Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

I Wish I Had A Seatbelt On A Northbound Train

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 A:

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.

Stop that.



(With thanks to everyone on Twitter who pointed out these gems.)


  1. Well, the Mack the Knife in Dayton is a real winner.

    There is another Brokedown Palace fail in Pittsburgh,

  2. That ’78 “Ship of Fools” gaffe is like the Dead predicting No Wave, but unintentionally.

  3. My personal favourite instance of the Dead playing a song they don’t know how to play:

    • Thoughts On The Dead

      August 17, 2017 at 2:50 am

      Dammit, I forgot that one. They have absolutely no idea how that song goes beyond the riff, and they don’t let it stop them.

    • The complete lack of professionalism before a coliseum of people paying $30 each to see you (in 1988) is really endearing.

  4. Gentlemen Start Your Engines?

    As far as fucking up songs Rat-Dog used to tour with an “Applause” sign that would light up whenever Bobby forgot the words.

  5. Of the trainwrecks I’ve seen, the all-time most excruciating was “Stella Something,” Alpine 1988. (Garcia had no notion of lyrics or chords.) Runner-up: “I Need a Clue,” Oakland, December 1986. (The set was pretty good up until Bob forgot how the song went.) Honourable mention: “I Just Want To Make Love To You (or Something),” Salt Lake 1995. The beginning of this song was actually pretty exciting, as no one in the Delta Center (probably including Garcia) had any idea what song this was going to be.

  6. Well, technically El Paso has four chords, five if you count the V7.

    But, yeah…

  7. Edit: five chords, G to C in the bridge, six if you count the V7.

  8. A “Bad Grateful Dead” show on the Sirius XM channel would be a lot of fun. Sacrilegious, but fun!

  9. Luther Von Baconson

    August 17, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    i like the Louie Louie. Brent’s doing a Michael McDonald thing, i’m sure of it.

  10. The transition from the jam to the riff in St. Stephen often resulted near-derailments, if not Buster Keaton-style trainwrecks. A mild specimen is 6/18/76. Go to 39:10 on the video.

  11. Ya, and we all loved them despite the goofs right? We’d laugh it off, the boys would laugh it off and they always made up for it in the next tune or the next night. Case in point, immediately following that problematic Ship of Fools at Dartmouth, check out Jerry’s long, languid jam in Estimated and Bobby having real fun with it at 9:50.

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