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 years ago, I lucked into a musical opportunity that will probably never come my way again: I got to sing back-up harmonies for Bob Weir. OK, it was for Bob Weir and the Marin Philharmonic, and I was one of ten or so singers, but still. Very fun. And the highlight of that highlight of my life was singing the final encore, just Bob and us on the stage proscenium, a capella — “Attics of My Life.”
The song has been firmly lodged in my conscious and subconscious mind since the day I first listened to American Beauty (and I can remember that experience quite clearly—dancing around the living room at my girlfiend’s parents’ house in San Diego). Wrapping up the Days Between period, I wanted to open a conversation about another significant Hunter / Garcia song, and was surprised to find that we haven’t talked yet about this one! One of my very favorite songs, in any kind of list I might make.
And while it might seem that this is not a story song, it does seem to be personal and autobiographical—a song about being a songwriter, and about the songwriter’s relationship to something greater than him- or herself. By extension, any of us can easily embrace the song’s meaning for ourselves and our own lives and work, and our hopes for finding larger meaning and connection.
Hunter often receives requests from listeners to weigh in on the meaning of his songs, or of particular lines within those songs. Heck, even I get those requests, and I surely don’t know much of anything about what anything means. But here’s an exchange I posted on the annotated lyrics website, found by a reader on rec.music.gdead (anyone remember newsgroups?) back in 1996:
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 1996 23:44:05 -0700
From: Deb Nison
Subject: R. Hunter on "Attics..."
This post is mainly in response to those who helped me out on the interpretation of "Attics of my Life" for my English paper. The paper is going great thanks to a lot of you. One of you kind folks gave me Hunter's e-mail address, and would you believe he responded to me in about 4 hours!?! A lot of you mailed me asking me what he said, so here is the letter. I debated on posting it for a while, but I think they are words to be read. Enjoy!
Deb, I guess I have to give the stock answer: if I could say it in prose I wouldn't need to write the song. Poetry is evocative - it's meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience.
I guess the best I could say is that "you flew to me" is an affirmation of the concept of grace -
No, this is not a song about being stoned. It's a song about the soul.
I love that: “If I could say it in prose I wouldn't need to write the song.”
And then, he is so helpful to this English student. He brings up the concept of grace, which, in the context of the words of the song, comes when he has no wings to fly, when he is dried up and out of inspiration. This makes me think of his muse, evoked in the Terrapin Station Suite, and the similarity of the response from something larger than one’s self.
If one large theme has emerged, for me, over the course of writing this weekly essay about the songs over the past year and a half, it is that so many of the songs, and so much of the entire Grateful Dead ethos, is about connection. Connection with those unlike oneself, with lovers, with the entire planet, with the cosmic unconscious—the ability to submerge and to emerge: to become something larger than an individual, while still embracing the diversity of being an individual and knowing others.
When Hunter says, in his email to Deb, that this is a song about the soul, that is a big door being opened, and it provides a key to the entire body of work. His answer implies that Deb had asked if this was a song about being stoned. In light of his answer, that question seems remarkably narrow, and I plead guilty to asking this kind of question along with Deb. “Poetry is evocative - it's meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience.” In this sense, lyric poetry as practiced by Hunter is a perfect match for tunesmithing as practiced by Garcia and the rest of the band—the communication occurs at a nonverbal level.
With “Attics,” this whole notion seems to be expressed in the meticulous way in which Hunter brings up all the normal ways of knowing: sensory (hearing, tasting, seing…) and pursuit of books and study, then dismisses them as inconsequential in the face of that which is simply given to us, unquestioned, unsought.
Not sure I’m saying what I’m trying to say here. And I don’t want to get any more definitive, because, well, that would be counter-productive given the topic of a song like “Attics.”
So. I will keep hearing, singing, and thinking about this song until the day I die, I am sure. I treasure the vocal arrangement from that Marin Symphony show—I’ve used it with my little church choir now a few times, and everyone loves singing this song. One of these days, if I get around to specifying what songs I would like to have played at whatever kind of gathering held by those I leave behind, I will ask that “Attics of My Life” be played or sung. I believe it will send my soul out on a fine journey—perhaps I will fly to someone who needs me.
And with that, speaking of souls on their journey, I say goodbye to the Days Between, until next year.
I was the student that David mentions here who reached out to Robert Hunter. Little did I know (seriously, I had been using e-mail/newsgroups for like a month when I did) that my lucky virtual encounter would follow me via google search for the rest of my life. As you can imagine my interpretation of this beauty of a song at 42 has evolved just a bit since being in the shoes of an extremely naive, just-turned 18-year-old. I would love to get my hands on that paper.
Anyone have a floppy disk reader? ;-)