Andrew R McGaan in Chicago
One of the Grateful Dead’s most beautiful songs, both musically and lyrically, is a love song, a sermon, and an elegy of sorts. Brokedown Palace was released 50 years ago, in November 1970, on American Beauty, the Dead’s finest studio album. It flows without pause out of the better known Ripple, extending a deeply spiritual sonic journey.
Brokedown Palace begins with a softly strummed guitar, after which the band’s three-part harmonies enter meditatively to carry things forward. Jerry Garcia’s biographer Blair Jackson called the pace ‘languorous, like a muddy stream’ (Garcia, 1999). It gently swings underneath Garcia’s vocals which in some performances are almost a whisper: ‘It’s a far gone lullaby sung many years ago.’ I sang it many times to my young daughter while lying on her bed as she fell asleep, at least until she was old enough to realise I cannot sing very well. On plenty of those nights, lying in the darkness, the lyric’s gentle blend of sadness and joy could make me cry.
The broken palace is our fallen, material world away from which the narrator crawls on hand and knee, a metaphor for his impending death. Participants in the recording of American Beauty remark on the mournfulness hanging over the sessions. Garcia, who composed the music, had just lost his mother, and Phil Lesh, the bassist, had only recently sat with his dying father. A key to the Dead’s allure, both on vinyl and on stage, was their ability to intermingle shared fears and anxieties with a numinous sense of purpose and hope, something the band members experienced themselves. Brokedown Palace evokes this magic as well as anything else the Dead performed.
The band excelled playing live and indeed built a prodigious reputation on 30 years of relentless touring. No two performances of any song were the same. The Dead’s commitment to improvisation was reason enough for varied outings, but equally important was its response to unspoken communication between the band and audience at each show. Unlike much of the band’s other live offerings, however, Brokedown Palace remained much the same. What did change was the emotional resonance of Garcia’s vocal timbre and lyrical emphases, as he and the band responded to different audiences and moments, and to the effects of their own ages and sybaritic lifestyles. Nearly all of 220 known performances were taped and can be found in the Grateful Dead section of the Internet Archive (www.archive.org).
The lyric begins with a goodbye: ‘Fare you well, my honey.’ Facing death, the singer sighs to his love that everyone has left him, ‘except you alone’. Then, turning to us, he sings of a journey into paradise, represented in the song by a verdant, peaceful riverbank. The chorus begins with a short repeated line, different each time. The first is rest: ‘In a bed, in a bed/ By the waterside I will lay my head.’ The next, one of the song’s two emotional peaks: ‘Going home, going home/ By the waterside I will rest my bones.’ And last, another goodbye: ‘Fare you well, fare you well/ I love you more than words can tell.’
The singer’s paradisiacal rest evokes our best known story of salvation which begins at the tree of life in Eden (Genesis 2:9) and comes to rest by the same tree beside the ‘river of the water of life’ in the New Jerusalem (Revelations 22:1): ‘Going to plant a weeping willow/ On the bank’s green edge, it will grow, grow, grow.’ The song says our lives and loves will come and go, but the river, whether carrying us to an ethereal promise or our own ultimate purpose, never ends. ‘The river will roll, roll, roll.’
The audience response to Brokedown Palace typically was a roar of approval and then reverential quiet. It never failed to evoke a palpable sense of shared, emotional reflection. A good example among many is the band’s September 30, 1980 show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Audience tapes (they can be located online) capture a raucous, whistling reaction to the band’s return to the stage for an encore, a spot where Brokedown Palace often appeared. Almost immediately upon realising what the band was playing, over two thousand fans became silent.
Performed live, the song’s other emotional peak came at the top of the closing verse when the fans were sent home with something worth believing: ‘Fare you well, fare you well/ I love you more than words can tell/ Listen to the river sing sweet songs/ To rock my soul.’ Biographer Jackson perceptively noted that Robert Hunter, the lyricist, ‘had the rare ability to close the gap between the performer and the audience in what was, in the end, a sort of three-way conversation about life, love, sorrow, joy, mortality, and transcendence.’
The Dead’s historian also alludes to the Bible when writing that Brokedown Palace is a ‘death song, but a death that is part of the peace that passeth all understanding. It is the death of the old and accomplished, an ending of dignity and serenity’ (Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip, 2002). That Hunter reached for something universal and universally felt is impossible to miss. He wrote Brokedown Palace along with two other songs, Ripple and To Lay Me Down, during an inspired June afternoon in London.
Hunter described the moment to Rolling Stone as ‘one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington’. His classical reference to restored paradise, to the promise we are on a road home, infuses each of these songs with hope in the midst of death. As he wrote in Ripple: ‘There is a road, no simple highway/ Between the dawn and the dark of night.’
Much of the Dead’s remarkable closeness with their fans came in part from their ability to sympathise and uplift, to be gritty, unstructured, and even wild, but always to touch a shared desire for the warm embrace of home, real and metaphorical. ‘Dreamy introversion of sentiment in the face of adversity… remains the signature of the band’ (C Brightman, Sweet Chaos, 1998).
When we are young we do not think often about mortality and what might come after our earthly life is done. But having children can prompt one’s thoughts to go in that direction. While singing Brokedown Palace to my daughter more than 20 years ago, I felt sadness over the eventuality of goodbye but also joy in the simultaneous promise of another embrace in paradise.
Andy McGaan lives in Chicago, Illinois. A graduate of Cornell University and Cornell Law School, he is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, Clerk of Session at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, and a member of the Board of Advocates of the Grateful Dead Studies Association. Between 1980 and 1995, he attended approximately 55 Dead shows.