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!)
The Terrapin Station Suite’s second part, “Terrapin Station,” begins, as did the first, with an invocation. This one is addressed directly to Inspiration, perhaps the name of the muse being invoked, and again the poet seeks to be granted the ability to tell a story on fire with elements that will make it alive—evocations of the senses. And again, the muse is asked to allow staying power to the poet, to hold away despair.
The poet promises not to ask for more than this gift, of being allowed to tell a story that will come alive for his readers, and that in doing so he may remain confident, unbowed. He explicitly then states that he will only ask for those gifts, and no more. He will not seek power—because the job of the storyteller is not to gain power over things, but simply to reveal things as they are, as stated in the first section.
And with that, Hunter is off—into a song that only hints at its subject, the destination we will all arrive at, with a verse that evokes the early night sky and the atmosphere of singing insects so vividly for so many listeners, that I am sure I am not the only one who, every time I see a young moon, sings to myself “brand-new crescent moon…” and looks for Venus in close proximity if the time of day is right. To this one verse I owe so many moments of sublime appreciation of the natural world. And the same is true when I hear crickets sing, which happens pretty much every night in my own back yard. I take a moment to appreciate the rare and different tune they sing.
Each of us can bring imagery to mind, certainly, when we close our eyes while listening to this portion of the suite—but I am very curious to know about the experience of others who close their eyes to see. When you hear the words “spiral light of Venus,” what comes to mind? And, in particular, when you hear the words “Terrapin Station”—what in the world (or what NOT in the world) do you conceive of?
The “deadsongs” conversation about the suite on the WELL has a large number of contributions, with contributors sharing what the song means to them. I’d like to see that here, too.
First off, let’s think for a second about the word “Terrapin” itself. On the face of it, it’s just a turtle. But it is laden with association and possible internal, neural-level reference points. For instance, when I hear the word, I hear that root “terra” right away—the word for our home planet, named for the Roman goddess of earth, corresponding to the Greek goddess Gaia. However, despite such automatic association, the word “terrapin” has nothing to do with a Latin root word—it comes to us from Algonquian, a native American language, generally spoken in the geographic range stretching from the northeastern coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains.
So, the terrapin is a freshwater turtle known to early inhabitants of the North American continent. In Native American mythology, and in a surprising number of other world mythologies, the turtle carries the earth on its back. “Turtle Island” is the name given to the continent by native peoples. The symbol is weighty, and in using the word “terrapin,” which (falsely) evokes “terra,” we get a sense of double planetary significance, just from the word itself coupled with its archetypal symbology.
I’ve always loved the story, which I relate in the annotated lyrics, about William James (1842-1910), the great American philosopher, physician, and psychologist—author of The Varieties of Religious Experience — who was approached by an elderly woman after a lecture he gave on the solar system. “We don’t live on a ball rotating ‘round the sun. We live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle.” James replied, “If your theory is correct, Madam, what does the turtle stand on?” “You’re a clever man, Mr. James, and that is a good question, but I can answer it. The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger turtle.” “But what does this second turtle stand on?” asked James. “It’s no use, Mr. James! It’s turtles all the way down!”
So: terrapins all the way down it is. After all, some rise, some fall to get there. And Terrapin Station, whatever or wherever it may be, is a place that might good, or might be ill for any given person.
The suite, as recorded on Terrapin Station, concludes its lyrical portion (excepting the big choral refrain) with “At a Siding.” Of all the live performances, the band never played this one live with lyrics, though there is a note of an instrumental performance. But it plays a crucial role lyrically, at least as I listen to the piece. Left alone by itself, the “Terrapin Station” section may seem triumphant, despite the occasional statements (which seem vain at last?) conveying uncertainty about the entire endeavor of arriving at Terrapin. At least, the music seems triumphant, in all its studio orchestral grandeur. (Somehow, this same grandeur came across absolutely in concert, despite the lack of strings.)
But “At a Siding” is dark. The gorgeous short melody to which the words are set seems to drip with that sense, which perhaps only Garcia’s voice could contain, that there are mysteries with which one might not really want to be acquainted. The dichotomy of light and dark are never far away in Hunter’s lyrics, and here we have spaces filling with darkness, things that were obvious being hidden, leaving us nothing to believe in, except the direction in which we are headed, whatever that may be. But the compass always points to Terrapin. And we are left with: “You’re back in Terrapin for good or ill again.”
So, given that this verse was set by Garcia, and included on the studio album, which contains a suite that is itself a fragment of the larger work that Hunter produced, it seems interesting that the band, or maybe just Garcia, chose to perform only a fragment of the fragment live. I think of other songs which were left mostly unperformed, or which were basically disavowed entirely, such as “Barbed Wire Whipping Party,” which also contained dark lyrics, and which Hunter wished he could take out of the written memory entirely.
“Terrapin Station” stands as a “place” in imagination, full of potential.
It was the name given to the museum that was never built, meant to house the Dead’s archives and provide a performance and experience space.
It provides the name for the performance space and restaurant opened in San Rafael a little over two years ago by Phil Lesh. A few months ago I was at a bar show at Terrapin Crossroads, listening to one of my favorite musicians, Danny Click, playing an unannounced show with the Terrapin Crossroads house band, which that night included Phil on bass. What a treat! At one point, a friend of mine who plays in Danny’s band leaned over and asked the table, “What’s with the turtles?”
Indeed. What an excellent question.
Next week: all the rest of it.