Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Stella Blue"
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.
Stella Blue...since you asked, Mr. Dodd...is the name I have given to the Grief over the Death of my Father.
I can't Begin to Tell You how this Song helped me to Process and Lament that Tragic Event and all of its Ramifications .
"Nothing Left to See".... "Nothing You Can Hold For Very Long"... in a World full of "Lonely Streets and Broken Dreams"...
"That Song Comes Crying Like the Wind."
How does one Express such Deep Sorrow over the Loss of a Loved One?
For Me it is to listen to Jerry sing just Two Words, as only He Could Sing Them...
For me the supreme masterwork,timeless as all great works are,lifes sweet sadness.
Maybe I was just too young or not paying attention, but I much preferred the Dew or Wharf Rat in the post drums slot until December 86. Coming out of a raucous Hand Jive>Aiko, the place fell silent with the start of Stella. With a rush it all sank in. The road weariness and living on borrowed time even as he was in the midst of an amazing recovery. I was hit with a wave of deep sadness in the midst of a beautiful song. Jerry belting out the "dust off" line still gets me every time. The night before was a thrilling return, but at that moment in the midst of a song I did not previously embrace, I had the understanding that our time together would be fleeting. I still miss Jerry almost every day.
Mr. Dodd - did you mean "neatly linking Dark Star to Built To Last, with its three blue stars" rather than Standing On The Moon?
No daughters, couldn't bring myself to name either of two sons Stella. What I think should be noted, though, is that after Jerry's passing either The Other Ones or The Dead played Stella Blue without vocals. Rather touching..
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells [...]
--T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
OK, ok ... he didn't die in the hotel, he died in a hospital. But the blue-light cheap hotel, the days of fever, and the dying alone-ness of one of America's greatest songwriters is the point here. Everyone dies alone. :)
I agree that this is one of the best. And just as "the Doctor you grew up with" is your favorite Doctor Who, Wake Of the Flood holds a special place in my personal Dead pantheon because it was the next record released after I became a devotee. Wow, it was worth so much then and still is.
What does Stella Blue mean? What does it mean to me?? Do you have a lifetime for me to even start explaining this???
One of the fun things about this song is chronicling all the possible references and meanings. Two I haven't seen mentioned are:
"... that song, comes crying like the wind" - This always reminded me of Hendrix's haunting "The Wind Cries Mary." The wind can cry many things, and many times it can be a woman's name.
Stephen Foster, one of the great American composers, died in a blue-light cheap hotel. He was in his bed alone, dying of a fever for days (Black Peter anyone??), at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery, on the lower East side of Manhattan. Perhaps the use of "dream" in the lyrics to Stella Blue is a reference to Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer?"
I must have heard this song on Wake of the Flood and/or Steal Your Face before seeing the GD Movie. But my first memory of it is from that screening. It was probably THE defining moment in my evolution as a listener. I seriously thought the band was testing the audience to see how long they could keep up this inside joke without getting pelted by tomatoes. With the help of some mind expanders, I soon saw the error of my ways and Stella Blue became one of my all-time favorite songs. Don't you just love how the chord progression is used at different cadences, depending on its function as verse, instrumental solo, or ending? I can't get enough of this song and I crave hearing it whenever I see it on a set list or CD track list.
One of my all time favorites but only became so about 4 years ago. Sometimes the song is waiting for the person to need it or relate to it. I certainly have.
This song to me is about life and the disappointments that are inevitable along the way. Some people have more than others but we all have them. Also that life, our attachments, and our disappointments are temporal in nature. "In the end there's still that song" - I love this because as we all know the music survives all the broken dreams and the things that we can't hold for very long.
This is a very sad song, yet the song is both therapeutic and there is some hope presented with the "dust off those rusty strings one more time, gonna make em shine" line.
Lastly, I can't help think of the sacrifice the musician or writer (broken angel) makes to bring us the music when I hear Stella Blue. The artist has their own pain yet channels that to create something beautiful like this song, and perform it for us. Listen to the 3/21/94 version and it will blow you away. The frailty is there yet he overcomes and channels it into one of the greatest performances of this song.
Don't also miss the previously mentioned performance in the Grateful Dead Movie. Stunning.