Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Weather Report Suite"
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.
I never saw the GD on Valentine's Day, but I've always been intrigued by the poster for 2-14-68 at the Carousel Ballroom, with its audacious reference to Light by LSD.
I only caught the GD once on my birthday: 9-12-85 at the Kaiser. This was the third night of a three show run in which they used a liquid light show, and what do you know; there's video of that show available on youtube:
My sweet 16th, Providence Civic Center 4/26/84 was the only one I ever attended,but can't forget that the Dead played some hot shows over the years on 4/26(1969,1971,and 1972 spring to mind).
Happy birthday, David. Thanks for your work regarding the lyrics.
William Ruhlmann, in Relix v.12 no.2, Apr 1985 (whose article title I don't have handy), quotes Eric Andersen:
"I lived out in Mill Valley, and I had done some tours--I had toured with the Byrds a little bit and I had toured with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and I had met Garcia. Garcia had been a fan of mine, in a way. He loved some songs like 'Come to My Bedside' (from Today Is the Highway, 1965), and he knew them. I had seen him a couple of times, I'd play them and he could play them back to me. He was always very nice.
"So I knew those guys and I had been to a couple of concerts--some of the extravaganzas in Denver and different places. And when I moved to Mill Valley, bought a house, I was seeing Bob Weir from time to time--they were all living out there.
"He was working on this new song and he had tried to work with Garcia and it didn't work; he tried to work with Robert Hunter, that didn't work. So he called me! He said, 'Well, I've been trying it and I can't get it, could you come over and help me work on this? So, I just went over and we did it--spent a couple nights on it. I think they were in the midst of recording or just about to record, so he didn't have a lot of time."
Would be the retiring of Lost Sailor. But only after a much longer road test.
I personally loved the Weather Report Suite and would have liked to have seen it resurrected in it's entirety
when they brought back Here comes Sunshine during Vince's time.
Strangely enough, I had a dream long ago which was brought about by "Let it Grow." I was well aware at the time of the "I am" christian thing, being brought up in that, to me, unfortunate mode. Anyway, the dream consisted of me on the top of some rocky tor, winds howling, thunder roaring and lighting everywhere. I stood there on this tiny peak, grabbing the lightning bolts which were coming towards me and I was grabbing every one and throwing them back skyward, defiantly roaring, "I am , too!" But now, I'm a buddhist and I realised I don't have to or want to yell. But I've met many people over the years who I thought really should have into the Dead but they weren't simply because of the all too numerous christian references in many songs. It really annoyed them. Often, me, too. Even now, when the lyric of 'big wheel turns by the grace of god" comes on, I turn the sound down. Love the song, hate the line.
For a gift...
you get to pick how
old you are this year
and not your
It's a fun thought, xo.
I like your writing and
I will try to stop in and
leave a comment.
I was never at a birthday show, but I LOVE that the day I was born is a Dead DVD. Closing of Winterland, 12/31/78, is the day I was born!!
As for WRS....it has long been my favorite Dead piece, when played in full. I love a good Let It Grow, but nothing can touch the full suite for it's pure majesty. Without the Prelude and Part 1....Part 2 just doesn't have the same power.
Seeing the Dead after Jerry, 8/5/2003 in Indianpolis though, I was treated to a wonderful, beautiful WRS into The Eleven that was breath-taking. A combo never touched in GD times.
The Other One from 8/6/71 or Dicks picks 35, disc 4. You can hear Bob play part of the Prelude but it comes right after they come out of Me and My Uncle going back into The Other One.
Weir played with the lick for years. You can hear him toying with it between songs on 4/5/69 (if memory serves). There are other early performances I have heard him quote in jams as well. It's cool to think about it as being inspired over several years just waiting to emerge in its final form.
The best present I can give you is something for your ear. If you weren't already aware of this then you might enjoy it. From Dicks Picks 35, the beginning of The Other One, you can very briefly hear Bob Weir play a riff from the Prelude. So, its easy to say that he had been working on it for a long time. Which makes sense because it might be the most beautiful piece of music he ever wrote. I dont understand why they eventually dropped it and part one...
I love all the lyrics in this song. After I read the annotated lyric book, I became fascinated with the line "as well to count the angels dancing on a pin." Brings an interesting image to my mind, at least.