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!)
Oddly enough, for me this pair of Bob Weir / John Barlow tunes instantly conjures up a memory of Jerry Garcia, standing onstage at Winterland during the song, wearing his dark glasses and seemingly focused on a place deep within, or somewhere far away, as he blazingly played behind Weir’s singing. At that moment, Garcia struck me as someone with access to a very different place than any I might have known up until then. His extreme focus, combined with his virtuosity, made me want nothing more than to be able to access that same level of what might be called the deep unreal, to borrow from another lyric. And then, in the chorus, he stepped to the mike and sang “my lightning too” along with Donna, seemingly over and over, as the music, in its strange and rolling 7/8 rhythm, got stranger and stranger, until it eventually burst into “Supplication.” And not for the last time, I thought to myself and this was a band that was completely unafraid of being exceedingly weird. And that was a very good thing.
The pair of songs was recorded on the Kingfish album, with Bob Weir as a member of the band. Barlow notes that he wrote the song in Mill Valley in October 1975. The two tracks opened the album, which was released in March 1976.
The Grateful Dead first played the pair in concert on June 3, 1976, at the Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon. That show also included the first performances of “Might As Well,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “The Wheel.” “Lazy Lightning” was always followed in concert by “Supplication,” and the final performance of the two songs took place on Halloween, 1984, at the Berkeley Community Theater.
“Supplication” was played by itself, according to DeadBase X, on one occasion subsequently, although it was also played as an instrumental jam more frequently over the years. The final “Supplication” was played 597 shows after the last “Lazy Lightning>Supplication,” on May 22, 1993 at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. Interestingly, “Supplication” was played one other time separately from “Lazy Lightning,” on September 24, 1976, when it was sandwiched in the middle of a “Playing in the Band.”
Barlow seemed to enjoy writing lyrics of obsessive love for Weir to sing, over the course of the years. “Lazy Lightning” describes a seemingly ill-fated and unreasonable fixation on a person who is either unavailable, or unstable, or both. If lightning is the best metaphor for a persona, then what might be in store for the one who falls for her? Over the course of the lyric, Barlow seems intent on transforming the energy of the object of obsession into a shared energy, which might, possibly, form the basis of an actual relationship: “all that lightning will be my lightning too…” But it seems to be nothing more than a delusion, and a self-destructive one, too. “I’d fly a kite if I thought--thought that would do.” What happens to people who are not Ben Franklin who fly kites in lightning storms?
I think a very strong case could be made that “Supplication” is no more a separate song from “Lazy Lightning” than “Sunshine Daydream” is from “Sugar Magnolia.” It’s a coda, carrying forward the same themes—only the form of the verse has changed. (Weir’s setting maintains a 7/8 time signature over the course of both lyrics—another unifying element.) Again, it’s an obsessive love, and again, the reference to lightning striking (“Little bolt of inspiration / The way you strike me now”). The title, and the manner of delivery, seems to indicate greater desperation on the part of the singer. Weir spits out the words in a rapid stream, cramming the syllables together in a hurry to get them all out.
On the face of it, Weir’s chord progression is nothing all that out there. I think, though, that the two-chord structure of “Supplication” is what makes for some very interesting jamming possibilities, with the back and forth from D to Fmaj7—a deliberate and calculated reversal of musical expectation, where we might more logically (logic?) have expected to hear an F# minor or B minor. So glad for the unexpected!
What songs belong in the series of Weir/Barlow compositions with similar themes and motifs? I’m thinking of songs that feature a singer/narrator/lead character who is unreasonable, in some fundamental way, about love relationships. I’d love to read some of your thoughts about that. There’s something in these songs that makes me uncomfortable, and I think that may be exactly what was intended. Being uncomfortable makes us understand—or maybe more feel than understand—what it is about relationships between people that is often so fraught with pitfalls and danger.
Barlow’s afterword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, describes, very poignantly, how Barlow himself only came to understand much of his own work after he finally, rather late in life, really truly fell in love with someone.
“The songs revealed themselves over time, even to us. … When I wrote ‘Looks Like Rain,’ I had never fallen in love. I had certainly heard a lot of love songs. I had been to an opera or six. I was not unfamiliar with the huge literature of amorous helplessness. But I remained skeptical.” He goes on to recount how he wrote “Looks Like Rain,” despite being personally unfamiliar with the feelings it captures. And then, he describes how the song suddenly made sense, when he was at a Dead show with this woman he loved: “Bobby started to sing ‘Looks Like Rain,’ and I started singing it to her myself so that she would get all the words. About halfway through, I realized that I was getting all the words for the first time. I finally knew what the song was about. I finally meant it. Or perhaps one could say more accurately that it finally meant me.”
What a wonderful and intimate thing to share with us. That he, the lyricist, finally learned directly what his own song meant.
And that phrase: “it finally meant me.” Wow.
Sorry—this particular post, though it started by looking at “Lazy Lightning > Supplication,” seems to have turned into something else. Looking forward to your comments, as always.