Friday, 20 August 2010
Grateful Dead "Terrapin Station" (1977) (Revised Review 2015)
"Let my reviewing-spiration flow, while I try to work out what you need to know, till things you've always heard won't sound familiar, shadows of reviews of future passed, till I discover myself in the past at last, down in Carlisle I loved an album many years ago...
I can't figure out if it's the Dead's ending or beginning, but the train's put its brakes on, soon the evil will be winning, all but the obvious hidden with nothing to believe in, but first there's Terrapin for good or ill , for good or ill again, some songs rise, some fall, some climb....
The compass always points to Terrapin"
I'm afraid this review will have to start with one of those personal bits you get from me every so often about a particular album. Instead of the usual straightforward gushing praise or a particular experience, however, it's more one of synchronicity - one of the Dead's favourite words, usually meaning the universe was sending them signals about them being in the right place at the right time. The Dead may never have played there and lyricist Robert Hunter may have got the idea from a traditional song named 'Lady With A Fan' that dates back to the Middle Ages (and is covered in traditional form by fellow AAA band Pentangle by the way), but I know the city of Carlisle (setting for the title track) very well indeed. By one of those synchronistically unlikely moves that nobody reading this will ever believe but happens to be true, I even bought this album from an excellent second-hand shop there during my first ever trip to the city (let me emphasise this wasn't a clever move on my part either but pot luck - this was only my second Dead LP and I knew nothing about this album until I got it home; there was no internet in them days to look it up on either remember). It's probably not stretching a point to say that this album, that second hand shop and the pull of both was responsible for me spending three years of my life at university there (although being a multicultural melting pot of English, Irish and Scottish roots, possessing an older more vivid history than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and a rather brilliant little college mainly full of first-class teachers along with a few wrong 'uns helped too). And yes it was very much like the song says - a series of trials set in a lion's den that are impossible to achieve, calling out vainly for inspiration for some essay that wouldn't come and finding myself stuck in a siding, that all sounds deeply familiar. Oh and 'sullen wings of fortune beat like rain' - Hunter got that right, especially the 'rain' part (it rains 90% of the time in Carlisle. The rest of the time it snows). The creepy thing about this is that neither he nor Jerry knew what they were writing - both were hit by inspiration at roughly the same time at opposite ends of America, with Hunter 'feeling' as if a song was coming and writing that opening invocation to his muse, Garcia writing the melody that fitted perfectly without a change at exactly the same time. If 'my' home city (and I still call that even though I haven't lived there for a decade) had been part of a song like 'Good Lovin' or 'Sugar Magnolia' I'd have left it at that - but 'Terrapin Station' is a frighteningly obtuse and complex suite that could mean nothing or everything and even for the Dead seems to exists on some existentialist plain that can only be tapped into by the sub-conscious. Are we all three (plus various Deadheads) really sitting there at Terrapin Station, waiting for our trains to take off into the other-worldly nether? Or did Hunter just happen to pick a love song about an impossible to please woman who demands much of her many suitors that merely by chance happened to have that setting (Carlisle's still full of them too, by the way). For the record, no I didn't see any terrapins there - but what if they were in hiding? What if it's waiting for me? What if I am the terrapin? (or am I a walrus?) What if it's you?
Erm, anyway, just a little something for you to ponder there. Obviously 'Terrapin Station' has an almighty pull over me for the above reasons, but I still can't fight the plain and simple fact that the band have gone a little backwards. Back in 1977 many Dead fans had already got off the bus. At the height of the punk the band had already been going 12 years, had lost one member tragically young and were about to lose another (RIP Pig and Keith). After returning from an 18 month hiatus with the pioneeringly jazzy, if occasionally unlistenable, album ‘Blues For Allah' and deciding to stick together to see what happened, the Dead seemed from here-on in unable to shake off the vanguard of being 'old school'. Things weren’t helped when this most spirited and wayward of bands, who had been firmly without a producer since giving Dave Hassinger a nervous breakdown in 1968, were saddled with producer Keith Olsen because record company Warner Brothers thought they had a better chance of getting a hit that way (they will do the same thing to George Harrison four years later and regret both moves). It's as if the Dead have swapped the beaten-up old 'bus' they've been riding since 'gettin on' during 'The Other One' for a souped up locomotive - still determinedly old fashioned and with mileage on the clock, but altogether slicker, speedier and less homespun. The older Dead would have fought tooth and nail, but in a changing climate with old bands' careers fading away and a new label to please the band simply rolled over and, well, played Dead, wrapping their distinctive sounds around a cleaner, more presentable sound. The production values of this album, whilst being very hop and contemporary by 1977 standards and not quite the travesty of later albums, is still wholly unsuitable and makes the Dead sound like extras on their album. For a start their two drummers relegated to simple rhythms, the bassist told to turn down and the shrieking harmonies of Donna Godchaux brought to the front. The fact that this album features just four original songs, only one of them a Hunter-Garcia collaboration unlike the heady days of 1970 when the band wrote three songs before breakfast, and you can see why this album has a mixed reputation. It deserves it too - while Bob's 'Etsimated Prophet', Phil's 'Passenger' and Donna's 'Sunrise' all have their moments the two covers songs 'Dancing In The Street' and 'Samson And Delilah' are amongst the worst ideas the band ever had. They even turn to disco for the former for terrapin's sake - and on a Motown classic too, is there no shame?
But – and you knew there was going to be a ‘but’ didn’t you? – that sidelong suite isn't just a long song to fill up a whole sixteen minutes; it's a gloriously ambitious exploration of the unknown, arguably the last great moment of ambition in the Dead's canon and easily their longest studio work. A twisting, suite that, even here in truncated and heavily over-produced form (Hunter wrote twice as many verses - these reflect merely the first half), still sounds like one of the writers’ deepest compositions and weaves a wonderful magical musical spell, even if it's possible to say definitively what the heck the song is actually about. The other three group originals are also amongst their composers’ best (with Donna’s song the surprise standout),even if none of them are quite in the same league. Unlike ‘Blues For Allah’ or this album’s successor ‘Shakedown Street’ there’s no obvious filler material in terms of originals, percussion-led instrumentals or Garcia-Hunter oddballs that are clearly there just to make up the numbers because the pair are running out of steam. Despite the often clinical and claustrophobic sound, which rather robs the band of their improvisational heights, the Dead sound good here, playing much more tightly than usual. Also, even though there are only six tracks in total, you get to hear the Dead tackle more styles than normal, from breathy ballads to Motown funk to one of the heaviest rockers the band ever did to the prog rock title track.
If the band tries a little too hard at times, that’s because in the new climate of 1977 they aren’t quite sure who they are anymore. It’s like the Stones on ‘Some Girls’, The Who on ‘Who Are You?’ or The Kinks on ‘Low Budget’, retracing their steps in the face of a new challenge to find out the music that first kick-started them on their voyage into the seas of rock. Only, this being the Dead, it’s first time they’ve been saddled with a producer (though there are more to come) and annoyingly he’s even less likely to let the band go all punk than they are likely to embrace the concept themselves, though 'Passenger' in particular offers a fascinating glimpse as to what the band might have sounded like 'doing a Stones'. Annoyingly the band also choose to go to the other extreme and fall into the 'disco' trap. Now there are times when this much-maligned genre can work. The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Stephen Stills all recorded superb disco songs, not coincidentally all of them marrying the composers' traditional styles with a harder unrelenting beat and coming up with lyrics about being swept away by something. In many ways the Dead should have been perfect for this new world of dancing - after all it's impossible to keep still at a Dead gig and a sizeable minority of their fans spent all their concerts dancing in the aisles anyway. However by contrast with their AAA brethren, the Dead simply revive an old Motown cover they never used to do that well anyway and stick a bit of a disco rhythm on it. The results are horrendous, right up there with 'Money Money' and 'Keep The Day Job' as the band's greatest lapse of taste. A second unforgivable slice of disco madness in 'Samson and Delilah' (which carries a 'traditional' credit but so should have been given the unique credit 'The Bible arr The Grateful Dead' for aesthetic purposes) compounds the misery: did no one really stop to think that this was wrong? So what we have on ‘Terrapin’ is, not for the first or last time on this site, a compromise. A couple of edgy performances that rock harder than ever before together with a couple of faceless pop covers and a side-long title track. This isn’t punk, then ('Terrapin' itself lasts half as long as The Sex Pistols' entire original output!), but nor did the band ignore the new sounds of 1976/77 – they just aren’t ready to embrace it.
Much of the discussion of this album has, understandably, been centred around the famous title track. A swooping Hunter-Garcia epic, it manages in typical style to sound as if it's a folk song from thousands of years ago and a contemporary parable about life in the then-modern world. We’d been crying out for the Dead to write another mammoth beast of a song ever since hearing the epics ‘Dark Star’ and ‘That’s The Other One’ and – the unlistenable ‘Blues For Allah’ suite aside – this is the first time Hunter and Garcia have written a clear ‘epic’ since the late 60s. However, skipping straight to ‘Terrapin Station’ does the other songs a disservice as each original is, in its own way, as impressive and layered as this song. ‘Estimated Prophet’ contains perhaps Bob Weir’s best set of lyrics together with a gulping, gasping tune that’s highly memorable, Phil Lesh gets the last of his occasional writing credits with the completely untypical rocker ‘Passenger’ and Donna Godchaux shines on her best ever moment for the Dead, the truly under-rated ‘Sunrise’. ‘Terrapin’ is almost her and husband Keith’s last stop with the Dead and that’s a shame because, while both members struggle to fit in with the early 70s-look band they really suit this poppier, more commercial late-70s feel.
I’ve always loved Keith’s playing, which has gone under-looked in the Dead canon surrounded by Pigpen, Tom Constanten and Brent Mydland’s contributions, but heard here Keith’s keyboards are at their flowing best. It took quite a time for Keith’s style to fit in with the rest of the Dead – who had, after all, been playing together for eight years before Pigpen’s death, but by the 1975-through 1979 period I feel Keith cracked it, balancing the more ramshackle elements of the rest of the Dead and giving Garcia room to breathe. What a tragedy it was that he died so young just after leaving the Dead, as if he’d lived he’d surely have made quite a stir with his own band or by joining another – after the Dead experience he could have fitted in with anybody! Wife Donna has always got a bad name with Dead fans, mainly because of her off-key wailing at Dead concerts where, it must be admitted, she has ruined one or two promising gigs (such as the Dead’s run of ‘farewell’ shows in 1974). But on record it’s another matter entirely – she’s a very positive vocal match for Bob Weir’s energetic lead and the duo’s duets are some of the high spots of the second half of the 70s run of Dead records. Her own lead on ‘Sunrise’ also promises greater things, although alas its one of only two songs and two lead vocals she ever gets to sing, and it’s an equal tragedy that Donna seems to have disappeared since leaving the band in 1979.
As for the rest of the band, they’re their usual dependable selves, albeit rather adrift in this new world of synthesisers and strings. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are the worst casualties – the producer is plainly not used to working with two drummers at once and this record is much more thought-out and prepared than usual, not relying on the sort of second-sight the two drummers brought to earlier albums like ‘Live Dead’ and even the under-rated ‘Mars Hotel’. They still manage to cook up a storm on the scarier passages of ‘Terrapin’, however. Phil Lesh is equally perplexed at having his eccentric bass-fills curtailed for this record and it's a crying shame we don’t get to hear him sing on his own song ‘Passenger’ (it’s a shame his second contribution to the record, ‘Equinox’ never came out at the time either, as its the equal of the other tracks here and ‘terrapin’ is quite a short-running record). As mentioned, Garcia is a bit overshadowed here and –for the first time – is not the de facto leader of the band, even if his song is the longest here (albeit only around half the 16 minutes actually feature any vocals). Even his guitar playing sounds a bit subdued, with Jerry just as unsure of himself in this new setting as the others. That leaves it to rhythm guitarist Bob Weir to be the group’s new boss, in as much a band of wilfully disorganised misfits ever had a boss, and he serves his job well, belting out his lead vocals with genuine enthusiasm and driving the band on.
Usually we try and find a 'theme' in an album about now. Every so often I've had to admit defeat and say 'there isn't one', but those tend to be albums that clearly didn't have themes and are simply a collection of tracks pooled together to keep the record companies quiet. With 'Terrapin' it feels like there ought to be one, but the closest I can get is the feeling of being a 'journey' despite never quite making the destination or realising what those answers are. 'Estimated Prophet' is a fascinatingly obtuse song by Weir and Barlow about a 'message' coming through that the narrator clearly believes whole-heartedly but which he's too confused to explain and which nobody around him believes (that's why he's only an 'estimated' prophet, Bob not quite sure if he really has the truth at his finger-tips or not). 'Dancin' In The Streets' is, erm, a journey down the street (Ok this might not tally that well) - but note that the narrator does have a 'message calling out around the world', even if that message ultimately ends up being dancing. 'Passenger' finds the narrator trapped on a world's journey he never signed up to, his life passing by too fast (he starts the song finding empathy with a firefly and their short but bright existence). 'Samson and Delilah' re-tells the Biblical story of cutting off her heroes' hair where most of his strength lies, although the song stops before that revelation and simply follows him 'into the lion's den' (the same one as per Terrapin?) Samson, sure of his 'natural' strength, is this album's one lone confident character, sure of where his life is going and for once the listener knows more than him (clue: it's not pretty). 'Sunrise' is a song that asks questions about what happens next, the ghost of a close friend coming to Donna, 'his eyes as sharp as arrows' as if he's trying to tell her something about what comes next ('Terrapin Station' is the next stop on the record - is this deliberate, one wonders?) And as for 'Terrapin' well - quests that cannot be fulfilled, promises that cannot be kept and a story of heroic deeds that ends with the narrator lonely and frightened in a siding awaiting...something, this song is a journey alright, destination still unknown.
So, is 'Terrapin' a journey worth taking? Certainly the title track is - and I should know, I took it. 'Sunrise' too is a charming song, full of that Donna Godchaux goodness and easily here greatest moment with the band. Both songs could sit on my mythical 'Best of the Dead' compilation tape quite happily and tend to be the two songs I look out for from this period on the various 120-and-counting archive Dead concerts out there. The rest of the album, though, is less palatable, with a shoddy slick production that's doubly annoying after hearing the Dead embrace the new and unwieldy in 'Blues For Allah' (this album's opposite in so many ways - there it's the title suite that doesn't work and the shorter, compact songs and the production that do) that ruins even the title track (choirs and strings? On a Dead song? Producer Keith Olsen must have been smoking something stronger than the band...) The two cover songs are woeful, not just bland filler but truly ugly how-did-this-happen? mistakes you'd hope the Dead had worked past by this late in their careers. Clever as 'Estimated' and 'Passenger' are too, I've never found quite as much in them as my fellow Deadhead travellers - the first is a song more to admire than love, while the second only works in the context of the album; compared to most past Dead rockers it falls rather flat. In other words I can't decide whether 'Terrapin Station' is the last of the great Dead records or the start of the rubbish ones, can't figure out if it's the beginning of the end of the beginning. Meanwhile the train's put its brakes on the whistle is screaming...this just is Terrapin, for good or ill, for good or ill... again...
That’s Bobby you can hear on opening track ‘Estimated Prophet’. While I think songs like the summer sunhsiney ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and the gorgeous ‘Weather Report Suite’ have the edge on record, as a song ‘Prophet’ might be Weir’s best song of all. It was inspired by a type of fan that Weir noticed often at Dead gigs of the time, the sort of messiah figure who used to get doped up on drugs, get hidden ‘messages’ from the music and tell the audience about them (which is why we thought our top five might be of some relevance to this review, offering five possible revelations although only one of them is Dead-related and even the character in the song doesn’t sound mad enough to think of that!) Weir was tired of having his music drowned out by the explanations (sorry, Bob, as I’ve just realised I’m probably doing the same with this site) and decided to beat him to it with this song about a person whose convinced he’s about to be given a ‘vision’. The lyrics to this song are fascinating, especially the religious imagery in the second half of the song when the protagonist gets carried away and expects to see what’s in his head in the skies above him, but what makes this song stand out is the relationship between the words and music. At first the song is a very bass-heavy, stop-start kind of a song, firmly rooted to the ground, but as the character gets more and more visions the song takes off in a new direction, with the melody lines circling off into new directions. Alas, the only negative point about this opening song is the long drawn-out ending, filling up space where this album’s fine outtakes could have slotted in, and suggesting that the visions aren’t coming after all. While this song caused many a fan apoplexy after hearing it as a rough-and-ready rock song in concert, the stilted production values for once suit this song, whose whole point is that it should stand detached from us until the message takes over the messenger midway through. Overall, a brave stab at something different which works well, with Bobby rarely better than on this charismatic lead. Live Performances: 389
The cover of ‘Dancin’ In The Streets’ however, undoes all of the last track’s good work. Whereas ‘Prophet’ was new and involving, this tired re-tread of the old Motown standard sounds tired. Forgiving the band for dallying with a ‘modern’, almost disco sound is one thing – as we still get to hear some very Dead images and ideas – but hearing a cover done hundreds of times before in way that’s neither involving or exciting is something else. Bob and Donna take the lead on this song, but the key sounds unsuited to either of them, as if they’ve hit out on a compromise that makes Bobby sound too high and Donna too deep. The best part of the song is Garcia’s addition of a new guitar riff, which with its ever-busy scale runs up and down the keyboard do inject a bit of energy into the song, but it still would have sounded much better as the basis for a new song. The end project just makes you wonder what on earth the band were thinking – all the band’s ‘old’ fans would rather the Dead had turned this song into a truly Dead-like performance, while the band’s intended ‘new’ fans probably thought it odd that the band had revived a song even older than they collectively were to try to sound ‘modern’. The song sounded even worse in concert, where it was given a slowed-down reggae feel and seemed to go on for hours. In fact, at some concerts, it probably did, this being the Dead and all. Live Performances: 122
‘Passenger’ is much more lively, even though I probably the much less saturated-with-production, looser version on the ‘Dead Set’ live record. Like many of Phil Lesh’s songs, ‘Passenger’ is hard to follow, being more a collection of obscure and odd images than the ‘plot’ of other songs, but the clipped delivery and stream-of-consciousness of the words are again well suited to by an unexpected return to out and out rock and roll. However, there is a sort-of-story here which sounds like a 2:48 condensing of Gracia’s 16: 10 ‘Terrapin Station’, with its character a ‘passenger’ through life, learning about life with every stop he makes on his journey. In places the song sounds more like a David Crosby recording, being more a collection of questions asking what is going on rather than offering solutions, although the refrain ‘passenger can you see me?’ suggests that the song is being narrated by a messiah figure who, far from being all-seeing and all-knowing, only understands life from studying those around him. Most fans probably missed the lyrics anyway, shouted as they are, and instead simply latched onto the music which features a propelling beat and some unusually piercing guitar (presumably from Weir as it doesn’t sound much like Garcia). When the band did rock out, it was usually with a song heard in a completely different context – such as ‘Sugar Magnolia’ or ‘Friend Of The Devil’ which had started out as folk-rock ballads on album. This is the first real Dead song designed from the first to rock – and it does quite successfully. It’s also arguably what the album needs at this point, sandwiched between two rather weak covers. Live Performances: 100
The fact that the Dead have decided to set the 'Samson and Delilah' passage from the bible almost verbatim into music is less strange than it would be with many bands – as we’ve already seen in ‘Prophet’ a certain symbolism has always been common with the dead (see the top five below for more) and especially Robert Hunter’s lyrics adopt many bible passages for re-telling in the modern age. However ‘Samson and Delilah’ must rest as one of the dullest Dead recordings of all because it doesn’t have a modern twist to go with it and by the time you’ve heard the verse and chorus you haven’t even got the melody-line to keep you guessing. Bob Weir’s arrangement is, again, far too ‘modern’ ie late 70s for most Deadheads’ tastes back then and – what with Donna overshadowing Garcia in the backing vocals – a fan of the late 60s’ line-up would be hard pressed to recognise which band is playing at all. Only Garcia’s most characteristic guitar solo on the whole record catches the ear at all and even that’s only fleeting. A true shame that such a forward-looking record feels it has to look so far to the past for ideas and does both eras a huge disservice. Live Performances: 364
‘Sunrise’ is the album’s unheralded gem, a gorgeous ballads from Donna Godchaux which is thought to have been written for band associate Billy Graham, whose concert venues ‘The Fillmore East’ and ‘West’ the band regularly played for. If so, you have to wonder what husband Keith thought about all the sexual imagery in the song, although it’s his sensitive synthesiser work that brings out the best in the song. Chances are the song is more about re-incarnation, what with the ‘tree of life’ images and so on, with perhaps the charismatic Graham being seen as the latest in a long line of photogenic prophets. The song is quite a clever parallel between the prophets and seers of old, gathering together people looking for answers and the current generation turning to musicians, with the concert proprietor who was famous for getting the impossible done cast as the second Jesus. There’s also the classic line about charismatic anybodies: ‘when he’s gone, I want to know him better’. I hadn’t noticed before how keyed up this album is with ‘prophets’ by the way but there they are – telling us what’s in their head in ‘Estimated Prophet’, telling us bible parables in ‘Samson and Delilah’, asking where mankind is going in ‘Passenger’ and most famously setting tests for human subjects in ‘Terrapin Station’. Whatever the cause of the song, the tune is gorgeous, bubbling up from nothing to heights of great emotion and with stripped-down, very Haiku-like images in the lyrics. Donna also sings fantastically well on this song, far better than anywhere else on the Dead catalogue, stretching her vocals without over-taxing them as she so often did live. Garcia’s guitar aside, however, it doesn’t really sound much like The Dead, a fault of much of this record. The lyric reference to Graham as an Indian ‘shaman’, ‘cutting the air with a feather’ , is continued on the album’s rear sleeve where a Dead skull is decorated with a feather and roses. Live Performances: 30
Where to start with the 16 minute long title track 'Terrapin Station'? Well, how about telling you that this is merely a truncated version of what could have been, with Garcia selecting from literally dozens of sheets Hunter had hastily scribbled down. And let me follow that up that by telling you how this long track was created – with Bob Hunter, aware that his muse was thinking up something, writing the opening words ‘let my inspiration flow’ and watching on amazed as those pages after pages appeared in front of him, seemingly fully formed. Garcia, intrigued to hear what his writing partner was up to, looked on in amazement as the song naturally fitted a rhythm and melody he’d already concocted for a different, unfinished song, with only a modicum of alteration. It’s as if ‘Terrapin Station’ really was being passed on, prophet style, to the Dead for us fans to follow – especially given the trials and tribulation suffered by the characters within from which they learn and grow. Which brings me onto why this track has a special place in my heart. You see, its loosely based on a long forgotten English ballad, named ‘Lady With A Fan’ which is so obscure I’m impressed even English maniacs like Hunter and Garcia picked up on it. But this isn’t just a general English folk song, its set in Carlisle, the much-ignored, not-often-visited city that is the furthest north of England you can go before reaching Scotland, a city full of so much history that even the local Marks and Spencers carries a plaque on the wall telling us that King Charles I had his headquarters there during the Civil War and a place very dear to my heart. You see, I suffered my own trials and tribulations in Carlisle – endless trials that seemed to just add up one after another – and if ever live was testing me it was then (by comparison my current life of fighting off illness, arguing with job centres and writing 8000 odd words every week seems comparatively easy). I had the very striking record sleeve to ‘Terrapins’ on my wall for much of the three years I lived there and once I picked up on the word ‘Carlisle’ in this song, apparently for no reason (I never flipping knew about ‘lady with a fan’ and nobody I met in Carlisle had heard of it either) and I couldn’t help but think that Garcia and Hunter were trying to tell me something. Or, given the breakneck speed at which it was written, that somebody was trying to tell me something through them.
But needless to say I’m not the only fan to latch onto this song. Of all the post-‘retirement’ songs of 1974, with the possible exception of jerry’s fighting-back-from-coma song ‘Touch Of Grey’, ‘Terrapin’ is the song that’s probably struck the biggest chord with fans. Its the last time the Dead sound big and proud and all-knowing, the last time that they sound like they know just exactly where they’re going. That sound suits a song about characters fighting obstacles they can’t hope to understand, seemingly on the whim of a lady they’ve just met. The lady, with a fan no less, challenges those around her to fight for her love, telling them that she will look down on them if they refuse to take up the challenge. Before long, though, she’s been forgotten and the song moves on to a far more esoteric plot, with the light form a crescent moon promising that we will ‘be there soon’. There’s also the idea that the ‘terrapin station’ of the title’ is some kind of utopia, one that answers all our questions but is outside man’s understanding on earth – and yet our past knowledge of it from our previous lives means we keep pushing and searching for it while on earth. Or something like that, who knows – this is one of those songs so wonderfully vague and surreal it all but invites you to put your own interpretation on top - and I can guarantee that few fans will ever share the same ideas about this song. One thing that does seem likely, though, is that the title track refers to the old Buddhist principle that the Earth rests on the back of a terrapin’s back. Terrapins, like their close family turtles and tortoises, are very slow moving, hence the slow orbital movement that moves our planet out of alignment with the stars bit by bit and its sturdy shell is sometimes open to disturbances like earthquakes and volcanoes. It seems like nonsense to believe that now, but what better solution had the great thinkers of our past to go on back then? All those dots in the sky are all suns, each with their own planets, with the Earth just a forgotten and unimportant speck in the grand scheme of life? Bah! Don’t be silly! That seems to be the theme of the eerie ‘At A Siding’ section of the song, which has the narrator in a place ‘filled with darkness’, finding himself back on ‘terrapin’ again; the idea that there has to be order in life, even if its as daft as the world resting on a terrapin’s back. The juxtaposition of the archaic ‘terrapin’ with the modern word ‘station’ throughout also suggests that mankind’s quest is ongoing and that we are as unsure of our true path as our ancient ancestors were. Syd Barrett may have had the same idea with his solo song ‘Terrapin’ but then again, like parts of song, it could mean absolutely anything. Yet somehow, against all odds and after passing through a series of quite frightening percussion-dominated passages, the song ends triumphantly with the only choir to have appeared to date on a Dead record emphasising the major key riff rather than the questioning, unsure minor key riff.
Ah yes, the choir. There are fans who’ve heard everything the Dead ever did and tell me that until I’ve heard this song live, without the embellishments, I haven’t lived. Alas the only live version of ‘Terrapin’ I know is an early 90s reading from the ‘So Many Roads’ outtakes set and like many of the Dead’s early 90s material rambles rather than rolls on and passes you by rather than pounces. I certainly would like to hear it without the choir, however, as its pretty tasteless and bombastic, especially for such an ‘epic’ song that until the end does rather well by keeping itself on the straight and narrow, mainly courtesy of the two drummers who dominate the frantic second-half of the song. The string parts are more palatable, mainly because they’re ducked rather further down in the end mix, but I suspect the recording would still sound better without them there at all. Keith Olsen might have worked wonders with the Dead’s more polished and subdued catalogue, but a track like this needs finesse – and instead ends up sounding like Mantovani. It’s to the song’s credit, however, that the brilliance of the track shines through its trappings and for such a ‘wordy’ song, one that was clearly a poem set to music rather than a straightforward set of lyrics, it really moves along nicely. Jerry’s guitar parts show off all the tricks of the trade, sounding curious and naive at the start, sceptical by the middle section and downright scared by the end. The rest of the band seem to lose touch with the song somewhere about the middle – it would be hard not to with a song this long, after all – and it’s probably fair to say their visions for the song don’t match Jerry’s or Hunter’s. Jerry’s voice, too, sounds uncomfortably weak here, electronically treated in contrast to the Bob-and-Donna show loud and proud on the album’s first side. But I’ve yet to hear a bad Jerry Garcia vocal and despite the trappings this is another fine effort, moving from caution to headstrong passion to calamity with each verse. In all, ‘Terrapin Station’ might ramble, it might at sidings too long when it should be sauntering along briskly and it might well have run out of steam by the end. But for the most part it’s a staggeringly brilliant song, full of intriguing ideas and mystic insights that are open to all sorts of juicy interpretations and yet rarely gets boring despite its length and layers. If only the Dead had recorded this piece in a more straightforward way, if only verses had not been cut and if only the choir, string and brass arrangements could have been dropped this may well have been the best song of all. But even here, in bastardised form, its beauty shines through. I don’t know whether I ever did get the message during my time in Carlisle, no matter how many times I played this track to the background of my increasingly complicated life or how many times I stared at the terrapins on the cover, but I sure had a lot of fun guessing. And that’s the beauty of a classic song.
In case you were wondering, the 'missing' verses published by Hunter later in his 'Box Of Rain' collection of lyrics mainly extend the meteorological metaphors, with a long bit about the sun coming out and the narrator stumbling out of his 'siding' 'stumbling bereft of reason, faith and name, broken hearted blind and lame, slain by doubt mistaken trust, abandoned in the rain to rust'. Reflecting that the words we use for nature are not their 'real' names (but man-made monikers) Hunter then has the 'real' sound of nature come forth 'cast by a new moon through dense thought to an ancient tune'. Eventually all the darkness falls away and the sun shines, the final verse ending 'A long line to ride, a long black train, on a spiralling track, takes us back to Terrapin'. To date the Dead have never performed the rest of the verses but spin-off band 'Phil Lesh and Friends' did once in 2013 with Phil's son Brian setting the lyrics to music. Live Performances (of the oroginal 'Terrapin Station'): 302
Overall, then, Terrapin the album is a strange beast. Not many even half-satisfying albums have only six tracks – and yet having said that few albums cover as much ground as Terrapin Station does in one. The dated production means it doesn’t have the timeless feel of ‘American Beauty’, there is no real pioneering sound on here a la ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ and there are no classic singalongs like ‘Wake Of The Flood’. Like we said, many fans have hopped off the bus long before ‘Terrapin Station’ but its a shame that they did, because for all it’s faults this album is still one hell of a ride. I’m oh so glad my stop with the Dead came after Terrapin Station, to allow me to wander around one of the Dead’s most fascinating of all albums. I’ll have a return ticket please, again and again and again.