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

  • “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.

  • Expecting to find all kinds of strange time signature and key changes, I opened up my copy of The Grateful Dead Anthology to page 21, “Born Cross-Eyed,” words and music by Bob Weir.

    And there is strangeness in the music, for sure, but it is cleverly disguised as a quarter-note triplet rhythm against a steady four-four. Although it is possible that whoever notated the piece simply chose to represent it that way, because whenever the time signature changes from 4/4 to 2/4, it’s notated as a quarter note triplet over the two beats: in other words, really moving into 3/8 or 3/4 time.

  • Continuing the theme from last week of songs from the never-recorded post-American Beauty studio album, how about if we talk about “Brown-Eyed Women”?

    I went to Terrapin Crossroads not too long ago with a whole bunch of friends, mostly librarians, to compete in the Trivia Night contest, up against Phil and his team, and about five other teams. We came in third, and actually beat Phil’s team, which was pretty good, I thought. The only Grateful Dead-related trivia was a fill-in-the-blank lyrics question: “Delilah Jones was the mother of twins, _____ times over, and the rest were sins…” I am happy to say our team got that one right.

  • Of all the greatest of the Grateful Dead’s great story songs, I think “Jack Straw” might deserve some kind of an award for managing to be the most fully-fleshed-out and the most enigmatic of all. And I think the enigma revolves around the ambiguity in one line in particular.

  • I have gone back and forth and back again, and maybe forth again, over the years in my conception of how to hear “Black Peter” — whether as a dire piece, or a philosophical piece, or what.

  • I had the distinct pleasure of being present for Brent Mydland’s first show with the Dead, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. I had been at the previous show, a benefit for the Campaign for Economic Democracy (Tom Hayden’s organization) at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and I guess that means I was also at Keith and Donna’s final show. The energy Brent brought was immediately evident, and I have a particular memory of Phil pointing at Brent with glee, to a cheering crowd.

  • Given that last week’s post was “Estimated Prophet,” it seems appropriate to move right into “Eyes of the World.” The two became almost inextricably linked through hundreds of concert performances, and I’ve always wondered a bit about that…the musical progression didn’t seem particularly natural, with the disintegrating jam out of Estimated eventually giving way to Garcia’s invocation of Eyes via its easily-identified set of opening chords.

  • “Estimated Prophet,” words by John Barlow, music by Bob Weir, has always worked a special kind of magic. Barlow captures that whole slightly (or very) deranged or tripped-out Deadhead vibe so well, but the song’s character transcends that little box over time—both over the time the particular rendition might take, and over the time from when we may have first heard it played or performed to the most recent rendition we have heard.

  • Maybe it’s true everywhere in the world, but the county I live in, Sonoma County, California, is a hotbed of local music. There is a plethora of bands, songwriters, studios, and venues here—ranging through all genres of music, from the all-volunteer symphony The American Philharmonic, to songwriters trying to break through to a larger audience.

  • “I don’t trust to nothin’, but I know it come out right.”

    Like “The Music Never Stopped,” “Playing” is a song that could be taken as an autobiographical song (others would include “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Golden Road....”). I remember this hitting home for me at the Closing of Winterland concert, as we repeatedly saw the phrase “breakfast served at dawn” on t-shirts and posters all night long. Daybreak would truly come as they were playing. By then, we would have been dancing for the entire night: through the New Riders, the Blues Brothers, and then the Dead coming on at midnight to start their three-set show.

Greatest Stories Ever Told