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…”
I was there the night this song had its debut. We were happy to hear new songs, although I never thought the Dead wore politics very well. That's not why we were at Dead shows. There was plenty of political commentary elsewhere. It was (and is) unavoidable, and that is important, but not while I'm expecting to get off on a sublime musical experience. I received a great audience recording of the show a few days later (with this song mis-titled "Ashes, Ashes") and after a much later transfer to digital media, I listen to it even now. One really odd thing about this show is that Brent did not have a vocal microphone at all. So it's just Jerry and Bob ably handling all vocals. I highly recommend it as an anomaly in the Dead canon.
I've always admired the cleverness of the line: "Shipping powders back and forth; black goes south, while white goes north."
towards some more overtly political messages-less oblique lyrics. My thoughts about this song have alternated from enjoyment to boredom. Sometimes I love it on just a basic musical-rave-up level, although I always thought the solo was somehow echoing previous Dead in a cliche way. I really get sick of the pairing with "Not Fade Away". The message is there and is valid however and will, unfortunately, always be valid. I do think we are on our own. The question is should we shrug and shake our bones or seize the day? Dead 101 teaches the alternative of creating your own world but this song seems to caution that your world is trumped or could be trumped by larger forces or may border on selfishness in light of what is occuring on the large stage.
I never really got into this song, being a fan of the early 70's.