Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - “When Push Comes to Shove”

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!)

“When Push Comes To Shove”

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!


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ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Psalter map

Hi Anna--thanks for the great comment. The Psalter Map was included because it is one of two known ancient maps that actually comments on an area with the warning: here be dragons. I admit, the image was too small for me to locate that exact spot on the map, but I thought--hey, it's there somewhere. Maybe we can get a bigger version of the image and pinpoint just where that was. I didn't mean anything about Christianity by including the image... but I do love the possible correlation to / association with the crown of thorns.

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
The Psalter Map

All right, Mr. Dodd, you have picked my interest with your conjecture of Hunter's intent in "Push" and the inclusion of The Psalter Map.

A psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms, often with other devotional material bound in as well, such as a liturgical calendar and litany of the Saints. Until the later medieval emergence of the book of hours, psalters were the books most widely owned by wealthy lay persons and were commonly used for learning to read. Many Psalters were richly illuminated and they include some of the most spectacular surviving examples of medieval book art.

Psalter world map is the name historiography gave to a medieval world map that has been found in a psalter. This mappa mundi is now conserved at the British Library in London.

The small map (c. 9.5 cm or 3.7 in high) shows a lot of details. It has been written around 1260; the author is unknown. According to historian Anna-Dorothee von den Brincken it looks like a small version of the Ebstorf Map from Northern Germany.

It is a typical mappa mundi that does not only show the geographical and historical knowledge but also puts it into the frame of salvation history. Jesus Christ appears in the East (i.e. "above"), as the maps of Christian Middle Ages have East above, not North, giving a blessing with his right hand.

(previous four paragraphs from Wikkipedia)

I stand by my evaluation of the song but I learned something new and it was topically very correct for Halloween.

I have to ask, though, what was your thought in including the Psalter Map? Is this an obscure reference to to the crown of thorns Christ bore on the cross? Are you equating his scary (in the sense of being crucified) love of mankind in some way with, perhaps, rose thorns he bore on the cross? Are you further inferring that Christ's position and method of blessing was "left-handed" (for want of a better metaphor), perhaps in the manner of Hunter and Garcia's creations with the Grateful Dead and the effect of their product on the deadheads?

Probably not, it just popped into my head, and I don't have a fixation on Christianity in any way. Thanks again for making me cover just a little more ground.

Joined: Jan 13 2010
thinking about the song while looking at the image above

puts it in a new light.

I'll give the song a listen in a few minutes.

good idea to add the image, David.

mustin321's picture
Joined: Aug 12 2011

Ive always thought this song was greatly underrated and from the looks of the comments, nothing has changed. Musically, this song is powerful...simple, but effective. The lyrics are unique and catchey...that being said, i dont think Garcia sang it correctly even one time. Not sure why they dropped the Ticket to New Years and tell me this song wasnt a lot of fun.

Joined: Jan 13 2012
A Flimsy Song

There were very few songs that the band did that sounded weak both lyrically and musically, but this was one of them. That Garcia and Hunter wrote so many good numbers make it all the more a mystery why it wasn't dropped before it was committed to record or CD, especially when one can think of several good songs that never made it to an official release at the time. I thought that it was flimsy when I heard it on In the Dark, and it didn't get any better with being played live. Now I think that it was a shame that 'Day Job' disappeared from the band's repertoire, but I wasn't sorry that this duffer was put to rest after 58 live plays.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
I admit, it was never one of my favorites.

But from the perspective of today, I almost think it's more successful as a Hunter song, which it's easy to mentally hear, than it is as a Dead song.

What can I say, I also love Day Job, and think it has a bit of the same issue.

Joined: Jan 13 2010

OK, then...

extreme paranoia comes to mind when I read these lyrics.

They paint a powerful lyrical picture. The song just doesn't get me off. Maybe it's the cliched title, or the repetitive chorus.

It's a better song than I can write, I will give you that.

Charbroiled's picture
Joined: Jun 19 2007
Dropped from the Repertoire

This song came across like Day Job in concert, even though both songs have great lyrics and catchy choruses, they never resin-ated with the crowd live.

As far as wedding songs go - Ruben and Cherise for me. If you could see my heart you would know it's true.

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Only Love

Sometimes I wonder Who Hunter has in mind when he writes his songs.
Do you suppose its the same person?
I imagine its a Fear-based/Love-deprived Condition that is all too common among us
while we're traveling Through this Land.

Following the Theme about Lost Souls sitting under a Weeping Willow

'Comes a Time When the Blind Man Says
When Push Comes to Shove You're Afraid of Love'

( I want to use the word "Nexus" here but don't know how )

as the Hurt gets Worse and the Heart gets Harder

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010
Fear Itself

Always thought of this song as a reference to Jerry acknowledging his health/drug issues of the recent past. With the roses as a substitute for the legion of die-hard, increasingly concerned fans fearing the unthinkable . By the skin of his teeth, seat of his pants or luck of the draw, he survived. We wouldn't had accepted anything less. Not many roads when one fears love.

Could have remained in rotation forever to address any number of issues.
Gatecrashers come to mind for instance.

The luxury that is Robert Hunter.


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