Greatest Stories Ever Told - "The Stranger"
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!)
Pigpen’s composition, “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)” was shrouded in obscurity for years. Back in 1997, I had a very fun circular exchange about the authorship of the song: Alex Allan wrote to me asking if I had any firm info on whether Pigpen wrote the song; I wrote to David Gans, who said he didn’t know, and suggested I ask Alan Trist; Alan Trist wrote back saying he wasn’t sure, and would look into it; David Gans wrote me a few days later to say that he had had a phone call from Dennis McNally asking about the song’s authorship, because Alan Trist had been asking about it! At that point, David suggested that Dennis ask Phil.
Eventually, the question was resolved. Ron McKernan is now officially named as the composer and lyricist of the song, which the Dead broke out on March 21, 1972, at the Academy of Music in New York City. They took it to Europe and it was played a total of 12 times, with the final performance taking place on May 26, 1972 at the Strand Lyceum in London. (This was the next-to-last song ever sung by Pigpen in concert with the band. He appeared in one more show, back in the USA at the Hollywood Bowl, but did not sing.)
I love Pigpen’s singing on the song, captured in a number of live releases, but never laid down, as far as I know, in a studio setting.
(This makes it part of that whole 1972-era set of songs that never received studio treatment. Sources indicate that Pigpen did quite a bit of work on a solo album, but it was never released. Apparently excerpts from this album circulate, although I haven’t heard them. I wonder if “The Stranger” was one of those songs?)
He captures in words, and conveys musically, the longing for love we all feel. In the case of the song’s narrator, it’s from the perspective of a single person, not in a love relationship, wondering what the secret is that brings two people together, and why he is on the outside looking in.
“What are they seeing, when they look in each other’s eyes?”
And later: “You who have found it, please help me along.”
I’m sure many of us have been in this position—wondering if capital “L” Love is even a real thing? As he asks in the song: “What are they feeling, when they see each other smile? Is it love, I don’t know—or an emotion that I’ve outgrown?” Even if we’ve experienced it, love can seem to be a chimera once it’s gone, and it’s easy to begin to doubt that it is even real. There’s a wonderful line in the John Prine song “The Sins of Memphisto,” with the line: “Sittin’ on the front porch, drinkin’ Orange Crush, wonderin’ if it’s possible for me to still blush.” I think that gets at the same thing. In the absence of love, even if we’ve felt it before, it seems just plain unreal, or impossible.
And hearing Pigpen sing this, whether or not it is a first-person reality for Pigpen in real life, serves a function of creating empathy for those who are in that position—something we would all do well to keep in mind.
I think this is an important function in the work of the Dead generally—engendering empathy for people in difficult, desperate, or dire positions. Outlaws and desperados, hypochondriacs, bereaved spouses, all take their place in our subconscious as the words permeate through the songs. Really, it doesn’t have to be conscious at all.
One recurring theme in the comments on these posts has been that people never really thought the words were necessary to consider in order to love the songs, and that’s true, sure.
But don’t you think they seep in, on their own, and lodge somewhere in there, in our deeper selves? So that when we see a down and out guy on the street, we can think of “Wharf Rat” or “Mission in the Rain,” and perhaps have a little different perspective? And maybe, when we are crazy newly in love and out in public, it might be worth considering the feelings of those who have no such joy in their lives right now, and maybe just tone it down a notch in public? I think maybe so. Suffering comes in many forms, and each of us can do some part, through empathy, to relieve that suffering.
Given the larger perspective of this “love song”—that is, a song more about Love, generally, than many love songs which might be about a particular relationship situation, it’s not surprising, really, that Pigpen has elevated the rhetoric to include invoking the divine. “Conceived of Great Spirit,” “Two souls in communion,” and “The tie that binds…” all carry non-secular weight, and this religious language makes me wonder if Pigpen was considering his own mortality when he wrote the song.
“Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” a 19th Century hymn with 18th Century words by John Fawcett, opens with this verse:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
And it concludes:
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
Pigpen, the frontman known for his bawdy encouragement of his audiences to turn on their love light and hook up with the person next to them, shows us a completely different side with “The Stranger.” Love, with a capital “L.”
It’s a song for eternity, indeed.
An amazing song. One of his best, and in fact, one of the Dead's best. R&B confessional and philosophical tour de force. It tells you he would have gotten better and better, had he gotten better. Very proud and cool person was Pigpen.
...I remember the first time I heard this and "Chinatown Shuffle" when I bought "Rockin the Rhein" and I was totally blown away! This is a great song, full of Pigpen soulfulness that can't be duplicated! David, I wonder if you can answer the question of why did it take so long for these songs to be released? All of my Dead shows were in the "Brent" era but I always loved Pigpen. His singing and songs really defined the Dead. I love Brent but he was no Pigpen, who could take and lead the band for an entire show. That was his magic,and as I have said, after his passiing you never heard a harmonica(except with a guest) in this band again. Songs such as Sugaree, He's Gone and others are much better with his organ in the background! Great blog David, keep up the great work! How about Mr. Charlie next?
Is it possible to have this listening pleasure afforded to folks that choose NOT to take the mark of the beast & join fb? Okay, maybe it's a slight exaggeration. Still, we've been able to listen in the quite recent past w/out the fb bond so why the fb cuffs now? It's a great song/Please
Thank you in advance
Oh, I read it wrong....never mind :)
I have overlooked Pigpens songs. I pulled this one from the Europe 72 golden road disk from 4/26/1972. It made me cry almost as much as when Jerry died (and I never cry).
I really appreciate the pointer, also, Alex! Someday it would be great to have that album put out.
And I love the comments and thinking about Pigpen's voice, his songwriting, and his overall place in the band.
I met Pig Pen once. Fucker left me standing on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere as far as I was concerned, and a whole helluva lot dirtier than he was. As he shut the door to the truck before pulling away, I asked him how the hell I was supposed to get home. He told me I should catch a bus. And that's exactly what I did...
I realize that taste differs, but I am certainly happy this one made it to the stage. To me, the song is a perfect example of just how deep his R&B roots run. The song contains the same air of vulnerability that can be heard in some of Otis Redding's best songs, and although I really love hearing him sing "Pain in my Heart", I'll take this one anyday. I think if the rest of the band had more time to work on it, it could have reached new heights. As for what we're left with, it's a first rate tune that stands up to many of the songs that came out of Muscle Shoals or Memphis a few years prior.
By all accounts the Europe tour took a massive toll on Pig's already ravaged constitution. He first became ill and was hospitalized in the fall of '71 (hence Keith) but regained enough strength to make the big tour. There are multiple mentions of his being sick &/or absent during the late '71 shows. Contrary to what most people have come to believe Ron died of Chrohn's disease (as did his brother)not only alcoholism.
The only time I ever had a ticket for a front row seat at a Dead show. Pigpen was the most run down looking I ever remembered. His pain was real evident. He was real thin and already on his way to the Spirit World. I distinctly remembered Pig shaking while singing "The Stranger". The impact of the song and its forlorn sadness was the real thing. He lived and died the blues. "This is the real world Muchachos, and you are in it".
Along with Mason's Children and Sing Me Back Home, this is one that should have never made it through the confines of the rehearsal hall. There's something about those three songs that doesn't quite sit right for me.