Behind the Song: The Grateful Dead, “Dark Star”

“Dark Star”

Videos by American Songwriter

(Written by Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter) 

The origin story of the Grateful Dead has been told countless times, how a quintet of mismatched musicians living on the Peninsula, south of San Francisco, with predilections encompassing folk and bluegrass, blues and R&B, jazz, avant-garde music and more, came together in 1965 to play rock and roll. They began experimenting wildly, stretching songs well beyond the standard three-minute length, often at parties—the Acid Tests—frequented by fellow enthusiasts of LSD, and soon began gathering devoted, like-minded followers around the Bay Area.

What they didn’t have, at first, were estimable original songs. Their repertoire consisted largely of cover material and rudimental attempts at songwriting, but nothing that might resonate with a larger audience. Then, into the picture, came Robert Hunter, a friend of the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia. The two had performed acoustic music together at local coffeehouses and such a few years earlier, but then Hunter had gone off to live in New Mexico.

By the fall of 1967, the news reached Hunter that his friend Jerry had formed a rock band, of all things, and they had even released an album for the Warner Bros. label. Hunter had been experimenting with writing lyrics, and the thought occurred to him that some of them might work for the music this band of misfits was playing.

Hunter sent Garcia some words, for songs that would become “Alligator,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “St. Stephen.” They were poetic to the max, somewhat surrealist in nature (“Comic book colors on a violin river crying Leonardo words from out a silk trombone”), and—as it turned out—a perfect fit for the adventurous music the Dead were creating. Garcia wrote music for Hunter’s image-rich lyrics and suggested that it was time for his friend to head up north and see what these guys were really all about.

In a 1978 interview with this writer, Hunter picked up the story.

“‘Dark Star’ was the first song I wrote with the Grateful Dead,” he said, “We were down in Rio Nido [California] and I heard them playing [the melody of the song] in a hall. I just started scratching paper and got the ‘Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes’ part, and I said, ‘Why don’t you try it with this?’ It worked well and they wanted more verses. I finished up the second set of verses back in San Francisco. I got up—I was staying at 710 Ashbury [the band’s communal house in the city]—one morning fairly early, about 10:30 or 11, and stumbled over to the Panhandle at Golden Gate Park. I was sitting there, getting stuck on a verse, when along came a hippie who handed me a joint. He asked me what I was doing and I said I was writing a song called ‘Dark Star.’ That’s pretty much the story.”

Except, of course, that it isn’t close to being the whole story. In another interview, recounted on the band’s website, Hunter explained that one snippet of “Dark Star” had been partially inspired by T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but, he confessed, “I don’t have any idea what the ‘transitive nightfall of diamonds’ means. It sounded good at the time. It brings up something that you can see.”

At first, the Grateful Dead envisioned “Dark Star” as a taut, rather briskly played tune structured around a rather seductive repeating guitar figure from Garcia. They first recorded it in late 1967 as a studio single, running around 2:40, that sold a whopping 500 copies. But the song took on new life as the group began performing it in concert in early 1968, ultimately elongating it into an improvisatory masterpiece—often lasting beyond 20 minutes—that incorporated stunning interplay between Garcia and the other musicians, as well as experimental flights of fancy that often took them far beyond the song’s root melody.

“Dark Star” first appeared in its proper form on the Dead’s 1969 Live/Dead album, where it lasted more than 23 minutes and segued into Garcia, Hunter and bassist Phil Lesh’s “St. Stephen.” Although the band included “Dark Star” in their shows frequently through 1973, for Deadheads—their fans—being present at a performance of the jam after that became something of a holy grail, as by the mid-’70s they had dropped it altogether from their sets. “Dark Star” turned up a handful of times beginning at the end of the 1970s, then they seemingly forgot about it again throughout most of the ’80s. In the early ’90s, they returned to it a bunch of times, and there was even an album, called Grayfolded, a collaboration with musical collage artist John Oswald, that stitches together bits of more than a hundred versions of “Dark Star” (of the 219 known performances) into one hourlong pastiche.

“Dark Star,” elusive, mysterious and glorious beyond description, is a cornerstone of Grateful Dead music.

Many have pondered the meaning of “Dark Star”—there was even a seminar to examine it—but there’s one person who admittedly never figured out what the song was actually about—the guy who sang it. Said Jerry Garcia once when asked, “‘Dark Star’ has meant, while I’m playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine.”

Definitive versionLive/Dead

Notable version: Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4: Fillmore East, 2/13-14/70

Paris Jackson Turns Brokenness Into Dark Alt-Folk Music On Debut Album, ‘wilted’