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!)
"Terrapin Station Suite": “Return to Terrapin,” “Ivory Wheels / Rosewood Track,” “And I Know You,” “Jack O’Roses,” “Leaving Terrapin”
The Terrapin Station Suite includes, besides the pieces of it set by Garcia and recorded by the Grateful Dead, a number of lyrics composed by Hunter, and subsequently set and recorded by him, which extend, and, possibly, complete the work, which stands on the Terrapin Station album as a fragment.
Hunter seems to be after something big here, something that does more than tie together the strands of a set of songs. In his declarations, found in particular in “Leaving Terrapin,” about time and eternity, about the nature of love and of lovers, about the universe and our place in it, and about poetry and song, he seems to make the case for a worldview.
Many of the familiar motifs of his lyrics are here: light and dark, lilies and roses, trains, and diamonds, among others. Characters appear and are linked: Billy Lyon and Peggy-o. Places (the Louisiana Bayou). And, landing in the midst of all this, one lyric stands apart from all the references, and introduces what seems to me to be a new thought.
In a comment on last week’s post, A.Cajun.Head noted that, for him, “Terrapin” seems to be about reincarnation. In a very few words, he made a good case for that:
Eastern Philosophy, reincarnation, the Journey of the soul
Simple for me. It's the story of reincarnation, the cycle of life much as the Buddhists tell it. The journey of the soul. Terrapin Station is the Earth where our souls always come back to reincarnate (unless liberated, but let's face it, does that "liberation" into Nirvana conclude a souls journey? Maybe it is a pinnacle, a zenith, a moment with the All which is infinite and eternal only to return again to our earthly bodies.)
All of the signs are there that "Terrapin" is Earth. As Ddodd mentions, it does evoke the Terra/earth motif regardless of it's Algonquian root. It's a nice double-meaning because the Earth, to our perceptions anyway, moves very slowly, as we watch the sky during the night, thus the turtle connection. Also each of our incarnations seem to be a slow long haul through time. Certainly the spiral light of Venus puts our "station" on or as the Earth, for Venus only moves in its 5-point spiral rosy pattern as seen from this planet. Maybe it is only a stop (or a cycle of stops) on the bigger Journey. May your soul rise to the next level!!
Anyway, that is my take on this beautiful piece. Keep on dancing on the turtle’s back children!
With this in mind, I look at the lyric for “And I Know You,” and think of it in a different way. Hunter’s poem ultimately espouses that we all know one another—from lifetimes past?—and that we need to “get out of Terrapin Station / Symbol of our separation.” In “Leaving Terrapin,” he seems to hint at the idea of moving to a different place in the universe: “Orion sparkles overhead / but just a little bit misplaced,” as if observed from another planetary home.
This seems to me (and I am venturing much farther than usual into interpretation rather than just pointing out factoids and staying on the surface…so, forgive me) to place the entire closing set of songs (remember, unrecorded by the Dead, and unset by Garcia, who did not like to make big statements, but who embraced the “I don’t know” ethic entirely) in the position of summarizing a worldview in which we are all one. We know each other—even though we don’t really know anything. And how might that be possible?
Because we are each other. Our separateness is an illusion, and Terrapin Station is the symbol of that separation.
In this worldview, when there are lovers such as Jack O’Roses and the Lady with the Fan, they are recognizing themselves in each other—something that might happen to any one of us with any other one of us at any time, and in any lifetime, and really, anywhere in space.
The last verse of “And I Know You”:
I know you
Somehow I know you
Do we go together or leave alone
With brand-new shapes or broken bones?
I don’t know how we chose before
but I could go with you
through that station door—
because I know you
and I know that you know me, too
echoed in the ending of the final lyric of the suite, “Leaving Terrapin”:
As long as it shines
by day or by night
as it does shine—
long as the light shines
in just enough dark
to be bright in
I know you
know me, too
Hunter, in his introduction to the Suite in A Box of Rain, hints that all these words were available to Garcia and the band, in typescript, throughout the making of Terrapin Station. At the completion of the album, they were filed away to “make way for new material.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone from the band ever going back to these ancillary lyrics to set them. But having them available is extremely interesting. He states in that intro that he did do some revision, in particular of “Ivory Wheels / Rosewood Tracks,” because “they do not serve the rest of the work well.” So his recorded version if different from the published version, which he offers as “reasonably complete.”
I’ll take “reasonably complete,” and offer my thanks to Hunter (who is now on tour, and who was featured in last week’s New Yorker) for taking the trouble to give us the complete work.
The big question: when will Hunter do some west coast shows??!! Perhaps he could return to Terrapin. (Crossroads, that is.)