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!)
Did anyone besides me read the wonderful novel by Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad? There were a lot of quirky wonders in the book, but one that stands out was the quest by one of the book’s characters to find all the big pauses—moments of silence—in popular music.
She never mentioned my favorite: the space between the end of a live performance of “Sugar Magnolia” and the commencement of “Sunshine Daydream.” It could be a simple countdown, the length of a set, or longer—as when the band waited a week between the two segments so that they could follow the concert they gave the weekend of Bill Graham’s death with the coda a week later at his to open memorial concert in Golden Gate Park. I thought that was breathtaking.
Everybody’s favorite New Year’s eve midnight tune, “Sugar Magnolia” is mostly a lyric by Robert Hunter, with several verses noted as being Bob Weir’s contributions. The music is by Weir.
In an interview featured on the Anthem to Beauty documentary, Weir talks about the song’s transition from vinyl to the stage, saying something along the lines of it going from a mellow sort of country-ish tune to a “balls-out rocker.”
I just participated in the one-night-only screening of the new release of the Veneta, Oregon, concert from 1972, aptly entitled “Sunshine Daydream,” given the atmospheric and other conditions. Apparently, by the time they played the song at the concert, it was too dark to film any more, so the song itself doesn’t appear in the movie, despite the title. But I am very much looking forward to hearing it in context on the CD release coming up, with Jeffrey Norman’s fine remastering that serves the live sound of the band so well.
“Sugar Magnolia” was released on American Beauty in November, 1970. It was first performed live on June 7 of that year, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. It was extremely solid in the live repertoire from then on, being played a total of 596 times, with the final performance at their final concert, on July 9, 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago, where it closed the second set. From what I can tell, that makes it the most-performed original song in their entire repertoire, and only the second most-performed overall, following “Me and My Uncle.” (And not counting Drumz.)
The New Year’s Eve tradition of playing the song at the stroke of midnight is less than straightforward. Looking at the DeadBase X listings, it appears that it was played every year in which the band played a New Year’s Eve show from 1970 through 1980, but then in 1981 it was missing in action. It reappeared the following year, but in 1985, once again—nowhere to be found! I was at that show, and recall watching Phil Lesh react in horror (mock horror?) as Bobby launched into “Midnight Hour” at midnight, instead of “Sugar Magnolia.” From then on it was hit or miss. A no-show in 1986 or 1987, but back in place in 1988 and 1989. Gone in 1990. Back in ’91. And that was it.
However, at the Dodd household, you can count on its being played every New Year’s Eve.
Back in January, I started this series of posts with a piece on “I Need a Miracle,” which bears some similarity, thematically, to “Sugar Magnolia.” (Another song I place in this category is The Band’s “Cripple Creek.”)
I’ve gotten into a couple of arguments over the years about this song. I have thought of myself as a feminist for a long time, and therefore I think maybe I have over-thought this song, trying to find a way to make it fit into my world-view. And I feel pretty justified in that. I mean, Hunter is no fool, that’s for certain, and he makes it pretty clear that this idealized Sugar Magnolia girl / woman is “just a daydream.” In other words, as I’ve always read the song, he pokes fun at the whole sexist litany of a woman who will coddle her man through everything. But…is that really how it is sung? I think maybe not.
As always, when you’re dancing up a storm, these considerations are irrelevant. I have more than once been in thrall to a “Sugar Magnolia” of my own, and frankly, we always just grinned our fool heads off at each other during this song—no hard feelings! And when that mirrorball got cranking in Winterland during the song, all bets were off as far as rational thinking went anyway.
Still, I’d be interested in hearing thoughts about the song along those lines. Anyone ever get into one of those arguments or discussions about the misogynist hippie culture, as evidenced by songs like “Sugar Magnolia”?
This song is another one of those that contributes to the ongoing motif, running through many songs, of horticultural references. The magnolia is a family of trees and shrubs, particularly associated with the South in the USA, but you can find them all over. And then there are the rushes—often tufted marsh plants. You could stretch the motif to include violets, since she does come skimming through rays colored like that flower (which came first, the color or the flower?). And, of course, she is blooming like a red rose. So that’s four plants in one song—possibly a record of some kind. Oh wait! I missed the bluebell: five plants. And pines! Six! And willows! Seven! Possibly eight, if the tall trees are something other than pines, willows, or magnolias.
When I wrote the piece about “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” a few weeks ago, I thought maybe that was the only song about cars. However, there is a car reference in “Sugar Magnolia,” too—the Willys to which she is compared for her capacity to jump. Now, this is one of Weir’s verses, and in the Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, I quote Phil Lesh’s autobiography, Searching for the Sound:
The tension between Weir and Hunter finally came to a head backstage at the Capitol Theater when, after an argument, probably about Bob’s addition of a line to ‘Sugar Magnolia’—‘[she] jumps like a Willys in four-wheel drive’—Hunter turned all responsibility for Bob’s lyrics over to Barlow, with the words, ‘Take him, he’s yours.’
But in a way, it’s nice to have that somewhat antiquated car analogy there in the song, and I actually would’ve thought it sounded like a Hunter line, I have to admit. I saw a Willys on the street just the other day in the town where I live, and got to have a fun conversation about it with my son.
So: feminism, cars, plants, rock and roll…your turn to talk! Or maybe someone has a great story about a particularly insane New Year’s Eve. I’m all ears….