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!)
“This must be heaven” pretty much sums up my life philosophy. As far as we know, it’s all we’ve got, and you have to admit, it’s a pretty amazing place, this planet we’re on, and these bodies we get to occupy for whatever amount of time we have.
This pair of Bob Weir / John Barlow songs manages to get at a number of major Grateful Dead themes and motifs within their space. Ambiguity (“Sure don’t know…); rainbows; cats (“tiger in a trance”); weather; gambling (‘odds against me…”); and I’m sure I’m missing something.
“Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” were written in Mill Valley in July 1979.
The band first performed the pair of songs on August 31, 1979, at Glens Falls Civic Center, in Glens Falls, New York. “Lost Sailor” debuted earlier that month, on the fourth of August, at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and was played four times on its own prior to August 31. “Saint” was played mostly (but not always!) in a pair with “Sailor” until March 24, 1986, at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, after which “Sailor” was dropped permanently from the rotation. “Saint” remained in the rotation thereafter. Its final performance was on July 8, 1995, at Soldier Field. “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” appeared on Go To Heaven, released in April 1980.
The pairing of the two songs may have been musically motivated, but there is at least one distinct link between them, lyrically, in that both refer to the Dog Star (Sirius). “Sailor” asks “Where’s the Dog Star?” and “Saint” answers “See that Dog Star shinin’.” And both songs feature a narrator who is unsure where he may be going, but seems willing to keep going nonetheless. Is it the same narrator / character in the two songs? Or is in one character in the first, and another in the second? If it’s the same character, what part of his story are we hearing in each song? Do they follow on each other?
It seems appropriate that there are as many unanswered and unanswerable questions contained in the lyrics as are asked or hinted at by the narrator. “Maybe going on a dream.” “Sure don’t know what I’m going for…”
Reason is no help—the line in “Saint,” “Holes in what’s left of my reason” harkens back to “Playing in the Band”: “Some folks trust to reason…” And likewise, the lines echo “Dark Star” (note the pun-like similarity to “Dog Star”) and its lines: “Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis.”
So, forget reason. Just head off and move forward, right? (“I’m gonna go for it for sure,” and “Go on and drift your life away.”)
In live performance, “Sailor” frequently ended with a largely improvised Weir-style rave-up (with Garcia’s guitar lines dancing in and out) that included some strong philosophizing about the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” I’m pretty sure this song introduced me to that concept, and I’ve been grateful for the distinction, which comes in handy, actually, in daily life. You can ask yourself, in any given situation where you are aching to be free, whether it is moving towards something, or away from something, that you are longing for. One is a negative motivation, the other, positive. Not to say that it’s never necessary to get free of something—that freedom from cannot be a positive thing. One article on freedom delineated “freedom from” as corresponding to safety or security, while “freedom to” would be characterized as liberty.
The more I look at the two sets of lyrics, the more correspondences I can pick out. Is it possible that Barlow originally wrote them as a single lyric? The reference to “sirens” in “Saint” (“I can hear the sirens call”) makes us think of Odysseus and his journey as a lost sailor. In fact, maybe that’s a key to the song(s).
In “Sailor,” a line that never made much sense to me is “Ooh, lash the mast.” But if we think about the Odysseus story of his encounter with the sirens, he had his crew lash him to the mast so he would not succumb to their call. (“You can hear her calling…”) Hmmm. Maybe…
I love the musical hooks in both songs. In particular, “Saint” has two very strong ones—the “Holes in what’s left of my reason, holes in the knees of my blues,” and, cheesy though it may be, “Sure don’t know what I’m goin’ for, but I’m gonna go for it for sure.” The manner in which both of these strong hooks emerge from the drifty “rain fallin’ down…” jammy sections only adds to their punch. “Drifting and dreaming,” indeed.
So if you’re on a journey (and who isn’t?), and you find yourself adrift, or pursuing the call of the sirens, and the compass card is spinning around, well, the weather will change eventually. And if you’re still walking, then, hey! You’re sure that you can still dance.
David: I'm getting to your "Greatest Stories" column very late in life. I was writing a piece on the Dead ---- "Everything I Need to Know I Learned Following the Dead" along the lines of the book claiming Kindergarten held the secret. The Dead's life lessons are deep and enduring but so many of them are indirect. "Lost Sailor" is a moody, soundscape piece that fits the poetry perfectly. "There's a price for being free" line doesn't tell us anything new, and my takeaway is the visceral impact -- feels like the ocean is swirling and the mood is darkening. And it pairs well with Saint of Circumstance, where the slower parts seem connected and Weir actually pulls off the whiplash change in "Saint" - and I always thought a Lost Sailor and a Saint of Circumstance are both floating without control, just spinning in the wind, and right for each other, or maybe it's the same person at different times of their life.