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…”
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)!
Wrong? isn't that an absolute? No my friend what is wrong is when the most powerful people in the world meet in secrecy every year to decide OUR fate. Good luck, I hope you wake from your slumber before its to late.
Loved your review of this song. >>Specifically<<
>>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.)<<
GD songs always answer the question of the day. For me, time goes on and I appreciate and listen to the music more as it relates to my life.
>>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.<<
Yeah, they played it a lot when I was seeing shows, but we all knew what to do and had fun.
>>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. <<
We have had debates in our household over the exact lyrics. All I know is that I was singing, No our love will not fade away. But then again, I could see it the other way too. Ha ha thinking about this, I think I have sung it both ways.
>> 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.<<
I remember ashes ashes, all fall down, as a kid and as a Dead Head. It made sense to me at the time. :)
Thanks for this fun song review thing that you are doing Mr. Dodd. I just joined these boards and I think I will be spending a few hours now looking at what you have to say. So far, with the first one, I'm with you 100%. Thanks for making the effort. I look forward to what you have to say.
Surprised to hear that Weir and Hart are Bohemians. Just the fact that women aren't admitted would seem to be enough to keep normal people from joining. The Bohemian Club is famous for the following more than it's charity work, which isn't mentioned...
In the summer of 1989, Spy magazine writer Philip Weiss spent some seven days in the camp posing as a guest, which led to his November 1989 article "Inside Bohemian Grove". He wrote about uninhibited behavior he witnessed: "You know you are inside the Bohemian Grove when you come down a trail in the woods and hear piano music from amid a group of tents and then round a bend to see a man with a beer in one hand and his penis in the other, urinating into the bushes. This is the most gloried-in ritual of the encampment, the freedom of powerful men to pee wherever they like..." Weiss noticed "hundreds of cigars whose smokers had ignited them in defiance of the California Forest Service's posted warnings."
On July 15, 2000, controversial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his cameraman, Mike Hanson, walked into the Grove. With a hidden camera, Jones and Hanson were able to film the Cremation of Care ceremony. The footage was the centerpiece of Jones' documentary Dark Secrets: Inside Bohemian Grove. Jones claimed that the Cremation of Care was an "ancient Canaanite, Luciferian, Babylon mystery religion ceremony," and that the owl statue was Moloch. The Grove and Jones' investigation were covered by Jon Ronson in Channel 4's four-part documentary, Secret Rulers of the World. Ronson documented his view of the ritual in his book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, writing "My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed trapped in their college years."
The Owl Shrine covered in moss, standing among trees behind a stage at one edge of a man-made pond.
Also filmed for The Order of Death was Jones' return to the entrance of the Bohemian Grove in 2005 where he filmed a protest organized by the Bohemian Grove Action Network that took place at the Grove's entrance on Bohemian Highway, only to discover a majority of the protesters engaging in an "occult counter-ritual" known as the Resurrection of Care, supposedly a counter-ritual against the Cremation of Care. Jones' narration for the film lambasted the protesters' actions and motivations from a religious standpoint. In 2005, Chris Jones (no relation) walked into the Grove when hired as an employee, and videotaped the Owl Shrine in daylight, even venturing inside the hollow statue. He also got footage of effigies, the lakeside, and select camps; as well as stealing a membership list. Chris Jones said he was propositioned for sex several times by the Grovers. Alex Jones included Chris Jones' video in "The Order of Death".
Just because you think only rich people are members of the Bohemian Grove / Bohemian Club in Northern California doesn't mean that you understand it, what it stands for, nor the attitudes of those who are members. I am not a member, but have friends who are, and have had the fortune to enjoy the club on a few occasions.
While the song is cynical, to say the least, it doesn't make its writers nor its singers hypocrites. The organization employs a lot of people and does good things for people in need too.
"Throwing Stones" does not depict a world in Black and White.
I always loved this song, it really resonated for me being a kid growing up in and around Washington DC. The way this song was packaged was just perfect and the boys really took to thumbing their noses at the establishment on this one I always felt.
Later in life as I realize Bob an Mickey are members of Bohemian Grove this song takes on a complete different meaning now. They are the fat cats in their summer homes screaming just leave well enough alone.
@ laughingwater -- Not sure Lou Reed's snarkiness compares to Barlow's global envelopment in Throwing Stones but Reed's lyrics are great. If you haven't listened to all of his "New York" you've missed his best.
***** ****** ****** ******
"The tribal brothers gathered in the lighthouse to sing
and tried to conjure up a storm or rain
The harbor parted, the great whale sprang full up
and caused a huge tidal wave
The wave crushed the jail and freed the chief
the tribe let out a roar
The whites were drowned, the browns and reds set free
but sadly one thing more
Some local yokel member of the NRA
kept a bazooka in his living room
And thinking he had the chief in his sight
blew the whale's brains out with a lead harpoon
Last great American whale
last great American whale
Last great American whale
last great American whale
Well Americans don't care for much of anything
land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
with human life not worth more than infected yeast
Americans don't care too much for beauty
they'll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They'll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
and complain if they can't swim
They say things are done for the majority
don't believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It's like what my painter friend Donald said to me
"Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they're done"
The day the song was born 31 years ago tonight. My how time fly's. We called it ashes ashes for awhile. Band played it almost every night here after till the spring of 1983. Fun to be a part of the history of this band
When I was 15 or 16 I recall explaining to my older sister that I was into Dead music, that it was different music. She was really square but mentioned, "I have a CD with the Grateful Dead on it." She handed me a two disc album put out by Greenpeace that featured many different artists and the Dead's 'Throwing Stones' was on there. I had been listening to Anthem of the Sun, AOXOMOXOA, Europe '72.... and realized upon listening to Throwing Stones that the Dead were much more than the 60's and 70's and that they had a message at times much greater than a mind altering thing. They were saying 'The time is Now!' Wake up and live! Be aware we are part of the planet and that crazy stuff is going on in the world driven by greed and recklessness.
Anyway, thanks for the write up. Brought back a good memory from my youth, choosing the path less travelled and still on it.
Also there was a song on that album called, "Last Great American Whale" by, I think it was Lou Reed? Anyone remember that one? Great song!
One of the few truly cynical tunes they put out. Must have been the '80s!