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!)
After a brief foray into the land of cynicism with my post last week, it’s back to my usual hopeful outlook today, albeit via a song that seems to lack hope.
I was listening to the new Wake Up to Find Out release on my drive in to work today, when up came “We Can Run.” It’s a beautiful version, and the fact that Brent forgets the words to the final verse only adds to its charm—great to hear that chuckle from him, and I could just picture him shaking his head, smiles all around the band. Join the club, Brent — who in the band hasn’t forgotten a verse here and there?
And it occurred to me that this coming Sunday is the People’s Climate March in New York City, and it seemed like the time to take up this song.
The Dead were quite involved on a number of levels in environmental causes over the years. They played numerous benefit concerts for organizations working for change in environmental concerns, ranging from the February 17, 1979 show at the Oakland Coliseum Arena for Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Campaign to End Environmental Cancer to the New York City concert in support of the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and Cultural Survival on September 24, 1988. At the time Jerry Garcia was quoted in a New York Times article:
''We've never called on our fans to align themselves with one cause or another, and we've always avoided making any political statements,'' the band's lead guitarist and vocalist, Jerry Garcia, said Tuesday. ''But this [saving the rainforests] is an issue that is life-threatening, and we hope that we can empower our own audience to act.''
(The 1991 CD they subsequently supported, Deadicated, which featured bands playing cover versions of Dead songs, was earmarked for the Rainforest Action Network’s and Cultural Survival’s benefit.)
So when Brent Mydland and John Barlow came up with “We Can Run” for the 1989 Built to Last release, its sentiments were in line with years of action and support on the part of the band. Barlow’s lyrics, much as they were with “Throwing Stones,” are anything but subtle, and the preachiness is only offset by the sincerity of Brent’s delivery—hard to argue with that bluesy voice being righteous. Mydland’s setting for the words is pretty straightforward, and his bridge is well-constructed, but overall there isn’t much to distinguish the song aside from its message. Maybe that is intentional.
The message is that we are stewards of our planet. And that we are not behaving well in that regard. It’s not a new message, but it does seem to be one that has to be sung, stated, written, and delivered by any means necessary on a continuous basis.
Last night, I watched the documentary The Cove with my son, a high school freshman, who was assigned the film as extra credit. He has to write about it. His immediate takeaways, aside from the brutality of the meaningless slaughter of intelligent beings, were that clearly some few people stand to make a lot of money at the expense of the overall ecosystem. Myself, I had to leave the room when the killing started.
Barlow’s condemnation of our failure to be good stewards of our home planet is wide-ranging. He points out, in the short course of three verses, that we have a hole in the ozone layer, that war and arms dealing distract us from concern for the environment, that the widening gap between rich and poor worsens everything, and that subsequent generations will reap the consequences—“the children of our children’s kids.” This seems like a pretty thorough summary of all the depressing factors at work in the world, only leaving out religious fanaticism (although that could be one of the excuses to use guns that Barlow mentions).
The new release of the show from Nassau Coliseum in March 1990 showcases Garcia’s solo work in the song—particularly well-placed following the line “the sound of one child crying…” which stands alone with accompaniment. Garcia’s solo enters as a wail, and, as with all his playing on this release, proceeds with elegance and emotion. No wonder Mydland was speechless after the solo and forgot the words to the next verse!
One aspect of Barlow’s lyrics I’ve always enjoyed is his re-use of cliché phrases in ways that re-expose them and make them new, and he does this in this song, beginning with the title. “He can run, but he can’t hide,” is a phrase (often used with “you can run…”) embedded in our language. It seems to have been coined by Joe Louis, the fighter, prior to a heavyweight bout in 1946. Barlow turns it in on itself, using the first person plural, and making it clear that the planet is only so big.
“Of all possible worlds,” echoes Voltaire’s character Candide—“In this best of all possible worlds…everything is for the best.” Blind optimism in the case of the original statement (though mocked by Voltaire), turned into an admonishment in Barlow’s hands. And in a way, this song takes the lyrics of “Throwing Stones” and expands and re-emphasizes that view of our bright blue ball, dizzying with possibility.
The day Brent died, my good friend Blake, a guitar player, comforted himself by playing and singing this song. It’s a good thing to remind ourselves that the global sense of the song can also be taken as intensely personal: we can run, but we can’t hide from ourselves. (Think of the identity of the “nightmare spook” in “Throwing Stones”— you and me.)
Global / personal. Time to stop running, turn around, and face ourselves and the facts.
There I go…preachy! Sorry.