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!)
A couple of summers ago, I was visiting New York City with my family. We were at the wonderful Natural History Museum, taking the elevator to an upper floor, and I noticed a message on the brass plate with all the buttons for floors, etc: “Help is on the way,” it said. There it was—reassuring us that, should the button be pushed, we could expect help to appear. Aha! I thought—it’s a stock phrase from the world of east coast elevators—that must be where Robert Hunter got it.
Accounts of the Blues for Allah recording session indicate that the songwriting team of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia took an unusual approach to the process—with the music preceding the lyrics, and the lyrics written to spec in the studio in the process of making the album.
Blues for Allah was released on September 1, 1975. The 1975 hiatus in the Dead’s performance schedule was broken only by a brief set in March at Kezar Stadium (which featured one of only three performances, all in 1975, of the song “Blues for Allah”), another show in June at Winterland (The Bob Fried Memorial Boogie), and two other shows, one the famed Great American Music Hall performance captured on One From the Vault, and the last a show at Lindley Meadows in Golden Gate Park, which, like the GAMH show, opened with “Help on the Way.”
The song’s performance at the Great American (captured in days long ago on a bootleg vinyl release I actually owned called Make-Believe Ballroom) included an introduction of the band by Bill Graham in which each member’s sound was layered into the song as he was announced (Donna Jean Godchaux’s name was pronounced, but she didn’t start singing right away), culminating in Garcia striking the opening chords of “Help on the Way,” opening a stunning performance of the piece, which moved into “Slipknot” and then “Franklin’s Tower.”
Someone out there will know for sure — DeadBase X indicates that an earlier performance of “Help on the Way,” on June 17, was without lyrics. If so, then the performance debut of the song, as a song, was at that Great American Music Hall show, and most of those present were likely hearing the song for the first time.
I can find no performances of “Help on the Way” not followed immediately by “Slipknot.” So, let’s talk about both of them in this post, ok?
“Slipknot” actually appeared quite a bit earlier in performance. DeadBase shows the piece appearing on June 20, 1974, sandwiched between “Eyes of the World” and “China Doll.” After that, it appeared once more before 1975, with nearly a year (but only 20 shows) separating the second and third performances of the piece.
“Slipknot” was mostly, but not always in the early days, followed by “Franklin’s Tower.” So the three titles were, from 1977 onwards, performed as a tryptich. (I’ll leave “Franklin’s” for another day, though.)
“Help on the Way,” lyrically, is a series of aphorisms linked by visionary imagery. There are angels in flame, sure, but without love in the dream…
Trying to parse the lyrics and imagery, we might find Hunter depicting Paradise as a winged female, surrounded by flaming angels, descending on a wave. But from there, the metaphor is subsumed by the lyrics themselves, as Hunter paints a picture that might resonate in a thousand brains differently.
Hunter posted a manuscript version of the lyrics:
Given the circumstances of composition, on the fly, in the studio, there are remarkably few false starts, corrections, etc. There is one entire verse not present in the finished song, marked out with a large “x.” This is the lyric linked on Dead.net under the “browse songs” link to “Slipknot.”
Beautiful lie / you can pray / you can pay
till you’re buried alive
everyone – in the room – owns a part of the noose
Slip Knot Jig – Slip Knot jig – Slipknot jig
Did someone say – Help on the way
Well I know / Yeah I do
that there’s help on the way
So, here we have the “Slipknot” reference folded into the “Help on the Way” lyrics.
An email exchange I had with Hunter in the early days of the Annotated Lyrics project shed some light on the whole process and interrelationship:
Date: Mon, 3 Jun 1996 23:59:21 -0400
most of the Blues for Allah material was written on the spot on the fly, while engineers stood by waiting to record the vocals. Those lyrics are my style and seem familiar - there were lots of throw-aways and I doubt not those were among them. There's always a taker for throw away pages, and I believe someone was collecting them, possibly Ramrod.
However, on the next day, Hunter wrote:
Date: Tue, 4 Jun 1996 21:04:29 -0400
the lines are, of course, rejects from "Help on the way" - do as you will with them. Slipknot Gig would be in the space of: I will stay/one more day
There's no cutting it out. But it's neither permanent nor serious.
What’s referred to as “Slipknot Gig” is clearly written as “Slip Knot Jig” (though, interestingly, and as transcribed above, in three different manners one right after the other….)
What I had not realized until I started to work on this piece is that a slipknot is more than the simple knot you might learn in scouting while working towards a merit badge. It’s usually the term applied to a hangman’s noose, and the reference is utterly clear in the excised verse.
OK—I will heed Hunter’s admonition that “it’s neither permanent nor serious,” and let go of the thrown-away lyric, but still! I like these small unexpected insights into the songwriting process. I still wonder whether the instrumental “Slipknot” was titled prior to or after Hunter wrote the discarded verse. Another of those questions that will likely never be answered.
Most important, and clearly paramount from the method of composition and from the fact that “Slipknot” was and remained an instrumental piece, is the musical virtuosity of the pair of pieces. The unison or parallel harmony playing of complex rhythmic and melodic figures is astounding to me, still, after many hundreds of hearings. The tricks of time signature throughout, with dropped beats and quick turnarounds, leaves me pretty much breathless. The words are literally secondary, in Hunter’s own words: “written on the spot on the fly, while engineers stood by waiting to record the vocals…”
And yet, still, there are phrases that ring loud and clear. In particular, the phrase on a decal I stuck on my car way back when, and which still rings true: “without love in the dream, it’ll never come true.”
(For those wishing to explore the music, I’ve recently discovered the wonderful resource “Dark’s Tabs” which includes this link for detailed work on “Help/Slip”.
“Help / Slip” was last performed on June 22, 1995, at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, NY.