“Truckin,’” The Grateful Dead

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It’s become a bit of a cliché among music fans who don’t consider themselves Deadheads to dismiss the band’s studio albums with the exception of 1970’s divine doubleheader, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but there’s no doubting that there’s a certain magic about those two albums and the songs contained on them that shines through without any need for on-stage embellishment.

That’s because the band’s songwriting was at its sharpest in this period, and “Truckin,” the final song on American Beauty, is a prime example of this. As with most Dead songs, Robert Hunter handled the lyrics while, in this case, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh combined to write the music, which was distinguished by a chunky country-blues groove and Garcia’s stinging lead guitar licks.

Part of the reason for the band’s improved studio work at this time was that Hunter was becoming more incorporated into their never-ending tour, allowing for songs that reflected on the band’s lifestyle and music that was more organically in tune with the lyrics. With “Truckin,” Hunter channeled the Dead’s life on the road with eerie accuracy, as Weir told VH1 in 1997: “We left some smoking craters of some Holiday Inns, I’ll say that, and there are a lot of places that wouldn’t have us back. All of this is absolutely autobiographical, all the stuff in ‘Truckin.’”

Yet the song is successful because it not only captures the revelry of life on the road but also its lonely flip side. Weir sounds frazzled on the lead vocal, a performance full of itchy energy that suits the lyrics. “Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street,” he sings, following that up with the world-weary ennui of the long-distance traveler: “Chicago, New York, Detroit it’s all on the same street.”

It’s also interesting that a band known as leaders of the drug culture unflinchingly shows the seedier side of that lifestyle with the cautionary tale of Sweet Jane: “Living on reds, vitamin C and cocaine/All a friend can say is ‘Ain’t it a shame.’” And they don’t shy away from discussing their own travails with the law: “Got a tip they’re gonna kick down the door again/I’d like to get some sleep before I travel/But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.”

The choruses, with Garcia joining in on vocal, release the tension of the music a bit even as the travelogue they detail yields endless problems. The up-and-down of it all gets summed up brilliantly in the bridge, which provides the group’s motto: “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me/Other times I can barely see/Lately it occurs to me/What a long strange trip it’s been.”

At the time of the song’s release, no one could have imagined how prophetic that final line would be for this band. Yet “Truckin” should be remembered for more than just one memorable line. It’s a great song in every sense, making it similar to many other standouts found on those two landmark albums, at a time when The Grateful Dead proved they could deliver studio material on a par with their legendary live performances.

“Truckin'”

Truckin’ got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin’ like the doodah man
Together, more or less in line
Just keep truckin’ on

Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street
Chicago, New York, Detroit and its all the same street
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings

Dallas got a soft machine
Houston too close to New Orleans
New York got the ways and means
But just won’t let you be

Most of the cats that you meet on the street speak of true love
Most of the time they’re sitting and crying at home
One of these days they know they gotta get going
Out of the door and into the street all alone

Truckin’ like the doodah man
Once told me “Gotta play your hand
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime
If you don’t lay them down”

Sometimes the lights all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it’s been

What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle you know she isn’t the same
Living on reds and vitamin C and cocaine
All her friends can say is ain’t it a shame

Truckin’ up to Buffalo
Been thinking you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go
Just keep truckin’ on

Sitting and staring out of the hotel window
Got a tip they’re gonna kick the door in again
Like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant I guess you’re gonna come in

Busted down on Bourbon Street
Set up like a bowling pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearing thin
They just won’t let you be

You’re sick of hanging around, you’d like to travel
Get tired of travelling you want to settle down
I guess they can’t revoke your soul for trying
Get out of the door, light out and look all around

Sometimes the lights all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it’s been

Truckin’ I’m a going home
Whoa, whoa, baby, back where I belong
Back home, sit down and patch my bones
And get back truckin’ on

Lyrics By Robert Hunter, Music By Jerry Garcia/Bob Weir/Phil Lesh

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