Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told

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. With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.

- David Dodd

  • I am going to postpone the song I had planned to write about this week (hang in there, Bolo24…), because of the performance I experienced last Saturday night. Furthur played the Greek Theater in Berkeley—an old haunt of mine, and they kind of blew me away with their rendition of “Mission in the Rain.” Even the occasional lyrical … discrepancy … could not diminish the song’s power.

  • Johnny Cash’s song, “Big River,” is one of those wonderful songs I like to think of as “geography songs.” They offered the Dead the opportunity to sing about many of the places they might show up to play on any given tour. Others include “Promised Land,” “Dancing in the Streets,” and some of the Dead’s originals, too, like “Jack Straw.”

    I was very tempted, following last week’s “Dark Star,” to write about “El Paso,” another geography song by virtue of its title, because of the amazing emergence, in the new Sunshine Daydream release, of “El Paso” from a long and very trippy “Dark Star.” Suddenly, from outer space, we find ourselves in Texas.

  • It was very embarrassing, and I was extremely chagrined, and I forever apologize to whoever it was standing next to me on the floor at Winterland that New Year’s Eve 1978, but when the band launched into my first-ever live “Dark Star,” I was so excited that I threw my hands in the air, fists clenched, and bashed the guy standing beside me in the jaw.

  • Wouldn’t it be great if, someday, this song became irrelevant, an artifact of a barbaric time? But somehow, no. It hangs in there, and doesn’t recede into irrelevance.

    It’s been one of those times, these past couple of weeks, when this song just rattles around in my head.

  • “There’s a dragon with matches that’s loose on the town...”

  • Any song featuring a 6 foot 10 inch Moses uttering a phrase like “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in,” deserves some concerted thought, don’t you think?

    David Gans did an entire segment on The Grateful Dead Hour tracing the development of this song. You can listen to it here. Here’s what he says about that feature:

  • A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be at a backyard house concert featuring Mark Karan, playing acoustic and mostly solo. He ended his show with a beautiful version of “Brokedown Palace.” A friend of mine, standing next to me, turned to me when it was over and said, “Just in case—that’s the song I want played at my memorial service.” I told him, “Me, too.”

    I have heard it played at a couple of memorial services over the years, always to excellent effect. It’s a song that begs to be sung again and again, and there have been some excellent cover versions over the years, including, in particular, versions by Joan Osborne, found on her album, Pretty Little Stranger, and a gorgeous instrumental version by Jeff Chimenti with Fog.

  • Did anyone besides me read the wonderful novel by Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad? There were a lot of quirky wonders in the book, but one that stands out was the quest by one of the book’s characters to find all the big pauses—moments of silence—in popular music.

  • A generation was defined by knowing where they were, what they were doing, at the moment they learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have had a similar experience of the “generation” of Deadheads, over the years, talking with fellow Deadheads about August 9, 1995, the day we learned that Jerry Garcia had died.

  • “My name is August West…”

    So begins the second verse of “Wharf Rat,” a song I have long considered to be a key song—one that helps to unlock the whole body of work Robert Hunter created along with Jerry Garcia.

    The shape of the story told by the song is recursive—a sort of passing-of-the-torch for the down-and-out. The narrator whose voice frames the story is well on his way, from the sound of it, to being out there on the street, looking for spare change. In fact, he already doesn’t even have a dime; all he has is some time to listen. (Brings to mind the old saying, “I’m so poor, I can’t even pay attention!”)

Greatest Stories Ever Told