Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Grateful Dead -- "Bertha" (1971)

I had a hard run
Running from your window
I was all night running, running, running 
I wonder if you care? 
I had a run-in 
Run around and run down
Run around a corner
Run smack into a tree

As I've said before, I'm not a big Grateful Dead fan.  There are a half-dozen or so Grateful Dead songs that I think are really good.  However, the Dead recorded about a zillion songs -- so that's not a great winning percentage.

(Have you heard the old joke about the Dead?  What does a Deadhead say when the drugs wear off?  "This music sucks!")

But if you're writing about San Francisco music, you've got to include the Grateful Dead.  Am I right, or am I right?

The Grateful Dead
I'm not sure what's going on in this verse.  The word "run" (or "running") is in seven of its eight lines.  (The line that's the exception uses "won-der," which sort of rhymes with "run.")  What is the point of repeating "run" so often?

Asking what's the point of a Grateful Dead song is missing the point.  The point of most Grateful Dead songs is that there is no point.  

"Bertha" is a good song to choose to represent the Dead's prolific live output, and a live song is a good choice to represent the Dead's recorded output generally.  The Dead were first and foremost a live band, not a studio band.  

The band recorded virtually every note they played on stage, and they've released a lot of those recordings.  The performances that aren't the subject of official releases are probably available on bootlegs recordings.  

I've listened to almost none of those live recordings.  Life's too short, boys and girls.

"Bertha" first appeared on the 1971 live double album titled Grateful Dead.  (The album is unofficially known as Skull and Roses, which is what the cover art depicts.  The band wanted to call the album Skull F*uck.  Not surprisingly, their record company demurred.)

"Bertha" was never included on a studio album, but the Dead regularly performed it in concert.  The version on this album was recorded in April 1971 at the Fillmore East in New York City.  

The story is that Bertha was the name given to the large electric floor fan in the band's office, which was located at 710 Ashbury Street (near the corner of Haight and Ashbury) in San Francisco.  The band members, their managers, and various friends also lived at that address.

Apparently the fan was out of balance and "walked" across the floor when it was turned on.  What that has to do with this song is anyone's guess.  

Here's a picture of the inhabitants of 710 Ashbury in early 1967.

The Grateful Dead and many of their fans were heavy users of illicit drugs, which probably explains a lot.  If you were stoned, you'd probably more fully comprehend what "Bertha" is all about.  Of course, if you're stoned enough, you're unable to comprehend much of anything.  Which seems to be just fine with many Dead fans.

The lyrics to "Bertha" were written by Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to many of the Dead's best and best-known songs.  His most famous line is "What a long, strange trip it's been" (from "Truckin'").

Robert Hunter (1976)
Hunter was considered to be a member of the band.  In fact, when the Grateful Dead was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Hunter was included as a band member.  But he never performed with the Dead.  (Jerry Garcia once described him as "the band member who doesn't come out on stage with us.")

Hunter volunteered as a test subject for experiments involving LSD and other psychedelic chemicals that were conducted under the auspices of Stanford University but were covertly sponsored by the CIA.  (One of the other volunteers in that testing was Ken Kesey, who was inspired by his experiences to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)  

Here's "Bertha":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. "Bertha" reminds me of "Mother Bertha Music" the publishing division of Phil Spector's music empire--that was his mom's name. His dad died fairly young and his epitaph "To Know Him Was to Love Him" became the inspiration for Phil's first #1 hit, "To Know Him Is to Love Him", which was covered many years later by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in their "Trio" Album. A good song will work in more than one "genre"; e.g. "Walkin' After Midnight" by Patsy Cline or Otis Williams. I was at the (long vanished) Tower Records in West Covina and asked when the album would be out. The clerk said, "In a week or two, but there's a 45-single out now" and he pointed me to the picture sleeve 45 on a display rack, which I bought without hesitation. (It was worth it just for the picture of three lovely ladies of song) Before I even got it home to play, I checked the label, and sure enough, there was "Phil Spector" in small print under "To Know Him Is to Love Him".
    "What a long strange trip it's been....." As they used to say out in the other valley, "Fer suuuuure!"