“Is Songwriting at the End of Life Inherently Doomed?: Jerry Garcia”

The other day I think I was sitting around having one of those cheesy moments where I was ruminating on the fact that nothing lasts, in this life. We all die, one day, all buildings will eventually collapse or need renovation, and, as Dave Matthews once said, “Everything good needs replacing”. And, short of getting all existential about it, I’d just kind of like to preview what I’m saying in this post by pointing out how torpid and ineffective that Grateful Dead song “Built to Last” ended up being, on which Garcia beckons us: “One more star sinks in the past / Show me something built to last”. 

Now, on the album directly prior, one which probably offered a little bit more enticing material, Garcia did make the proclamation of “I will get by / I will survive”, on what’s probably one of the better studio recordings of that band’s career. Notice, though, the album is entitled “In the Dark,” as if, perhaps, nullifying all of the statements made thereon. I mean, Bill Weir after all declares “I may be goin’ to He** in a bucket babe / But at least I’m enjoyin’ the ride”. 

There are probably some people out there who would slot “Touch of Grey” as the band’s best song to date. It is, I’m pretty sure, the band’s only minor hit single of their career. If it is to be embraced as their best song, then, it might not require, but at least perhaps invite, an inquiry about what EXACTLY the chorus is supposed to mean of “I will get by / I will survive”. It could mean for one more year, one more complete revolution of the earth and the seasons, it could mean in another form in the afterlife or it could mean in the format of recorded music that people will be listening to for all of eternity. This last option would probably be my favorite of them. 

Either way, on the premise that “Jack Straw” and “Fire on the Mountain” are better songs, something with which very few real Deadheads would disagree, I perceive, we notice a troubling, but perhaps rather amusing, malady at work in Garcia’s most vital lyricism. This, in particular, would correspond with a markedly increased level of danger and uncertainty prevalent in the world, and, almost, a kind of embrace of this combustiveness. The song “Fire on the Mountain,” a live show favorite and proud, two-chord late-’70s anthem, seems to rest on this concept of “fire on the mountain,” in the simple chorus, almost like it’s a mantra, or something designed to soothe. Now, notice, back in the 1970s, Garcia might have still been at a sort of age where it’s chic to just throw blame around for the world’s condition in no particular direction, under the assumption that, in close enough proximity, will lie some elderly who is to assume ostensible responsibility for things that are wrong with the world, as if it had been in his power, or within his set of responsibilities, to completely wipe out all of these problems. Or maybe “Fire on the Mountain” is, at its heart, an indictment of Garcia’s creator (and of so a diatribe that certainly a lot of us connected with), this sort of plaintive eye toward the afterlife dimming when one gets closer to said afterlife, a la “Built to Last,” or what have you. 

“Jack Straw,” equally to “Fire on the Mountain,” almost, depicts a landscape of pointed danger and unrest: “Jack Straw from Wichita / Cut his buddy down / Dug for him a shallow grave / And laid his body down / Half a mile from Tuscon / By the morning light / One man gone and another to do / My old buddy you’re moving much too slow”. Troublingly, the motif within this especially vital concoction of songwriting, one filled with exciting themes, an expansive structure and copious key changes, is one of not only great risk and devastation but also hectic urgency: the exclamation that one’s “moving much too slow” and, it seems, is a universe away from anything like comfort, or harmony, or enlightenment, or anything we’d typically associate with existential prowess, particularly as is tied to the “hippie” movement. Come to think of it, “Chalkdust Torture,” which might be Phish’s best song, is about Berzerkers, burning synapses (whatever the He** those are) and the torture of chalkdust that collects on his tongue. Ok he was just doing coke. But Garcia was actually undergoing an artistically truncating existential crisis, on his band’s last album. This much I’m sticking to. 


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