What's your favourite Dead song? Do you have a fair idea of what the lyrics for that song mean? Do I have a deal for you. In one very well-crafted package, you can have both the lyrics and David Dodd's explanation of what they mean. The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which is based upon the Web site of the same name, is without doubt the coolest look at a band's lyrics which I've had the pleasure to peruse! Now I expected nothing less, having made ongoing use of the Web site for many years to settle questions I had about the Dead lyrics, but I was rather surprised how well the Web site adapted to the printed medium. The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics sets the 'gold standard' for how to do an annotated lyrics reference guide.
On the Web site, Dodd says the purpose of his project was
He's being too modest. I've looked at hundreds of sites dedicated to lyrics for bands and none even come close to what he has done there. Oh for a Jethro Tuil Web sitewhich is even half as decent at explaining what the lyrics to such songs as 'Aqualung' or 'Cross-Eyed Mary' means, or a really good Richard Thompson site to explain some of his more obscure lyrics! Want to know what Hunter meant by the lyrics of 'Shake the hand that shook the hand Of P.T. Barnum/and Charlie Chan'? Go here on the site and you'll get an exhaustive look at the song. . . . Really. Truly. But the printed version goes one better and includes the variant lyrics Garcia sang on several occasions in 1979 and 1980s was 'Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum/and Charlie' becae 'Shake the hand that shook the hand Of P. T. Barnum and the Shah of Iran'!
(Short aside: Deadheads are everywhere, as I discovered when I was writing up in the Green Man Pub on a rainy afternoon. I was mentioning to Reynard, the afternoon publican, that I fondly remembered Robert Hunter's A Box of Rain when a patron joined in our conversation. He was so excited by the publication of the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics that he ordered one from Amazon on the spot. To my knowledge, this is the first time a review not yet published resulted in a book purchase! Reynard was so impressed that he made him 'nother Irish coffee on the house!)
In an e-mail, I asked Dodd how one of the coolest Web sites in existence became an even cooler book. His reply was:
You get every of every original song from the band's vast recorded and live repertoire, complete with Dodd's annotations, which provide the literary, historical, and cultural background for these lyrics. All in one of the coolest editions I've ever seen. Just consider the wrap-around cover by Jim Carpenter, which you can see most of here on the even cooler t-shirt that is available for sale. Carpenter also provided nearly two hundred illustrations, covering every aspect of Dead culture that one can imagine. Dodd has both the heart of a Dead fan and the carefulness of a true scholar: this will be the definitive annotated look at Dead lyrics for generations to come. Incredibly obsessive -- in a good way -- explanations of the places, phrases, names, and odd slang that makes the Dead lyrics so memorable. (What we need now is a companion volume that covers both the recorded efforts of the Dead and those who covered their lyrics, i.e., where was 'U.S. Blues' covered by The Harshed Mellows?) Dodd drew on the expertise of both the band members and the the fans who help make his Web site the exemplar of what a site devoted to a bands lyrics should be.
Oh, let's not forget the foreword by Hunter who, as the press release notes, defines the Dead's work as 'a natural and inevitable blend of rock and roll, jazz, and traditional folk culture.' Hunter and Dodd both believe that the lyrics are, in a perfectly post-modern sense, always open to interpretation, so Dodd offers annotations but not interpretations. John Barlow wraps up this delightful trip by offering a blessing to both the book and all that the Dead mean. It has indeed been a long, strange trip, but certainly one that so many remember with fondness. And the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics will add to all of our memories of the Dead.