Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

China Cat Sunflower by Grateful Dead

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Crazy cat peekin' through a lace bandanna
Like a one-eyed cheshire, like a diamond-eye jack
A leaf of all colors plays a golden-string fiddle
To a double-e waterfall over my back Read full Lyrics
"China Cat Sunflower" is one of the Grateful Dead's most-loved songs. It was the fifth most-played live song by the band, with at least 552 performances. In live shows, it was paired with the traditional song "I Know You Rider" nearly every time, with one popularly known exception occurring on March 9, 1985, when it was paired with the Dead's own "Cumberland Blues."

Despite the song's popularity, relatively little has been spoken about the symbolism and meaning in the song. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter offered a good explanation for this in his book of collected lyrics, Box of Rain. In that book, he said the dearth of recorded statements on the song resulted from the simple fact that very few people ever asked him about it. "Nobody ever asked me the meaning of this song," Hunter stated in Box of Rain. "People seem to know exactly what I'm talking about. It's good that a few things in this world are clear to all of us."

In November 1977, however, Hunter was indeed asked about the song by BAM: The California Music Magazine. He gave an interesting answer that was published in 1978 and included in David Gans' Conversations With the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book in 2002. Hunter said that he first got the "germ" of the song when visiting Mexico's Lake Chapala and a cat decided his belly looked comfortable enough for a nap. Although Hunter never admits to drug use, this story of cats marching across rainbows and trekking into Neptune behind a cat guide could possibly indicate the consumption of some sort of mind-altering substance.

Lake Chapala lies in southern Mexico, about 30 miles south of the city Guadalajara. It's the largest freshwater lake in the country. In addition to being a popular tourist destination, it provides important habitat for several animal species, including the migratory American white pelican. Hunter's presence there is not too strange when considering the traveling lifestyle he embraced then as he sought truth, poetry, and kicks as an early convert of the Hippie Generation.

Rain dance on the beach at Lake Chapala, Mexico

The first studio recording of "China Cat Sunflower" was in June 1969, for inclusion on Aoxomoxoa. However, the first live performance happened six months before that, on January 17, 1968, at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco; that recording appeared on Europe '72.

The song is significant to the history of the Dead in that it played a big role in landing Hunter a job as the band's lyricist, an event that altered their creative course forever. In mid-1967, Hunter mailed the lyrics to the Dead, along with "The Eleven." By September 1967, he was working with the band in Rio Nido, California.

Hunter's musical legacy is somewhat unique in that he remained a critical part of the Dead for most of their long, long history, despite the fact that he was a nonperforming member. He was even inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, along with the rest of the Dead, treated on equal footing with all the performing members.

Hunter's path to stardom, like his poetry and lyrics, was utterly unique. He was a test subject of the CIA-funded LSD experiments at Stanford University in 1962. These experiments strongly influenced both his poetic sensibility and his spiritual journey, as the early part of his career was devoted to an Arthur-Rimbaud-like "vision quest," plumbing the depths of mind and creative soul through drugs, introspection, and art. It was this way of looking at the world that helped Hunter become an important part of the psychedelic chemistry of the Dead. His words added depth and mystery to the band's music. Without Hunter, the Dead would not have been the Dead that fans know of today.

Hunter's legacy is fascinating; he produced some of the most interesting lyrics in rock history. To a large extent, that whole story can be traced back to the shores of Lake Chapala, where "China Cat Sunflower" first popped into Hunter's consciousness - by way of the aforementioned cat - planting a seed that would eventually lead to his role with the Grateful Dead, establishing a mystical relationship that's given beauty and meaning to generations of Deadheads ever since.

Jeff Suwak
October 18, 2019
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Comments: 1

  • Michael Leary from Raleigh, NcVery informative and interesting, and much more than I have ever heard previously. I wish that the article was even longer and more detailed, but I guess you can't always get what you want.
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