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!)
Just pokin’ around looking for an appropriate song for Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, it occurred to me that “When Push Comes to Shove” does deal explicitly with fear. My first choice for this week had been “Touch of Grey,” but I think I’ll save that one.
Lots to be afraid of out there in the world, but with all that there is to fear, what is it that the character in the song (the person to whom the singer is addressing the song) afraid of?
There may be a phantom in the closet. Or a mystery killer from Channel Four, but those pale in comparison to love.
And although it may not be the strongest Grateful Dead song, or even one that has a lot of staying power, it does in some way exemplify a talent of Robert Hunter—finding the surprising contradictions in our lives and exposing them—in this case, humorously or perhaps sarcastically, but with serious intent behind his castigations. Garcia gives it a catchy, bouncy tune, but there is something lacking, conviction-wise, in the end product, I always found. Maybe it’s the lack of a bridge.
The song was first performed on December 15, 1986, at the Coliseum Arena in Oakland. Also debuted in that show was “Black Muddy River.” It was played a total of 58 times, and given its final performance on July 17, 1989, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. The song appeared on “In the Dark,” released in July 1987.
I find it very interesting, lyrically, that the instrument of torture, and of the love that kills, is the perennial Grateful Dead symbol, the rose. Hmmmm. Yes, it is in the garden, surrounded by roses, that the character in the song is punched, captured, slapped, and ultimately loved to death, wrapped in their sweet perfume.
Could it be that everyone, by this point in the band’s journey, was simply sick and tired of roses?
Hunter once said “I've got this one spirit that's laying roses on me. Roses, roses, can't get enough of those bloody roses. The rose is the most prominent image in the human brain, as to delicacy, beauty, short-livedness, thorniness. It's a whole. There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, life, than roses.”
The Psalter Map, c. 1265
So here he takes those “bloody roses” and makes them the symbol of a deadly love, a love to be feared.
And really, in the context of the entire body of lyrics—especially Hunter’s, but of the band as a whole, this makes sense. Love, as an abstract concept, may be esteemed and put forth as the greatest value (“love will see you through,” “without love in the dream it will never come true,” etc.), but when it comes to actual, described love relationships, there isn’t a song in the repertoire that makes sense to sing, say, at a wedding.
The lovers in Grateful Dead songs are mostly either losing one another, or struggling along in some way: telling “sweet lies, one last time,” or “sitting and crying at home.” The song with the sweetest line, “I love you more than words can tell,” “Brokedown Palace,” is nevertheless about saying goodbye to that lover—perhaps in mourning at her passing, but nonetheless, within the context of sadness.
“Push,” then, puts that right out there. It takes THE big Grateful Dead motif, the rose, and has that symbolize the thing to be feared, which, conversely, is also the thing most to be prized: love. Roses, as so perfectly stated by Hunter in the previous quote, express the duality of all things (Gurdjieff said “roses, roses, thorns, thorns”). There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, love, than roses.
I do really enjoy the litany of things to be feared brought up in the song. There are surprises, obscure references (“bullets made of glass” seems to be a nod to an element in a Jules Verne book, for instance), and the evocation of the fear inherent in any kind of serious exploration of the unknown: “here there may be tigers” as a corollary of a convention in ancient maps to warn of danger: “here be dragons.” (Although, when I actually went looking for such maps, I really couldn’t find any…oh well. Doesn’t mean it’s not part of our consciousness, just because it doesn’t exist in “reality.” Checking Wikipedia today, I find an article entitled “Here be dragons” which cites two occurrences on ancient maps. So, real after all. But still.)
We’ve all, probably, had love relationships that have not been the easiest thing. And maybe we come to be afraid of love. Maybe we feel smothered by its sweet perfume and thorny branches. But really, when push comes to shove, is there anything we’d rather risk?
Probably not a great prompt for online discussion via the comments. Who wants to bare their soul about this topic in particular. So maybe we could look at some great scary stories—they don’t have to be about love. Fear is a good one, all on its own!
Happy hallowe’en, everyone!