Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Terrapin Station Suite"

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
and 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.)


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Joined: Jun 26 2013
A Hah

"He Drank down a Bottle then He Broke into Mine"

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012

Aha! The Greatest Story Ever Told...

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Robert Hunter and the Dinosaurs

I was very fortunate to have seen Robert Hunter once back in June,1984. He was playing with the Dinosaurs at the long gone famous honkey tonk the Line Camp, in Pojoaque, New Mexico. It seems right on that it was between Santa Fe and Taos, both areas that figure into Hunters personal history. I'm sorry I'm not familiar with the complete Terrapin Suite. Will have to seek that out.

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Celestial North Pole

"The Compass Always Points to Terrapin"

A Compass always points to the North Pole.
The North Pole extends out into what is known as the Celestial North Pole.
The Celestial North Pole points out to the various Pictures written in the Stars by the Hand of the Creator for Signs and Seasons.

We all have our Story in History.
We Rise -We Fall-We Climb
"Little wheels turning by the fire and rod
Big wheel turning by the grace of God
Every time that Wheel Comes Around
We're bound to cover just a little more ground"

We are all little stories involved in one big story.

My favorite story is of the Story Teller who Came and Shed the Light.
He would not be Bought or Sold
He Left and gave us "Hope he will Come Back"

You may agree or you may not
but you can't deny the Story told in the Stars
that starts with the Virgin giving Birth
and ends with the Season of the Lion

and then the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll and there will be something Completely New for us all to enjoy

That's my Favorite Story

"and I know we'll be there Soon"

teetop's picture
Joined: Apr 26 2013

I can't figure out
if it's the end or beginning
but the train's put its brakes on
and the whistle is screaming

That sounds like a climax to me

A.Cajun.Head's picture
Joined: Jun 3 2014
Excellent post JBXPRO

I don't have much to add except that I agree on all the twists and turns and many interpretations. Much like life itself! Very excellent post!

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Terrapin Multiverse

My understanding of the Terrapin Suite was always based on "Part 1." I didn't read Hunter's "Return To Terrapin" et seq. until much later. Reading it now seems to validate the way I've always heard the song, but this may be the tendency to understand art in terms of your predispositions.

In any case, I'm totally on board with the song having more than one meaning ... it wouldn't be such a great song if different people didn't understand it in different ways. For instance, I really like the "rebirth" interpretation, and thanks to A.Cajun.Head and David for supporting that so well. Terrapin is a multiverse.

Anyway, here's that I think!

I feel we're told from the beginning that this is about the line between telling a story and being part of one. While the storyteller speaks, a door suddenly flies open and we're in the story. We pay the teller well, and wonder if he’ll come back ... or if we're in the story for good (or ill) without a trail of breadcrumbs.

And what's this about a train? To travel psychically do we need a train?? To me, the train imagery says very clearly that we have left a physical place and have arrived in another place. This may be a cycle (I've got that return ticket somewhere), but we are in a different place when we're in Terrapin, not just an altered state.

So where are we? Terrapin is the land where stories come true, and I feel the subsequent lyrics corroborate this (it's called "the Land Of Tales" in Leaving Terrapin). As we're aging we're climbing the long stairway to that place. Alternately, we can take the ivory wheels on a rosewood track (hmmm, doesn't sound like it would hold up well to the weather, which means it's a track of the imagination) back again and again to Terrapin.

Stories coming true can be experienced in a detached mode, where for instance you hear about the Jack O'Roses and then you can see him and talk to him, or in a self-activated mode, where you realize you can create your own reality ... that the line between imagination and actuality is non-existent.

This conclusion that reality is self-activated or self-defined is the theme of And I Know You, to my ear. The narrator realizes that he is looking at someone he knows well ... that's because it's himself. He's the storyteller as well as the listener. He's completely experiencing the stories.

Boy, there's lots of stuff here. I like the story about the Jack O'Roses being rescued from the land East of Eden by the rising of Terrapin like a morning star. Out of the lion's den into the fire! That idiot needs to be careful about where she throws her fan or she'll get all the sailors, soldiers, Jacks, etc. pissed at her. But this episode supports my interpretation that you can imagine yourself out of a pickle ... you can make your own story. I guess it also supports the interpretation that life/death is cyclical and the Terrapin is a symbol of that. :)

More stuff. Suddenly we're on Noah's Arc instead of a train for the trip back?!? Kind of makes your head spin. Anyway, we're finally back in the hall, drinking. And then our imaginations start to come unhinged again and the shadows on the wall start taking color, depth, and form. Terrapin shines in the West, which could mean it's the setting sun going down for another cycle, or could mean that it's a land in the West (not East of Eden), waiting for us to return. We're never far from it, but it takes an act of the imagination to get there.

Sorry to run on, but just wanted to add my thoughts to this excellent discussion.

Joined: Jun 26 2013

"For now we see through a glass, darkly,
but then face to face:
now I know in part: but then
shall I know even as also I am known"

written by one of my favorite writers in the twelfth verse of the thirteenth chapter of ICorinthians.

"To Know" in the bible is equivalent to the Intimacy of a Husband and Wife in the marriage bed. Its a Sacred Place.
Capable of producing new life that has never been seen before.

I think David is on to something Big as he delves deeply into Hunter's expressions.

We are privileged, I think, to live in the season following the Winter Solstice of 2012.

"I don't know" what it all means but I dare say it is beyond the Terrapin Station
and soon we will all know even as we are known!

and if you get confused along the way
"Listen to the Music Play"


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