Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Tons Of Steel"
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!)
I had the distinct pleasure of being present for Brent Mydland’s first show with the Dead, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. I had been at the previous show, a benefit for the Campaign for Economic Democracy (Tom Hayden’s organization) at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and I guess that means I was also at Keith and Donna’s final show. The energy Brent brought was immediately evident, and I have a particular memory of Phil pointing at Brent with glee, to a cheering crowd.
Brent wrote the words and music for “Tons of Steel.” It was first performed on December 28, 1984, at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco (now Bill Graham Civic). The other first in the show was "Day Tripper." I was there! It sounded like a hit to me. But then, I was completely disconnected from whatever it was that passed for hit-making in the 1980s.
It was performed fairly regularly throughout 1985 through September 1987, making its last appearance on September 23 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. That seems odd to me, because it was dropped from rotation just a little more than two months after it was released on In the Dark, in July. Any thoughts?
So, it’s a song about a train. One of the prime motifs in Grateful Dead lyrics. Quick—name five Grateful Dead songs with trains! No peeking!
What do trains evoke in Dead lyrics? Everything from danger (“Caution,” “Casey Jones”) to adventure (“Jack Straw”) to love (“They Love Each Other”) to farewell (“He’s Gone”) to whatever that thing is that we feel when Garcia sings about wishing he was a headlight... (and take a look at the back cover of Reflections sometime).
Brent’s train is something else. Sure, there is danger, but it also seems to be a song about a relationship. A relationship, actually, with a train. Or it’s one heck of an extended metaphor! Maybe I am just completely missing something. Sure, when you hear the song, the words sound like Brent is singing about a woman, in the same way he usually did. But the comparison is reversed here—he “know the rails we’re on like I know my lady’s smile.” And “more a bitch than a machine.” Strange. The train is definitely a “she.” But ships and trains and automobiles have, for some reason, always had a feminine gender, if any, in writing and conversation.
That one is up in the air for me. I can’t really get a handle on the lyrics, without just thinking that it’s a song about a relationship with a temperamental machine. Some of the lines get us close to something different: “She wasn’t built to travel at the speed a rumor flies,” and “these wheels are bound to jump the tracks before they burn the ties.” And yet, maybe that’s why it was dropped from the rotation—there’s just not anything there to take the lyrics to the next level, at least for me. I’d love to hear differently from anyone out there who cares to comment!
And another thing, while I’m complaining about the song. This business about the weight of the train. Nine hundred thousand tons of steel. Is that really what a train weighs? A highly disciplined Internet search (just Google it!) seems to indicate that a freight train weighs between 12,000 to 20,000 tons. So, hmmmm, 900,000 tons. It sings well. “Nineteen thousand tons of steel...” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
OK—so here’s a far-fetched idea: maybe the train represents the whole shebang of being on tour with the band. (Can’t keep up with the rumors; can’t begin to count the trips; made to roll...) That almost works. I do get the feeling that the entire Grateful Dead on the road experience was something of a juggernaut—perhaps not quite out of control, but maybe always seeming about ready to jump the tracks. And by the time he wrote the song, he could have been with the band for about four or five years—long enough to get the feel of the endlessness of touring.
Or maybe Brent just felt like he ought to write a train song. That seems possible.
The strength of Brent’s songs came from the sheer ability he possessed to express strong emotion through his singing. And he sang the heck out of “Tons of Steel.” I’ve missed that, and I’ve missed his playing all these years. Remember, he took the place, musically, of both Keith and Donna, and he filled both slots admirably. He could sing smooth or rough. He could play delicately or full-out rock and roll.
Robert Hunter expressed admiration for Brent’s compositions: “[with Brent] the old songs came magically into tune and richly harmonized while new songs of Brent's own composition added diversity to the band's repertoire.”
I stand ready to be enlightened, corrected, taken to task, or whatever you may have in store. “I can only hope my luck is riding in the back...”
I always pictured this song as a metaphor of life, love and health running all together. All the references to time, changes in personalities, of the train, the track, the ups and downs of life that seem to become cyclical in a long term relationship. same crap over and over again, the train as a metaphor for me adds a romantic view to it all, referring to always heading out, always coming back, but this time something is a little different whether in him or life, and he's starting to question ability of strength to complete the run. I still haven't come up with an answer for who "they" are, but the stretch of track could be a reference to touring or something personal. Im probably wrong, but thats the feelings I get when I listen to this. Its easily one of my favorites and I sure would have loved to hear it live.
tons of steel for me a high light of in the dark, west la fade away- not so much, the time i spent at dead concerts were always high lighted when the monkey man got the mic flapped away at the keys or helped bob build energy at shows , always found it hard to understand people dancing during to space/drums give me some words a melody and let's go, brent was there always to get jerry focused his backward glance to brent and then songs took off
if tons of steel is about a woman, drugs or a band relationship its 900,000 tons of steel because when things get going there is a force of inertia beyond the physical weight and it sounds cool (if you need google to help, i hope you realize before you search- you can't stand on the moon)
can't for the life of me understand why there isn't a disc of brent songs or they haven't released the studio album he made
"Our mothers are crazy. They're out dancing in the rain."
We brought my orange pup tent and set it up on the field. At some point it started raining and two little girls came up and asked if they could sit in the tent. They said, "Our mothers are crazy. They're out dancing in the rain."
We let them in the tent.
Tons of Steel was a superior piece of songwriting. I always wished it would have stayed longer in the repertoire. I also wanted to see Brent and the band play and carry forward that great song called Gentlemen Start Your Engines. But the musician (and with the Grateful Dead's collective yea-or-nay approach) or musicians will always have their reasons for keeping a song breathing for the audience or not.
Someone in the band once said (was it Robert Hunter?) that a rose was a prime metaphor in poetry & song for just about anything in life you can think of. But in the American Life Experience it is the locomotive train and the many things associated with trains that do the trick for me.
Tons Of Steel, Casey Jones, He's Gone, Chuck Berry's Let It Rock, and countless other classic songs telling of life's stories from the platform of the station. Happy or sad, good or bad, the comparisons to the life experience can be found on the rails. Narrow gauge or standard, short-line or the overnight sleeper car, coal-fired steam or diesel-electric. You won't get anywhere unless you 'Get On The Train' and ride forward on the Train Of Life.
"Tickets please! Next stop......Willoughby!" (timeless Twilight Zone Episode)
I know these rails we're on like I know my lady's smile
Re-see a dozen dreams in every passing mile
Can't begin to count the trips
That she and I have made
But I wish I had a dollar
For each time we both been down this grade
Familiarity breeds contempt?
He’s been on a lot of “trips” with her
And is commenting on the downhill portion…
Nine hundred thousand tons of steel
Made to roll
Her brakes don't work and this grade's so steep
Her engine's sure to blow
Nine hundred thousand tons of steel
Out of control
She's more a roller-coaster than the train I used to know
The downhill run is faster than he wants it to be now,
I’ve had trips like that before...
a roller coaster of emotion, instead of a straight line,
and at a pace so fast it seems that “Charlie stole the handle” again!
It's one hell of an understatement to say she can get mean
She's temperamental, more a bitch than a machine
She wasn't built to travel at
The speed a rumour flies
These wheels are bound to jump the tracks
Before they burn the ties
She can turn on you, going faster than she should.
The train will derail before the track gives out…
the “ties that bind”—the relationship and the tracks.
Murphy's sure outdone himself to pick this stretch of track
I can only hope my luck is riding in the back
Well I have prayed to God
This ain't the day we meet
I've done about everything
But try dragging my feet
Oo, oo, I wanna go down slow
Oo, oo, oo, oo, oo
Nine hundred thousand tons of steel
Out of control
She's more a roller coaster than the train I used to know
Maybe the Flinstones’ brakes are the way to go! :) :) :)
Thanks so much for sharing your version, Michael! And yes, you do bear quite a resemblance to Brent in the video, as someone noted in the comments.
Just in case anyone might be interested, I folked-out Tons of Steel for this years Dead Covers Project.
If anyone actually watches it, sorry for the video...Im half a guitar player from Indiana, not Martin Scorsese...
Might As Well
I have always believed this song to be metaphor for the Grateful Dead tour experience. How much does Google say a parking lot full of VW buses weighs?