Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: January 30, 1978 (Listen Now)

Lazy lightning: that sleepy fire in your eyes. Is that desire in disguise?

By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


A quick review of the Grateful Dead’s 30-year performance schedule reveals a glaring “asterisk” next to the year 1975. Sandwiched in between 40 shows in ’74 and 41 in ’76 – and with an average of almost 77 concerts per year over their entire history – the mere four appearances the band made during their hiatus in ’75 represented a significant challenge for the Deadicated.

Enter Kingfish. Formed by guitarist/harmonica player Matthew Kelly – an occasional guest musician with the Dead – and bassist Dave Torbert, formerly of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the band was virtually unknown until Bob Weir joined the group in the fall of ’74, right after the “Last Nights” at Winterland in October. It was at that point that Kingfish became a kickass rock band and really took flight, playing 72 shows with Bobby in ’75 and another 35 in ’76 before he resumed touring with the Grateful Dead. With the majority of those shows in the Bay Area, including several shows at Winterland – most notably opening for “Jerry Garcia & Friends” on 6/17/75 (one of the four Grateful Dead shows in ’75) – for many Deadheads,  Kingfish was not only a satisfying substitute for the Dead, but a truly outstanding band in their own right.

During this period, Bob Weir and long-time Grateful Dead sound engineer Dan Healy produced Kingfish’s debut studio album, eponymously named and released in 1976. Lazy Lightning, the first cut on the record, was written by lyricist John Perry Barlow and Bob Weir, and immediately made its way into the Dead’s repertoire, performed for the first time on 6/3/76, the band’s first show of their comeback Summer ’76 tour.

This Week in Grateful Dead History features 1/30/78, the first show of the legendary three-night stand at Chicago’s Uptown Theater. While many of the Dead’s 1978 shows suffer from having a hard act to follow – namely 1977, the single best year in Grateful Dead history – the Uptown series has the band picking up where they left off the previous year. The outstanding, slightly uptempo version of Lazy Lightning closing the first set of opening night is a prime example.

Great songwriting often utilizes a figure of speech known as the metaphor. The songs of the Grateful Dead are no exception. Both Robert Hunter and, in the case of Lazy Lightning, John Perry Barlow, are masters of the use of this literary gem. In fact, because metaphors are so ubiquitous throughout the Dead’s repertoire, I have come to refer to them as “Deadaphors.”

Deadaphors were flying at the Uptown Theater on the evening of 1/30/78, and I’d swear I could still hear the echoes recently, as I stood on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway, waiting for my friend (and fellow Deadhead), Cindy, to rescue me from the frigid Chicago air on a single-digit February night. There, right in front of me, was the legendary Uptown Theater, and all I could think was, “The Grateful Dead played here.” 

From the dimming of the lights, the boys began with Promised Land and Dire Wolf, and throughout the rest of the show, we’re treated to such Deadaphoric treasures as, “The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean”; “Don’t lend your hand to raise no flag atop no ship of fools”; and “The seeds that were silent all burst into bloom and decay.”

Whether John Perry Barlow was aware of the 1926 Western, silent movie, Lazy Lightning, is a question that will never be answered, but I would bet “ten gold dollars” on it.

But when it comes to Lazy Lightning, we taste another literary seasoning liberally sprinkled within the verses of Dead lyrics: the paradox. A paradoxical statement is one that is logically self-contradictory at face value, but “upon scrutiny” proves to be well founded. Examples abound in the poetry of the Grateful Dead, such as “the blind man takes your hand, says, ‘Don’t you see?’,” or “Recall the days that still are to come.” And, then there’s the obvious paradox in the assertion, “I ain’t often right, but I’ve never been wrong.”

Lightning strikes Deadaphorically no less than eight times in Grateful Dead tunes, perhaps the most ready example being, “If the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will,” from The Wheel. But in Lazy Lightning we have a supercharged Deadaphor in that “lightning” is being used metaphorically, while the addition of the illogical adjective, “lazy,” adds a paradoxical quality to the term. Although my experience with lightning is limited, no bolt I have ever witnessed qualified as “lazy.” So, here we have both a metaphor and a paradox, a Paradoxical Deadaphor, if you will.

Whether John Perry Barlow was aware of the 1926 Western, Lazy Lightning, is a question that will never be answered, but I would bet “ten gold dollars” on it. Regardless, the storyline of this silent film provides a clue to solving the mystery of the phrase, Lazy Lightning. In the film, directed by the Academy Award-winning William Wyler (Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Westerner, Ben-Hur, and Funny Girl, just to name a handful), Rance Lightning is a lazy wanderer who is arrested for vagrancy and deposited at Rogers Ranch, where he befriends wheelchair bound, child owner, Dickie Rogers. When Rance learns that his helpless friend has been victimized by a pair of hustlers – causing his life to be threatened – he finds the “sleepy fire” in his eyes awakened, rescues Dickie, and in the process lets loose another bolt of lightning in winning the love of the boy’s sister, Lila. 

In this story, and in the expression, Lazy Lightning, we are shown that each one of us possesses the passion to make a difference, no matter how lazy or disguised it may be. In this sense, Lazy Lightning is potential energy, to use the scientific term, which can be converted to action, kinetic energy, under the right set of conditions. 

A quick review of the science of electricity reminds us of the term “circuit,” or “loop.” In order for current to flow, it must be grounded. Being “grounded” in our passions is what completes the circuit and moves us to take action. In Rance’s case, witnessing an injustice sparked the conversion of a lazy vagrant into a superhero.

The key to completing the circuit and unleashing the lightning lying dormant within us is to “find the proper potion to kinda capture your emotion.” That, of course, is a very personal matter, as the “proper potion” is different for everyone. For me, it is a complex cocktail of athletic, musical, intellectual, artistic and interpersonal pursuits. What are the ingredients that electrify you and complete your loop of lazy lightning? Find them, embrace them, nurture them, and you will shed the disguise hiding your desire.

Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: January 30, 1978 (Listen Now)

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