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!)
There are several original songs in the Grateful Dead repertoire with a one-time-only lyricist. In the case of “Passenger,” the added quirk is thrown in of someone other than the composer singing the song. So we have a song written by Peter Monk, with music by Phil Lesh, and sung by Bob Weir and Donna Jean Godcheaux on Terrapin Station.
Lesh wrote the song, admittedly based on Fleetwood Mac’s riff for their song “Station Man.” Lesh said, in an interview in Dupree’s Diamond News, “What's weird about that song is I sort of did it as a joke. It's a take on a Fleetwood Mac tune called ‘Station Man.’ I just sort of sped it up and put some different chord changes in there..."
Monk’s lyrics for the song have been the source of quite a bit of debate. There are quite a few alternate hearings, especially around the line: “Terrible, the only game in town,” which many, including myself, hear as “Parable, the only game in town.”
The brief biographical essay about Peter Monk included in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics was contributed by Alan Trist. It notes that Peter Richard Zimels, aka Peter Monk, was born in March 1937 in New York City. He studied philosophy and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1958, and then served in the US Navy until 1962. After leaving the Navy, he traveled extensively, especially in Asia, where he became an ordained Buddhist monk. Therefore, his adopted surname is more of a trade-based honorific (think “Peter, the monk”). He returned to the States in 1967, and acted as a spiritual figure in the extended Grateful Dead family, attending births and performing wedding ceremonies (he officiated at the wedding of Jerry Garcia and Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams, for instance). He died in 1992. His songs were performed by Mickey Hart (“Blind John” with Stetson on Rolling Thunder), the Dinosaurs (“Strange Way” with Barry Melton on Friends of Extinction), Country Joe and the Fish, Richie Havens, and Peter Paul and Mary. A posthumous collection of his poetry, Idiot’s Delight, was published in 1992.
“Passenger” was first performed on May 15, 1977, at the St. Louis Arena in St. Louis (released on the May 1977 box set). It was performed regularly through1981, with its final performance on December 27, 1981, at the Oakland Auditorium.
Terrapin Station, which included the studio version of the song, was released on July 27, 1977. “Passenger” was released as a single, with “Terrapin Station” on the B side. It’s interesting to me that the relationship between Fleetwood Mac’s “Station Man” and the Dead’s “Passenger” extends beyond the musical similarities, into the lyrics themselves. “Station Man” opens with the lines:
I've been waiting
Can you tell me
When we're leaving
As compared to the “Passenger” lines:
Don't you hear me?
While “Station Man” is clearly about a train, “Passenger” is only tangentially about anything at all, but there does seem to be a train involved, or at least some mode of transport that could accommodate the “passenger” who is the subject of the song.
I’ve always thought that the “passenger” is, as are all of us, a passenger on the planet we inhabit, hurtling through space at some ungodly rate of speed. The song’s lyrics address more than just human beings—the opening verse is addressed to a firefly. We are all passengers together—after all: “what is a man, deep down inside, but a raging beast?”
Given Peter Monk’s vocation as a Buddhist monk, perhaps the song could be seen to address the mysteries of reincarnation, and of the large perspective on time we find in Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t claim to know enough about the topic to make a case for it, but surely someone might. Or someone with sufficient knowledge might take a completely different view.
That one line: “What is a man, deep down inside, but a raging beast, with nothing to hide?” hit me hard when I first heard it. I internalized it in a big way—and given the manner in which it was performed by Bobby and Donna on Terrapin Station, it seemed to be meant to be heard as an important line. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the silhouette of a man, set against a sunset sky, rampaging across the horizon, swinging some kind of hammer or sword, and this image seemed archetypal, proceeding from “deep down inside,” and carrying with it the potential for the seed of understanding of who I might be, and who my fellow-travelers on the planet might be. That Grateful Dead sense of light and dark, or roses and thorns, of the totality of existence all seemed wrapped up in those lines and in the imagery they brought to my mind.
And while Terrapin Station doesn’t really seem to be a concept album, I do find that the songs on the album build together as a group into something larger than the sum oftheir parts. “Passenger” seems much more powerful taken in the context of the rest of the songs on the album, particularly “Terrapin Station” and “Estimated Prophet.” There’s a sense of being headed somewhere, towards a place we can’t quite fathom, which may have dire consequences or which may be some of paradise, common to all three songs. Even Donna’s “Sunrise” seems to fit in with the general mystical feeling evoked in the listener by these songs, whether intentional or not.