and, mostly, we gave that to the band. I do remember one particularly obnoxious Deadhead loudly singing “Where’s the glue?” just before the first, tender, “Stella Blue,” at the Henry Kaiser Auditorium It must be captured on an audience tape somewhere, but, I mean, really?
For years, I thought how wonderful it would be to have this song performed by Willie Nelson. Somehow, his voice and guitar seemed perfect for the song. And then, it actually happened! As is often the case with dreams vs. reality, though, I didn’t think the recording lived up to Willie’s potential. Still, a nice thing to have.
It occurs to me to wonder, is Stella a name many Deadheads have used for their own daughters? It’s a beautiful name—certainly right up there with Cassidy.