Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Terrapin Station"
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 Terrapin Station Suite’s second part, “Terrapin Station,” begins, as did the first, with an invocation. This one is addressed directly to Inspiration, perhaps the name of the muse being invoked, and again the poet seeks to be granted the ability to tell a story on fire with elements that will make it alive—evocations of the senses. And again, the muse is asked to allow staying power to the poet, to hold away despair.
The poet promises not to ask for more than this gift, of being allowed to tell a story that will come alive for his readers, and that in doing so he may remain confident, unbowed. He explicitly then states that he will only ask for those gifts, and no more. He will not seek power—because the job of the storyteller is not to gain power over things, but simply to reveal things as they are, as stated in the first section.
And with that, Hunter is off—into a song that only hints at its subject, the destination we will all arrive at, with a verse that evokes the early night sky and the atmosphere of singing insects so vividly for so many listeners, that I am sure I am not the only one who, every time I see a young moon, sings to myself “brand-new crescent moon…” and looks for Venus in close proximity if the time of day is right. To this one verse I owe so many moments of sublime appreciation of the natural world. And the same is true when I hear crickets sing, which happens pretty much every night in my own back yard. I take a moment to appreciate the rare and different tune they sing.
Each of us can bring imagery to mind, certainly, when we close our eyes while listening to this portion of the suite—but I am very curious to know about the experience of others who close their eyes to see. When you hear the words “spiral light of Venus,” what comes to mind? And, in particular, when you hear the words “Terrapin Station”—what in the world (or what NOT in the world) do you conceive of?
The “deadsongs” conversation about the suite on the WELL has a large number of contributions, with contributors sharing what the song means to them. I’d like to see that here, too.
First off, let’s think for a second about the word “Terrapin” itself. On the face of it, it’s just a turtle. But it is laden with association and possible internal, neural-level reference points. For instance, when I hear the word, I hear that root “terra” right away—the word for our home planet, named for the Roman goddess of earth, corresponding to the Greek goddess Gaia. However, despite such automatic association, the word “terrapin” has nothing to do with a Latin root word—it comes to us from Algonquian, a native American language, generally spoken in the geographic range stretching from the northeastern coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains.
So, the terrapin is a freshwater turtle known to early inhabitants of the North American continent. In Native American mythology, and in a surprising number of other world mythologies, the turtle carries the earth on its back. “Turtle Island” is the name given to the continent by native peoples. The symbol is weighty, and in using the word “terrapin,” which (falsely) evokes “terra,” we get a sense of double planetary significance, just from the word itself coupled with its archetypal symbology.
I’ve always loved the story, which I relate in the annotated lyrics, about William James (1842-1910), the great American philosopher, physician, and psychologist—author of The Varieties of Religious Experience — who was approached by an elderly woman after a lecture he gave on the solar system. “We don’t live on a ball rotating ‘round the sun. We live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle.” James replied, “If your theory is correct, Madam, what does the turtle stand on?” “You’re a clever man, Mr. James, and that is a good question, but I can answer it. The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger turtle.” “But what does this second turtle stand on?” asked James. “It’s no use, Mr. James! It’s turtles all the way down!”
So: terrapins all the way down it is. After all, some rise, some fall to get there. And Terrapin Station, whatever or wherever it may be, is a place that might good, or might be ill for any given person.
The suite, as recorded on Terrapin Station, concludes its lyrical portion (excepting the big choral refrain) with “At a Siding.” Of all the live performances, the band never played this one live with lyrics, though there is a note of an instrumental performance. But it plays a crucial role lyrically, at least as I listen to the piece. Left alone by itself, the “Terrapin Station” section may seem triumphant, despite the occasional statements (which seem vain at last?) conveying uncertainty about the entire endeavor of arriving at Terrapin. At least, the music seems triumphant, in all its studio orchestral grandeur. (Somehow, this same grandeur came across absolutely in concert, despite the lack of strings.)
But “At a Siding” is dark. The gorgeous short melody to which the words are set seems to drip with that sense, which perhaps only Garcia’s voice could contain, that there are mysteries with which one might not really want to be acquainted. The dichotomy of light and dark are never far away in Hunter’s lyrics, and here we have spaces filling with darkness, things that were obvious being hidden, leaving us nothing to believe in, except the direction in which we are headed, whatever that may be. But the compass always points to Terrapin. And we are left with: “You’re back in Terrapin for good or ill again.”
So, given that this verse was set by Garcia, and included on the studio album, which contains a suite that is itself a fragment of the larger work that Hunter produced, it seems interesting that the band, or maybe just Garcia, chose to perform only a fragment of the fragment live. I think of other songs which were left mostly unperformed, or which were basically disavowed entirely, such as “Barbed Wire Whipping Party,” which also contained dark lyrics, and which Hunter wished he could take out of the written memory entirely.
“Terrapin Station” stands as a “place” in imagination, full of potential.
It was the name given to the museum that was never built, meant to house the Dead’s archives and provide a performance and experience space.
It provides the name for the performance space and restaurant opened in San Rafael a little over two years ago by Phil Lesh. A few months ago I was at a bar show at Terrapin Crossroads, listening to one of my favorite musicians, Danny Click, playing an unannounced show with the Terrapin Crossroads house band, which that night included Phil on bass. What a treat! At one point, a friend of mine who plays in Danny’s band leaned over and asked the table, “What’s with the turtles?”
Indeed. What an excellent question.
Next week: all the rest of it.
Trying to reply to the Jungian guy below, but won't seem to let me. Here you go!!!
It's been eight years since you wrote that, but if you get back to this site, just want to say thank you. I "got" the song at the '87 Red Rocks show, and like Ripple, Brokedown, Frankin's, but especially here, the message is that we will indeed return to Terrapin. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the great news is that we have never really left, and yet the paradox that we believe we have. And so whatever path (rise, fall, climb), we *will* arrive because we're already there.
Like so many Dead and spiritual experiences, it's almost unbearably beautiful.
I think that ingesting psychedelics is a way of opening the "doors of perception", of lifting the veils, and of taking a short cut to a transpersonal experience. Since ingesting large amounts of LSD can instantly disintegrate the protective walls of defenses the ego has built, it is entirely possible that too much will be seen too fast. For those that have already resolved conflicts with the Persona and the Shadow, the Terrapin experience is not unpredictable at all, it is a moment to be celebrated. But it is also bittersweet. The "for good or ill again" line in "at a siding" reflects the "come down" portion of the experience, the part where the ego questions the value of knowing more, where the ego senses how further "enlightenment" of the psyche results in further disconnection from "normal society" ("standing on the moon... a lovely view of heaven, but I'd rather be with you"), where the Self realizes that every answer to a deep question only opens the door to a thousand more questions.
I really enjoyed reading all of the comments posted here and hoped to add a little to the discussion.
I started studying Archetypal psychology (Carl Jung) and mythology (Joseph Campbell), and all things related at the same time that I first started seeing the Grateful Dead in 1987. As I pursued my Ph.D. in psychology, with a special emphasis on archetypes, through the 90's, and continued to see Jerry play live as often as possible, the archetypal symbolism in Hunter's lyrics, the living mythology in our culture, and the profound spirituality available in our gatherings became more and more obvious to me. I immediately saw the main story of Terrapin Station as a classical description of the hero's journey on the path of individuation and, thereby, enlightenment, as described by Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and many others. I mean to share some of my observations below.
The start of the tale with an invocation to the muses to guide the story as it forms, reflects the intention of the storyteller to give himself over to a higher power, to make himself a conduit for expression of a higher purpose, and the essential humility and emptiness of ego required for the process to occur. This often reminds me of Garcia's reply to a question about what he practices before shows. He stated that he didn't practice specific riffs or leads, but rather "the basics" (scales, transpositions, the circle of fifths, etc.) to prepare himself to play "wherever the music wanted to go". He clarified that his best moments of playing, and his favorite moments, occurred when he was able to let something HIGHER than him play THROUGH him, writing the tune, the story, in the moment, reflecting and incorporating the energy of the MOMENT, of the CONTEXT. The introduction to the song, the story, tells us that the "storyteller makes no choice", and reminds us that he is only the storyteller, not a spiritual master, and warns us that his story will eventually end, like all of our stories. This beginning puts everything into a larger context, makes the story part of a RITUAL, a prayer, a spiritual experience.
The 1st 2 steps of the individuation process, e.g. finding the authentic ego behind the Persona, and illuminating the Shadow and embracing it to find the gifts from the Gods are skipped in this tale. This is a tale for those that are already comfortable with their authentic selves, those that have allowed their egos to be stripped to the bones, and are still dancing (dancing skeletons). The mythology of Terrapin Station is for those seeking a HIGHER level of awareness and actualization. The story starts with the Call to the Quest made by the Anima, or The Lady with A Fan. The Anima is the yin/feminine nature in the psyche of men that quite literally provides the "Inspiration" and purpose for the quest. The Anima calls you to a higher purpose, a hero's quest. Not all choose to answer the call (songs like Althea and Simple Twist of Fate tell their story), and that is the end of their spiritual journey. But, for those like the Sailor, those that take the chance, they receive the reward of passion, purpose and meaning in their lives. It is predictable that the Sailor will be the one that takes the chance and becomes the hero. in archetypal psychology, water represents the subconscious and intuitive mind, while land represents the conscious and logical mind. The soldier, relying on logic ("being much too wise"), overthinks the situation and misses his opportunity.
The next step on the journey is achieving a transpersonal, or "peak" experience. Terrapin Station represents a point of enlightenment, the space where everything comes together just right and a perfect harmony is achieved, a place where the veils that obscure the deeper truths are briefly parted, fear melts away, and the ego merges with a higher power that brings connection and understanding.... but only for a moment. Many symbols suggest that Terrapin Station is the sacred space found at the crossroads, at the point where the sacred and the profane meet. To start, a Terrapin is actually NOT a turtle OR a tortoise, it is it's own separate species. Unlike a turtle, which lives primarily in salt water, or a tortoise, which lives exclusively on land, terrapins live half in water and half on land, and they live in brackish water, meaning where salt water and fresh water meet. The symbolic relationship to "Terra", or Earth is also relevant here, as well as the mythology of the Native American peoples that believed the Earth was carried on the back of a turtle, the turtle still in the water, but the shell with the Earth on it sticking out above.... half in, half out.
"The spiral light of Venus" is also symbolic of the connection between the heavens and Earth. Myths about Venus often incorporate the fact that Venus sits very low on the horizon line and represents the meeting point between the Earth and the Stars. In addition, many cultures saw Venus as the anchor point for the Axis Mundi, often depicted as a "spiral light", that connected the Earth to the Heavens.
The observation that everybody gets to Terrapin Station by a different paths allows each of us to project the reality of our own personal journey into the story, and also reminds us that, in the end, we all end up in the same place, equal, connected by our existential reality. Every time this lyric is heard, the individual mind is called to consider what path was taken to reach Terrapin in that moment. I have personally traveled all of the paths, the climbing being the most satisfying, and the falling being the most frightening. But we only rest at Terrapin Station for a moment, just as it is with any transpersonal experience. Even though the train has put it's breaks on, the realization that this moment too will pass, that it is both an ending AMD a beginning, adds a minor chord to the perfect harmonic...literally. As the moment fades away, we hold on as long as we can to the signature riff.... In most of the shows I attended, the GD played that riff out until it faded into drums/space, or maybe Dark Star, they rarely brought it back around into something upbeat and positive, like in the 70's. Again, a reflection of the context of the times, I think.
I don't believe that Terrapin at a siding is about reincarnation at all. I believe it describes the feeling AFTER a profound transpersonal experience when the fog starts to come back, the curtain drops, and once enlightened spaces start to "fill with darkness" again. I believe it's about trying to hold onto the vision as the confusion comes back, trying to remember that the compass always points to Terrapin, trying to trust in the process that will bring you back around to Terrapin Station again, not fighting it, accepting it, but with some melancholy.
i always heard "Tolkien" rhymes...only recently read the lyrics. I wonder if this great poem would have any different connotations? DD...any thought on that?
This may sound a bit crude after all the artistic speculation going on here for the last couple years.
But I always thought Terrapin Station was about ingesting a large dose of LSD.
Because every time you do, you are stepping into an unpredictable experience. You're back in Terrapin, for good or ill again.
Coming from Norway not so well into US English language I always interpreted "terrapin" in the direction of "therapy". A lyrical metaphor. Maybe very wrongly. It never hampered my appreciation of the recording though. Over many years, quite the contrary. This is one way the song can be interpreted, so I'll put my neck out and stick to it. Basic meaning: therapy.
Terrapin with the Berkeley Symphony was the highlight for me at the Greek on 8/1. Majestic!!
Terrapin Station is about ballin'
Mickey Hart was in Dallas with his band and declared they would now attempt to
'Recreate what the Sun is Doing'
Who can say if they Succeeded...but the 'vain statement' I found to describe the Vibe is
The sound moved like a Turtle and was "in no hurry."
Very Patient and Very Deep and Very Spacey.
I will tell you that the sounds they created lifted my soul into the Heavenlies where I could swim with the stars in a wonderful way.
The Sun exists in outer space
with all those stars that are impossible to count,
rising and falling and climbing again in a Cyclical fashion
Whatever the Sun may be Doing...it is ushered into our point of perception every morning by the Bright and Morning Star also known as Venus.
George Carlin's Hippy Dippy Weather Man would predict...
Tomorrow will be filled with Sunshine followed by Increasing Darkness.
'There goes Jupiter and here comes Mars' and then Comes Venus followed by Increasing Sunshine...in the Circle of Life..."Like a wave Upon the Sand"
"Daybreak on the Land"
where " The Light's All Shining on Me"
I'm sure its no coincidence how the Turtle Dancers that Strider told us about would do their dance on what must be the Winter Solstice in December when the Sun shines for the shortest amount of time in any day of the year.
(I wonder if there's any Video of Jerry doing the Turtle Dance)
I Love how the Astronomical Patterns were set by the hand of the Creator.
I love how Worship enables the Soul to Dance in the Creator's Inspiration.
There are varieties of religious experiences here on earth
( I've got mine and you got yours )
but it really doesn't change or hamper the Cosmic Cycle in Outer Space of Days and Months and Years and Great Years (which ended and began on the Winter Solstice of 2012)
I'd say we are All Turtle Dancers in the Grand Scheme of Things
We'll be at Terrapin by Morning