Introduction – “Victim or the Crime”
It is human to feel like a victim when suffering arrives. Traditional ballads almost always place such emotion within a dualistic worldview. There is good and evil – and a clear, if thin, line between. Today, though, we tend to see such things in shades of gray. We take our cues from psychology and neuroscience more than from religion. After a particularly painful event, we know we will endure powerful and conflicting emotions before, perhaps, reaching a place of acceptance. Today’s song, “Victim or the Crime,” is an agitated meditation upon that liminal state – that psychic reality between the numbing shock of deep injury and elusive peace. It does, however, keep one foot in that binary world of traditional folk music.
I chose this song as our subject today for reasons mostly too personal to share. It’s been a while since I posted an article here, and that’s because this year started off with me in that space of psychic damage, and rather deeply at that. It wasn’t as the victim of a serious crime – though I’ve been there at least twice in my adult life as well. Nonetheless, while struggling in the aftermath of recent tragedy I found myself asking the same sorts of questions as in “Victim.” I use music to deal with emotional tumult. I prefer traditional music for that labor, but the old ballads weren’t working for me this time. Through a set of improbable coincidences, I found myself crying through this song and finding some release. At the very least, it’s allowed me to write again. I want to explore why.
In “Victim,” the cause of reaching tumultuous emotional space is an unspecified felony. The narrator implies he is the victim, though we never get to hear how or why. Like life, the song doesn’t neatly resolve itself. It leaves open the possibility that resolution will never come. Yet, I think it a mistake to say the song song is about dread or hopelessness. Decide that for yourself, though.
The versions above are acoustic, but this is obviously not traditional music. Neither do the lyrics tell the story of a murder, or any other tale. This is no ballad. There is little more than a narrative snapshot – a junkie turns to the bad and commits a crime; the rest is evocation of the singer’s resulting existential crisis. “Victim or the Crime” would likely be unrecognizable as meaningful art to, say, antebellum Appalachian farmers. They would find the music to be an assault on the ears, and the lyrics to be almost devoid of any concrete imagery for conventional reference.
The fact is though, as a post-modern listener, this song takes me to the same place as do some traditional murder ballads.
A “mutant-Bartok extravaganza”
Regular readers here know I’m the resident blog Deadhead. If, however, you came here as a fan looking for more on the background of this song, this isn’t the right place. I will instead be diving in to explore the singer’s existential crisis. There are two better sources for discovering the band-oriented side of this piece. A few key bits of info they provide will be useful to rest of us here as well, so let me start with those citations.
David Dodd, who also assembled the epic annotated lyrics collection linked above, penned a blog entry of his own concerning “Victim...” on the Dead’s website. It’s the best place to start. He covers the basics and includes perspective from an interview with Jerry Garcia about the song. More importantly to uncovering its roots, he fronts some key information about the song from the author of most of its lyrics, actor Gerrit Graham. Graham presented this content originally to Dodd in an essay for his lyrics site. That essay is the place to go for a more in-depth understanding of the song in relation to the band, and of its genesis and thematic core.
To really understand the song, we have to hear how Bob Weir’s music provides the perfect setting for the lyrics. You’ve just got to listen. Graham calls Weir’s composition a “mutant-Bartok extravaganza,” while Dodd sees it as “often challenging – full of unexpected twists and turns.” Garcia, in the interview Dodd transcribed, describes the music as “angular” and “asymmetrical.” He also says, “It’s one of Weir’s stunningly odd compositions, but it’s also very adventurous.” If you listen, then it’s simply plain – the music absolutely evokes the broken inner world painted in the lyrics.
Understanding that crisis, though, is our summit attempt for the day. The musical setting is as alien as Mons Olympus for a traditional folk aficionado, but the lyrics reveal a familiar path up the slopes.
“Maybe when my turn comes…”
Graham makes clear in his essay that the words to the song “came out all of a piece and with no effort” after he got the chorus lyrics from Weir. If we take him at his word, then we must be careful not to ascribe too much to the writer in terms of precise word choice with regards to ‘deeper meaning.’ That’s not easy in a song that tells more than it shows!
Graham’s essay also addresses some original concerns, particularly the core band’s, with the lyrics. The details of all that are interesting, but here we only need point out that it was obvious from the start that phrases like “dark side” and “horns of the dilemma” are cliche.
Why those phrases remained doesn’t matter here. Rather, I’m concerned with how such word choice, conscious or otherwise, helps simulate the old world dualism of traditional ballad lyrics. Indeed, for example, while “dark side” may evoke Darth Vader instead of Satan for many today, I’m not sure Joseph Campbell would see a significant difference.