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...”
This song has always reminded me of a bad night of cocaine abuse. You start out on I know these "rails"......and it is a singular story. It than switches to plural. We have been down the track before. Its just you and the drugs again.....
The songs then get to a point of an out control locomotive screaming down a sharp decline, while hoping the engine/heart doesn't blow. Sounds like an impending overdose.....then you just want to be let down slow...
Thats the beauty of the Grateful Dead.......It can mean so many things, to so many people, on so many different levels.
I guess if I had to pick one Brent song to listen to, it would be this one. I'm put off by the love songs, and the insufferable I Will Take You Home dashes any post-drums hope I might have had. Blow Away is convincing if I'm in that mood (about once every 2 years). But Tons of Steel is just pleasant and rocking, and I don't really know or care what it is about. I'd always assumed it was a metaphor for a heavy(!) relationship with a woman, until Mr. Dodd pointed out its reverse nature. That was a very astute observation. But "She's more roller coaster than the train I used to know"? That says she's running too fast for him, out of control. He's going to let her go on without him. So I doubt it has anything to do with touring, unless Brent was thinking of quitting when he wrote it. I guess only he could answer why it was dropped from the repertoire in its prime. The guy was enigmatic like that. Thankfully, there are plenty of versions out there for posterity.
Due to the Tie Dye backdrop, a Cortney Pollock,
this photo is from the Greek Theatre, UCBerkeley May 13 -15, 1983 set of shows.
No Brent vocals at these shows but smokin' sets.
I love the idea of trying to think of the Tons of Steel as a biker ride! It remind me that when I first heard Emmylou Harris's version of "Luxury Liner," I thought it was about a cruise ship, not a truck. And that had the line "Luxury liner, 40 tons of steel..." so that can't really be right either, in terms of weight.
Mary--I've never managed to get my hands on any of Silver's albums. Maybe we should talk...
I too was present at the break out of this song. "Day Tripper" was the highlite of the show tho.
It seems to me on the first reading of the song the "weight" of the train increased as the song progressed.
Always a tune to get the folks up and dancin'.
My take was formed at the Mountain Aire show in '87,
the song seems to me to be a trist on the state of the band.
The out of control of the situation leading up to "In The Dark",
the crowd expansion, the way the jams would careen across the universe,
The feeling of complete loss of control during a transition between songs.
Also one of the best versions of the song Aug. 22, 1987,
third song of the first set of the opening day.
After David Lindley and El Ray-o X and Santana.
Nice. I hadn't looked at this blog in a little while...coincidentally though, I was just listening to my last Brent show (and second-to-last GD show!) a day or two ago. Foxboro 7/14/90. I'm not a big fan of I Will Take You Home, which came out of space that night, but there was also a great Far From Me in the first set. Don't get me wrong...Take You Home is pretty, and I appreciate its meaning or whatever. Far From Me is great though, and I always liked Tons of Steel, having seen it live a number of times (Hampton 87 comes to mind, since I was just writing about that tour in the tapers section). Easy to Love You might be my favorite, but I also liked Blow Away (2nd set opener - Pittsburgh 89!), and really all his songs, as well as the band tunes that he made major contributions to.
But to get back to Tons of Steel. Um...I guess I'll go with the woman/relationship metaphor being the dominant one, which kind of makes me think of Good Times/Never Trust a Woman for some reason. But I can see the touring metaphor as well. I guess I don't have much else to say about it, other than that it makes me think of the 80s, my heyday with the Dead. In some ways the Brent tunes seem sort of B-list compared to the great Garcia and Weir tunes (or even Lesh if one thinks of Box, or Unbroken Chain, say), but they are solid nonetheless, and I love most of 'em. I saw five of the nine Furthur shows at the Capitol last month, and at the last of them they opened the 2nd set with Just a Little Light. Sweet.
I always perceived the lyrics to this Brent song to be about a biker ride.
A bunch of Harley's rolling through the high Sierra's on the border of California and Nevada getting out of control.
Anyone else share that thought or theory?
Sometimes you can get shown the light.
...but that ain't nuthin' compared to how heavy a woman will make your life, good and bad.
I didnt realize that the song was dropped around the time In The Dark came out, pretty interesting... I guess the song just got too heavy.
Im talkin' heavy like Marty McFly going back to 1885 and turnin into a werewolf before kickin Mad Dog Tannen's ass.
Thats heavy...Boof knows what Im talkin about.
this reminds me that when Chuck Berry does "Let It Rock," it's sort of appealing Americana fluff. When Jerry does it, the train is an ominous cosmic force that shakes every bone in your body, and you better get out of the way and let it roll on. Jerry's transformation of Let It Rock has always struck me as one of his best achievements.
that this song (like other train songs) is something of a meta-song about the whole experience of being caught up in the GD band scene. I was thinking about this overnight, and realizing that in that sense it is a companion to the sweet, sad "Musician," one of Brent's songs with his previous band Silver, whose album I snagged from the remainder bin at Payless back in the day. To be a musician, it's not an easy life, says the song.