Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "We Can Run"

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!)

"We Can Run"

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.


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Joined: Jul 10 2015

Here in CO we have fires like never before. The smoke from the fires goes into the atmosphere and makes its way to Greenland, makes the ice dark. When the ice is dark it absorbs sun instead of reflecting it. Ice warms then brakes off. When it brakes seas rise. When seas rise coastal cities flood. When cities flood, people seek higher ground, it's chaos.

Winters are shorter. It's hot and getting hotter. Folks in Paonia are worried about water.

It was 117 in Los Angeles this summer.

The Handmaid's Tale isn't just a show on Hulu - it's happening.

Christian Nationalists have moved into all branches of our government. Their goal is to mold how we think and control all aspects of our lives;
1) Education
2) Religion
3) Family
4) Business
5) Government/Military
6) Arts/Entertainment
7) Media

Christian Nationalists have no desire to save the planet. It's the opposite - they'd rather see it destruct. Because then, Jesus comes back. Believers are saved. Everyone else goes to hell.

37 states are under Republican Control. Trump is President.

The only question left is, what are people going to do about it?

Joined: Dec 1 2017
30 Years Later...

This song camp up in a file above a webinar I was listening to which is speaking about our environmental and world state of affairs.

30 years later and the lack of care for what this song speaks to is about to do us in!

sisterearth's picture
Joined: Nov 26 2007
O man!

That is too funny!!

Heywood Jablome's picture
Joined: Mar 19 2012

David, Thanks for breaking all these songs down so at least i have a rudimentary idea of what some of the more obscure songs mean - some are obvious and others...not so much. I am in a mixed marriage and my wife used to ask me what certain songs were about (before she just gave up pretending to be interested entirely), most times I would just shrug and not have a clue which baffled her even more. For those in a mixed marriage check out this clip.

wilfredtjones's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
garbage in weird places

As an avid snowshoer and nature hiker, I get out to some far flung places. It isn't odd to find mattresses and carpet at some of the trailheads. One time I literally found a range. Tvs are also a popular junk to find. One time I was hiking near a secluded pond and was aghast to find someone had wheeled a huge tractor tire and dumped it in tall grass near the pond. What did I do? Well, I wheeled it back up to the trail in hopes someone from the park or volunteering would help take it the rest of the way. Wildlife is pretty adaptable though, wouldn't have been surprised if it would have become some type of microhabitat if I had left it. As it was though, it was a blight on the landscape imo.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
At a lot of shows

there were some pretty concerted efforts along these lines. One actually took brief shape as the Minglewood Town Council as part of an ultimately vain effort to save the Henry J as a venue. There we were, running around the whole neighborhood with trash bags. But while it made the BGP folks love us and fostered some lifelong connections, it didn't exactly solve the problem.

My worst post-concert trash memory was Park City 1987. Hey, I'd led a sheltered life to that point, and thus never encountered a Dead show where the ground was left carpeted by airline-size liquor bottles.

slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012
same as it ever was and more preachy pulpit...

'92 and '93 Soldier Field was not a prime example of Dead Head environmental consciousness raising either. An ocean of cans and bottles post-concert in the parking lots. Picked up what we could with the garbage bags that we had and set them by the two dumpsters just before Cook County's finest started hassling us to leave.

How far do we want to go here? Any stats on the tanker loads of fuel burned over the years in semi's and airplanes to "bring the party" to all of us? How much gas did we collectively burn up on tours?

Fun has its price.

And we could've done a much, much better job of leaving an impression that we actually did give a shit about where we were allowed to party. Cleaning up after yourself is also a way of saying, "Thank You". On a parting note I will say this: alcohol containers were 90% of the problem. I do not recall ever having to pick up roaches, mushrooms, or tabs.

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Don't Even Have to Run

More preaching! I recall being at (e.g.) the Vibes when the field clears after a long day of great music to reveal *mountains* of trash that some people leave, including plastic, bedding, cans and bottles, and stuff I can't name. And all this within feet of empty trash cans and recycling bins. This from the people who've just had their consciousness raised?

Note that the Vibes and other places employ people to clean this up, but what kind of a statement is that? That people are too high/wasted to recycle or clean up after themselves and would rather pay (this gets wrapped into your ticket price, honey) someone else to do it?

And I agree, that when you extend this to the global sphere, what we're paying with actually belongs to our descendants.

84-95's picture
Joined: Aug 29 2012
"Global / personal. Time to stop running, turn around, and ...

...face the facts."

Spot on, David, spot on.

The Grateful Dead-iverse was the first place I really began to pay attention to environmental issues, and I remember thinking (rather, uh, expansively) about the message of this song (and Throwing Stones, now that you mention it) during several shows, and being really sure we were just the right people to do something about it(saving the world, that is).

Then, walk out to the trashed parking lot, check under my tires for beer bottles, dodge the (hopefully) bagged trash on the drive out to never-never land, and re-think the whole question.

WE'IR going to change the world, when we can't even clean up after ourselves? We were the micro in the macro, so to speak, all rolled into one. Would we (will we?) wake up to find out that we must be more than the eyes of the world? To see is not enough; we must do, should we want to keep on waltzing with the stars, celestial balls ...

Great-now I'm preachy, too! Quick, queue up any 69 Lovelight!

Joined: May 9 2012
Backlash on the green movement

In my circle of people there has been a definite backlash toward the Global warming theory here in Cincinnati. "Global warming? We're in the middle of an Ice Age." I've became exasperated trying to open people's eyes. I think the industrial age, two hundred or so years old; a blip in Earth's history; has caused irreparable damage. This song points out a stark contrast in our lyricists Barlow and Hunter. I think Barlow more than holds his own versus the deified Hunter. I just wonder if the chads hadn't been dimpled and Gore won where we would be as a nation.
I'm dumpin' my trash in your back yard
Makin' certain you don't notice really isn't so hard
You're so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them.
all these complications seem to leave no choice,
I heard the tongues of billions speak with just one voice,
Saying, "Just leave all the rest to me,
I need it worse than you, you see."
And then I heard...
The sound of one child crying.........


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