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!)
I’m hoping to do something a little bit different this week, given that it’s my 88th post for this blog. 88 is a magic number: the number of keys on a standard piano keyboard. I hope to live to be at least 88, so I can celebrate that magic number in my life, having played piano since I was too little to reach the keys, at which point I apparently used a toy hammer I had, and wound up chipping the ivory on the family piano.
So, while this week’s post is ostensibly about “Blow Away,” it’s really meant to be an homage to all of the Dead’s keyboard players through the years, some of whom might never be mentioned here in a blog about songs, since at least two of ‘em have no Grateful Dead songwriting credits at all.
Let me try this off the top of my head—I can rely on the readers of this blog to correct me if I get things wrong, after all. Pigpen, Tom Constanten, Ned Lagin, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby, Vince Welnick. I don’t think Ned was ever counted as an actual band member, but he did play with them both onstage and in studio, so I’m adding him to the list. That’s seven keyboard players over the years, some of whom overlapped with each other, like Pigpen and Constanten, and Vince and Bruce.
The keyboard seat in the band is sometimes called the hot seat, due to the high mortality rate of those who’ve held that position. Pigpen, Keith, Brent, and Vince—all gone before their time.
When I hear recordings of the Dead, it’s the keyboard sound that cues me into the era most quickly. Each of these players brought a distinctive sound to the band, and I am very partial to much of what each player contributed, in the context of that particular incarnation of the band’s sound. Pigpen’s swirling organ and repetitive motifs on much of the early work; Constanten’s delicacy; Keith’s romping style and incredible fills; Brent’s mix of color and rhythm; Bruce’s majestic approach; Vince’s synthetic sound—each brought the band into a different kind of focus. Maybe some listeners take that same approach to listening to Garcia’s tone over the years as it developed; or to the difference between one drummer and two. But for me, it’s the keys.
Brent’s songwriting for the Dead is something I have been thinking about for awhile. I have a feeling that he contributed, through his songwriting and especially through his singing, a certain authentic anguish that gave the band a special edge in the years he played with them.
“Blow Away” is a good example. I know the lyrics are credited to Barlow, but either Brent completely internalized the character, or Barlow wrote the perfect lyric for Brent. (Hmmm…I just noticed an interesting phenomenon: some of the band members and lyricists seem to demand to be called by their first names; for others, the surname seems more appropriate. Wonder why that is?)
When you listen to (and read, thanks to the transcription efforts of careful listeners like Alex Allan of The Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site) to Brent’s closing rap / rant from the version of “Blow Away” captured on Dozin’ at the Knick, you have to acknowledge that, whether the words were improvised or not, they come from the heart, and have a strong sense of immediacy and urgency. And they are startling in places:
You think you got love right here in your hand
And it's like you wanna put it inside you
It's like you wanna put it deep inside you
It's like you want to keep love in your heart
And the only way you're going to do it is not to let it go
It's like you think your rib cage is a jail cell
It's like you don't think love can get past your ribs
And the words, this sung cadenza, move from pain to hope:
But you're wrong
The only thing you're doing
Is keeping that case out, keeping love out
Keeping it out, keeping it away from you
You gotta open up the door
You gotta open up the door, let love in
And into an exhortation:
So help me out, help me out a minute
Would you help me out
Sing it after me
I want real love
Say I want real, real love
I want real, real, real love
I want real, real, real love
Gimme real love, real love
Real, real, real, real love
I think this is amazing lyrical improvisation, if it was improvised. And you know what? I don’t really care if it was completely planned out, and repeated night after night. The delivery was authentic to the bone. You believed him.
I was devastated when Brent’s death was reported. I remember where I was (on campus at UC Berkeley, during my stint at Library School) and how it felt. It felt like the wind was taken from my sails, to tell the truth.
And I felt much the same about hearing of Keith’s death, although it came after he had left the band. And about Vince’s, though the band was no longer at that point. I was too young to register Pigpen’s passing, and could only mourn in retrospect. Sending out my thanks to the universe of those who serve Grateful Dead music through keyboards. There are more names to add to those I’ve mentioned. Jeff Chimenti. Bob Bralove. Jackie Greene. Rob Barraco. Jason Crosby. Let’s keep expanding that list—each one of these keyboard players has something completely different to offer. Perhaps the fact that so many different keyboard players were band members over the years has made this particular avenue of exploration even more open to the contributions of a wide variety of players. Bralove brings extreme experimentation. Chimenti brings gospel and jazz. And so on.
Here’s to those 88 keys.