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 generation was defined by knowing where they were, what they were doing, at the moment they learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have had a similar experience of the “generation” of Deadheads, over the years, talking with fellow Deadheads about August 9, 1995, the day we learned that Jerry Garcia had died.
I was at work, at the Kraemer Family Library at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The campus is situated high on a bluff overlooking the city of Colorado Springs, with a view to the west of Pike’s Peak, surely one of the most impressive views I have ever spent time with on a regular basis. When a co-worker came to ask if I had heard the news, I first spent a little time online, making sure that it was indeed true, then I had to leave my desk, leave the building, and go for a long walk. I headed for the open space on the bluff above the campus buildings, where you could go and get a long view, and walked for about an hour, I think. My eyes blurred with tears, and the view shimmered.
“Days Between” has come to be an anthem that makes us remember Garcia in a particular way, and, in particular, the days between his birth date of August 1 and his death date of August 9. It’s a fitting song for such thoughts, with its big sweeping chords and its lyrics heavy with nostalgia and longing.
There’s a word in German, sehnsucht, that lacks a proper emotional counterpart in English, but which means, roughly, “longing.” It carries a sense of wishing you could see something—see something again, see something at all—that something is missing from your eyes and from your presence. I find that “Days Between” belongs with a raft of songs that induce this feeling in me.
“Days Between,” a late song in the Robert Hunter / Jerry Garcia songbook, was perhaps their last collaboration on a big, significant song, one that ranks with “Dark Star” and “Terrapin Station” as ambitious and intentionally grand. (I was talking the other day with a friend, about Garcia’s playing and songwriting, and the thought came up that Garcia, like few others, was unafraid of grandeur, and could successfully pull it off. Same with Hunter.)
It was first performed on February 22, 1993, at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the middle show of a three-night run. The night before, they had premiered three other new songs: “Eternity,” “Lazy River Road,” and “Liberty.” Its final performance was on June 24, 1995, at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. During its relatively short time in the live repertoire, they played it 41 times, always in the second set, and fairly frequently rising out of the Drums.
It appeared like the ghostly ships it describes, as if gradually from a fog and only slowly revealing itself as something very big, towering above everything around. It’s hard to say it any better than Phil Lesh did in his autobiography, Searching for the Sound:
“Achingly nostalgic, ‘Days Between’ evokes the past. The music climbs laboriously out of shadows, growing and peaking with each verse, only to fall back each time in hopeless resignation. When Jerry sings the line ‘when all we ever wanted / was to learn and love and grow’ or ‘gave the best we had to give / how much we’ll never know,’ I am immediately transported decades back in time, to a beautiful spring morning with Jerry, Hunter, Barbara Meier, and Alan Trist—all of us goofing on the sheer exhilaration of being alive. I don’t know whether to weep with joy at the beauty of the vision or with sadness at the impassable chasm of time between the golden past and the often painful present.”
Each verse in the song contains fourteen lines, and each evokes a different season of the year, although not in sequence. The first verse contains the lines “Summer flies and August dies / the world grows dark and mean.” I can’t hear that line without thinking about August West, in Wharf Rat, and, by extension, Garcia himself. “The singing man is at his song / the holy on their knees.” Who is the singing man, if not Garcia, when it comes to Hunter and his words?
There is something wave-like in the repetition Hunter employs with several key phrases: “There were days, and there were days, and there were days between…” like the waves upon the sand. And “when phantom ships with phantom sails set to sea on phantom tides.”
This is a song in which Hunter leaves wide open the individual assignment of meaning, as with many of his lyrics. But there is something so tender in his evocation of the past—of each of our pasts—that I really hesitate to say anything that could possibly put any of that into my own personal box of meaning. So I am going to err, possibly, on the side of not writing enough about this song, in hopes that I might not say too much.
I still miss Jerry. Where were you on August 9, 1995?