If you took a listen already to Day Of The Dead, the mammoth Grateful Dead tribute collection which was curated by the members of The National and includes many of the most celebrated artists of today covering the band’s music, you might be at a loss to explain the inclusion of “Rubin And Cherise,” a story song done by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Friends. You have to widen your search beyond the Dead’s catalog to find it; it was done by the Jerry Garcia Band on their lone studio album, 1978’s Cats Under The Stars.
The album was a huge commercial disappointment, but it was nonetheless one that Garcia maintained was a favorite of his in later interviews. “Ruben And Cherise” opens up the album with a bit of funky intrigue. The music pulses with life thanks to bold keyboards and Garcia’s guitar, which, filtered in such a way to sand off all its hard edges, flows through the song like liquid gold. Meanwhile the lyrics of longtime Grateful Dead collaborator Robert Hunter are engaging yet elusive, challenging the listener to make sense of this modern musical myth.
Set at Carnival in New Orleans, the song features three main characters: Rubin, the mandolin-playing axis of a love triangle, whose music is so magical “the breeze would stop to listen in/Before going its way again”; Cherise, whose love for Rubin invokes suspicion that manifests itself in visions of death; and Ruby Claire, who shows up later in the song and seems at first to be the other woman of the story who has coaxed Rubin away from Cherise, at least until the layers of Hunter’s tale unfurl and make us second-guess that setup entirely. It ends with Cherise being carried away in Rubin’s arms, apparently lifeless (and most likely the victim of Ruby’s jealousy), the hair that she once combed so assiduously now hanging limp.
If you focus too hard on the story, you might find yourself getting a bit tangled up and missing out on the nuance in Garcia’s performance, as he taps into the innate sagacity of his voice. Hunter’s lyrics also hit home when you’re not worrying about wondering about who did what to whom. His descriptions put us right into the scene: “Masquerade began when nightfall finally broke/ Like waves against the bandstand dancers broke.” And all of the machinations of the characters pale next to the wisdom of the narrator’s summation: “The truth of love an unsung song must tell/ The course of love must follow blind/ Without a look behind.”
That last line seems to suggest that those in the throes of love don’t have time for regrets or ruminations due to the straightforward, relentless track of their ardor. But it actually paves the way for the final verses of Hunter’s complete lyrics, which went unrecorded by Garcia and show Rubin travelling to the underworld to retrieve Cherise, a la the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. As Hunter told Rolling Stone in 2015, Garcia’s reluctance to mess with a finished product led to the exclusion.
“One thing Jerry wouldn’t do is go back over and redo parts of songs,” Hunter remembered. “I’d written that extra verse for ‘Friend Of The Devil’ and he said, ‘Why the hell don’t you give me these things before I record them?’ And also the same thing with ‘Rubin And Cherise.’ I had some ending Orpheus and Eurydice stuff in there to complete the story. He liked it but he said, ‘I’ve already recorded it and can’t go back and do it again.’”
Hunter’s version may spell out the story a bit more clearly, but there’s something compelling about the unfinished nature of Garcia’s take. Besides, his lustrous playing in the song’s closing moments tells us all we need to know about both the irresistibility and impossibility of love. So if you’ve just discovered “Rubin And Cherise,” go back and check out the original by the Jerry Garcia Band and get lost in the wondrous mystery of it all.