Album: Skull & Roses (1971)


  • Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote the words for this song, as he did for most Dead songs. Jerry Garcia wrote the music.

    For years the legend was that "Bertha" was named after an old fan (an actual mechanical fan, not a fan of the music) that would jump around the Grateful Dead's office when turned on. David Dodd at the official Grateful Dead site clarified that old myth by citing an interview in which Hunter revealed that the Dead named the rambunctious fan after the song, rather than vice versa.

    What "Bertha" is actually about, Hunter believed (he claimed he couldn't remember for certain), is "some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation. Cycle of existences, some kind of nonsense like that."

    That origin story could make "Bertha" a pun for "birth." It definitely opens up fascinating new possibilities for the song.
  • The simple surface interpretation of "Bertha" is that some unnamed character runs from a window, into a tree, and then into a bar, where he takes shelter from the rain. The song is fun and upbeat, so the silliness of the lyrics seems fitting. Going by Hunter's statement, though, the song is far more interesting that that.

    The song is then about a fellow going through the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. A simplified view on the Buddhist belief is that we have to keep cycling through lives until we achieve enlightenment, at which point we can get out of the run around and escape the game.

    So, in "Bertha," Garcia's saying (with Hunter's words) that he's tired of running through the birth-death-reincarnation cycle over and over again. If we look at "Bertha" as "birth," then the chorus:

    That why, if you please, I'm on my bendin' knees
    Bertha don't you come around here, anymore

    is a plea for escape from that cycle.

    Where things get really interesting is with the line "ducked back into a bar door," which could be play on the word "bardo." In Buddhism, bardo is the place or state-of-existence between two lives. You die, spend time in the bardo, and then are born again (unless you've achieved enlightenment).

    That interpretation clarifies why Garcia begs to be arrested.

    Ran into a rainstorm, I ducked back into a bardo
    It's all night pourin', but not a drop on me
    Test me, test me, test me, test me
    Why don't you arrest me? Throw me in to the jail house
    Lord, until the sun goes down, 'til it goes down

    What's really being asked for here is to be kept in the plane of the enlightened rather than spit back out on Earth to live life again.
  • "Bertha" is the opening track on what's become known as the Skull & Roses album (it doesn't actually have an official name, after the record label refused the band's desire to title it Skull F--k), which is all live music. The version of "Bertha" on there was recorded on April 27, 1971, at the Fillmore East in New York City.
  • In addition to the regular Dead band members, Merl Saunders played organ on this one. His friendship with Garcia and his appearance on this song and two others from the album ("Playing In The Band" and "Wharf Rat") helped launch a long, successful career in the music industry. He passed away in 2008.

Comments: 1

  • Bryan P from Buffalo NyListen to Bertha from Buffalo NY 05-09-77 if you want to hear a top 5 version.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal Tap

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal TapSong Writing

Based on criteria like girlfriend tension, stage mishaps and drummer turnover, these are the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap.

We Will Rock You (To Sleep): Pop Stars Who Recorded Kids' Albums

We Will Rock You (To Sleep): Pop Stars Who Recorded Kids' AlbumsSong Writing

With the rise of Kindie rock, more musicians are embracing their inner child with tunes for tots - here, we look at pop stars who recorded kids' albums.

Charles Fox

Charles FoxSongwriter Interviews

After studying in Paris with a famous composition teacher, Charles became the most successful writer of TV theme songs.

Hawksley Workman

Hawksley WorkmanSongwriter Interviews

One of Canada's most popular and eclectic performers, Hawksley tells stories about his oldest songs, his plentiful side projects, and the ways that he keeps his songwriting fresh.

Dave Edmunds

Dave EdmundsSongwriter Interviews

A renowned guitarist and rock revivalist, Dave took "I Hear You Knocking" to the top of the UK charts and was the first to record Elvis Costello's "Girls Talk."

Yoko Ono

Yoko OnoSongwriter Interviews

At 80 years old, Yoko has 10 #1 Dance hits. She discusses some of her songs and explains what inspired John Lennon's return to music in 1980.