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!)
In the Charles Reich interview with Jerry Garcia, published as Garcia: Signpost To New Space, Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it.
He replied: "Sometimes, but that's what it's supposed to do. It's got a split-second little delay, which sounds very mechanical, like a typewriter almost, on the vocal, which is like a little bit jangly, and the whole thing is, I always thought it's a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like. A little bit evil. And hard-edged. And also that sing-songy thing, because that's what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head."
Let’s focus on the typewriter for a minute, because frankly, I think every aspect of this song has been pretty much talked through from beginning to end quite a number of times! Seriously. Upcoming generations will draw a blank when they encounter this typewriter analogy—although the characterization of the vocal mix having a mechanical-sounding split second delay is pretty evocative. Someday, scholars will have to add a footnote to Garcia’s statement, explaining what a “typewriter” was, and what kind of sound it made, and why it is or is not an apt metaphor for the way the vocal track sounds on the song. Maybe someday someone will write a song called “Daddy, What’s a Typewriter?” to go with “Daddy, What’s a Train?”
Trains. What was it Phil Lesh said about Grateful Dead songs? “Trains, cats, and cards..” or something like that.
“Casey Jones” is one of the band’s classic story songs, and it utilizes a classic American folk hero as its subject—AND it is about a train. How could things get any better?
I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented. (You can jump on over to https://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/kcj.html#casey if you really want the background.)
Robert Hunter, it is said, thought of the line: “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” and wrote it down, stuck it in his pocket, and pretty much forgot about it until it struck him that he might write a song around the line. Speculation abounds that Hunter wrote the song as a cautionary tale, with many hidden drug-reference meanings tucked away into the lyrics (including a wonderfully byzantine theory that if “white lady” is a nickname for cocaine, then “lady in red” is a reference to intravenous delivery of cocaine). Some have said that Hunter may have written it during the Festival Express tour, while the band was on a train, possibly high on something or other, making their way across Canada.
There is the whole thing about the word “jones,” itself, which was later used in the addiction sense by Barlow and Weir in “Throwing Stones.” Could “Casey Jones” be a reference to that sense of the word?
Did it matter? Does it now?
Well, I guess I have to think it could matter, depending, or else—why bother to think about the lyrics at all?
The irony of the song is that it is viewed as a druggy song by a druggy band, when there could be nothing more anti-drug than a song about someone who is involved in a disastrous and legendary accident while under the influence of drugs.
Double irony: it seems that many listeners and fans also embrace the song as a druggy song—witness the band’s performing it during their November 1978 appearance on the coke-drenched “Saturday Night Live.”
And, triple irony: band members themselves became embroiled in cocaine use, with Garcia himself arrested for possession.
Or maybe none of that is ironic in the least. Maybe it’s just coincidence.
In truth, the song is a catchy, bouncy rocker that, in concert, could gather tremendous momentum and power, especially during the build-up to the final “and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”
It’s been pointed out that, among the band’s potential top-40 hits, “Casey Jones” joins others like “Uncle John’s Band,” with its airplay-unfriendly “Goddam, well I declare,” and “Truckin’,” with the “living on reds and vitamin C and cocaine” line, as yet another potential hit that would never be allowed on the radio in most markets. “Wharf Rat,” with its groundbreaking F-bomb, was likely never a candidate for the charts, but the others—who knows?
I found a discussion of the song that claimed Hunter actually did try to clean up the song—substituting lines like “carried propane” for “high on cocaine.” But in the end, it was after all the initial inspiration for the song that did get written.
This is one of their “disaster impending” songs, as opposed to the “disaster narrowly averted” songs of the “Monkey and the Engineer” variety. (Are there other disaster narrowly averted songs? I’ve wondered idly at times.) Some songs are simply disasters described—“Jack Straw,” or “Me and My Uncle.” “Candyman” feels like disaster impending. But I can’t, offhand, think of others of the “narrowly averted” variety.
“Casey Jones” does have one of those aphorism-rich lyrics, though, and those can come in handy at the best and worst of times. “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” “Better watch your speed.” “Trouble with you is the trouble with me” (similar, perhaps, to “Can’t talk to you without talking to me” from “Althea”). “Take my advice, you’d be better off dead.” Well—maybe not that last one….
How does this song resonate for you? Do you have kids, and do you, like I did, sing it to them and change the words just a little bit? I’m pretty sure I managed to sing it as a lullaby at some point, cradling a small one in my arms.