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!)
It took a LONG time for me to warm up to “Victim or the Crime.” Others characterized it as angular and dissonant, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything about it for somewhere around my first 20 times hearing it.
And then, it was at a show at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, in December of some year, and BAM—it clicked. Somehow it seemed to me that the band had finally grabbed ahold of the song in a way that it finally made enough sense to them to be able to really play it.
It was still a very strange piece, no doubt about that. But it had, somehow, morphed into an intense vehicle for jamming, and suddenly the band seemed to be playing the heck out of it.
I’m sure it was more me than the band—that I had finally learned how to listen to the song, but at the time, as I say, it seemed like it was the band that had made the breakthrough.
The lesson I have taken from that is that I shouldn’t rush to judgment about any particular musical piece. And I’ve taken that lesson into non-musical realism, where I’m dealing with difficult writing, or even with difficult people or situations, to give second, third, twentieth chances. The lesson is that patience may eventually be rewarded.
But yes: still a weird example of the songwriter’s art.
Bob Weir’s music is often challenging—full of unexpected twists and turns. Coupled with the Gerrit Graham lyric, “Victim or the Crime” challenges us at several levels simultaneously.
Graham’s essay on the song, “The Crime, and its Victims,” which he allowed me to post on the Annotated Lyrics site back in 2004, is good background reading. He explains that Weir had most of the chorus already written—“what fixation feeds this fever / etc....” but that was it. So Graham took a shot at it, and it came pretty much all in one shot, with very few words changed after the first draft:
“In any case, the final lyric is 99% first draft (Weir changed one or three words, as he always does, like a dog marking his territory. It's his prerogative -- he's the one who has to get up there and sing it.) How I managed to come out with just what Bob had in mind is unanswerable; it must have been some sort of non-conscious synchrony, two guys who just happened to be in the same space, and suffering the same existential dread, at the same moment. Mysterious.”
(Photo: Gerrit Graham)
What brought the song to mind for this week was tuning in to David Gans’s “Dead to the World” show on KPFA last Wednesday, and hearing what sounded a lot like a “Victim” as it might be performed by Mickey Hart. But it wasn’t Hart—it was an effort produced for the Dead Covers Project by a band called “accident of birth.” Look it up—very quirky and wonderful—not to mention ambitious!
“Victim” debuted on June 17, 1988, at the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. It remained in the rotation thereafter, and was played for the final time on July 2, 1995 at Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana. It was released on Built to Last on October 31, 1989.
Graham’s lyrics for the song, which, in his essay, he says he’s never been able to match for sheer “giddy direness,” seem to be an existential rant which match perfectly with (again in Graham’s words), Weir’s “mutant-Bartok extravaganza.”
He writes at some length about the controversy touched off by his use of the word “junkie” in the first line, about the hubbub from certain sectors of Dead-dom, about Garcia’s own dismissal of the word, and about Weir’s tenacity in the face of the voices condemning him for using the word “junkie” in a Grateful Dead song.
When I hear the song, certain phrases may jump out at me, depending. “Is destruction loving’s twin?” for instance. And “even the purest of romantics compromise.” I mean—wow! What’s not to like about a song that can include phrases like those?
A wonderful interview with Bonnie Simmons for a Built to Last promo disk in September 1989 sheds even more light on the song. I’m going to quote it at length here:
JG: I think the first time Weir showed it ["Victim or the Crime"] to me was when we played with Joan Baez at an AIDS thing in the city, and he -- I listened in amazement and said "God, that's got pretty angular changes, doesn't it?" It's fascinating because it defies, almost, any effort to play freely through it. You have to know it; it's that simple. It has changes in it, and they're very strict, and they have lots of real dissonant moments. So the angularity of it was fascinating to me, the tonality was, because it's one of those things where you really have to stretch to figure out something appropriate to play to add to the tonal mood of the tune.
The text of it -- I don't believe I've ever actually listened to all the words to it. Ever. I have the gist of it; by now I probably could recite it if I really had to, but the text of it is more of the same in a way, it doesn't have a whole lot of light in it. It's very dense, and it's angst-ridden to boot. So it seemed to me when we were starting to record it, in order to save it from an effort to make it more attractive, I thought that what would work with the song would be to just go with it, to go with the angularity and the sort of asymmetrical way it's structured, and play to expose that. An early possibility that occurred to me was that this would be an interesting song to do something really strange with. And this is where of course Mickey comes into the picture, 'cause he's one of the guys that holds down the strangeness corner and he's always a willing accomplice in these ideas. So I thought the Beam, which is an instrument that people feel about about the way they feel about Victim or the Crime, the tune – I thought, let's take two of the things that really have a huge potential for really upsetting people --
BS: A polarization tool.
JG: Absolutely -- and let's combine them in a happy marriage, something that will be a real horror show. And it's turned out to be strangely beautiful. I really enjoy it, now. When me and Mickey started working on it, I'd be sitting there listening and say "You know, I may be going crazy, but I'm starting to like this..."
BS: I am too. Initially I thought it was one of the oddest things I had ever imagined.
JG: Well, it certainly is strange. It's one of Weir's stunningly odd compositions, but it's also very adventurous. It's uncompromising; it's what it is, and the challenge of coming up with stuff to play that sounds intelligent in the context has been incredible, but also appropriately gnarly. I really wanted that part of it to work.I think we did a nice job on the record with it. It works. Whatever it is, it works. I'm real happy with it because it was one of those things that was like, "What are we going to do with this?" It's like having a monster brother that you lock in the attic. It's like a relative that you -- "God, I hope nobody comes over when he's eating...." But that's one of the things that makes the Grateful Dead fun.
We've got a handle on it, I think, now, and there's also places for us to take it. I think it may open up into something truly monstrous. It may turn into something truly monstrous in the future, and certainly the recorded version works.
And Garcia was absolutely right—it did open upon into “something truly monstrous” for the band. The words Garcia uses to describe the song—lyrics and music, include “angst-ridden,” “gnarly,” and “adventurous.” It’s certainly all those things.
And it teaches patience. Which is the first word of the song.