The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
hat, after all, is the point of a compendium of scatology and ontology viz the lyrics of the Grateful Dead? When fans hear a song they like, they internalize it, dance to it, sing along. Tape it, collect it, trade it. When scholars hear a song they like, they annotate it. There is more than one way to love a song. There are as many ways as there are listeners.
The songlist of the Grateful Dead has achieved an anomalous status within the archives of current pop culture. It begins to appear that our output embodied the summation and close of a musical era, rather than heralding the bright new beginning devoutly wished for. But it bears mentioning that our work was a natural and inevitable blending of rock and roll, jazz, and traditional folk culture. It was, in its day, as shockingly innovative as the music of mounting urban psychosis that was to displace it. Its verbal and musical complexity offer little of overwhelming market value to a more intensely stratified current musical culture. I’m optimistically uncertain as to whether it is a dead issue or a ticking time bomb set to detonate long after its progenitors have quit this sphere of commercial sorrow. My own improbable dream was to aid and abet a unified indigenous American, or at least Western, music, drawing on all bona fide traditional currents including pop. Tall order for a bunch of white kids. Big dreams. But jazz wasn’t talking to pop, and bluegrass wasn’t talking to the blues—experimental postclassic soundscape wasn’t talking to anybody.
Most bands can be copied, but bands that have tried to mimic the Grateful Dead in a creative way, other than note-by-note reproduction, tend to fall short of the mark because there is no specific style to mimic, rather a range of styles that the band members have individually mastered and integrated into the music. Pigpen played blues and was accepted as a regular in the black nightclubs of East Palo Alto in his early teens. Phil studied composition with the great Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio to augment his classical training. Garcia’s knowledge and facility with American folk forms and instrumental styles was compendious. Mickey Hart was a titled world-champion rudimental drummer from a family of drummers and studied Indian rhythmic intricacies with Zakir Hussein and Ali Akbar Khan. Several of us were veterans of regular jazz sessions by sterling musicians such as Lester Hellum, Bob Pringle, Rudy Jackson, and Dan Barnett while living at the Chateau. My particular strength was a good memory. I knew the words to most of the popular songs of the forties and fifties and to most of the classics of the swing era, through my parents’ record collection (also strong in folk music) and through playing through “fake books” of the era on my trumpet. I also absorbed the lyrics to an untold number of folk songs during the folk revival of the sixties. Just a knack, but it’s small wonder that my songs are often fraught with allusions.
I believe that the lyrics themselves say all that wants saying but acknowledge that scholastic exegesis has a momentum of its own and it’s not my business to impede it, though I always believed we were “historicized” too early for comfort. I also believe, through experience, that beneath the window dressing of metaphor and rhyme, song is a naked, living, and amorphous creature. Where some assume that song is the transcription of self, my more intimate belief is that one goes out in the woods and ketches one, dresses it up, and trains it to talk. How the brute is trained is a matter of personal style, but beneath the window dressing, the song remains elusively itself, prevented from full expression by the limits of its intended use. The writer’s prejudices, blindsides, and occasional strengths are all utilized in the disguising of the primordial beast into form adequate to its specific purpose.
Scatology is the activity of tracking the spoor of the song, detecting borrowings, influences, and/or outright thefts; of uncovering, through internal evidence, the parentage of a particular song, or of repetitive tendencies throughout a body of work—of actual or imagined contingent sources. It is evidence for induction, building a hypothetical dinosaur from fossil traces. Looking for what species of fire causes such and such a spiral of smoke. Sometimes, there is indeed a flame; other times, the writer was just stretching for a rhyme, accepting something convenient with a deadline impending, no further significance intended. At other times, evidence is ironically removed from normal context and bespeaks influence less than sheer serendipitous proximity. All practice is acceptable practice! Who arbitrates this stuff anyway? It isn’t the artist’s sworn duty to be easily or accurately traceable. I grudgingly admit that prior knowledge of select sources can establish a context for a song that might positively increase the effectiveness of the allusions. One of my conscious goals as a songwriter is to provide a connective thread to the ongoing project of Western music, when and if it feels natural and right.
Ontology is an examination of causative factors, of intent. What was the impulse that seemed to require certain images to be duly expressed? Love, carnal or spiritual? Irony? Sentiment? Contempt? Patriotism? Existential devaluation? Self-advertisement? Revenge? Paranoia? Romance? Annoyance? Deconstruction? Revolution? Peer status? Exuberance? Broken-heartedness? Grief? Indomitability? Salvation? Sales? Sacrilege? Inanity? Responsibility or the lack of? Need of another song for the album? Discontent? Protest? Inspiration from another song? Disaster, personal or worldwide? There are prime models for each of these impulses in the literature of song, in the musical ocean in which we swim.
Who stands behind the mask of a song? Anyone willing and able to provide the voice can wear the mask and intone the metaphors. Song, a series of tones enhanced by metaphor, coalesces into a visage in the act of performance. Why just exactly metaphor? What is metaphor? Metaphor is that which stands for something that cannot stand for itself, since all else stands upon it. Philosophy is metaphor, war is metaphor, and, oh yes, dear sweet love itself. A broad term. What lies outside the capacity of imagining, by way of metaphor, is undefined because indefinable. The something I speak of is evocable, in a limited sense of emotional repercussion, by appropriate metaphor. It is surmisable though not contained by it. The juxtaposition of one metaphor to another yields relation; a juxtaposition of relations, a situation. A juxtaposition of situations provides narrative. Is music also metaphor? Yes, but you lose the value of both words by saying so. Invocation and evocation are classically terms of magic. You don’t evoke your dog, you call him. Spirit, however, you must invoke, coax with metaphor. A song, successfully invoked, evokes person, place, time, and condition.
Sometimes the singer becomes the song. This can be dangerous because the metaphoric mask, fitting too well, can be difficult to remove. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Red Shoes” is the scarifying metaphor of this situation. But when the metaphor supplants the mediator in less than tragic circumstances, mere make-believe becomes magic theater. We buy our tickets hoping this will happen and are disappointed when it doesn’t. But when it does—the audience, as well as the artist, assimilated by metaphor exalted by music—performance becomes ceremony. Words are no longer strictly necessary, they have done their duty toward the primary evocation; rhythm and tonality alone prolong the experience until it’s time to haul it back down to earth and bid you goodnight.
The Grateful Dead was, is, the master metaphor for our group situation. And yes, the shoes have run away with the feet at times. The evocative power of that strange, not at all comical name is considerable, for grace and ill. I know that my own input into the scene, my words, were heavily conditioned by that powerful name. It called sheaves of spirits down on us all. It expressed a deep and mystic hope about the nature of eternity. Our shows were ceremonies and our people, celebrants, in the most archaic sense of the term. There was no place else on God’s green earth that I, for one, fitted. Now that it is gone, there is no place else I fit so exactly as to shape and size. But that I fit once, and well, into something that fit me, that had a piece exactly my size missing, gives hope, in that such things may be at all, that thus it may be so again. Madly in love with metaphor, I took a lover’s liberties with it, crushing unlikely relations into strange situations, letting it summon a sense of its own, or none, or to be continued. . . . Crazy? By all means, whatever that peculiar metaphor of relative sanity portends. The attempt to speak on as many levels at once as is humanly possible, considering the limitations of language (which is also its condition of freedom), can invite the worried concern of more orderly minds.
The components of metaphor that can’t be so easily isolated or identified are those that have nothing to do with image per se, but rather the arrangement of the articles of the image. Say the image of the metaphor is, for example, a red silk banner in the rain. The same metaphor can be expressed as: in the rain, a silken banner of red. Or: silken, red, a banner in the rain. Same metaphor, different emphases and rhythmic pulses. In the context of rhyme, the same metaphor in different inversions could provoke many different shades of feeling.
Weeping tears of crimson pain
silken, red, a banner in the rain.
A certain elegance is provided by rhythmic contrast that would be lost in the doggerel rhythm of:
Weeping tears of crimson pain
a red silk banner in the rain.
All I mean to imply by examining this scrap of suspect metaphor is that there is a point where we leave scatology and ontology behind and enter the sphere of poetics, the land of measured feet, onomatopoeia, and rhythmic accent.
There are songs of such enduring stature that they have become part of the common mind, from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to “Happy Birthday to You,” from “Stardust” to “Auld Lang Syne,” from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” They seem like natural forces (as indeed they are)—unequivocal as the moon and perennial as grass—but in each case, oddly enough, somebody wrote the piece, wrote it or made it up, and passed it along, always around a fire—somebody whose name has come down through the ages along with his song, somebody like King David or Cab Calloway, or, more commonly, somebody forgotten. I like to acknowledge some of these works (it’s called allusion), borrowing a bit of their pizzazz or charm, certain of their authority if not my own. People ask me who my major influences are, and I have to smile, thinking, “You mean other than Walt Disney?” All qualitative assumptions aside, what music first moved us? Got down deep in there before we’d erected any barriers of taste and sophistication? An apt allusion can act like a magnet among the iron filings of a verse, making them all coalesce and decisively point north. One seeks the point in the soul that has already been touched in an undeniable way, only to proceed in directions of one’s own. A four-leaf clover on Mars is the desired item. A scrap of Stephen Foster or a bow to Mother Goose pleases the Muse who watches over such things. She likes us when we borrow, loves us when we steal. All of what song is ventures from and flies home to the same place: soul to soul. Copyright is an interesting and fairly new idea, but I don’t think it’ll ever rule the creative sphere where all things interpenetrate and cross-fertilize. A song is only ever fully realized when it belongs to everyone whose language it inhabits. Which is as much as to say: Few songs are ever fully realized. More than simple creative acts, they are acts of accretion, moss-covered and lichen-bearing bits of interstellar matter, living beings of word and harmony.
There is an approach that allows a song to achieve multiple personal evocations of déjà vu. Not amenable to recognizable formulation (like metric, rhyme, or allusion), it fits the facts of many lives, typifying a variety of situations, and seems to each of many listeners as though written for them alone. I mean specifically written for them, not just generically, but personally. I’ve run across too many testimonials to the phenomenon regarding my own work to doubt it—and have experienced it myself (who hasn’t?) in the lyric works of others that touch me most. A lyric that places its situation too restrictively in a particular time and place may fail in this regard but, on the other hand, might just redouble in such associative power to the ears of those from the same time and place. Usually New York City in the not-too-distant past. Mostly it’s the trusty love song, specifically new love and love disappointed, that takes you there. When the parallels get a little too exact, it’s just uncanny, and there’s not much more to say about that. It’s a bit more difficult to find subjects other than romantic love that partake of the particular and the universal at the same time, which is what a song must do to make any difference in the life of the listener. By report, I’ve done this with a few songs, such as “Ripple” and “Box of Rain” (neither love songs in the conventional sense), but I can’t tell how it’s done, only how it feels: like I’ve just spoken clearly to myself and survived the experience. Exalted. Satisfied. Though the facts of the writing of many lyrics are forgotten, I don’t forget the moments that define and validate my choice of professions.
The truths of song are not the truths of prose or those of nonlyric poetry. Poetry much finer than your garden-variety song lyric can fail entirely to accomplish what rhymed couplets of suspiciously nil content can pull off with mere emotional conviction. Denigrate the art of Hank Williams who dare! What speaks to the head most often misses the heart, since song is above all else and beyond all else, a language of direct emotion, which to be powerful must be simple. Elements of abstraction are added at peril, but in the instances where a mix of brain and heart doesn’t flat-out fail, it can work memorably well. Most studied attempts provide satisfactory fodder for neither mind nor heart; successful linkage is a gift of the moment’s Muse—it comes out of the blue or it doesn’t come.
The sheer dinkiness of rhyming (which the heart enjoys), besides providing an easy key to memorization for the performer, can be a distinct impediment to the free exercise of poetic flexibility. One of the great free-verse poets of our time, Allen Ginsberg (whose attempts at song lyric suffer from the constriction of a vast soul into iambic pentameter) asked me, “Does a song lyric have to rhyme?” I answered impulsively from the apparent truth of the matter that, yes, it must. He didn’t ask for elucidation but nodded gravely and simply accepted the pronouncement. I’ve made a kind of trademark of seeing how far I could push lyric into abstraction without losing touch with the heart. Just so far and no further. I’ve pushed it too far several times and lived to lick my critical bruises. To test the limit and miss, should the work suffer recording and release, is to be labeled pretentious and henceforth beneath notice. “Too bad,” they shake their heads, “he almost had us fooled.” The best way past that misfortune is to collaborate with someone with strong populist instincts. A song needn’t be bone-dumb, mind you, but it must strike past its quanta of intellection to the quiddity (thatness, thereness, suchness) of feeling, music itself being the most direct route to the big red pump.
The extasis of a song lyric is not particularly evident on the printed page, though I confess to being more attentive than strictly necessary about how my work appears to the eye, what’s called symmetry and enjambment, but this is just a personal foible that has no bearing whatsoever on the viability of a lyric, which must be sounded and settled into the nest of its melody, serving not only exposition but the chords and pulses of the arrangement. At best, it should seem like a tune could have no other words and the words, no other tune. In most cases, that’s probably a delusion, as I’ve discovered by hearing hard-core rap lyrics set to Grateful Dead records with the original words electronically erased. The thought that someday my version of how those fine old tracks go will be only one of many that gives pause to consider.
Songwriting is 51 percent craft and 49 percent feel. After a few years in the business, I developed a rhyming dictionary in my head and didn’t even bother to write an end word that would provide a too-limited scope and palette of rhyme. One learns early to tuck the word love into the middle of the line rather than deal with shove, glove, dove, of, and above. Wind is one of the most beautiful and multi-expressive words in the language, but has no usable consonant word except the false rhyme begin. So engrained is this acquired facility that I can literally listen to nearly any modern pop song and tell you what the next line will be more than 50 percent of the time. Most lyric writers telegraph their punches, especially when plowing over well-turned fields for the first time. But hey, it’s all good. There are so many aspects involved in successfully matching a lyric to a set track, it’s a wonder when it expresses anything coherent at all. There’s more liberty to writing a lyric destined to be set to music than in “scoring.” Then the struggle is on the musician’s side, but at least there’s a framework for composition rather than raw air and the buzz of an amp. Since I write faster than most musicians compose, I generally got my way if only because I had something to present and they didn’t. For most full-time musicians, composition is the most dreaded thing of all. I reckon three-quarters of the collaborative output I’ve been involved in originated in my own head. In my experience, it’s much easier to write a lyric than to create a supple and convincing tune. But the only way to write a song is to begin. No songs, to my knowledge, were ever performed that were not first begun. Small point, but not all that obvious. It could be that songs whose lyrics originated in my head are better in sum than those written for the compositions of others, though that is far from a safe generalization and I wouldn’t like to put it to the test. Insofar as writing to composed music can utilize the music’s own juice, the words are subordinated to the composer’s intent. For a lyric to be interesting enough in its own right, to tempt a composer to score, a lot of juice must be present in the words to begin with.
I wonder if there are half a dozen other people in the English-speaking world who’ve made their long-term living solely as lyricists. Pretty small fraternity this. I was granted a rare chance to develop my craft in the public eye, in conjunction with a band of rare longevity. Fortunately, I had a lot to say and, equally fortunate, in retrospect, there was not enough “profile” to the shadowy writer’s gig to turn my head. Not too much anyway. I lived lyric year in and year out for decades and never lost my taste for it. I ascribe this less to raw talent than to a fortuitous pairing of coincidences: suitable cohorts and the unique cultural ferment of the sixties. I don’t know how many songs I wrote, thousands; they were forever getting lost, snatched up by pixies and transported to the land of lost socks or folded in somebody’s back pocket and put through the wash with no duplicate copy. And I wrote reams of bad songs, bitching about everything under the sun, which I kept to myself: Cast not thy swines before pearls. And once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote “Brokedown Palace,” “To Lay Me Down,” and “Ripple,” all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper. The only similar moment came while conceiving “Terrapin Station” in a lightning-split thunderstorm overlooking the lashing bay at China Camp. That I spent so many sessions trying to add to “Terrapin” in subsequent years was perhaps more an effort to recapture the magic of the moment than because the piece really needed completion. The moment lives on in the song; there’s no need to repeat it. One would think that the culminating moment of a song’s creation would culminate in hearing it performed for the first time, but in my experience this is seldom so; the nexus of eternity achieved in instants of assured and fluent creation reign supreme. The pudding is in the proof, so to speak.
Back in the day, I didn’t allow my lyrics to be published with the recordings so people could dub in their own mishearings, adding a bit of themselves to the song. Stone Age recording technique assured a certain amount of verbal blur, particularly if the band was dynamic in the mid and bass ranges. Though the recordings of the Grateful Dead have been remastered so that lyrics can be heard without suppressing the bass drum, there was a time when the words could be accurately deciphered neither on record nor in concert. Since they weren’t printed, very few people other than the singers knew what I was saying in any detail. Not that this state of things influenced my writing, but I’ve generally found that the words to songs I thought I heard in the works of others were more colorful and enigmatically apt than the words I eventually discovered were intended. More to my personal taste. I assume the same is true of my own work. Mishearing can be as much a strength as a liability. People, accidentally overhearing their own thoughts, are inclined to like what they hear, self-recognized at a distance and mistaken for another.
My purpose in writing song lyrics, besides having nothing better to do and making a living, is the exaltation of my spirit through the exaltation of other spirits. Traditional tools and forms are often apt for the purpose, such as the “Come All Ye” form so popular in sailor songs and union ballads. When I recommend others “come hear Uncle John’s Band,” I verbalize, in a way deeply meaningful to me, one of the ongoing agendas of life, the coaxing and cajoling of the forces of generational unity. I don’t say we, the purveyors of the song, are Uncle John’s Band (though anything was possible on a good night in the late sixties)—the truth is that we as a group also wanted to come hear “UJB,” and to come home, too, if it’s not too much to ask. When I’m lucky, what is meant to me by the gnomic phrases that rise from the reverie of writing is found equally meaningful to others. When asked who specifically Uncle John—or St. Stephen—is, I have to think someone’s missed the point. They’re you or they’re no one. I once got a midnight phone call on my listed number from Uncle John and St. Stephen, which caused me to yank the cord out of the wall and go phoneless for the next year. I can’t tell you why my reaction was so severe—I only know that it was.
The images and themes of “Uncle John’s Band” are more than normally allusive, even for me. It was, incidentally, the first lyric I wrote with the aid of that newfangled gadget, the cassette tape recorder. I taped the band playing the arrangement and was able to score lyrics at leisure rather than scratch away hurriedly at rehearsals, waiting for particular sections to come around again. Few of their songs (“Box of Rain” is an exception) were so fully realized as “UJB” before the incorporation of lyrics. “UJB” (many Grateful Dead songs are known to fans by their initials) is a celebration of folk themes played “down by the riverside,” hailing from a peculiar place where Appalachia met immigrant Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish folk traditions, to my mind the mythic territory of Fennario, where Sweet William courted “Pretty Peggy-O” with such romantically disastrous consequences. I wanted to supercharge that ethos as something of ultimate value into the public consciousness. You can swallow a song like “UJB” whole for what it evokes in you, mystery and all—or you can track down the resources I selected while stumbling through the dark of composition, toward some kind of light, and achieve a gnostic synthesis of the song that may forever change the way you hear it. It may deepen the experience, or just explain it away. As with the language of love, the meaning of a song often lies less in what is said than in how it’s said, the scan of the rhythm relative to counterweight of color and image. And mystery has a color all its own. But there’s something other than those retrievable devices that’s necessary: a uniqueness of overall character—that the song be that song, borrowings and all, and not any other. Not a copy of anything. A representative example of a genre that doesn’t even exist, if it comes to that! A China Cat Sunflower. Avoidance of popular genres does not make for a commercially successful music; there’s no formula for the cultural froth to fix on, but it does invite a long-term following. With only one hit in thirty years, I’m not even sure the Grateful Dead belong in the pop music section of the record store. But it definitely found its domain in the tape machines of an army of bootleggers. Due to the setlist–free creative variety of the performances, there are probably more hours in private circulation, of taped Grateful Dead music than of any musical group in history. What you lose on one side, you gain on another.
I realized some time ago that I’ve unwittingly given myself to the world. Maybe that’s why the phone call from my characters disturbed me so deeply. The keys to my cloud are out there, and almost anybody can know more about me than I’ll ever know about them. I don’t think that thought often; it’s a bit too uncanny for comfort. Obversely, it can lead to a feeling that anybody but me has a right to interpret the meanings of the songs. Well, yes, I know exactly what every line of my work was meant to mean, its sources or lack of them, and what it’s trying to prove—if not the subconscious motivations all artists keep hidden from themselves, the tinder to ignite their dreams. So why don’t I say it all for once and for good, and fatten this book up a bit? I’ll say it again: The songs themselves say everything I personally want to say about them. The melodies of the unstrung harp are meant to be felt, not heard.
There were other lyricists involved in the writing of the Grateful Dead canon. Had I not joined, by invitation, as lyricist in residence a year after they chose the name and nailed down the job through sheer prolixity, the band would have developed differently. It might have been less odd and more popular, for one thing. It would likely have remained more blues- based. The passing rage of psychedelia would have happened regardless. “The Other One” is a band-generated example of that, lyrics by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. In flipping through the draft pages of this book, I was surprised at the number of early lyrics by Garcia and by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, songs that got an airing or two but apparently rang no bells for them. Both writers show distinct lyric promise. Their skills would have developed in proportion to the effort they exerted in songwriting, though both were first and foremost musicians. Words tend to be a chore when your first love is the performing of music. Penning and chord-combing don’t have the same charge. I know from personal experience that when I perform much, my writing dwindles. In my opinion, most bands could benefit from a lyricist able to devote full time to the task. Musicianship and lyric acuity seldom dwell in the same body—different brain configurations, I figure. There are, of course, profound exceptions to this rule.
Another scenario might have found the weight put on Bobby Petersen and Peter Zimels, aka Peter Monk, both literate, interested, and available. Peter, once a Zen monk, was spiritual, political, and properly pissed off, lyrically articulate. Not a bad combination. Bobby was a masterfully poetic outlaw and a man of vast experience, much behind bars of both sorts. Both were gifted and serious poets trying their hand at lyric. I never considered myself a poet. I was into literature (as awed by James Joyce as were my friends by Coltrane), novel-writing, and folk music. Previous to “Alligator,” I’d written only three songs, in 1957, for a rock-and-roll quartet I had in high school, but they were pop-style dreck with no resources beyond the pop-culture mind of the day, just something to sing. In 1967, I mailed to my old chum and fellow folkie Garcia three lyrics from New Mexico, extracted from songs I wrote and played at parties with some success, expecting no reply. I got the first and only letter I ever received from him, almost by return mail, asking me to come out and join the band. The lyrics were “Saint Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and “Alligator.”
Bobby Petersen said to me, near the end of his life, “I could have done what you did.” I wouldn’t be qualified to judge, since fate granted me the chance to develop my craft in the public arena and denied it to him by penal circumstance and a savagely prodigious thirst that took its toll on health and ability. As testament to what might have been, he bequeathed the band “New Potato Caboose” and “Unbroken Chain,” the latter a delicately beautiful poetic evocation of sorrow and loss. His youthful poetic prowess is demonstrated in his posthumous book of poetry, Alleys of the Heart. Had circumstance allowed, his old friend Phil would probably have come more forward in the solo vocal output, though this was something Phil didn’t seem particularly keen to do, not liking the sound of his own voice, which is unfortunate because, given confidence, he would have been just dandy, as his vocal on our cowritten “Box of Rain” demonstrates. His tenor harmonies define the GD vocal blend.
In different circumstances, Bob Weir’s collaboration with his school friend John Barlow might have begun earlier. Weir himself was capable of writing a nice breezy lyric to witness “Born Cross-eyed” and his part of “The Other One” lyrics—but had no confidence in his abilities and didn’t develop the talent. The folk elements that characterized the recorded output were a function of Garcia and my mutual deep and tolerably well-informed interests, developed by having played as a folk duet, Bob & Jerry (with matching shirts!), and later in several old-timey and bluegrass bands prior to Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, which transmogrified into the Warlocks, which became, and stayed, the Grateful Dead. Invited to play jug in Mother McCree’s, I just couldn’t get a sound out of the damned thing and dropped out of the band scene to pursue my novel- writing. Fate apparently had plans for me other than musicianship, or I would have made that jug ring! In the end, all those mutual folk elements got me the job of providing Garcia with the type of song he could sing with righteous authority. The others were a little worried about the folk direction, but agreeable; the band was, after all, desperate for material and, wonder of wonders, it clicked! Our albums went from the bottom of the charts to the upper reaches, consistently. Folk-biased music would never top the charts; that was for the Beatles, the Captain and Tennille, James Brown, the Monkees, and the Rolling Stones (Dylan had sort of disappeared from public view at this time due to his accident), but we did pretty well. We would have done better with a hit, three of which we had until they got banned from the airwaves by FCC warning, and two for mentioning cocaine: “Truckin’” (later declared “a national treasure” by an act of Congress—some Deadhead in the House, no doubt) and “Casey Jones.” “Uncle John’s Band” got kicked off the airwaves for swearing “God Damn! I declare / Have you seen the like?” Strangled in our infant cradle by the evil Nixon! He’ll never know what a favor he did us. We needed another decade of hard-work-just-to-survive to temper our metal. Burnout was providentially deferred.
As I see it, in my absence the Grateful Dead would have tended toward a balance between the Garcia, McKernan, Weir, and Lesh vocal and writing base, drawing moderately from outside the group for lyric material, most likely supplied by Barlow, Petersen, Zimmels, and, not inconceivably by Richard Brautigan, Lew Welch, and, Allen Ginsberg, requiring, as the band did, a dozen or more new songs a year to record. Folk-style repertoire would still have been evident, as with “Viola Lee Blues,” but it would more likely have been covers than originals. But as it actually happened, my affinity with Garcia’s interest in Americana conspired to provide the band with a resource not easily laid aside. The songs fit the times and helped to define them. For several years, the Garcia-Hunter song machine dominated the proceedings, with perhaps predictable results. With the impetus of Rolling Stone’s decision to recast the GD as “Jerry & his band” with two big cover shots of his truly and interviews, not all of which were flattering to the band, Garcia’s public persona decisively overshadowed his bandmates. McKernan’s presence dwindled to feature spots, and Weir began to stand uncomfortably in the big guy’s increasingly solid shadow. The drummers didn’t care one way or another, but Phil’s progressive tastes, at a guess, might well have been hampered by the verse-chorus-bridge song oriented approach so suitable to the 33 1/3 RPM, double-sided record format. Whatever the details, and there were many, the “resource not easily laid aside” showed signs of becoming “the monster who ate the band,” and I felt conflicting pressures directed at my role, Garcia’s position of eminence being unassailable. Weir voiced a desire, in collaboration, to have my words be more textural and less central to his compositions. Lyrics that didn’t call attention to themselves. “The sound of thick air,” as he once requested from engineer Dave Hassinger, who promptly quit. Probably a reasonable enough request, but I wasn’t prone to minimize my skills, nor he to be overridden in matters of his own musical inclinations. Truth is, I wrote the same for him as I did for Garcia. It was how I wrote; I wasn’t involved in a program of putting words in singers’ mouths or defining their personae; I was simply expressing my own creative daemon. But it was the first indication that my little boat was shipping water and that continued clear sailing might not be in the cards.
I’m often asked what it takes to become a songwriter. Either those who write the majority of memorable songs are hypocrites or this is pretty much the recipe. No one ever said it’d be easy. You can either get a guitar, a pencil, and some paper and do it, or proceed to violate your mind and body to a certain degree to prove the worth of your salt as an artist. You should maybe stop short of running right over a cliff, though one or two major falls do you no harm if you survive intact. Beware creative-writing programs. It is well if you have your heart broken many times and break the hearts of others through your creative self-indulgence. It’s de rigueur to do a certain number of foolhardy things with a fair degree of regularity, or, if a coward by nature (which is perfectly fine), you should learn to cringe at things that cannot possibly harm you and to fear where there is no reason to fear. If you are so base as to have money, it is recommended you spend it foolishly and make no provision whatsoever for your old age, unlikely as it is you’ll have one. Above all, recognize that everything you know is a flat-out lie or only relatively true in certain restricted and unpleasant situations. Trust only in how you feel about things, not in their so-called reality. Love God ferociously and live like the very devil. Always count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Compromise on the larger picture but never on details. Remember that deadlines are for dummies. If you can’t neglect an appointment, at least be late. Be of good cheer where others moan, and strike a glum face in the midst of merriment. Remember, you’re an artist and it’s your proud tradition to be difficult.
An explosion of unresolved ambition and creatively frustrating circumstances loomed over us like a cloud of dirty dishwater. Enter John Barlow in Pecos Bill getup, silk kerchief, and Stetson hat, as befit a Wyoming ranch boss and author of the lyrics to “Mexicali Blues.” Billy goats together, only he knew Weir well enough to butt horns with him, part friends, and do it again. Barlow didn’t want to write thick air, either. Nor did he make an attempt to aid Weir in developing his own sense of direction. He rejected, as soundly as I had, Weir’s tendency to wantonly rewrite the fruits of your Muse. It was good to see that road show at a distance, realizing they would both survive and even come up with some tunes that would be a credit to the repertoire. Though less than delighted at relinquishing part of my hard-earned dominion to another, becoming Garcia’s lyricist rather than lyricist to the Grateful Dead, catastrophe was averted. In hindsight, any more time spent as sovereign wordbird of the immense lyrical heights of all Deaddom might have melted the wax in my wings. As it was, the jolt of the landing only fired my Muse to react with “Promontory Rider” and “Terrapin,” where I make my stand upon the promontories of my own heart, in the shadow of the moon, and recover meaning. Deep down, Weir made the only choice both of us could live with, and there are no hard feelings on either side. He remains my brother, but creatively we were just oil and water, “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Jack Straw,” and “Playing in the Band” notwithstanding.
With songwriting to spare, enter Weir’s vehicle Kingfish and a string of Garcia solo bands. Phil and Ned Lagin’s sophisticated sound sculpture Seastones was miles ahead of its time and decidedly not geared to a pop audience. So much music from so few. My usual prolixity unabated, I wrote more songs than I knew what to do with and began handing them out to solo projects, notably Mickey Hart’s tremendously enjoyable house parties on record, such as Rolling Thunder. A stream of Garcia solo albums took up more of the slack. I even began putting out records of my own: Tales of the Great Rumrunners and Tiger Rose, thanks to Mickey, who generously provided unlimited freedom of his studio and infectious creative input. Fortunately, none of the side projects bid seriously to displace the parent project. Through one accommodation or another, we managed to keep the group going as an active entity for an unheard-of three decades with only one year-long vacation from touring. The critics of the 1980s were not well disposed to like anything but the dynamically emerging sound of punk; whatever we created was old-school by definition. Despite them, and punk’s rendezvous with musical history, we continued to accumulate the biggest steady draw in rock-and-roll history. We weathered the tides of reggae, new wave, goth, glam glitter, Madonna, and rap and resolved the internal difficulties that destroy other bands in short order. How? Because we made a solemn, spoken agreement early on that we were in this for life. Come what may. We pledged.
After 1974’s From the Mars Hotel, more Garcia-Hunter material ended up on Jerry’s solo albums than on the Grateful Dead song list, as he relinquished compositional tasks to others. This culminated in the 1980 Go to Heaven album (originally titled Go to Hell) which contained only two of our collaborations, featuring instead the driving songs of new keyboard player Brent Mydland.
The Garcia-Hunter songwriting flower put forth its last bloom in 1987. Though only four of our songs appeared on the album In the Dark, one was our first hit single, “Touch of Grey.” Though there were still good songs to come, they were fewer as Garcia’s dwindling interest in songwriting turned to painting. During the recording of In the Dark, something extremely uncharacteristic of the Grateful Dead—and deeply meaningful to me—happened. Bill Kreutzmann took me aside and said, “We love you. Don’t ever leave us.” The only acknowledgment that ever equaled that in my heart of hearts came one August afternoon, when Garcia called me, out of the blue, to say, “Your lyrics never once stuck in my throat.” Cool.
Been there, done that, wrote about it. What else? Glance over the shoulder. Next? Ever wonder what thick air in the words to a song might actually sound like? Hasn’t been done yet, to my knowledge. . . .
San Rafael, California