Garcia-Hunter: Rare and different tunes
August 4, 2011
ASPEN- When I began discovering the Grateful Dead, lo these many years ago, what didn’t captivate me first was the pot or the hippie gathering that was a Dead show or the charisma of Jerry Garcia or the never-heard-anything-like-it improvised jams. It was the songs. For a few years before I witnessed my first Dead concert (March 9, 1981, Madison Square Garden), I was listening to the music on studio albums, official live releases and the few bootleg concerts on cassette tapes I could get my hands on. The studio work was not considered the ideal way to experience the Dead, the live albums were strong but limited in scope, the bootlegs were of marginal quality.
Still, the songs came to life. Each new one discovered wasn’t like hearing a new song; it was like being led into a new world, each one with its own color, shape, and rules (or lack of same). God, was it thrilling, mysterious and unique. “Ramble on Rose” – who were these characters, Mojo Hand and Billy Sunday and Crazy Otto? “Playing in the Band” – why couldn’t I tap my foot to that rhythm? “Brokedown Palace” – how could three verses about a river stir up so much emotion and bring to mind so many parts of my life?
Garcia (Aug. 1, 1942 – Aug. 9, 1995) is gone; those songs endure. (Oh, how they endure. Musicians can’t help themselves from covering those songs. Among the artists who have released covers of Dead songs are the Decemberists, Los Lobos, Jesse McReynolds, Bruce Hornsby, the Black Crowes and Sublime – and that’s all within the last year.)
A list of my personal top 10 songs that Garcia wrote with his lyricist partner, Robert Hunter.
• “Touch of Grey”: A lot of Deadheads, no doubt, curse the very existence of this song, which put the Grateful Dead on MTV, of all places, and was among the factors that led to massive crowds, headaches and pressure, and, indirectly, Garcia’s death. But the song is anthemic and rocking, with a cleverly balanced play on the nature of optimism, both subverting (“Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey”) and proclaiming it (“We will get by”). Not that this counts for much, but the music video is really good.
Note: I was there for the first performance of the song, on Sept. 15, 1982 at the Capital Centre in Maryland. This was five years before the single was released. Little did anyone suspect what was to come.
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• “Ripple”: A gorgeous gem that didn’t get performed nearly enough, but given its small scale and folky nature, the album version, from “American Beauty,” suffices. The lyrics – inviting, mystical, generous, in tune with the magic of song itself (“let there be songs to fill the air”) – are built for Garcia’s personality. Yes, the chorus – “Ripple in still water/ When there is no peddle tossed/ Nor wind to blow” – is in haiku form, with 17 syllables.
• “Sugaree”: I include this on the supposition that it was the favorite song of Garcia himself. It was a staple of the Dead’s repertoire forever – and of the Jerry Garcia Band’s as well. It inspired Garcia to lead some of his best jams, and the song – five extremely brief, two-line verses about a guy pleading with a girl to keep their romance a secret – was often stretched past 15 minutes. He just didn’t want it to end. Neither did I; that shuffle beat was intoxicating.
• “St. Stephen”: A shot of late-’60s energy – mysterious, dark, dense with shaded meaning. A fine structural balancing act between raunchy rock ‘n’ roll verses, and the delicate, melodic bridge. In concert, it usually took on amazing power.
For reasons Garcia took to the grave, the Dead put “St. Stephen” on ice in the late-’70s. (Maybe they had over-played it early on; from 1968-’70, they performed in constantly.) But they pulled it out three times in 1983, and I was at one of these shows, in Hartford, Conn. The security was dreadfully tight, everyone had to stand right in front of their seat, nobody in the aisles. Late in the second set, Garcia played those two signature guitar notes kicking off “St. Stephen,” and I traipsed from my second-level seat, down the aisles, glided past a checkpoint or two onto the floor, and up near the front. Inexplicable.
• “Scarlet Begonias”: The first Dead song that I absolutely loved, and it’s easy to see why. Hunter’s lyrics speak of pure infatuation; Garcia’s music matches the mood – there’s not a single minor chord in the tune. The song contains one of those philosophical lines that may read as overly simple, but in the hands of Garcia and in the eyes of the Deadheads, what you hear is plain truth: “Once in a while you get shown the light/ In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” And the bouncing rhythm is irresistible; no song made me dance like “Scarlet Begonias.” Give some credit to the rhythm team of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.
• “Mission in the Rain”: An interior monologue of searching for release and redemption, and there is so much at stake here – “You know I’m ready to give everything for anything I take” – that it becomes spiritual, practically a gospel song. The lyric centers on resignation (“No matter what comes down/ The Mission always looks the same”; “It was midnight in the Mission/ And the bells were not for me”), but Garcia’s chords in the chorus have an ascending pattern, and the suggestion of uplift is echoed in the line, “There’s some satisfaction in the San Francisco rain.”
This is also a great evocation of place; you can feel the mist and moisture of a winter’s day in San Francisco’s Mission District. If I were a San Franciscan, I’d probably love this song even more.
The song is also evidence of what might have been Garcia’s cruel side. Garcia had a habit of taking songs favored by Deadheads and retiring them for no apparent reason (“St. Stephen,” “Cosmic Charlie,” “Ripple”). “Mission in the Rain” was played a small handful of times in 1976. Fortunately, though, it was a staple of the Jerry Garcia Band repertoire.
• “Eyes of the World”: A lovely doorway to the Dead’s jazziest jams, with a sweet use of a major 7th chord. The song always puts me in the mind of summertime, outdoors – well of course; the opening line is “Right outside this lazy summer home” – with breezes, beaches and birds. The fact that winter inevitably follows is treated not as sad, but reassuring, with comfort in the certainty of the cycles.
• “Brown Eyed Women”: I was going to call this my idiosyncratic, highly personal pick – a small-scale song about booze and struggle and times gone by. Then I ran this whole favorite Jerry songs idea by my friend Mike “I Need a” Miracle, and the first title he threw back at me was “Brown Eyed Women.” The song powerfully evokes a time (“1920 when he stepped to the bar/ Drank to the dregs of the whisky jar/ 1930 when the walls caved in/ He made his way selling red-eyed gin”) and place. (In fact, no specific, actual location is ever mentioned – Bigfoot County is fictional. But a rural farmland, fields of tall grain, at the Tennessee/Kentucky border, comes vividly to mind.) Lyrically, the song has everything: character, setting, history, narrative, emotion. I also love the way the line, “It looks like the old man’s gettin’ on” always seemed to make Garcia chuckle in the later years.
• “Terrapin Station”: Probably Garcia/Hunter’s most formally structured song, and they do it perfectly. The first part of the song, a set of folk-like verses, tells a precise story, based on the old English tale of the Lady of Carlisle and the two men, a soldier and a sailor, who consider pursuing her. But Hunter expands the scope, making this version about storytelling itself: “Let my inspiration flow/ … Till my tale is told and done,” he writes in the opening verse.
In the second part, Garcia and Hunter hit a mutual peak in their skills, creating this magical world – Terrapin Station, and where the name comes from, who can say? – of the heavens, music and inspiration. Garcia’s chord progressions are complex, but flow and build toward one crescendo after another (“Inspiration, move me brightly,” “Some rise, some fall, some climb/ To get to Terrapin,” “And the whistle is screaming Terrapin.”
• “Uncle John’s Band”: To me, the ultimate Grateful Dead song, with its themes of invitation, the balance of togetherness and individuality (“Come along or go alone”), the contrasting interplay between struggle and release (“When life looks like easy street/ There is danger at your door”), the references to music itself and divine spirit (“He’s comes to take his children home” sounds to me like they’re kicking it Old Testament). The music is all in a cheerful major key, cementing the idea of comfort in community – until Garcia hits that D minor chord to kick off the instrumental jam that introduces a slightly ominous tone to round out the sonic and emotional picture.