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!)
(At the request of Bolo24.)
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.”
It begins, for me, with the particular resonance of Phil Lesh’s big note at the outset of the song, as it lands and then decays, filling the room in the way that only Phil can do. It’s an announcement that something big is coming, in the same way that the bass run up into “The Other One” is an announcement.
And then, that voice, singing a set of lyrics that only gets better with time — a song about time, but also about a specific moment in time that each of us may at times reach. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be a big exception for someone not to reach the place where the only way out is to tap into the wisdom of things beyond logic: as in, a blind man asking us if we can’t see.
“Comes a Time” is what I would call a “nexus song.” I want to try to explain what I mean by that, and see if it rings a bell for anyone else.
A nexus song is a key song within any song repertoire, unlocking the content of multiple songs by offering parallel entry points into the subject matter of the songs. I believe that within the body of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, we can identify several songs that serve this function (not to say that they are purpose-made songs, or that seeing them in this way is anything intended by the author—it just works that way for me, and maybe it would work for you).
What songs are, in some way or another, contained within the body of the lyrics of “Comes a Time”? What are the entry points from song to song—the tunnels, doors, and bridges to be found?
Blindness and seeing:
“When the blind man takes your hand, says ‘don’t you see?’”
“I was blind all the time I was learning to see”
“And closed my eyes to see…”
“You’ve got an empty cup only love can fill.”
“Reach out your hand, if your cup be empty”
“Gotta make it somehow, on the dreams you still believe”
“It’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago”
“Without love in the dream it’ll never come true”
“Ten years ago I walked this street, my dreams were riding tall…”
The song provides a bridge between “Ripple” and “Wharf Rat,” and foreshadows “Black Muddy River.” It takes its place with the songs in the Grateful Dead repertoire that can help us out of a place of profound sadness or despair. I believe that there are many of these, some of them couched as story or character songs, providing a narrative into which we can place ourselves. “Wharf Rat” is a perfect example — you can easily imagine the singer of “Comes a Time” addressing either of the main characters in “Wharf Rat.”
Another is “Stella Blue.” Or “Black Peter.”
How is it that simply imagining ourselves into a position of hopelessness, via the character, for instance, in “Wharf Rat,” can leverage us into a position of seeing a way out of that hopelessness? Things are clearer both from a distance and in hindsight—when we can see the situation without being involved in it, until the point at which we do become involved in a similar situation. Then, the songs can help. I think they can also serve a preventive purpose of cautioning us. (Hmmmm… “though I could not caution all, I still might warn a few…”)
“Comes a Time” was never a frequent one in the rotation through the years. It debuted on October 19, 1971, in the show at the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, which saw the first performance of a slew of songs. (Hey, that show would be a good candidate for a Dave’s Picks, maybe—I’d love to hear a show with six breakouts, and the show that featured Keith Godchaux playing with the band for the first time!)
The song appeared a total of 66 times over the years, often with several hundred shows between performances. It was played for the final time on October 9, 1994, at the USAir Arena, in Landover, Maryland.
As noted, it appeared on Garcia’s solo album, Reflections, four and a half years after it was first performed by the band. The track was really a Grateful Dead recording, with the full band participating.
There’s a plot to this song, though it seems even more elusive and faintly sketched than most of Hunter’s story songs. There is regret, undefined as to precise cause: “Never in my mind to cause so much pain,” as the narrator walks in the wind and rain (another frequent set of motifs…), not being able to tell the difference between the dark and the light (an entire essay has been written on that dichotomy in Dead lyrics).
The big verse in this song, for me, is the second verse, beginning with “From day to day…” The lines: “You can’t let go / ‘cause you’re afraid to fall / but the day may come / when you can’t feel at all” really hit home for me. And those lines encourage me to be honest with my feelings, to welcome them and not to be afraid or ashamed of them.
Finally, just a note on the structure of the song. It starts with the chorus, and then alternates with verses, ending again on the chorus. Garcia’s use of the solo to provide a gut-wrenching statement is very effective, and underscores the meaning of the song.