By David Dodd
Okay, so first off, before we get to this week’s song, I just want to say that today is my birthday. (You can send presents in the form of commenting on this post—that’s all I want for my birthday from y’all.) Being born on Valentine’s Day has been a mixed blessing over the years. It was embarrassing when I was in elementary school, but it came in handy a couple of times later in life, as in when I got down on bended knee and proposed to my sweetheart 19 years ago: she cemented a very romantic episode by saying yes, and gave me the best birthday present ever.
In Grateful Dead land, I remember being very happy to note, early on in my fanaticism, that the Bear’s Choice album was partially recorded at a show on February 14, 1970. It is a special occurrence in our lives when we get to see a show on our birthday, and I was lucky enough to have that happen, twice! 1986 and 1988 at Kaiser. Anyone else have the chance to see a show on your birthday?
Then there is the whole Valentine’s Day thing, which makes me think about romance and the Dead. I’ve had my share of romantic episodes at Dead or Dead-related concerts over the years, including one particular version of “Morning Dew” …well, maybe I shouldn’t go into detail. More comment fodder, perhaps.
This week, by request, we’re looking at “Weather Report Suite,” (Prelude, Part 1, and Part 2). For a short time, the three pieces that comprise the Suite were played as such, but that was relatively short-lived by Grateful Dead standards.
The Prelude debuted in November 1972, originally as a separate piece from its eventual companions. The Dead played it, according to DeadBase, four more times in the spring of 1973 before it was first matched up with Weather Report Suite Parts 1 & 2, in September of that year. It was played regularly through October of 1974, and then dropped from the repertoire. The instrumental “Prelude,” composed by Weir, sets the stage for the two pieces to follow. I think it’s one of the most beautiful little pieces of music I know—I have never once skipped through it over years of listening. I just let it wash over me and know that its simplicity and beauty are preparing me for the melancholy of Part 1, and the sometimes epic grandeur of Part 2.
Part 1 is a song co-written with Eric Andersen, a well-known singer-songwriter who wrote the classic “Thirsty Boots.” He was on the Festival Express Tour (of “Might As Well” fame) across Canada along with the Dead, and I’m guessing that’s where Weir and he met and concocted this piece. Happy to be corrected on that by anyone who knows better. Andersen and Weir share the lyric credit, and the music is credited to Weir. Once it appeared in the rotation, in September 1973, it stayed in the repertoire only as long as the Prelude did, dropping entirely in October 1974.
The song addresses the seasons, and their changing mirrors the the singer’s state of mind as he reflects on the coming of love, and maybe its going, too: a circle of seasons, and the blooming and fading of roses. I particularly like the line “And seasons will end in tumbled rhyme and little change, the wind and rain.” There’s something very hopeful buried in the song’s melancholy. Is that melancholy just a projection of mine? I think there’s something about Weir’s singing that gets at that emotion. Loss, and the hope that there might be new love.
Weather Report Suite, Part 2 (“Let It Grow”) is a very different beast. It remained steadily in the rotation for the next 21 years after its debut, and the band played it 276 times. Its season of rarity was 1979, when it was played only three times, but otherwise, it was not far from the rotation. It could be stretched into a lengthy jamming tune (clocking at over 15 minutes several times), building to a thundering crescendo. And the “Weather Report” aspect of the song is what was really the most fun many times.
I think many Deadheads have stories, shared experiences of times when it seemed like the music was making the weather, or vice-versa, as rain clouds piled up during outdoor shows, and occasionally cut loose. Would they play “Cold Rain and Snow” or “Looks Like Rain” or “Let it Grow”? Whatever, we would madly caper about in the downpour, reveling in the unity of the music and the environment. (The reverse was also true, when a hot and dusty day would give rise to a “Me and My Uncle” or a “Jack Straw.”)
The song’s lyrics are almost over the top in their profundity: John Barlow, the theology student, outdoing himself in his invocation of several major doctrinal issues, such as the name of the divine—“What shall we say, shall we call it by a name?” The name, he points out, is on the earth, and in the thunder, that shouts its existence: “I am.” This is a direct biblical reference, of course, when Moses, wandering in the desert, asked the burning bush its name, and was answered “I am.” (Exodus 3:13-14).
The way I hear the song, Barlow invokes the earthly elements of water, earth, air, and fire and compares the lives of us who live on the planet to the significance of the totality. We won’t ever know what “the work of the day” will eventually signify, but we are a part of the big “I am,” too.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of ink spilled, some of it wonderfully, on the question of the Grateful Dead and spirituality. There are Christian Deadheads, Buddhist Deadheads, Atheist Deadheads, and Deadheads of every other spiritual and religious stripe. (I myself am a Unitarian Universalist Deadhead.) We each have stories about how the band and the music have affected or been affected by our spiritual seeking and our choices. This might be a good place to share some of those stories, too.
Your turn. Birthdays, love, spirituality, weather. Good topics for your comments.