|Concert Poster, Oakland Coliseum – Peter Barsotti, 12/31/91|
I recently wrote about “Jack Straw” as the Grateful Dead’s only true murder ballad. That effort spurred me to begin this week with a broader look at the act of murder in the Dead’s repertoire. We listened to rejuvenated murder and bad man ballads, a psychedelic allegory, and stories sporting gun-toting classic Country and Western archetypes. But none of those songs really digs deep; like, six feet deep I mean. They cover all sorts of emotional ground, but not the burying ground.
So what else do The Grateful Dead do with death in their oeuvre? Well, quite a bit really; all of it entertaining and some of it profound. I intend to fulfill today’s post looking at that range of songs, and bring it all home with an encore later this week that might make you cry . But the Dead don’t use murder to bring on our tears.
Even in the short life of this strange little blog, we’ve all chosen to let its title be a road sign rather than a map. So I beg your indulgence as I wander.
Anyway, some tense-looking dude at the crossroads east of Tuscon told me if I headed out this way I’d find Fennario. As good a place to start as any I suppose…
“I said my prayers and went to bed. That’s the last they saw of me…”
“Dire Wolf” delights as it bounces through the timbers of Fennario leading up to its singer’s unspoken demise; and it’s one of the happiest songs I know, even though the chorus has him begging for his life! Read some of the annotations at the lyrics site for the story behind the song. Even without knowing the inspiration, it’s easy enough to relate to the poor guy. We’ve all been there. That monster’s been grinning at my window before. What else can you do but grab the cards and play?
“I cut my deck to the queen of spades, but the cards were all the same.”
“Sweet William he is dead, you know he died for a maid…”
Somewhere in Louisiana, a few days ride from Fennario it would seem if folk songs can be geographically trusted, is Captain William’s grave. “Peggy-O” is a folk revival standard, with roots in the British Isles where it is known as “The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie“. The trip it took from old Scotland to America and into the Dead’s repertoire is beyond my willingness to document at the moment. But like a column of dragoons it came on steady from that day to this. I play it for my students as a song of our Civil War, but secretly I sing it because I want them at least to know that we used to believe a person can die of a broken heart; and maybe some of us still do…
So far we’ve been long on entertainment but, when it comes to death at least, short on profundity. Wait a minute now…
“See here how everything lead up to this day? And it’s just like every other day that’s ever been…”
I took a brief look at “Black Peter” a couple of weeks ago in my post concerning Altamont and its aftermath. The Dead played it as their first song on stage after that ill-fated event. It was, and by some reckoning remains, their heaviest song about death.
Apart from that history, it’s a song that always rolls on slow, strong, and deep. We hear it in Peter’s voice, the country blues of a poor man on his deathbed. The portrait is wholly sympathetic, and I suppose may be allegorical. Whether it is or not, the song effectively lets us look through the eyes of a dying man, much in the way some murder ballads let us see through the eyes of the slayer or the soon-to-be slain. You’ll have to be the judge of whether it feels authentic. I love it, but for me it’s not an emotional experience. This song, when I really listen, allows me to be outside myself.
“Flight of the seabirds, scatter like lost words – wheel to the storm and fly…”
But heavy isn’t always where it’s at. Sometimes we see life and death best from above.
John Perry Barlow’s explanation of the inspiration for “Cassidy” seems simple enough. “I was thinking about Neal Cassady’s departure and Cassidy Law’s arrival as being part and parcel of one another – not like reincarnation – but more the way the cycle works. So what that song is, is a wave goodbye to Neal and a hallo to Cassidy.” Not particularly profound? Well, inspiration isn’t all of creation.
“Cassidy” can transform a listener in ways made possible only by the finest of art, or by pure religion. Weir’s music weaves in grace and perfection through Barlow’s poetry. When the Dead performed it, on a good night it would climb high to glide, somersault, and dive as as wonderfully as Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Don’t take my word for it, sail the sky yourself!
We’ll do a double encore this weekend, but for this set I saved the best for last. “We want Phil!”
“Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.”
I know of no other song like “Box of Rain”, neither in its origin nor its art. The genesis of the song is as human and touching as one could imagine.
Robert Hunter titled his book of collected lyrics after this song, and for its entry he made this note. “Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words. If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did–as fast as the pen would pull.”
Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter remembered the genesis and realization of the song in the documentary From Anthem to Beauty. The story is quite moving.