Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime if you don’t lay ’em down.
By The Deadhead Cyclist
Among the prominent motifs found in the lyrics of Grateful Dead tunes, there’s none more omnipresent than the deadaphoric theme of gambling. References to games of chance – particularly card games – are sprinkled liberally throughout a seemingly endless list of tunes: Loser (“If I had a gun for every ace I have drawn…”), Deal (“Watch each card you play and play it slow…”), Candyman (“Come on boys and gamble; roll those laughing bones…”), Me and My Uncle (“You know my uncle; he starts a friendly game…”), Dire Wolf (“The wolf came in, I got my cards, we sat down for a game…”), and Scarlet Begonias (“In the heat of the evening when the dealing got rough; she was too pat to open and too cool to bluff…”) are examples that come immediately to mind. And there are also similar references In China Cat Sunflower, Doin’ That Rag, Mississippi Half Step, Ramble On Rose, Stagger Lee, Stella Blue, and Tennessee Jed.
But among all of these allusions to the fundamental topic of risk, perhaps the most powerful are those woven into the song, Truckin’, an almost 15-minute version of which is the highlight in my pick for T.W.I.G.D.H., 9/28/75 at Lindley Meadows in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
I was living in Santa Cruz at the time, and we began to hear the rumors a few weeks in advance: “The Dead are going to play a free concert in Golden Gate Park.” But even after locating a hard-found parking spot near the park on that classically chilly San Francisco Sunday morning, and walking several miles to Lindley Meadows, we still weren’t sure who would be performing on the stage that was being energetically prepared by a hard-working crew. After staking out our spot in front of the sound board, I made my way to the stage, flagged down a member of that crew and asked him, point blank:
Who’s playing here today?
His answer was both affirming and unforgettably comedic:
Don’t tell anybody, but it’s the Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead!
Don’t tell anybody? Really? You can put that one in the Promises I Could Never Keep file! As the proud owner of the only piece of information that mattered at that moment, I quickly made my way back through the thickening crowd to our perfectly positioned blanket and delivered the news to my companions:
It’s the Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead! It’s the Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead!! It’s the Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead!!!
The Jefferson Airplane emerged in the San Francisco music scene in ’65, the same year as the Grateful Dead. The two bands shared many stages and a countercultural identity during the seminal years of the Hippie Movement. In ’72, two members of the Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, splintered off to form the band, Hot Tuna; and in ’74 most of the remaining members of the band – most notably Grace Slick, Paul Kantner and Marty Balin – emerged as Jefferson Starship. That same year, the Starship released its debut album, Dragon Fly, which featured the hit tune, Ride the Tiger.
Sure enough, when the Starship opened the show with Ride the Tiger and sang the prophetic lyric, “Look to the summer of ’75/All the world is gonna come alive,” the crowd of 25,000 (remember this concert was unannounced) erupted joyfully.
The value of your hand is not so much a matter of the cards you hold, but how – or whether – you choose to play them.
Yes, echoes of the Summer of Love were clearly audible that afternoon as the Grateful Dead took the stage and opened with Help On the Way – only the third time the tune had ever been performed, and the second time with lyrics (the 6/17/75 debut at Winterland was performed as an instrumental piece). And as if a free concert in the Park with the Airplane (okay, the Starship) and the Dead wasn’t enough evidence that the heartbeat of the ’60s was still strongly thumping, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh approached the mic as the band was tuning up between Slipknot and The Music Never Stopped with an announcement that unmistakably evoked the spirit of the previous decade:
If there’s a doctor in the house, will you please come backstage ’cause there’s a woman having a baby!
About halfway through the show (apparently, while the band was peaking on the well-documented dose of LSD that had been consumed by everyone on stage), Phil introduced the Dead’s most anthemic piece, Truckin’, emphasizing its pronunciation (without a “G” at the end). At which point Bob Weir announced that he might not remember the words, petitioning the crowd’s assistance:
All you folks that know the words, mouth them real, real vividly.
The Grateful Dead’s numerous references to cards, dice, crooked pool cues, and slot machines are anything but coincidental. Life is overflowing with possibilities. Just getting out of bed in the morning is a gamble, as we never know what might happen during any given 24-hour period. Insofar as the Dead’s music covered most aspects of the human experience, it’s by design that so many of their tunes highlight the opportunity/risk duality that lies in wait “down every lonely street that’s ever been.”
We are all dealt a hand in life. Much like a game of poker, some of our cards are dealt to us at the outset – such as being born at a Grateful Dead concert to parents who were willing to take the risk of going into labor in a crowd of 25,000 people – while others are chosen along the way, like the one I drew when I followed a mere rumor that there would be a free concert at Golden Gate Park.
In either case, the value of your hand is not so much a matter of the cards you hold, but how – or whether – you choose to play them. Above all, we must be willing to take the risk of playing our cards, because if not it “goes to show you don’t ever know” if you’ll miss being present when Bobby couldn’t remember the words to Truckin’ because, like many of us in attendance, he was tripping heavily on that historic day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The missing lyrics:
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 better be goin’.
Out of the door and down on the street all alone.
Truckin’, like the do-dah man,
Once told me, “You’ve got to play your hand.”
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime,
If you don’t lay ’em down.
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