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

  • 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!”)

  • Last week’s post about “U.S. Blues” made me think, quite naturally, of “One More Saturday Night.” The background is well-documented, and easily found on Alex Allan’s Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site. But the gist of it is that the song began as a Hunter lyric, but Weir ran with an early draft, wrote a whole song, keeping only one line, really (“one more Saturday night”) and Hunter took his name off the lyric. So it stands as a song with words and music by Weir.

  • There’s a wonderful scene in The Grateful Dead Movie, where one particular Deadhead is right on the rail during the opening number, perfectly lip-synching the entire rendition of “U.S. Blues” that opens the live concert portion of the movie. Who is that guy? Someone must know. I would like to say “thank you for a real good time” several times over to that particular person, for permanently blazing onto my consciousness a face imbued with the ecstasy of being in the front row at a Dead show. Hurray, whoever you are!

  • In the fields around Olompali, just north of Novato, California, on the ancient site of the home of the native peoples, where the Grateful Dead briefly held court, you see swaths of lilies in spring, lining the creekbeds, fed by the water flowing down off the mountain on its way to the San Francisco Bay estuary. A little bit of research tells me that the lilies growing in the creek are unlikely to be natives themselves—pretty sure they are calla lilies run rampant, but it does seem likely that these lily fields may have been in evidence during the Dead’s residency at Olompali. And, interestingly, there are lilies native to Marin county - the Tiburon Mariposa Lily, which has only been found growing in the wild in one place in the world.

  • “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, when I can hear it beat out loud.” [Italics Hunter’s.]

    This is a song that wants us to listen, to give things a minute before we pass judgment on them, to check our negativity. I find it a nice pair, thematically, with “Eyes of the World” — it’s telling us to wake up, and consider the possibility that our perception may be as much at fault as the world, when we see only darkness.

    “Shakedown Street” is the title track of the studio album Shakedown Street. When I run into this phenomenon, I pay attention. The first studio album for which the Dead used a song title as the album title was Blues for Allah. And the only other ones besides Shakedown were Terrapin Station and Built to Last.

Greatest Stories Ever Told