This week, we welcome David Gans as our guest for Terrapin Tuesdays. Musician, author, and host of The Grateful Dead Hour and Dead to the World, he's definitely what we call a subject matter expert! His pick goes back to the first time he ever heard "Terrapin," which was at Winterland Arena, March 18, 1977.
"I was instantly certain of its immortality," David remembers. After a few decades on the bus, it always remained a favorite of his. “I was glad to hear ‘Terrapin’ every time it played. It’s a masterpiece."
He continued to share an essay he wrote on the subject:
"Terrapin Station, part 1," as it it titled on the 1977 studio album Terrapin Station, is a genuine masterpiece, the greatest Hunter-Garcia composition of the latter era. It's a through-composed piece rather than an improvisational framework, but it was such a magnificent and wide-ranging composition that even though I always preferred more open-ended pieces, I was never sorry to hear it. Especially since the days of extended intergalactic travel (e.g. any "Dark Star" from 1969 through 1974, "The Other One" through the '70s, et al.) were long past by the time it arrived, so it's not as though "Terrapin" was likely to be taking the place of something more exploratory.
While I was writing this essay in January of 2013, Neal Madnick posted this on the Grateful Dead Hour mailing list: "The crowd always responded exuberantly whenever 'Terrapin' began, and yet I always found it a wonderful tune but totally uninspiring as a live piece due to the fact that there is almost no real good sustained (if any) spontaneous jamming…. It's very repetitive and performed like an orchestral piece. I actually prefer the studio version to almost any live version I've heard, because at least Jerry still had his voice and his vocals were clear. It seemed they could have jammed so exquisitely off of that piece, but it was almost always a wasted opportunity." To which my wife, Rita, commented: "You didn't have to go anywhere from there: it was there."
Both Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter spoke in interviews of the phenomenal origin of "Terrapin." "I wrote it in front of a picture window overlooking the storm-lashed Bay," Hunter told me in 1988. "There was lightning in the sky. It was one of those moments when I just knew something was going to happen. I was sitting there in front of my typewriter, just very, very open to this.
"I started with an invocation to the muse, because if it wasn't going to come from there, it was going to come from nowhere. The invocation carried me all the way through; I must have written a thousand words on it… song after song after song. That’s the mark of a good song: the words just come…. I was in a state of pure well-being for three days while I wrote.
"It’s funny," Hunter concluded. "At this point in my career, I felt rather separated from the Grateful Dead. I wasn't writing for the Dead, but when I finished it, there was no question in my mind that no one but the Dead could do it."
The instrumental theme "came as a completely orchestrated idea" while he was driving, Garcia said in 1981. "I drove home real fast and sat down with the guitar and worked it all out quick so I wouldn't forget it, because it was all there.
"Just about the time I had those musical ideas worked out and showed them to Hunter, he happened to have lyrics that, with a little alteration, fit perfectly."
"There was something more than uncanny about the way that thing just happened," Hunter said. "Jerry had written some changes and I had just written 'Terrapin' and we met and his changes and my lyrics went hand in glove. I think we were both approaching Terrapin Station from different directions and met in the center, and there it was.
The first public performance was February 26, 1977 at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California, while the band was recording the album to be titled Terrapin Station at Sound City in Van Nuys, a few miles west. They played it again the next night in Santa Barbara, and then went to the studio to record.
The band's first performance of "Terrapin" after the recording (3/18/77 at Winterland) included a little more of the suite than had been heard in the first two, but that additional material was attempted only that one time. The three movements that survived are: "Lady with a Fan," a folk ballad derived from the English folk song "Lady of Carlisle" (some variations call it "The Bold Lieutenant") and probably delivered to Hunter and Garcia by the New Lost City Ramblers; "Terrapin Station" (the section that begins "Inspiration, move me brightly"); and the majestic instrumental "Terrapin" – hereinafter to be referred to collectively as "Terrapin." The latter two movements are moderate of tempo, majestic in tone, and strongly evocative of both terrestrial and cosmic atmospheres. In my review for BAM Magazine, I wrote: "The suite then rockets forth in time and space to an instrumental passage that is at once nautical and stratospheric in feel, with overtones of Roman fanfare to give the sensation exhilarating breadth." Nautical and stratospheric, despite the fact that it's a train putting its brakes on. Go figure.
In an online discussion of Grateful Dead songs, my friend Mary Eisenhart wrote: "'Lady of Carlisle' is the folk song telling the lady-with-a-fan story, and I was well steeped in Ian and Sylvia's version… which, probably in keeping with the traditional approach, was a clear endorsement of the sailor ("I am a true lover of a woman, and I will return her fan or die") over the soldier ("I am a true lover of a woman, but I will not give my life for love"). And so here's Hunter the storyteller invoking the muse, telling the story, and saying good idea? bad idea? you decide! Which is consistent with a lot of his turning of traditional stories to a different message entirely."
Because it is an entirely composed piece of music, the early performances of "Terrapin" are quite confidently presented. A few features weren't in place right away, notably some of Garcia's melodic figures, but "Terrapin" was a classic, and a big hit with all the fans I knew, from the start.
See you next Tuesday and thanks, David.
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