Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Unbroken Chain"
By David Dodd
I think I have the very best true synchronicity story related to the Grateful Dead. An audacious claim, I know, but just listen to this.
When I was a student at UC Davis, in 1976 or 1977, in my very first year of being a Deadhead, I was getting ready to ride my bike in to campus from my apartment. I was humming a Grateful Dead song, and hopped onto the bike. Just as I stepped onto the pedals and started pushing, I was singing “Blue light rain, whoah, unbroken chain,” and at that very instant my bike chain snapped.
Over the years, I’ve heard many more synchronicity stories—I’d like it if you shared yours.
“Unbroken Chain” is, for me, one of the BIG songs in the Dead’s repertoire. Words by Bobby Petersen, music by Phil Lesh, it stands as one of most musically complex pieces they performed, and the fact that it was never, until 1995, performed live in concert by the Grateful Dead puts it into a unique category. The roar that went up from the audience when they broke it out at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on March 19 of that year virtually drowned out the first minute of the performance. It stayed in the live repertoire during that final tour, and was played in the penultimate spot in the second set of their last show on July 9, straight out of Drumz and into “Sugar Magnolia.” Ten live performances.
But the studio version on Mars Hotel always blows me away. The mysterious studio sounds that resemble jet planes taking off or water dripping, the incredible Garcia solo, the rapid changes in mood and the twists and turns of tempo and structure all combine for a wild ride. And Bobby Petersen’s lyric is right up there with some of Hunter’s best, for me.
The title has been taken up by a number of entities and events over the years—somehow it exemplifies something about the band. There was a fanzine called “Unbroken Chain,” started in 1986 by Laura Paul Smith and continued under the editorship of Dave Serrins, running for more than ten years. The Phil Lesh charitable foundation is called Unbroken Chain. And a large conference was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a few years back, also called Unbroken Chain. Clearly, the phrase appeals to Deadheads in a big way.
In the Annotated Lyrics, I devote a half-column of annotation to the concept of “unbroken chain,” mostly as a theological construct relating to the transmission of authority. In Petersen’s lyric, the unbroken chain is “of you and me,” as well as “of sorrow and pearls,” “of sky and sea,” and “of the western wind.” Image after image in the lyric is put forth, each layering onto the other in a cumulative accretion of meaning. Like a pearl, maybe. For me, the imagery and the phrase “unbroken chain” together work to tell me to make my own meaning of what is around me, whether it be from loss, from sorrow, from the natural world, or from my fellow human beings.
Last week, I was at the Grateful Dead Archive at the UC Santa Cruz library, and there, in a glass case, was a lyrics sheet for “Unbroken Chain” with Garcia’s handwritten notes for the chords. Someday I have to head down to the Archive and spend some time with the Bobby Petersen papers.
For awhile, I speculated that Bobby Petersen may have been gay, what with the line about catching it when you try to love your brother. Probably not, but an apt line for our times, from a number of perspectives.
This song mentions lilacs, so it reminds me of my mother, whose birthday was this week. She would have been 90 on Monday. A few years ago I planted a lilac in my back yard in her memory, as the first plant in what has become my Grateful Dead theme garden. Kind of a fun idea, I think, to grows plants mentioned in Grateful Dead songs. So far, I have manzanita, lilacs, begonias, roses, and lilies. I’d like to add a magnolia. For years I have been unsuccessfully seeking a real American Beauty rose, but have had no luck as yet. Mangrove might be a bit tough, and a weeping willow would take up too much room.
In San Francisco, there’s a Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park (I’m sure they have these in many places throughout the world), which has all the plants mentioned in Shakespeare. I would love to see a garden like that in Golden Gate Park for the Dead—a civic Grateful Dead Garden. There they could grow all the plants—barley, wheat, corn, and on and on. A weeping willow by the bank’s green edge. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
I’m hoping for a conversation that could include synchronicity, gardens, authority, gay rights, and anything else that might be on your mind. Over to you!
I found the Stanford show on archive.org that I mentioned earlier:
Turn it up, the crowd reaction I referred to is pretty cool. Great memories!
edit: listening to the rest of the show, it's a keeper! I suggest you download it!
For those who haven't experienced it yet, the "Unbroken Chain" at Furthur's 1/19/2013 show (Sweetwater, Mill Valley) may be the best version I've ever heard. 15+ minutes of aural bliss, a really poignant version of a cool song. In addition to excellent instrumental work, it contains the finest vocal performance by Phil that I can recall in his 70+ years. Worth checking out.
I've told this story before, but it bears repeating here as we have drifted into a conversation about weird GD coincidences. I attended a Garcia solo acoustic show in Boston (82?). Great experience all around except one bonehead who kept yelling, "Gaaaarcia!" during quiet moments. Anyway, someone gave me an audience recording of the show and during "Gomorrah" just after Jerry sings, "I heard a voice telling me to flee," someone near the taper is having an argument about who should be sitting where, and says angrily, "Get the f**k out of here!"
That aside, "Unbroken Chain" has always been an unusual side-trip in the repertoire for me. I love it in the context of the studio album, and it still makes me smile during a Furthur show these days. I think I'll crank it up on the way to work this morning. Thanks!
I think synchronicity is a theme of the song in a sense. I was just referencing that quote from Repo Man about the "plate o' shrimp" somewhere else. I think I am warming up to your somewhat stream-of-consciousness prose, David! I attended both Hampshire and UMass, but I wasn't in Amherst for the conference. Heard about it though. Unbroken Chain is a special song. The studio version was always a favorite. My personal story is just that I stopped seeing the band after Brent died, other than a JGB show, partly because of sadness and the loss of 'that' band, and partly because of geography. I was living in Oregon, Alaska, and Germany at times they weren't in those places. But after 5 years I ended up seeing the boys on that final summer tour of '95. One show. Giants Stadium. And they played it...so what if Jerry basically laid out during the solo. It was special...and synchronous...and a chance to say goodbye to the Grateful Dead, even if I didn't know it at the time.
Psyched for Capitol Theatre Furthur shows!
I know similar moments like this have happened to me...I know because people tell me stories about when...but I can never seem to remember these powerful moments. That being said, Bolo's story sounds really special and I don't doubt it for a second. Had it just been you and the kid, it'd be different, but the whole crowd erupting shows how GD were really (and still are) connected to something that just can't be explained.
Now Im going to tell a story that might sound ridiculous compaired to bolo's and others stories but I feel it has some connection. I've said this before and I'll say it again but every time Im on a long road trip and if Im listening to a live album that happens to have Dark Star on it...one of those older Dark Stars that is just a perfect musical ride...the ups and downs of the song will absolutely fit perfectly with what is happening with the traffic. Yes, I know this is dumb compared to other stories, but if you were talking to my ex about how I used to say this all the time and she'd think I was joking but saw what I was talking about when we were driving through the mountains of Tennessee and no one would be around...then someone would cut me off or pull out in front of me...and suddenly the music would move from some mellow spaced out moment into some dissonant, intense build-up before quickly settling back down...Sorry for this ridiculous story but I cant tell you how many times this has happened on a road trip.
A late summer show at Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford campus (don't recall the date - '83 or so). It was an overcast day. I remember a very young boy, completely naked, complaining to his mom that he was cold. The band was playing "Althea" at the time, and when Jerry sang, "this space is getting hot," the clouds instantly parted and the sun broke through brightly. When he repeated the line, "you know this space is getting hot," it actually was, suddenly, rather hot! And the event was not lost on the crowd: a very loud roar erupted as everyone soaked in the warmth of the moment. Jerry grinned broadly.
That was a good day.
Unbroken Chain was a song< I had never expected to hear live...it had moved to the "What Became Of The Baby" closet.....I was in Philly for the debut.....While it was extremely blissful, it was also a very real enigma. I couldn't stop thinking about why now.
Clearly Garcia's playing was suffering.........Did he just want to have the band give it a go, before it was too late? Was it a tip of the hat towards Garcia, knowing it was written for Phil's father, as he was moving on.
It was all that was left to uncover.....The secret had been shared......"listening for the secret, searching for the sound". cause the loss of Garcia was at hand. With his passing, we would all be searchin' for the sound.
While the Grateful Dead never really performed it to its potential live, Phil and Friends from 1999 with Warren Haynes and Furthur have really made it a show highlight.
I believe the commercial you are referring to is part of the extras on the Grateful Dead Movie DVD
I am looking at the lyrics and something caught my eye....Was Peterson a sports fan? Now we know that Bobby and Phil enjoy sports especially baseball and football. The lines that grabbed me were; "They say love your brother but will you catch it when you try" "Roll you down the line boy, drop you for a loss" "November and more as I wait for the score" We all know that sports teams have a brotherly comadarie with each other and catch it when you try is the effort made to catch the football. I am assuming football because of the next line about rolling down the line as in scrimage and dropping for a loss in yardage behind the line of scrimage. Was the narrator watching games in November and fell asleep and now has to wait for the 11 o'clock news, remember that this song was written well before ESPN and 24 hour cable sports channels.
I also love the tempo shift in the middle. It sort of reminds me of a King Solomon vibe and perhaps Phil was trying to find the groove for this and it didn't hit him until Blues For Allah.
Hi everyone, and thank you for your extended thoughts on the song, along with tips for where I might possibly find an American Beauty rose! I definitely have to always agree with each and every potential interpretation--if it's what it means to you, then it's valid. And if that idea rings true for someone else, or if there's a conversation that is engendered as a result, that is just gravy.
Thanks for the link (!) to Albert Hoffman, Robin! I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Hoffman speak live at a symposium at UC Santa Cruz, entitled "LSD: A Generation Later." It was quite wonderful, and he received a long standing ovation when he entered the room. He described that bicycle ride.
I want to see that TV commercial!! Wow.
Enjoying the conversation about religion, multiple meaning in lyrics, and plants!