Grateful Dead

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!)

“The Stranger”

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.

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One Man's picture
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Joined: May 17 2011
Speculation

I wasn't at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972, that's why said "this is just my speculation". I don't doubt Pigpen was in rough shape by then, you can see it in the Europe photos. I just find it odd that he sang great right up to the end of the Europe tour but stopped rapping on May 18. That left 4 shows where he sang and didn't improvise. Why? Then, why announce at the beginning of the Hollywood Bowl show that he wouldn't be singing? He says something to the effect of "it's because I'm a drunk" before the show starts, as if explaining why he won't be allowed to sing. He was well enough to learn an organ part for Stella Blue, and if he was too sick to perform he could have stayed home as he had on other occasions.

Sorry to digress. The Stranger is Pigpen's perfect closer. I can imagine a tribute album with that as the last song.

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Joined: May 9 2012
sad coda

It sounds like Keith is playing the piano, while Pig is singing.Slap in the Pig's face. The riffage from Lyceum kind of sounds like "It's a Man's World" to my ears. There wouldn't have been a GD w/o Pig. In the beginning he was the leader. I don't believe for a second they told him to stop doing what he was doing.Jerry and Phil knew more about music and Pig was frustrated and dying.They would bring Keith in, Tom Constanten (sp?). Rosemary was excellent. But poor Pig..It's sad man. Kind of mirrors Sweet Melissa in the lyrics. But Pig doesn't have a Melissa. Don't covet thy neighbor's house,wife,oxen, etc. Seeing two people in "real love" (thanks Brent), and the longing and realization you're a stranger. and to know you can't drink anymore.....

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Joined: Jun 11 2009
Pigpen at the Hollywood Bowl

Hey One Man, were you at Pig's last live performance at the Hollywood Bowl? I was. I saw him...the man was dying. Pale in color, fragile in appearance. To sing in front of an audience requires lots of energy and vocal control.

The way I hear "Lovelight" on the 100 Year Hall release, Pig does not do much rapping at all but the band seems to give him room to jump in. There are a couple times the band brings it down almost in anticipation of Pig rapping but he does not take them up on it. They eventually swing into GDTRFB.

Too bad Pigpen left us so soon as the song, "Two Souls: really shows some major writing talent.

One Man's picture
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Joined: May 17 2011
Two Souls

This does sound like the end of things and indeed it was. What a perfect way to go out. I figured this was a Ron McKernan original just from the honest pleading for help. Did his mates take it that way? It sounds like a questioning song about romantic love between two people but I hear something larger, like a cry for help from someone who knows it's too late. I don't even mind the stray vocal notes here and there -- that was the way he sang and after I acquired a taste for it, I couldn't get enough.

On a sidebar, does anyone else find it strange that Pigpen's vocal role diminished as the Europe tour went on, to the point where he completely stopped with the long raps by the last shows? Then, back in the States, he plays (but does not sing) one final show. If you listen closely to the top of the Hollywood Bowl tape, he comes to the mic and sheepishly explains why he won't be singing, even though he obviously could have. This is just my speculation of course, but it seems as though he was asked to stop rapping, then singing altogether. I wonder. I know everyone says he was too sick to continue, but at that point was he really? I have doubts.

kolamjr's picture
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Joined: Feb 19 2011
Miss Him

I miss that gentle soul! Thankfully I can keep in touch with words and music.

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Joined: Oct 14 2011
Lyrics do matter

A long time ago there was a book in the University of Oklahoma library called "Turn Down the Music, I Can't Hear the Words." It included a chapter on Hunter.
Two Souls is a great song. Could it be about Janis?

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
I like this song a lot

good lyrics, good music.

and it didn't involve ribald and carnal tales about PP's libido.

alexallan's picture
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Joined: Jun 2 2007
Pigpen's solo album

There's quite a bit of information about Pigpen's solo album at http://www.whitegum.com/pigpfind.htm

It didn't include Two Souls in Communion.

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Joined: Dec 31 2008
Two Souls

Thanks for writing about this wonderful song! My first exposure to this one was the Rockin' the Rhein cds-- no bootlegs in my collection with this gem on it. I am a big Pigpen fan and was juiced about having the last Lovelight he sang to hear, but Two Souls in Communion just floored me. Being so used to Pigpen's big blues and rapping Lovelight's and Good Lovin's, this tender song took my breath away. Just a beautiful song from a hard blues man.

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Joined: Dec 4 2012
Two Souls In Communion

Boy, would I have loved to hear that Pigpen solo record, with Two Souls In Communion, Chinatown Shuffle, probably a large helping of obscure guitar/harmonica blues, and well known songs like Mr. Charlie and perhaps a less-poppy Operator.

Two Souls (I'll always call it that) hit me like a wrecking ball when I first heard it on bootlegs in the early 70s. I remember friends saying to each other, "Have you heard that Pigpen song?" almost in hushed whispers, it was so obviously a precious diamond. At the time we were sure Hunter wrote the lyrics, because how could a rough and tough bad boy like Pigpen write those lines?

The four verses just climb and climb in their intensity, the grief they reveal, and the worldly intelligence hidden in them. He wants to fly "one more time." So apparently he used to be a "king" but now is a "beggar," trying to remember what you see when you're deeply in love and you look in the other person's eyes, trying to remember what the secret or special magic is that he's forgotten or perhaps has been taken away tragically.

And again, "home." Pigpen starts to sing the chorus but then it's taken over by Jerry and Bobby singing about flying up (to heaven?) and flying home. Are they equating love and home? Is this really a song about death and the end of things, and looking back on it as you fly off to home? Is the backing vocals in the chorus the angels of death/heaven beckoning the narrator away from the sensual world?

And another thing :) ... I've always loved the "not for beggars but kings" line because it reminds me of the old saying, "A cat can look at a king can't he?" I have an early memory of an illustration of this in a book of Mother Goose rhymes, and looking at the cat in the illustration and wondering what he's thinking when he looks at the king.

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