David Dodd's initial work with the annotation of Grateful Dead lyrics—that brilliant, mysterious corner of musical scripture—first involved name checking certain references in "Ramble On Rose" and posting his findings on the Web. Ten years since those nuggets became the nascence of the Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics web site, his remarkable scholarship has led to an absolutely essential book of the same name, "The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics," released in October 2005. The comprehensive volume is beautiful, rich with the fruits of painstaking observation and research, and a true boon to the Deadhead or any music lover, especially those jaded by a false notion that all of the best Dead-related literature is out already, or that the idea well is tapped out.
Dodd, the city librarian of San Rafael, California and an avowed Deadhead, is undoubtedly an exciting chat. The conversation easily veers off topic to discuss brilliant, frissony passages in "Terrapin Station," or to find, to no surprise, that he is himself a musician, proficient on piano and banjo with a proclivity for ragtime and rock 'n' roll. This is the guy who once submitted "deadhead" to the Library of Congress back in the mid-1990s and had it accepted as a section header. He knows his stuff, no doubt, and the passion—the sheer enjoyment for the lyrics and the fiery gusto for his profession (for which Dead scholarship is but a single facet)—is obvious. The Grateful Dead's lyrical oeuvre is evocative— the craftsmanship in the words, the meter, the verse, the swirls and playful rhythms that roll off the tongue, the history, the psychedelic stews and pummeling rock 'n' roll to which they lead and by which they are framed, the themes of roses and colorful characters, their marvelous tragicomedy—and it's nice to have some reference points.
David, your annotated lyrics project has been a boon to Deadheads and music lovers for a while now, and always seemed natural for the book form. When and why did the decision come to say, "OK, it's time for this to be a book?"
I know the "when" exactly. It was August 2004. For years I'd say, "Let's put this into book form," and I hear from Ice Nine that it's "not quite time" and to keep it on the back burner. I'd check in and I'd keep asking, “Is it time?” I got an email from a publisher, and they said, “Why don't we just publish footnotes without lyrics?” That seemed like an interesting enough book, but I don't really like that idea. So I emailed Alan Trist again at Ice 9 with a subject line that was something like "Request #5009." As it turned out, he had spoken with Robert Hunter and he said sure, it seems like a good time. And it's been a sprint from then.
Can you describe the actual process of the Web-to-book transfer?
My website is constructed song by song, each having a separate web page. I would copy that whole page into a Word document and I would edit it down from extraneous stuff and make the footnotes themselves at a consistent level and a consistent style of writing. I've written so many things, so it was nice to sit down and say, “We're going to do this." I started passing it over to Alan, and he would give me back sheets of paper with in-depth comments, suggestions, and things I could maybe say less about. Between us, we must've passed them back and forth three times, and then it got to the point where we could pass it on to proofreaders and people to do some fact checking. I would have loved to have the opportunity to have everyone go through it—a whole editorial board that would include David Gans, Blair Jackson, Dennis McNally, maybe [laughs], you know, the experts, and have something a bit more authoritative.
We found Jim Carpenter, a great artist from Oregon who produced over 200 original drawings, and they're just dropped into the footnotes. The book wound up looking much prettier than I had ever imagined. It was really a team effort.
I know you grew up in the Bay Area and obviously have a connection to the music of the Grateful Dead. Can you pinpoint a moment, a concert, maybe, or a listening experience that was a watershed for your experiences with this music?
My first [Grateful Dead] concert was October 1976 at Oakland Coliseum. That was the moment I became a Deadhead. I grew up in Livermore and went to school at UC Davis, but I was home one summer, lying in the living room at my parent's house, staring at the ceiling and listening to "Europe '72." "China Cat Sunflower" was the song, and it was just the delicacy of the playing. But the lyrics: what space, what mind, what consciousness! I thought, "I have to learn about this." You couldn't just go to some book and look 'em up—Hunter had never published his lyrics, so it was a treasure hunt. That was the watershed. "China Cat" and "Europe '72."
What have been your interactions with Robert Hunter, especially regarding the book?
I haven't ever really met him in that I'd sit down and have a conversation. Same with John Perry Barlow. I saw him in concert in Davis in 1977, and I think I met him at a Greek Theater show a couple of summers ago. There's been a little bit of correspondence by email. He's been really nice over the years. As you know, though, he really doesn't have much interest in interpretation.
I was going to say. What I and many others admire particularly about the book was that you restrained the obvious inclination to interpret the lyrics, Hunter's or anyone else's, and you kept yourself to more scholarly annotation.
Someone recently emailed me and said why not completely interpret lyrics or complete a volume of interpreted lyrics? That'd be a fun boon, but there are web sites for that—open conferences where people can add whatever they want, and that's valuable and legitimate. But when you've put something down on paper, you've locked it down, and lyrics don't deserve to be locked down. I want the opportunity to hear them differently from year to year.
You know, I had another watershed listening experience up in Eugene, Oregon, a couple of weeks ago, with Dark Star Orchestra. The song was "Cosmic Charlie," and I've always had it as kind of a psychedelic song about a character who took too much LSD. But then [when DSO played it], it suddenly seemed to be about relationships: there's one way of looking at it, but then things like "How do you do" and "Go home your mama's calling you" and that seems to be about a relationship at some time, along the lines of "Loose Lucy" or "Scarlet Begonias," even. I always want the opportunity to be able to make changes in how I look at a song. I've heard some great stories about what songs mean to people.
What is it about Robert Hunter's writing style that's so appealing? Brilliant? Supply your own adjective
It's evocative in heart and soul. It doesn't seem to be afraid to go into the deep unreal. He's not afraid to write about God, the mind, the underside of things. And there are the story songs. Hunter is a novelist, a storyteller—he gets us inside of other people's heads, which to me is a point of literature. You experience what it means to be human from a point of view; I mean, you don't have to go out and kill people cross country like Jack Straw, but those types of characters are humans, too. To me, those character songs come from the mind's space—they allow me to explore my own consciousness. And of course, the plain old rock and roll type stuff: a lot of them are great rock and roll tunes. It appeals to everything: the mind, the heart, the soul, and your dancing feet.
The most frequently repeated words in Grateful Dead lyrics are a phrase: "I don't know." They're not pretending to tell you anything, and though a lot of times it seems like they are, Hunter'll also say, "Well, don't take my word for it." You know, "I don't know, but I've been told." He wants you to think for yourself, basically, and that's very appealing to intelligent listeners.
And a writer like Barlow?
I think evoking atmosphere. The wisdom of the ages, maybe.
Your skills as a research librarian obviously prepared you well for this.
Whenever anybody comes up to me and asks me a question, suddenly that's my reason for being—whatever that person has come up with. Later, I can't even remember what they asked me, but while I'm into their question, I'm totally into their question. I applied that single-mindedness to the lyrics of the Grateful Dead—finding out who these people were. Mr. Benson? How about Crazy Otto? Some of them were made up, of course, and some of them are real. It's tenacity, sheer bullheadedness. You look in one place and hope that book has an index, and it's often a really painstaking process that can't be replaced by electronic media. I don't think you'd find most of what I found, even today. Snippets maybe, with Google or whatever, but you wouldn't find the answers you might find inside the book. It's a great profession—it's certainly not going to go away.
Phil, Bobby, Mickey and Billy are all quoted on the book's jacket, and both Hunter and Barlow provided introductory or other words in essay form. How much involvement from the band members themselves, and Hunter or Barlow, and/or management did you have when working on this project?
Well, they never said boo. You know they never want to weigh in on the process, they just want to play their music, so I was really pleased that they all took the time to say something about the book. Even if they're not playing together on stage, there they are on the back of the book. They really had zero involvement in terms of feedback. I do know Hunter went through it. And Mickey [Hart] made a couple of minor corrections with who wrote what song and who wrote the words. Other than that, it was just close work with Alan Trist. He's really involved with the band, and I really trusted that.
You obviously know your way around all the literature pertaining to the Grateful Dead, and this type of book is an undertapped frontier, especially for those of us who love the band's lyrical side. Any other areas of Dead scholarship you'd love to see tapped or developed?
Well, if something's been written about them, I feel obligated to read it. I've read most of the books, the fan magazines and their entire runs, the magazine articles, the newspaper accounts. The best stuff is by the people of course—Gans, Jackson, McNally—their stuff is a pretty good picture of the band. You could probably write a book just about "Terrapin Station," though, exploring the sources and all the potential meanings there. It's been great to watch the explosions of Grateful Dead lit. The Taping Compendiums
are great: you have the shows you were at, on CD or whatever, and you can read about them. I really love Deadbase,
don't we all. I was really glad that Robert Hunter published [his lyrics collection] "Box of Rain," just to have it all down on paper. My Grateful Dead bookshelf is about three shelves—that's just books. I donated all the articles to UC Santa Cruz. I keep giving them all my stuff, so when I die, it'll have the best Grateful Dead collection! [laughs]
This is an absurd question, of course, but do you have a particularly favorite Grateful Dead song? A top five, perhaps?
[laughs] That is an absurd question! But for now, "Scarlet Begonias." That song, just blasting out of the "Mars Hotel," that moment where they break into "wind in the willows" that's totally off the wall. I just love the feeling in the room—there's been this story about this one thing, and all of a sudden it just opens up wide and explains this version of life.
Do you still go to Dead-related shows? Do you see all the side bands and newly forming projects and such?
I've never been to too many shows of any kind. I've never seen Ratdog do a whole show; I've seen Dark Star Orchestra about five times. But you know, I go to all kinds of music, I'm open to whatever is out there. I need music in life. I try to go see it when I can. There's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert, of course, but that's a closed chapter—I just have to remember it. Things happened at those shows that will never happen again anywhere, ever.
Chad Berndtson lives in Boston and writes about music for The Patriot Ledger, Relix/jambands.com, Glide and other publications. Drop him a line at email@example.com.