This Grateful Dead classic was often performed at live shows and was more of a jam than a song, since it was sometimes over 30 minutes long. Widely considered the Dead's signature song, it was written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.
Josh Deutchman - Pound Ridge, NY
"Dark Star" began rather unassumingly as a 2:44 single that failed to sell even one third of the copies that were printed. Few people could have guessed then that it would go on to become one of the most beloved and studied songs of a beloved, studied band. Few could have guessed that live performances of the song would one day hold a place of reverence and myth for that fevered subculture of fandom calling themselves Deadheads. Yet, that is exactly how things turned out.
Though it's something impossible to quantify definitively, "Dark Star" makes a strong case for being one of the most important songs in the evolution of the Grateful Dead. In So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, David Browne explains that "Dark Star" represented a "turning point for the Dead on several levels." During this period, the Dead were transitioning from a more typical band image and moving into the "mountain-sage-space-hippie" image they'd eventually embody. They were looking less than a standard rock band and more like a "gang of bemused hippie ranchers," in Browne's words.
Creatively, they were searching artistically and philosophically for a different musical space. As Bill Kreutzmann, Dead drummer, states in Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, at that time they still didn't have their "own thing yet." When their "own thing" finally did begin to materialize, "Dark Star" was one of the first hints at the direction they would move towards.
Bill Kreutzmann believes this song first popped up during the band's stay at the Russian River - it was the same trip in which Kreutzman and Bob Weir developed "The Other One" and Jerry Garcia used some of Robert Hunter's lyrics for the first time in a Dead song with "Alligator
"Dark Star" took some time to find its final form, and eventually coalesced around lyrics provided by Robert Hunter.
Hunter had been in New Mexico when the Dead asked him to become their full-time lyricist. He jumped at the opportunity. In Box of Rain: A Box of Rain: Lyrics: 1965-1993
, he tells about how the journey "took six weeks with a surreal layover in Denver." When he got to Nevada, he dropped his last dime into a slot machine and got enough money to call the Dead and tell them he was almost there. He had "a case of walking pneumonia and the clothes on his back" when he got to San Francisco. "The next day I was writing 'Dark Star,'" he explained, "feeling pretty much as the lyric suggests."
Hunter wrote the initial lyrics for the song at a band rehearsal in Rio Nido in Sonoma County, California. He had previously sent the band lyrics for "Alligator" and "China Cat Sunflower," but this is widely considered the first song he ever wrote as an active collaborative process with the band.
"I heard the music and just started writing 'Dark Star' lying on my bed," Hunter said.
According to the account in Dennis McNally's A Long Strange Trip, Jerry Garcia read the lyrics and said, "Yeah, that scans, that works." Hunter was so thrilled that he grabbed hold of the rafters and started swinging. In that moment, Hunter knew he'd found his calling in life.
Hunter's lyrics were inspired by a line from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot: "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky."
"That's just my kind of imagery," Hunter explained. "I don't have any idea what the 'transitive nightfall of diamonds' means. It sounded good at the time. It brings up something you can see."
Rock Scully, the Dead's manager at the time, remembers looking over the shoulder of Hunter and Garcia as they pieced the song together and thinking, "Oh my God - what kind of freak stuff is this?"
A couple of weeks after they started writing this song, Garcia asked Hunter to write another verse. Hunter went to Golden Gate Park to write it. As he did, a Head stopped and handed him a joint to summon the muse. Hunter took a hit and said, "In case anything ever comes of it, this is called 'Dark Star.'"
Initially, nothing come of this song, at least in terms of sales. "Dark Star" was recorded for the Anthem of the Sun sessions but was released as a single in April of 1968. Warner Bros. shipped 1600 copies (with "Born Cross-Eyed" as the B-side), but only 500 sold. The original version, however, was really just the skeleton of what "Dark Star" would eventually become, a psychic embryo for a song that would be born hundreds of times but never in quite the same shape as before. The song became a platform for some of the Dead's most revered jams. Deadheads talk about this or that performance as magical moments in time. They debate which is the definitive "Dark Star" jam. Catching a live performance of "Dark Star" is sort of a badge of honor among Dead faithful.
The first of those legendary performances came on December 13, 1967 at Los Angeles' Shrine Exhibition Hall.
"Dark Star" also happens to be the only Dead song with Hunter's voice on the track. That's him speaking at the very end as the song trails off.
History has come to recognize the importance and excellence of "Dark Star." It is one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It's also listed on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.
"Dark Star" has taken on a life of its own. Just about the closest thing to an "official" Dead tribute - the Dark Star Orchestra - adopted the title as their name. For many, it embodies the improvisational spirit that defines the Grateful Dead. Deadheads carry memories of its live performances as very special, beautiful moments of their own life stories.
And it all started with a brief little single that nobody wanted to buy.
"Dark Star" was the third song the Dead played during their 1969 Woodstock set. Dead frontman Garcia maintained that their performance was a disaster, owing to the band doing too many drugs and to the terrible weather and equipment. In some instances, history has proven kinder than Garcia's memory, and many find that certain songs were done pretty well. With "Dark Star," however, the band did seem so start coming apart at the seams a bit. The timing is off, and the playing a bit ragged. There's not much conviction behind the performance.
Interestingly, Garcia seemed to sense things coming apart. After doing "Mama Tried," Garcia addressed the crowd:
"You want it louder? Once again we're too slow. Our timing is off just a hair right here, and I'll tell you why, it's because the only place we really feel comfortable is at home where we've got our family around us. And our family's a big one, and we're feeling pretty comfortable up here, but we want to get the family so big that even in this scene, and it's happening, where we feel comfortable even when where we're like this and the rain comes down and everyone's in terrible shape. So, that's where we're working at it. If you want to do it, we'll do it."
The Dead then went into "Dark Star," and the uncertainty Garcia felt is palpable in the music.