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!)
“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. That character stands there in my mind’s eye, calling down the thunder, and he seems so sure, so devoted to his vision, that he stands for everyone who was ever caught up in a transforming belief, who gave in to delusions of grandeur, who believed himself the center of the universe—but wait—haven’t we all done that, at least to some degree? It’s human nature to consider oneself the center of the universe.
“Estimated Prophet” was first performed by the Grateful Dead on February 26, 1977, at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California. The Dead also premiered “Terrapin Station” at that show. They played it 390 times in the years that followed, with the longest time between performances being 15 shows—mostly it stayed at the every third or fourth show rank. Its final performance was on June 28, 1995, at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan. It appeared on Terrapin Station, released July 27, 1977.
Blair Jackson quotes Weir, discussing the song, in his biography of the band: “According to Weir, he and Barlow wrote the song from the perspective of a crazy, messianic zealot, a type which one invariably encounters in Deadhead crowds now and again. As Weir explains: ‘The basis of it is this guy I see at nearly every backstage door. There’s always some guy who’s taken a lot of dope and he’s really bug-eyed, and he’s having some kind of vision. He’s got a rave he’s got to deliver.’ “
Barlow calls on plenty of biblical imagery for the lyrics, with the sea parting before the singer, and fire wheels burning in the air, etc. Pretty much your average run-of-the-mill vision for an experienced Deadhead. The interesting thing, for me, is the notion that this character is a prophet. And therein lies a more subtle biblical reference, not at all overt, but hovering in the back of our minds, perhaps, if we have any biblical training. Namely, the notion, expressed by Jesus in three of the four gospels, and therefore likely to be something he really did say, that a prophet has no honor in his own country. The very role of a prophet is to be reviled in his or her own time—look at Cassandra, cursed by the god Apollo to have her prophecies disbelieved. Kind of makes you want to look around and see who is being dishonored and reviled and disbelieved, and maybe give them a second chance.
This image depicts the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly throne room, with Ezekiel receiving a scroll from a hand that emerges from heaven. Note the wheel of fire burning in the air.
Weir’s 7/4 groove gets deep right away, with Garcia’s big fat notes plopping along in a very satisfying manner, and this weird time signature, as with the 10-beat “Playing in the Band,” and even the eleven-beat “The Eleven,” becomes eminently danceable.
This is one of those songs, and there are quite a number of them in the Dead’s repertoire, in which a not-entirely-sympathetic character is brought to life, and, in the course of being brought to life, is made more sympathetic. I’ve always thought this was a big strong suit of theire songs, whether in “Wharf Rat” or in “Jack Straw”; whether in “Candyman” or “Friend of the Devil.” Not only is it a recurring trope in the lyrics, but I think it is key to understanding the whole body of the songs, and perhaps literature generally.
“What is fiction for?” is a question asked of many a student of literature. My best college literature professor, David Robertson, asked this of us. And he had an answer. “It’s to practice living.” That seems like such a simply statement, but it has proven extremely useful to me over the years. We don’t have to go through the entire possible range of human experience in order to gain an understanding of our fellow travelers on the planet. We can read. We can sing. We can, for a little bit, become the other person. We can become the unsymapthetic weirdo, the criminal, the drunk on the street. And by doing that, we can become more connected with each other, which, for me personally, is the highest value. Oh well, now I sound like I’m preaching. Sorry about that.
But I would love to hear from anyone who reads this who may have felt connected in unlikely ways to his or her fellow humans beings via Grateful Dead songs. Does it make a difference in how we treat each other? I guess I would hope so.
“Estimated Prophet” has a couple of those moments that occur in Grateful Dead songs in performance, where the crowd plays a role—particularly in the first mention of “California.” Maybe it’s because most of the shows I heard were played in California, but that always got a big cheer. And then, at the point where the first solo starts, and Garcia’s guitar leaps into the fray, I always get that very special feeling of magic occurring. This is the piece of music, somehow, that epitomizes Garcia’s tone and approach in just a few bars, and which still sometimes catches me unaware and makes me so very sad that I won’t be hearing him play in person ever again.
So: time for you all to leave your comments. Tell how (or if) Grateful Dead songs made you feel connected to other people. Or maybe tell how, as a musician or dancer, having a song swing in seven made a difference to you. Or something I can’t possibly imagine—there’s always something!