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 few days ago, I was lucky enough to be at a backyard house concert featuring Mark Karan, playing acoustic and mostly solo. He ended his show with a beautiful version of “Brokedown Palace.” A friend of mine, standing next to me, turned to me when it was over and said, “Just in case—that’s the song I want played at my memorial service.” I told him, “Me, too.”
I have heard it played at a couple of memorial services over the years, always to excellent effect. It’s a song that begs to be sung again and again, and there have been some excellent cover versions over the years, including, in particular, versions by Joan Osborne, found on her album, Pretty Little Stranger, and a gorgeous instrumental version by Jeff Chimenti with Fog.
The lyric to “Brokedown Palace” was written by Robert Hunter as part of a suite of songs that arrived via his pen during a stay in London in 1970. He entitled it “Broke-Down Palace,” and now that it exists as a piece of writing, it seems to have always existed. It was composed on the same afternoon as “Ripple” and “To Lay Me Down,” with the aid of a half bottle of retsina.
Its first performance was on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and became a staple of the live repertoire. After the 1974 hiatus, “Brokedown Palace” appeared almost exclusively as the closing song of the show, as an encore. It had the effect of sending us out of the show on a gentle pillow of sound, the band bidding us “Fare you well, fare you well…”
The story the song may be telling for any one of us is wide open. Hunter doesn’t give us much. The song can be a song to someone departed from life, or just from the relationship with the singer. Or maybe the singer is departing, and possibly departing this life, or possibly departing a relationship. Some have suggested it is a song about reincarnation, and the journey through existences (“…many worlds I’ve come since I first left home”). So, regardless, the song appeals to us repeatedly throughout changing life circumstances and, in different contexts, rings true over and over again. (I’ve harped on this idea of hearing a lyric differently at different points in our lives repeatedly over the course of my dead.net posts, but it’s kind of a major theme, I think. Let me know if I should stop pointing this out….)
For me, the “many worlds” line always spoke to experiences I had inside the many worlds to be found in the human brain, when we can unlock those experiences. Enough said about that, although I suspect several of you may wish to share stories about your own “many worlds.”
In The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, I quote from a note I received from a reader, recounting hearing Ken Kesey speak at the University of Virginia in 1998. I just spent a little time tracking down a transcript of that talk, and here’s the part about “Brokedown Palace”:
I lost my son in a wrestling accident. On the way to a wrestling meet, the van went off a cliff. I remember the feeling….I’ll get back to that… ok I’ll tell it….You know, if anybody knows the song "Broke Down Palace," (fair thee well, fair thee well, I love you more than words can tell), after Jed had been dead a few months we went to see the Dead. They were playing at our opera house. They did their usual stuff and got their big ovations and then, they started playing "Broke Down Palace" and they all turned toward me and all our family was sitting up there. They all turned toward us and the guys in the audience began to turn toward us. And that song was sent from the Grateful Dead to our bruised hearts. And it was like having somebody reach out and putting their hand on your shoulder and saying, "Yeah we feel it." And when it was over there was no applause. Everybody knew it. We were all crying. And how many bands do you know that could do that? Like when Eric Clapton begins to sing "Tears in Heaven," this is real. This isn’t rock and roll. This is the heart speaking out to other people whose hearts have been wounded. And there are a bunch of us.
While the song does stand alone extremely well, it also inhabits a particular place on the American Beauty album, rising out of “Ripple,” and leading into “Till the Morning Comes.” It echoes bits and pieces of “Box of Rain” (“such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there”) and lends emotional background and depth to “Operator.” Even “Truckin’” resonates with “Brokedown Palace”—“Back home, sit down and patch my bones…” The entire suite of songs holds together incredibly well, and I believe that “Brokedown Palace” is the glue.
The act of planting a weeping willow, of doing something that won’t be fully realized, or grown, in any immediate sense, is a key to the song. While there are plants in other songs on the album (last week I counted eight in “Sugar Magnolia” alone, including a willow), this is the one where the singer plants the tree. Stays. Makes a home—another recurring theme throughout the album. The singer is going to plant a tree by the water’s edge and thereby see continuity and change in one view—the tree standing in one place, “the river roll, roll, roll.” Of course, the tree will “grow, grow, grow,” so it’s not truly standing still, not static, but it is, at least, stable.
Ready to hear your stories of how this song has resonated for you, what comfort you may have taken from it, or anything else that you might care to relate about “Brokedown Palace.”
A lovely sad song that sounds like it always existed, how many songs are there about going down to the river to die? It has Delta Blues themes with perfectly worded Scottish folk Incredible String Bandesque words. Deeply cathartic, beautiful.