Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Throwing Stones"
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!)
Wouldn’t it be great if, someday, this song became irrelevant, an artifact of a barbaric time? But somehow, no. It hangs in there, and doesn’t recede into irrelevance.
It’s been one of those times, these past couple of weeks, when this song just rattles around in my head.
I’m a reference librarian by calling and trade, and it was pretty early on in my career when I was approached at the desk by a high school student with a question: “When did the Middle East Crisis start?” That was about 1984. According to a timeline hosted by BBC News, the situation dates from 1250 BCE, when the Israelites began to conquer and settle the lands of Canaan. It’s been pretty much nonstop since then.
But, as the song notes, we’ve got a “whole world full of petty wars.” Petty or not, there always seems to be plenty worth going to war for around the world. “Throwing Stones” shows the dichotomy of “the kids”—dancing and shaking their bones, while the politicians throw their stones and it becomes clear we are on our own. On our own.
The song debuted right around the time when things were heating up again in the Middle East, on September 17, 1982, at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. They played it for the next ten shows in a row, for a total run of eleven, before giving it a one-night rest, and then picking it up again for two more consecutive shows in Oakland in the run up to New Year’s Eve. (The song finally appeared on a studio album with In the Dark, in 1987, and was released as a single, backed with “When Push Comes to Shove” in 1988.)
Not to dwell on it too much, it seems worth noting that the 1982 Israeli conflict was just one of many at the time--the ongoing Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, not to mention the Falklands War between Argentina and Great Britain. Additionally there was plenty going on in Central America, with revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua facing opposition from US-funded military efforts.
But the song’s focus is bigger than the “petty wars.” John Barlow’s lyric begins at the global level, or, it seems, at a cosmic level, bidding us to look at a beautiful, peaceful planet spinning in space. Or, at least, seemingly peaceful, until we encounter humanity. This is a Barlow theme of some significance, taken up in other songs—notably in “My Brother Esau,” in which the singer begins to understand, or, more feel than understand “the silent war that bloodied both our hands.” In “Throwing Stones” Barlow says that the nightmare spook is “you and me, you and me.”
After all, where does the song’s title come from? Given Barlow’s theological background, it’s likely taken from the biblical tale of Jesus, told in the Gospel of John, defending a prostitute who is about to be stoned to death, challenging the crowd: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Or, maybe it derives from the folk idiom, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
Either way, it’s an admonishment to look first at yourself before criticizing the world—to refrain from hypocrisy.
And where did that put all of us who sang the song, who relished the lines about politicians throwing stones, while we, we were on our own? Is there a little bit of irony waiting to be uncovered as we live with the song over the years? I don’t know. I like to think that one of Barlow’s tricks is to plant time bombs of exploding consciousness in his lyrics, but once again, just as with the phenomenon of hearing Hunter’s songs differently over the years, maybe it’s an internal thing, and not intentional. (Although I do think Hunter engaged in a conscious practice of writing songs that would resonate differently at different stages in our lives—part of the magic of his songwriting craft. I wouldn’t put it past Barlow, either.)
The band played the song steadily from its introduction through the next 13 years, with its final performance coming on July 5, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights, Missouri. It often emerged from a Garcia ballad, say, “Stella Blue,” and dissolved via its rhythm into “Not Fade Away.” But, of course, there were exceptions, just to keep us guessing a bit.
The song’s lyrics evolved a bit, too.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the lines about “money green, proletarian gray,” became “money green is the only way.” Other variants about dropping bombs for oil, or raping the earth, were sung depending on world circumstances at the time.
As in many songs, “Throwing Stones” calls on rhymes from childhood to add something special to the soup of meaning. Barlow’s invocation of the “ashes, ashes, all fall down” nursery rhyme is eerily apt, and yet, even in the midst of all the direness, those of us listening, singing, and dancing along felt a certain innocence brought to the fore as we chanted those familiar childhood lines. “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, all fall down!” I have a visceral reaction, deep in my bones, to those lines, and the feeling of gleefully throwing myself to the ground along with all the other kids in the circle. It was fun—we didn’t know we were singing a song meant to remind and warn children about the dangers of the black plague. (Nursery rhymes and fairy tales can, not infrequently, serve a vital purpose of this type—carrying messages of warning, taboo, and fear down the generations in order to promote survival skills and instincts.)
Maybe that’s what Barlow and Weir are up to with this song—crafting something extremely catchy, very danceable, appealing on the surface to our feelings of outrage at the terrible things “they” the politicians are doing, while instilling, subversively, the ideas that will save us. That we, being on our own, have to be the ones to make the world right. That unless we do that, we can’t throw stones.
I liked it that “Throwing Stones” so often devolved into “Not Fade Away.” I know some grew tired of the combo, but in a way, they are one song. Because, at the conclusion of “Not Fade Away,” at a concert, while hoping for an encore, we would stand, often in the dark, clapping the Bo Diddley beat, singing, “No our love will not fade away,” (or is it “know our love will not fade away”?) over and over again.
“Picture a bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free It's dizzying, the possibilities…”
calling on Bach 2 Bach....
We have a winner.
...the Dark Star crashes.
This song gets me feeling like a Lost Boy Dancing around the Tribal Fire as my head explodes with mind expanding consciousness.
It is so profound how the words resonate with the melody and resonate with the constant struggle to survive in this world. Its timelessly pertinent. Its Multi-Cultural like so much of the Grateful Dead Culture. All kinds of people can relate to this message.
I happened to watch the three hour Gandhi movie last weekend.
An amazing revolution in India achieved by peaceful means.
Sadly the result was a civil war between the Muslims and the Hindus.
That was solved by sending the Muslims to Pakistan and the Hindus to India.
One sad scene had one displaced group heading south passing the other group heading north.
Then someone started throwing stones.
It boils my Irish Blood.
How Long-How Long Must we Sing this Song?
Funny how the closer you look at the human race the more you find the seedy underbelly.
Us humans have a way of separating ourselves into little tribes and clashing with each other.
"singing I got mine and you got yours" and a perverse justification to Deny You Your Share.
Selfishness leading to Greed leading to Jealousy leading to Violence leading to Death.
Is that really what us humans are racing towards?
Fortunately we don't have to Dance this Kind of Dance.
I think most folks are usually loving and kind.
Love never Fails. We all just need Peace Love and Understanding.
"Through this world of Trouble we've got to Love one another"
I try to tell you but some are still intent to "Drive me Back."
Theres always somebody fighting mad at somebody about something.
I'd say that the conflicts began when Cain caught Abel rolling loaded dice.
( and that's my prediction David...lets discuss the Mississippi Half Step and see if we can find whats on the other side of the Black Muddy River"...)
(( Is it cheating to name two songs with one prediction??))
We may leave this place an empty stone...but there are Better Possibilities.
With a little Grace and and a lot of Mercy and a Whole Lotta Love
I expect to arrive at a place that is Grand-Ee-O!
(with arm in air)
Pick me! Pick me!
Thanks for the excellent discussion, everyone. This continues to be a lively and uninhibited group conversation, which is exactly the idea. Any guesses what song will be next?
It's always good to have someone moseying around, kinda keeping an eye on things. You might be surprised to know some of the other things Dead Heads have done. We tend to get around a bit. And you just never know what you might find hiding in those old bushes deserved of such attention.
Thanks for the excellent write up David! Throwing Stones was one of the first songs I played over and over on my cassette player in my dorm to write down the lyrics which survived to be seen on a few of my apartment walls after college. Simply powerful. I had forgotten about that encore ritual until you mentioned it, wow! "Thanks, Barlow"
Just wanted to point out that it's interesting to compare this with other songs that view what's happening on Earth from outside of it. And that the visual that started all this is the incredibly enlightening Apollo 11(??) "Earthrise" picture over the moon.
And speaking of the moon, for me the most interesting contrast with this song is Standing On the Moon. Hunter, later in the 80s, might be gently chiding Barlow to chill out and sing about the love that can be found on our planet rather than the evil.
Another interesting contrast is Jesse Winchester's Defying Gravity, "Even the high must lie low."
I agree wholeheartedly that Mr. Dodd is curating a great discussion group. I hope contributors will continue to stay on topic (hint hint)!