Friend Of The Devil

Album: American Beauty (1970)
  • songfacts ®
  • Artistfacts ®
  • Lyrics
  • Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter told Relix that "Friend of the Devil" was the closest that the Grateful Dead ever came to creating "what may be called a classic song." Many Deadheads may disagree, but it's an interesting perspective from the man who penned the words for the majority of the Dead's most iconic pieces.

    Whether or not "Friend of the Devil" is the sole "classic" Dead tune, it's hard to argue that the band tapped into the outlaw's zeitgeist to find a timeless song with this one. Dead chronicler extraordinaire David Dodd, for one, agrees. "No other Dead tune gets played quite so often," Dodd writes in Greatest Stories Ever Told.
  • Jerry Garcia and John Dawson of New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS) wrote the music for "Friend of the Devil." Hunter wrote the lyrics, but Dawson played a critical part in that area, as well.

    In his online journal, Robert Hunter recounted writing the lyrics for "Friend of the Devil" in a single afternoon in Madrone Canyon. He actually created the song with the intent of playing it with NRPS, after the band had asked him to be their bassist. This is why he first unveiled the song to David Nelson and John Dawson in their home in Kentfield. At that point, Hunter explains, "The 'Sweet Anne Marie' verse which was later to become a bridge was only one of the verses, not yet a bridge."

    Where things get really interesting in this story is where Hunter tells us that the chorus originally went:

    I set out running but I take my time
    It looks like water but it tastes like wine
    If I get home before daylight
    I just might get some sleep tonight


    Notice how the line "A friend of the devil is a friend of mine" doesn't play into that chorus? This is where Dawson comes in.

    After showing the guys the song, Hunter explains, the band went down to the kitchen for espresso. "We got to talking about the tune and John said the verses were nifty except for 'it looks like water but it tastes like wine,' which I had to admit fell flat. Suddenly Dawson's eyes lit up and he crowed "How about 'a friend of the devil is a friend of mine.' Bingo, not only the right line but a memorable title as well!

    We ran back upstairs to Nelson's room and recorded the tune. I took the tape home and left it on the kitchen table. Next morning I heard earlybird Garcia (who hadn't been at the rehearsal - had a gig, you know) wanging away something familiar sounding on the peddle [sic] steel. Danged if it wasn't 'Friend of the Devil.' With a dandy bridge on the 'sweet Anne Marie' verse. He was not in the least apologetic about it. He'd played the tape, liked it, and faster than you can say dog my cats it was in the Grateful Dead repertoire."

    It's interesting to wonder whether or not the song would still have become a staple if Dawson hadn't popped those lyrics. The line, "a friend of the devil is a friend of mine" isn't the only great thing about the song, but it's definitely a critical part.

    Hunter dipped out of NRPS almost as fast he dipped in, and so the song became a Dead tune.
  • In regards to the song's lyrics, Dodd's indispensable Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics makes an interesting connection between the "Friend of the Devil" line "trailed by twenty hounds" and the line "there's a hellhound on my trail" from Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail." It's not very likely that that is purely a coincidence, considering Hunter's musical scholarship and penchant for filling his lyrics with allusions to folk songs, blues, poetry, and mythology. The possible connection is doubly interesting because Johnson's legend goes that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to become a great bluesman. At the very least, it's an intriguing piece to the story told in the song.

    Hunter also wrote that there was a fifth verse written for the song. It went:

    You can borrow from the Devil
    You can borrow from a friend
    But the Devil give you twenty
    When your friend got only ten
  • The song seems to have its central character make it from Reno to Utah in one night on foot. A possible key to this seemingly impossible logistical feat is the fact that Reno was actually part of the Utah territory for one year at around 1860.
  • Reno was originally part of the Utah territory, which means that the line, "I got a wife in Reno baby, and one in Cherokee" is referring to the act of polygamy, which was present in Utah's early years.
  • "Friend of the Devil" was released on the 1970 album American Beauty. It was performed live for the first time at San Francisco's The Family Dog concert hall on February 28, 1970.
  • The song evolved over time. Garcia has stated that the version the band played in later years was inspired by Kenny Loggins' version of the song.
  • David Grisman, an old friend of Jerry Garcia's, contributed mandolin to the song. Dennis McNally's A Long Strange Trip: The Inside Story of the Grateful Dead tells how this collaboration resulted from Garcia spotting his old pal while playing softball in Fairfax with the Jefferson Airplane. Grisman was brought in primarily to contribute to "Ripple," but also ended up throwing in on "Friend of the Devil."
  • "Friend of the Devil" has been covered, live or in studio, by NRPS, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews Band, Mumford and Sons, and many others, including countless small town bands in corner bars all across America and beyond.
Please sign in or register to post comments.

Comments: 18

  • Bob from Rochester, Nh, NhThe Songwriting credits in "The Grateful Dead Songbook" list Jerry Garcia, John Dawson and Robert Hunter. John "Marmaduke" Dawson was the lead singer and primary songwriter for the New Riders.
  • Russell from Corona, CaMany of Robert Hunter's lyrics don't carry "Secret Meanings" and are fairly obvious if read as narrative. Hunter & Garcia were also interested in American Folk Narrative and would take old songs and rework them into modern tunes with that touch of timelessness to it. This song is about a regular guy who has his troubles with love and money like the rest of us do & is relating it to the listener who if agreeing with him (we're all sinners) are in the same boat or Friends of the Devil.
  • Gee from Nj, NjShes a wanted Cherokee "an outlaw" I hope U know thee kind the devil is a character created by those who think they are in control cause of social title or appearance
  • Gee from Nj, NjShes a wanted Cherokee "an outlaw" I hope U know thee kind the devil is a character created by those who think they are in control cause of social title or appearance
  • Oldpink from New Castle, InHeartbreaking song about a man at the end of his rope.
    Friend of the Devil does not mean he is not satanic or anything of the sort, but that he is at the bottom, with only others who have fallen as low for company.
    btw...I must say that Lyle Lovett's cover of this is even sadder, and thus better.
    Just IMNSHO, of course.
  • Robert from Milton, Paare you serious? this song is definately about smoking weed.
  • Sara from Silver Spring, MdThe slower version is said to have been inspired by a Loggins and Messina one.
  • Mark from Chino, CaI think when he sings "got a wife in chino" he is refering to her being in the Chino state prison.
  • Mark from Chino, CaYes indeed! Chino is in California. Only the greatest little cities in the nation. This song is the reason why I listen to "The Dead". No place better than Chino. 15 minutes away from everywhere fun!
  • Kevin from Reading , PaDespite being one of their best-known and loved recordings, the live version -- at least to these ears -- never quite measured up, mainly because they rearranged it, slowed it down and did it electric. The recording on "American Beauty" is fast and folky with a sprightly mandolin part (played by David Grisman, if I'm not mistaken).
  • Aaron from Bowling Green, KyI think its important to note the use of the word devil. Obviously not promoting satanic worship or anything. The "devil" (open to interpretation) has burned him, and insinuates any friend of the devil is a friend of mine. He is showing sympathy compassion with those who too were messed over by whatever "devil" you want to call it. It was probably drugs for Garcia though.
  • Morgan from Thousand Oaks, CaI think it is about drugs too, when he is running from the law i think it has something to do with a drug bust. The devil is some sort of drug also, he deals it out and gets 20 bills, but when it said the devil came back for that money, i think he himself was buying.
  • Dave from Ocala, FlReno's not in Utah. It's in Nevada.
  • Dave from Ocala, FlThere's another verse the Dead never sang, but Hunter sings at his shows and the New Riders of the Purple Sage (I think it was David Nelson of NRPS that cowrote the song) also do:

    "You can borrow from The Devil
    You can borrow from a friend
    But Devil'll give ya twenty
    While your friend's only got 10"

    The Dead's lyrics are
    "Got a wife in Chino, Baby
    And one in Cherokee"

    but Bob Dylan sings:
    "Got a wife in Reno, Baby,
    And one in Tennessee,"
  • Brandon from Philadelphia, Pai think the songs about acid, or just drugs in general. "the devil" that they talk about is drugs, friends of drugs around that time are usually laid back, idealistic people like the grateful dead. so "the friend of the devil (drugs) is a friend of mine"
  • Jai from Atlanta, GaBut the first line in the song is: "I lit out from Reno"
    That was in Utah. Not sure about the whole polygamy thing...

    Robert Hunter actually wrote this for The New Riders of the Purple Sage.
  • Erik from Cincinnati, OhThe lyric is actually "Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee". Chino is in California.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaI remember when they said "This is breaking a long standing tradition of ours, and we love to break traditions"
see more comments

Shaun Morgan of SeetherSongwriter Interviews

Shaun breaks down the Seether songs, including the one about his brother, the one about Ozzy, and the one that may or may not be about his ex-girlfriend Amy Lee.

Five Rockers Who Rolled With The DevilSong Writing

Just how much did these monsters of rock dabble in the occult?

Gavin Rossdale of BushSongwriter Interviews

On the "schizoid element" of his lyrics, and a famous line from "Everything Zen."

Mac Powell of Third DaySongwriter Interviews

The Third Day frontman talks about some of the classic songs he wrote with the band, and what changed for his solo country album.

Justin Hayward of The Moody BluesSongwriter Interviews

Justin wrote the classic "Nights In White Satin," but his fondest musical memories are from a different decade.

Mike Love of The Beach BoysSongwriter Interviews

The lead singer/lyricist of The Beach Boys talks about coming up with the words for "Good Vibrations," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Kokomo" and other classic songs.