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 as Weather Report Suite was or is something of a weather report for the spirit of the early 70s as they evolved from the 60s, so is Throwing Stones a synopsis of the all-inclusive scene as it evolved into the 80s and beyond. For the most part during the 70s we let the Grateful Dead come to us and they played in smaller venues like the old Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham or the Fox Theater in Atlanta, and you were surrounded by a lot of people that you knew or were familiar from other concerts. And it was cooler on the band too, because they would recognize you from show to show if you took the time to smile and wave...and maybe throw a few joints on the stage for the band and road crew: our version of throwing stones, though my favorite time for that was always Playing in the Band: "...let him caste a stone at me (zing!) for playin' in the band..." Things changed a bit later on. The music was always there, but the scene definitely changed when the larger venues replaced the smaller and traveling caravans replaced the hometown crowds. You could still smile and wave all you wanted, but the larger stages and separation between band and crowd often defeated the aerodynamic capabilities of a rolled joint. But even with thoughts of "ashes to ashes all fall down" always a possibility on the playlist and otherwise, they still somehow managed to drag the old bus kicking and screaming into the 90s, where they arrived with songs like Rain, The Last Time, It's All Over Now (a personal favorite) and Baba O'Riley in tow: "...it's only teenage wasteland...". Not bad for a psychedelic garage band though, and I sure can't fault anyone who did manage to follow them all over Creation.
The song and lyrics are timeless. We still have our petty wars. The banksters own the politicians (and K-Street) with their 'money green'. Corporate interests own the media and manipulate 'current fashion'... The politicians divert everyone's attention by continuing to throw stones and divide. And, we're on our own... Fortunately, we have some collective hope and grace.
...on this one. I sometimes enjoy it, and other times not so much. I think it depends on whether I'm in the mood to think, or if I just want to relax? I also don't care for the pairing with "Not Fade Away". That song should always be paired with "Going Down The Road". But it's not my band, and that's why I love them. Just along for the ride.
was played well...when they were on it, its a very powerful song. I think David got it right with the nursery rhyme bit. It definitely evokes some odd feelings in me...and I even remember from the first time I heard it, not even really knowing what the song was about.
okay, I like stringing the titles of songs together. Throwing Stones/Not Fade Away. Meaning the stone tossing won't fade away; ever. A few examples off the top of my head. High Time He's Gone Truckin'. Cassidy Might as Well Deal.Crazy Fingers Playin Uncle Johns Band. L.L Rain Candyman b.i.o.d.t.l. F.O.T.D Comes A Time Big River Feels Like a Stranger. Okay I'll stop. I liked when Jerry would chime in "you got yours". I grew Weiry of the Stones; yet being an in the darker/deader than thou era head appreciate the art of stone tossing.
Usually a much bigger fan of the earlier stuff too but there's just something about this song that I always loved. Maybe it's the tempo or something but I would have to put this into my top ten favorite Bobby tunes.
If I'm not mistaken, an uncredited David Gans wrote the "shipping powders back and forth" couplet, unless it was a different one. He also had a line or two in "hell in a Bucket"...
adding another dimension, the Ashes Ashes All Fall Down originated not as a benign kids' nursery rhyme but a grim little rhyme about the Black Death.
The message is important, and the lyrics can be interpreted psychedelically (the darkness never goes from some men's eyes...dilated pupils, anyone?) black goes south white comes north (yin yang)
But, I usually wince over it.
Despite the hopefulness of the lyrics, it's simply a song that gets virtually zero play especially when paired with NFA. You know exactly what will be coming over the next 15 minutes.
blah blah, and blah.
I always thought this song was about nuclear war and disarmament of nuclear weapons. No doubt conventional war is a major theme, though. I like Throwing Stones, in particular the guitar loop that Jerry plays in the middle section while Bobby does a minor rap. Anytime I hear Throwing Stones, I get taken back to my college dorm room c. 1988-9 and watching So Far with the trippy video sequences.
But, that section with Jerry's loop and the buildup catches me every time. In So Far, after Bobby sings "His thoughts are gone, his cover's blown," Jerry is way into it and lets out a "Yeah" with a big grin and it's over... Just one of those moments that has stuck with me for 25 years now. We rewound that moment over and over-- Jerry groovin' like that wasn't seen so often.
If you haven't seen So Far in awhile, worth seeing again. That said, I totally understand the folks who didn't enjoy it and felt it overplayed (especially with NFA back).