I have been forever perplexed by The Grateful Dead.
Coming out of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury hippy, rock music scene of the late 1960’s, The Grateful Dead is a huge, monster band that plays quiet, lovely little songs. For decades, they have sold out major arenas around the world with top grossing tours. Fans, or “Dead Heads” as they like to call themselves, dedicate their lives to the band. They travel with the band from show to show, making money along the way by selling tie dyed t-shirts and grilled cheese sandwiches. The Grateful Dead never sold many records, but millions of people see them play every year they are on the road.
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band? The Who? The Rolling Stones? Them, I understand. They play big, anthemic music. Fans pump their fists to booming drums and searing guitar solos. And while The Grateful Dead is a large band with two drummers, keyboards and electric guitars, the songs they play are firmly rooted in the folk music tradition. Quiet songs about love, music, dancing and being groovy.
It’s not that I think The Grateful Dead is a bad band, just the opposite. I think they are a great band. They write great songs and they are great musicians, and while I understand the culture that has developed around their music through the years, the fervor of their fan base is still a mystery to me.
The zeitgeist of The Grateful Dead can be found in “Friend of The Devil” off their 1970 masterpiece album “American Beauty.” Comfortably grounded in the basic themes of so many great country, bluegrass and rock classics, “Friend of The Devil” is about a man on the run. We don’t know his crime, we only know his journey.
“I lit up from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds
I didn’t get to sleep that night ’til the morning came around
I set out running but I’ll take my time, a friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight, I might just get some sleep tonight.”
Running. Running away from the law, running away from the hounds, running away from the light. There is nothing new or groundbreaking in this song, just a jangly guitar rhythm moving at the pace of a gently galloping horse, beautiful harmonies and a great descending baseline throughout the song.
“I ran into the Devil, babe, He loaned me twenty bills.
I spent that night in Utah in a cave up in the hills.
I set out running but I take my time, a friend of the devil is a friend of mine,
if I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”
The mood of the song is telling. The playing is smooth. The singing is relaxed. The narrator is running, but he doesn’t seem to be very concerned. He knows everything is going to be OK. It’s almost as if he is singing specifically with Grateful Dead fans in mind. Keep on dancing. Make your grilled cheese sandwiches. Make your tie dyed t-shirts and your friendship bracelets. No need to worry about a job or a regular paycheck. Come to the next show. Everything will be fine.
“Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night.
The first one’s named sweet Anne Marie, and she’s my heart’s delight.
Second one is prison, baby, the sheriff’s on my trail,
And if he catches up with me, I’ll spend my life in jail.”
Jerry Garcia’s almost whiny voice weaves the tale with no resolution. Just like a band who is on the road performing concerts and festivals for well over 30 years, the narrator runs and never stops. He runs from the law, he runs from responsibility, runs from the devil. Gently. Beautifully.
“Friend of the Devil”
Written by Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter and John Dawson
Performed by The Grateful Dead
Released November, 1970
Honorable mention cover versions:
Lyle Lovett, 1991 (very, very special version)
Counting Crows, 2003