The Grateful Dead weren’t a car band, not thematically. Keith’s Let Me Sing Your Blues Away uses an automotive motif, and Bobby has a line about Cassady’s Cadillac, but not much more than that in their original tunes. (I am deliberately not mentioning Money, Money.) Chuck Berry and Bruce and all the other blue-jeaned rockers covered the parking lot; the Dead tended to mine the depots and switchyards for their symbolic language.
Don’t believe me? Go check for yourself. Searching for “car” pulls up five examples, only one of which was written by the band and is actually referring to a boxcar. “Train,” on the other hand, retrieves eight original songs and a shitload of covers. The Dead’s songs generally take place in some dateless “West” where the past and present and future jerk each other off and eat each others’ lunches from the fridge; the introduction of an automobile gives a song too much temporal specificity.
The Dead also liked trains because the Dead were the trainwreckingest band that ever sold out football stadiums. They were capable of shanking any song at any moment, and in ways you’d not think possible were you not an Enthusiast and already apprised of the band’s infinite bush leaguery. Do you not believe me yet again? Listen to this El Paso from 11/2/84 at the Berkeley Community Theater. El Paso has two fucking chords and they played it every other night for their entire career, but the Dead found a way to utterly fuck the song up AND for way longer than usual: El Paso is usually three-and-a-half minutes long, but this Texas Tragedy is over six.
That El Paso is a bit of an outlier, though, in that you can’t quite put your finger on what went wrong besides everything. Not so with this Ship Of Fools from 5/5/78 at Dartmouth. 6:35 or thereabouts, Garcia jumps a beat in between “It was later than I thought” and “When I first believed you” and then refuses to listen to anyone onstage for the rest of the tune; the song never recovers.
But if we’re talking full-song calamities, then the 3/31/85 China Doll might be the winner. It’s got everything: Garcia randomly speeding up and slowing down, pooched lyrics, transition pile-ups, out-of-sync drummers, and several unplanned key changes.
Those, Enthusiasts, are all intrasong trainwrecks, but the Dead also managed to fuck up before they’d quite begun the tune.
Exhibit B (go to 2:02:00):
We have barely scratched the surface, Enthusiasts. There were many other categories of catastrophe. You’ll notice that the songs posted so far have been ones that the Dead knew how to play. But, sometimes, the Grateful Dead would play songs that they did not know how to play. For example, on 6/23/88 at Alpine Valley, the Dead did not know how to play the Beatles’ Blackbird. They did not let that stop them.
Well, Blackbird’s got a bunch of chords, you might think. Louie Louie, however, famously has only three. And yet, the Dead did not know how to play the song.
In terms of minor wrecks–ones that work themselves out within a few bars, but still make you giggle–the best place to go looking is right at the intersection of Jam and Song in Playing in the Band. That spot was the Dead’s equivalent of that one wobbly step on your staircase that you trip on every time but never fix.
I’m missing quite a few, obviously. Speak up in the Comment Section, and don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe.
I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos lately.
(With thanks to everyone on Twitter who pointed out these gems.)