Grateful Dead

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!


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mredcorky's picture
Joined: Jun 15 2007
Unbroken Chain

Does anyone else remember the television commercial for the Wake Of the Flood album featuring a Gary Guiterez animated flying crow descending and descending and descending to the musical break of "Unbroken Chain" that aired during the first network TV showing of the movie "Bonnie & Clyde" on a Sunday night in 1974? That was weird
Try "Roses of Yesterday & Today" in Corralitos Ca for old time roses. They are fantastic!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
WRT the "love your brother" line

I think like just about every GD lyric worth its salt, this one has multiple things going on, one of which is the old brotherly love thing and one of which is a snark at the treatment of gay people. I don't know that Bobby Peterson was as good as Hunter at embedding multiple paradoxes in a single verse, but he was perfectly capable of conveying complexities!

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
a lot of images there

about religion being an enslaver of free thought and human rights-maybe some hints of segregation and the old south-I don't know-definitely food for thought in that song and the style and sound of the music (also hints of the crucifixtion of Christ along with subtle images of lynching)

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010
What if

this chain that Bobby Petersen wrote about, was a chain in need of repair.
Much like your experience David.
I assume you repaired the chain, making it unbroken, allowing you to furthur your studies?

Joined: Jun 6 2007

The linkage from Unbrokern Chain to bicycles can lead us to Dr Albert Hoffman, and the story of his illuminated bicycle ride from his lab to his home on April 19th, 1943.

That in turn links to a television current affairs show I watched last week, when an inteviewer asked whether a politician could mount a comeback tilt at the leadership. "Sure," said the pundit, "its just like riding a bicycle." The interviewer responded, "You mean it's better on drugs?"

Deadicated's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
P.S. Synchronicity

I'm a few over 100 pages into "Searchin' For the Sound" for the third time. ooooooOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Deadicated's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
Unbroken Chain

The song always reminds me of the phone call made in the Koolaid Acid Test to - help me w/ the name - whose presence was being requested at La Honda for the party that was beginning. It took a little coercing, but the invitee jumped in his car and took the harrowing jaunt in record time. I believe he was coined the Intrepid Traveler.

My current bouts of synchronicity seem to happen when I'm driving and Jack Straw is playing. I'll look up through the sunroof and there it is, another US flag.

I've had a love affair with magnolias from the time I was a kid. Our family had a huge one and it's flowers would bloom and make fragrant the whole house when we had the windows open in late May and June. I planted my own over 20 years ago and he does OK, but not like the beauty we had once ago.

Plant that Sugar Mag, Sr. Dodd.

unkle sam's picture
Joined: Oct 3 2008
Tampa 4-7-95

The only time I was fortunate to catch this tune live, and what a performance, the highlight of the night's performance, complete with airplane sounds, the only one that I have heard with the special "sound effects". When the first notes of the preamble started I was the only one in the immediate area that recognized it, I could not believe my ears, Jerry was so sweet with this song and why they did not play it before 95 is a mystery, any one know why the hold out of this beautiful song till then? Gay reference, never noticed it before now and I'm sure that is not what they were thinking with that line.
I too had a dead garden, good luck finding an american beauty rose, very hard to find these "antique" varieties of roses, the best way is to find one in a garden that is all ready growing and take a cutting and propigate yourself, it is not that difficult and fun and the result is a true american original. My grandmother use to be able to take rose cuttings and put them under a glass and they would root with out root stimulate, she had the biggest green thumb of anyone I ever met. When I first got into the dead back in the 70's I always thought one of those guys must be a horticultralist, due to the many references to plants and trees in their songs, and I thought that was a pretty cool thing being a horticultralist myself.

Bayedog's picture
Joined: Apr 14 2009

I am awake in the deep night reading this and thought to listen to the performance of this song live. The roar of the crowd moved me to tears. I miss you all.

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009

It was a shame the boys didn't take it up in '77. The reality is we are all inter-connected. This song is a brilliant expression of this sentiment. One of my favorites. The Charlotte Chain is the most together imho.


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