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!)
“Can’t Come Down” appears as the first song in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. It is entirely possible, given the track record of the readers of this blog, though, that I am about to learn of several earlier originals in the Warlocks repertoire. Any of the four original songs from the November 3, 1965 session for Autumn Records at Golden Gate Recorders in San Francisco—“Mindbender,” “The Only Time is Now,” Caution,” or “Can’t Come Down” would qualify, possibly, for the distinction. But assuming it is the first original song recorded by the band, let’s see where this post goes. And, at the time the demo was recorded, the band had just abandoned the Warlocks moniker for the interim Emergency Crew, before emerging later that same month as The Grateful Dead.
Words by Garcia. Music by the band. Strongly reminiscent of Dylan in some ways, with maybe a Stones-ish feel underneath it all. I’m not sure I would even necessarily know that it was a Dead song if I heard it on the radio. I listened to three different version sof the same recording, and each one had a slightly different mix, emphasizing the treble range (sounded like an AM radio mix...), or featuring more reverb, but all the same recording.
Bob Weir described the origin of the song: "Well, we wrote all the music and Jerry wrote the lyrics. Jerry excused himself for a moment and went off. He came back with a couple of verses and we put together a chorus."
I like that: “excused himself for a moment.”
And I like these lyrics! I always enjoy the kind of verbal riffing you wind up with when you decide that all the lines within a given verse will rhyme, and then make up phrases to fit that bill. At, that, cat, bat, flat, fat, hat. Grip, slip, trip, ship, sip, flip, nip. Seas, trees, sees, me’s, freeze, ease, pleas. David Gans notes in the deadsongs conference on the WELL, that he always thought of “Can’t Come Down” as Garcia’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” (A subsequent comment notes that Garcia was no Dylan, and expresses thanks that Hunter came along.)
The song didn’t stay in the repertoire for long—it was played in 1965-1966, then dropped from the repertoire. The Deadlists project shows no known live performances on tapes, while DeadBase X lists a show on January 7, 1966, at the Matrix in San Francisco that included the song.
I was at the opening run of shows in March 2012 at Terrapin Crossroads, when Phil & Friends brought the song back. Very fun! Does anyone happen to know if that was the first breakout of the song since 1966, or had some other post-Dead incarnation performed it?
Even though it’s not a Hunter lyric, the song successfully debuts several recurrent motifs in the band’s llyrics, including the Cheshire Cat, mirrors, a sinking ship, and a general reckless disregard for propriety. “Who you are and what you do don’t make no difference to me.” (That line could also be read as one of general acceptance into the community, regardless of your background or occupation. Two sides of the same coin.)
Eerily, the lyric does, in some ways, presage Garcia’s battles with his own demons, and even captures the swirl of disapproval around him during some of his darker days: “They say I’ve begun to lose my grip, My hold on reality is starting to slip, They tell me to get off this trip, They say it’s like a sinking ship....” But he can’t come down.
All of the early songs showed a common denominator: ambition. The band was taking the best of the music they loved, and making it into something of their own. They performed lots of Stones covers as a bar band, so this song has some of that flavor. Garcia had just gotten into Dylan in a big way, so the lyrics and the delivery owe something to Dylan. But they explore a little bit of new territory with each attempt, and then, within a couple of months, they get to a place from which they reallycan’t come down: as house band for the Acid Tests.
You know it’s gonna get stranger, so let’s get on with the show....