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!)
Sometimes I think about this song, and I wonder about the weight of years, relatively speaking—how all the years combine, and how, when this band, which was ultimately to tour for 30 years, was just five years old, several members got together to write an autobiographical song in which the refrain noted “what a long strange trip it’s been.” And if it seemed long after five years, how must it have seemed after 10, 20, 25…? Did it start to seem that all this life was just a dream?
The lyrics were written under pressure, in the studio, during the recording of American Beauty, with Hunter running back and forth with hastily-written verses that somehow, despite the fact that were purpose-written on the spot, seem to have some pretty good staying power. There are rumors that he originally wrote “Garlands of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street” as an intentionally hard-to-sing line, just to enjoy watching Weir try to wrap his mouth around them, eventually relenting and substituting “arrows of neon,” just to make it possible to sing.
The music credit is shared by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh. Hunter gets the credit for the lyrics. And Hunter took the bare bones outline of some of the band’s adventures and misadventures and fleshed them out with memorable features, highlighting their trips around the country with specific references to places and occurrences. In the process, he came up with a chorus consisting of a couple of phrases that are now, eternally, in the cultural psyche: “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me / Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me / What a long strange trip it’s been.”
At some point, Hunter was accused of using a cliché in that final phrase of the chorus. When something you make up becomes such a commonly-used turn of phrase that your own invention of it is accused of being cliché, that’s some measure of wordsmithing success, I would say. (It reminds me of the story about the old-timers from the mining country who shook their heads in dismay at what the band did to that old tune, “Cumberland Blues.”)
The country is criss-crossed: Chicago, New York, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Buffalo, then, without being named, California—“I’m goin’ home…”
Along the way, the band encounters the reality of life on the road, where all the cities blend into a single city—“it’s all the same street.” They stick together, more or less in line, as they determinedly lay down their cards: taking their music to every corner of the country, whether they be welcomed or not. They encounter hostility in New Orleans, with their famous arrest—Lesh notes, in talking about the song, that their early touring days pre-dated the “rock and roll bubble,” whereby major rock bands would get something of a free pass for infractions of many kinds. They spend time in hotel rooms. It’s tiring and boring—maybe it’s time to settle down? And when it’s all over, and they are finally home, licking their wounds and patching their bones—hey! it’s time to start the whole process over again.
“Truckin’” was first performed on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West. The show opened with an acoustic set, and “Truckin’” was the first song. Other firsts that night included “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Operator.” The song was performed 520 times, placing it at number 8 in the list of most-played songs, with the final performance on July 6, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
It was released on American Beauty in November 1970, after being recorded in three weeks at Wally Heider studios in September. It was also released as a single in January 1971, backed with “Ripple.”
Pretty much anyone who saw the band do the song more than once probably saw Bobby mess up the lyrics. But it never mattered in the least. What always struck me about this song in concert was the almost foolhardy, even fearless, way the band charged into the jam at the end, as if daring each other to just try to do something really crazy, for once. I got the sense that not only did they not know where they were going with the music once it got to the jam, but they simply didn’t care, and they refused to be intimidated—a good match for the crazy adventure they were on, described in the words of the song.
The Anthem to Beauty video contains a wonderful segment about “Truckin’,” and the common element running through each band member’s statements about the song is that it was truly an autobiographical song. It was a description of what the band actually lived through. Hunter notes that he did write additional verses over the years, and that initially he had thought it would grow with the band’s history, but he realized that once it was “down,” it was down—“you don’t go back,” he said. (Perhaps a lesson that could be applied to “Black Throated Wind.”)
But over and above the face-value autobiographical fun of the song and the stories it tells or hints at, several of the band members also express the idea that the song appealed to the band’s listeners in a special way. (Lesh notes that it was the closest they came to a hit on American Beauty.) It expressed the feeling, and the reality, of being out on the road in America—a rite of passage in those days. (And perhaps still today for many.) It gives expression to the impulse to explore America, to find adventure, to do something with, as Garcia put it, “no commercial potential.” It captures the ups and downs we all feel as we make our way through life: it “takes time--you pick a place to go, and just keep Truckin’ on,” with the light shining on you sometimes, and sometimes picking your way along in the dark. Lesh, thinking back on the times captured in the song, says “And I see a group of much younger people doing things in a way that I envy now, looking back on it.”
This is the band’s own story song. Other bands have written their own story songs through the years, but I can’t think of any that really captures the feeling of adventure, fearlessness, longing for home, and recognition of the cycles of our existence in the same way as “Truckin’.”
And not only that, but it is a GREAT dance tune!