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...”
Big Railroad Blues, Monkey and the Engineer, Casey Jones, Beat it on Down the Line, I Know You Rider all have train references. This was top of my head (no peeking!), I'm sure there are many others...
This song was Brent at his best. The Dead's hand of "Tragedies narrowly averted" songs is well known. These lyrics are about a train of 900,000 tons of steel going down a grade where the reduction in gears of an engine determine the slowing speed, not the limited breaks.
Brent's sentiment on Murphy's nightmare: "I want to go down slow!"
I loved this quintessential Dead song and wonder why it got dropped out of the rotation forever?