A thematic essay for The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
In 1968 I was an East Coast prep-school snot working on a French Lit. degree at Columbia University when a certain weirdo psychedelic hippie band from San Francisco came to play on campus, and somehow everything changed...
Weir and I met in the mid-'70s through Andy Leonard, an old and very dear friend who'd been brought into the scene by John Barlow and was working for Grateful Dead Records (he shot the cover pic for Mars Hotel.) It was around the time of what were then being called "the last gigs," the idea being that after these shows The Grateful Dead were retiring from the road for good (hah!). Weir and I became close friends pretty quickly, as did Barlow and I -- more on Barlow later. I was living in L.A. then, and was soon regularly coming up to stay with Weir and/or Andy, just to get the hell away from Hollywood for a minute. By the end of the decade, Bob was in the process of working up new songs for the second album by Bobby & The Midnites (v2.0.) Essentially on a whim -- I'm an actor, not a musician or a poet -- I offered to pitch in. I subsequently wrote a few not-especially-memorable lyrics for B. & The M.s, the most well known being "City Girls," which still struggles asthmatically to the surface of the RatDog repertorial pool now and again; but my best and first effort was "Victim or The Crime."
Bob had most of the chorus -- "What fixation feeds this fever/When the (something) moon starts to climb/Da da dum de doo de da da/Am I the victim or the crime?" -- and nothing else. He'd run it by a number of writers, including Barlow as I remember, but no one had been able to provide him with what he was looking for, whatever the hell that may have been. I happened to be there one day when he was bitching about not getting anywhere with it, and I volunteered to take a stab. Mostly out of frustration, I think, he said sure, go ahead, give it a shot. I'd never written for him before, and we had no discussion about what the lyric should be like or what the song ought to be about or where it was supposed to go. I hadn't even heard the music. I just went back to SoCal and sat down with a pen and a legal pad.
The first thing to come was the third line of the chorus (I had it as "Am I living proof or rank deceiver;" Weir later changed "proof" to "truth" which, if less singable, was more to the point.) The rest of the song came out all of a piece and with no effort, which seems to be the case with the most satisfying art in any discipline. Garcia and I talked about that phenomenon once, about getting out of your own way -- the greater the degree to which the ego can be eliminated from the loop, the greater the chance that the trap door to the intuitive will pop open and the good stuff come flying out. In any case, the final lyric is 99% first draft (Weir changed one or three words, as he always does, like a dog marking his territory. It's his prerogative -- he's the one who has to get up there and sing it.) How I managed to come out with just what Bob had in mind is unanswerable; it must have been some sort of non-conscious synchrony, two guys who just happened to be in the same space, and suffering the same existential dread, at the same moment. Mysterious.
"Patience runs out on the junkie." I honestly can't explain where "junkie" came from -- it was just there, waiting, on the top of my brain. But I am a big fan of vowel-rhymes within a line, and it chimed with "runs." It was definitely in the right groove, too, and considerably punchier than (possibly) "flunky" or (no chance) "monkey." I put it down provisionally and went on, figuring that it would never fly and would require changing in some subsequent draft. In fact, Weir never said boo about it; he set the lyric to his mutant-Bartok extravaganza, and Bobby and The Midnites began playing it live right away. But when it came time to record their unfortunate second elpee, certain mainstream and righteously squared-away elements in that band evinced a determined reluctance to record a song with the dread j-word in it. Faintly hypocritical, it seemed to me, as they'd been playing the thing live at practically every gig for some time, but hey. That band croaked, to no one's apparent regret; Bob, however, was into the song and kept playing it, first on a solo acoustic tour -- no mean feat, considering the musical complexity of it -- and then in Rob 'n' Bob shows with Rob Wasserman, and he still plays it with RatDog. The eventual upshot, near as I could tell -- I didn't know it had become a GD tune until Barlow told me -- was that when the Dead went into rehearsals for Built To Last, "Victim" was the only new Weir tune that was all set and ready to go. That's when the stinky fecal matter began to contact the oscillatory air-moving device in earnest.
The j-word! Good God, the hue and cry. Desperate wails of scandalized sensibility! Indignant bellows of outraged morality! And not just, or even mostly, from the band. It's a fact that Brent Mydland was in a state about it from jump, and Phil and Mickey weren't too keen on it either, although I recall Phil objecting more strenuously to "horns of the dilemma." But, for reasons which seem crystal clear to a lot of people but which remain opaque to me, the leader of the anti-"Victim" crusade was our buddy Barlow. "Weir must not -- cannot -- be allowed to stand up there next to Jerry and sing that line," that was the gist of it. Never mind that the line and the word had nothing to do with junk or junkies, much less Garcia, to whose private predilections I was scarcely privy anyway; people were suddenly so high-minded that they wouldn't even say the word (whence "j-word"), much less say why Weir couldn't sing the line, because we were all supposed to understand automatically what the problem was and why Jerry must be protected from this unthinkable offense. Words like "inappropriate" and "unsuitable" were getting heavy workouts. Things got so overwrought that after one show at The Greek in Berkeley, Barlow, who it seems had already been soliciting fellow travelers online at The Well, went on KPFA live from the gig to drum up support amongst the Deadheads for suppressing the song. A write-in campaign or something, I dunno. Well... If you know Bob at all, you know that a surefire way to get him to do something is to tell him that he can't, so that pretty much sealed the deal. Barlow never spoke to me about the word, but plenty of other folks did -- I was catching grief with both hands. Feeling the heat, I started to cave -- who was I to presume upon The Grateful Dead? -- so I went to Weir and suggested we throw water on the fire by changing it to "flunky" or "luckless" or "jerkoff" or whatnot, but he wasn't having it, to his credit -- he'd been singing the song for four or five years by then and liked it just the way it was. He did finally broach the subject with Garcia, and Jerry said, "I don't give a fuck, sing what you want." How predictable is that?
All that noise over one little word -- seems like your standard teapot tempest now. But as Bob points out, it gave the teapot a good stir: the furor made it plain that we were on to something of value, something about which folks had actual feelings, even if they wouldn't way what those feelings really were. In the event, the band recorded the song and played it regularly for the next five-or-so years, as everyone knows, and soon enough the down-front Deadheads were singing along with Weir. Brent, who hated the lyric but told me that the song "sure is fun to play" pestered Bob and me for a while to change "junkie" to something -- anything -- else; so once, just to get everybody to shut up about it, Bob sang "Patience runs out on the bunny." I don't remember the gig and that was the only time Bob did it, but it became a running joke of sorts for a while. I'm sure there are lots of other iterations of the story in the annals of GD arcana.
"The dark side hires another soul." I had "demon" rather than "dark side," which struck me as rather Star Wars, but Weir liked it and it didn't seem worth arguing about.
"And so I wrestle with the angel." Although I was certainly familiar with the Biblical story of Jacob, I wasn't consciously or specifically thinking of it at that moment, which is a good thing, because I'd probably have tried to work in Jacob's dislocated thigh to no good purpose. I just liked the image, both as a visual and for the sense of terrible and mighty struggle it conjured. The genesis of "who'll reap the seeds I sow" is also Biblical (Galatians 6:7; cf Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon, stanza 3.) "These are the horns of the dilemma." I recall Phil giving me a raft of shit about this: "Horns of the dilemma?! Tell me you're kidding" etc. etc. The whole song is one big interrogative geschrei about existential dilemma: Are things really as they seem? What does anything mean? Who the fuck am I? I suppose I could have put "the crux of the dilemma" or "the really important thing about the dilemma" or something, but people know and understand the cliche -- that's why it's a cliche. Why muddy the water?
"Sacred fails before profane." I'd written "Sacred quails before profane," "quail" in the sense of give way, cower, recoil. Perfectly good word, but then again: sacred quails...holy quails...holy partridges, Batman! Say, maybe I'd better... Didn't matter, since "fails" worked, and it chimed as nicely with "sacred" and "profane" as "quails" did. The verse is about things being turned upside down, about wondering if everything you believe is, in fact, bullshit. I'd been living and working in Glamorous Hollywood for a decade by then, so in retrospect it seems like a perfectly understandable freakout.
Even at this late stage, it still amazes me that the lyric just came right out of my brain in one go, with little effort and no premeditation, and that it was precisely what Weir wanted, even down to the meter of the lines. Perhaps some unseen hand... It's a shame that the song is so under-represented on disc and DVD; it's not even on Weir Here. Regardless of what anyone thinks about the words, the tune, while not exactly cuddly, remains one of Bob's most sophisticated and arresting compositions, a striking piece of work for which he deserves real credit. Bob says the song's scarcity in the catalogue is due to a lingering prejudice against the horrible j-word. Tut-tut.
In any case, I continue to write with Bob and RatDog, though we've yet to match "Victim" for sheer giddy direness.
-- Gerrit Graham, May 2004