Author of The Complete Annotated
Grateful Dead Lyrics
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2005, Volume 12, #10
Written by John Metzger
What was the Pride of Cucamonga? Who was Tom Banjo? What could a "double-e waterfall" possibly be? These are just a few of the questions upon which David Dodd sheds light in his new book The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Spanning the Jerry Garcia-penned Can’t Come Down from 1965 to Mickey Hart’s recent composition You Remind Me, the comprehensive tome contains all of the songs that the Grateful Dead performed, plus a few other closely related selections, each of which is adorned with an array of fascinating facts and intriguing cross-references. Indeed, since October 1976, when he first saw the Grateful Dead in concert, Dodd has been gripped by an irresistible urge to delve deeply into the band’s poetic musings. "A few years earlier, I had read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I was very intrigued by the whole Prankster culture and Tom Wolfe’s great writing about it. So, I was sort of primed," he said. "I went there to see The Who, and I wound up coming away as a Deadhead."
"My first impression was that this was very complicated, wonderful, heartfelt music, and I wanted to know more about it," he explained. "I’m a words guy. I was a literature major in college."
"I remember that the Grateful Dead played They Love Each Other, and I thought for sure that they were singing, ‘Don’t you concede that it’s true.’ I thought that was a weird line for a rock band," Dodd continued. "Later on, I found out what the words ‘really were,’ but I still have that ‘hearing’ in my head. I also remember the band playing with the words to Franklin’s Tower, almost harmonizing with them as they bounced off the back wall of the venue. The music and the words were intertwined from the get-go, and that intrigued me. Plus, everyone around me seemed to know them all. Almost immediately, I made up my mind to try to learn them."
Learn them, he did: Dodd began transcribing the lyrics to songs like China Cat Sunflower from Europe ’72 and What’s Become of the Baby? from Aoxomoxoa by repeatedly moving the needle back and forth across the vinyl albums in an attempt to decipher what was being sung. "Once I had a clue as to what the words were," he said, "then I started to wonder about particular words and phrases. The people who were referred to really intrigued me, especially in Ramble on Rose. I wondered who Crazy Otto was; I wondered who Billy Sunday was; and although I knew who Wolfman Jack was, there was still more to learn about him. So, I just started to track down those people."
A decade later, Blair Jackson’s ultimate fanzine The Golden Road was in full swing, and Dodd submitted an article titled The Annotated Ramble on Rose for him to consider. Jackson rejected it as too academic for his publication, but Dodd wasn’t dissuaded from continuing his obsessive journey. "By that point, I was working in the real world," he continued. "I was a reference librarian. What I did for a living was to track down weird facts. So, I could do this in the nooks and crannies of my regular job, writing notes on little, leftover cards from the dismantled card catalogs at the Alameda County library."
By 1994, Dodd’s collection of notes had grown to fill a shoebox, and he wisely recognized how the Internet could play a key role in moving his project forward. He obtained permission from Ice Nine to republish the Grateful Dead’s lyrics on his newly founded website, and by transforming his passion into a research project for the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, he very well may have become the first person to employ the web as a tool for literary annotation. Soon thereafter, Dodd thought about compiling his work for a book, but Ice Nine repeatedly deferred his requests. It wasn’t until August 2004 that he was able to win their blessing. Said Dodd, "That’s when I really started to have to work. I wasn’t anywhere close to being done with it, even though I kept thinking that I was."
In the end, Alan Trist from Ice Nine proved to be an invaluable resource to Dodd as he sorted through the material from his website to create The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. In particular, Trist helped him to determine where he should expand or contract the content. "I think the website sprawls a lot more than the book does," Dodd stated.
"We also wanted the book to look good," he continued. "It’s really hard to make something with footnotes look good. We had a lot of debate around whether there should be more than one color in the book, what kind of font should be used, and how stuff should be placed on the page. My wife had this great idea about having illustrations that were sort of like dictionary illustrations, small things to illustrate particular points. Jim Carpenter, who did an incredible job, drew over 200 illustrations just for this book. Then, we threw in a few color sections, too."
The one thing that fans of the Grateful Dead won’t find in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics is any semblance of interpretation as to what the songs actually mean. "That is so personal, and I don’t think it’s responsible to set that stuff down," said Dodd. "To even limit anybody’s hearing or interpretation by the mere fact of setting the lyrics down on paper or having them in liner notes...I hope that we can continue to leave the door open to alternate hearings."
"The lyrics change constantly in how I hear them and what they mean to me," he continued. "Just the other night, I was in Eugene, and I went to a Dark Star Orchestra concert to do a book signing. They played a show from 1976, and when they played Cosmic Charley, that song suddenly snapped into focus for me in a way that it never had. I had always just thought of it as sort of a little nonsense ditty, and suddenly it seemed to be about relationships. It seemed to be a lot like Scarlet Begonias."
"I could be totally wrong, but that doesn’t matter," he stated. "It does not matter whether any given interpretation is right or wrong. It’s what it is for you in the moment. Because the lyrics are ambiguous, the songs have a depth to them that you can keep going into as long as you want. I think that’s a key thing in Robert Hunter’s writing," explained Dodd.
"There’s a great story that Hunter told in his online journal shortly after 9/11," he continued. "He was in New York City, where his daughter lost a dear friend. He went up on the rooftop of the building in which he was staying, and he played Terrapin Station for the city. He repeated the line ‘hold away despair’ over and over again."
"Even for the guy who writes the song," he exclaimed, "it changes in meaning and things jump out at him. I think that is one of the reasons why he was reluctant early on to even have the words down on paper."
Although Hunter had expressed some initial reservation and outright skepticism regarding the project — to use Dodd’s words, he was "creeped out by it" — in the end he came to see The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics as an intriguing concept. In fact, he eventually contributed the book’s foreword, which is a remarkably revealing essay about the process of lyric writing and what it was like to compose within the framework of the Grateful Dead. By comparison, John Barlow penned the afterword, during which he discusses what it was like to write within the shadow of Hunter. Taken in tandem, the duo offer a rare glimpse into the creative process that effectively sets the stage for and characterizes the entirety of the tome.
Even so, Dodd cautions anyone from taking The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics too seriously, and he openly acknowledges — and, in fact, hopes — to hear from countless other fans who have other tidbits of information to add to his project. "Since the book came out, I now have confirmation from the winery that made the label called Pride of Cucamonga back in the late ’60s, that it was, indeed, a cheap jug wine," said Dodd.
"I try to be as freewheeling as possible in the stuff that I include. Who cares what the recipe for Lady Fingers is? But there, in the middle of St. Stephen arrives this puerile thing about a recipe for how to make this pastry. Hopefully, what that does is show people that they’re free to put whatever they want to onto this. It’s fun. Maybe somebody will go out and bake Lady Fingers," he jokes. "That’s all I’m up to."
The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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