It seems like a happy line, and we all gladly shouted along with it every chance we could, but it’s not. He’s Gone is like Loser: the name gives away the punchline. What’s left after you snatch away the flesh is that Good Ol’ Grinning Rictus. The theme’s death; maybe that’s why the damn thing never had an ending, just an elegiac minor-blues trail-off into Drums or Truckin’ or The Other One. No closure for realists: maybe there’s heaven or reincarnation or nirvana, but these are only conjectures. The only verifiable is that he ain’t ever coming back.
He’s Gone was the first Dead song I ever loved, that ever got its talons in me and scratched itself into my soul. There’s that tempo–dreamy smooth–that no other band ever got right. (And, in fact, this band screwed up more than once. Looking at you, the ’80’s.) The chords are simplicity: I-IV-V. There’s a c-sharp minor in there somewhere, but not so you’d notice.
And the lyrics. Simple, almost stark. Barely anything to them: Take one word–one syllable!–away and they fall apart, collapse like a souffle in quake country. Were they about Lenny Hart? Pigpen? You and me, one day? They fit lockstep jigsaw perfect with the rest of the canon’s mythos: that high, cold mountain range only accessible by train ride. Northbound train, most likely. The narrators of the Dead’s songs were always trying to go south, where the wind didn’t blow so strange and the weather suited their clothes.
But all the trains that leave Terrapin Station go northbound.
Check out the great version from the Baltimore Civic Center on 3/26/73 . A gorgeous all-in vocal rave-up into an absolutely smoking Truckin’, PLUS, check out the Weather Report Suite where all of them have clearly forgotten how the rest of the song goes and are just circling around the intro in hopes of someone coming up with a new chord.