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

  • Sometimes I think about this song, and I wonder about the weight of years, relatively speaking—how all the years combine, and how, when this band, which was ultimately to tour for 30 years, was just five years old, several members got together to write an autobiographical song in which the refrain noted “what a long strange trip it’s been.”
  • When I was first listening, hard, to the Grateful Dead, I discovered the Jerry Garcia album Reflections, and pretty much disappeared into it for several weeks. I am pretty sure it is now completely part of my cerebral cortex, ingrained into my consciousness in a way that is as deep as anything else I would expect to find in there. And there was one song that resonated so strongly in so many ways that it holds a special place for me, among all the Dead’s songs: “Comes a Time.”

  • Happy birthday, Bob Weir! (October 16.) Cue up “Beat It On Down the Line” with an insane number of opening drumbeats. Seems like a good time to take a look at “Black-Throated Wind,” if ever there was one.

    Here’s one of at least three hitchhiker songs in the Dead repertoire. (The others I’m thinking of are …? Your responses welcome. Maybe there are more than I think. ) Does anyone hitchhike anymore? I have a ton of memories about this mode of transportation, dating mostly from the late 1970s when it was the only way, in some cases, to get from point A to point B. Get your hitchhiking stories ready—there are bound to be some good ones out there.

  • 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.

Greatest Stories Ever Told