Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Two Words: Dire Wolf

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf


The Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead was released in 1970. I was ten years old, but my oldest brother made sure I heard it right away. And so began my love of the music of the Grateful Dead. Dire Wolf was the song that won me over. I could not have articulated at the time what is was that drew me to the song, but I can now. It was the song’s folkloric quality. The narrative is steeped in the traditions and attitudes of the western cowboys and settlers. The Grateful Dead told stories of these people throughout their career, and these songs were not based on any historical figures. Instead, they were a retelling of an attitude. Women were idealized backwoods angels, as in Sugar Magnolia and Althea. Men were gamblers and gunslingers, but they were also loving fathers and uncles, interested in mentoring their sons and nephews about the ways of the world. That world would unfold for me over the course of many years and many songs. But Dire Wolf is simpler than that. It is a representation of how Death comes for a man like the ones in these later songs. Death is a menacing figure, yes, but he is invited in for a game of cards. The song’s narrator does not want to die, but the cards are literally stacked against him. Still the game is a friendly one, and perhaps it helps the narrator accept that it is his time. As a ten year old, I had no experience of death, but I knew at some level that the song’s theme was universal.

The mythos that the Grateful Dead introduced me to with Dire Wolf was one that also encompassed a wide range of musical influences. The song itself introduced elements I would recall years later when I began to learn about the traditions of country music. But the Grateful Dead also covered blues folk, and jazz, and they made an astonishing range of songs seem like natural part of a the world view that began to develop in Dire Wolf, even when the band was covering someone else’s song. I would later explore many of these musical styles based on these introductions, especially the blues.

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf (live, San Francisco Civic Auditorium, 12/28/83)

In my tribute to the Grateful Dead, I could hardly neglect to mention their influence as a live band. I actually never got a chance to see them live, but I nevertheless bought into their ideas of what live performance should be. The vocals on live Grateful Dead tracks can sometimes be painful to listen to, which eliminated from my consideration several performances of this song. But the song itself is a living thing. Each performance is a snapshot in the life of the band and its members, and so how the song is performed changes and evolves. This version from 1983 is far removed from the country trappings of the studio version, but it is still definitely Dire Wolf. Now the song is a rock song, with interesting keyboard lines that reflect a lineup change from when the studio version was done.

There is no purchase link for this version of the song. The Grateful Dead catalog includes a dauntingly long list of single concert releases from shows starting in 1966, and ending in 1993. Surprisingly, only one release, Dick’s Picks 6, includes a show from 1983, and the band did not perform Dire Wolf that night. There are no shows at all from 1984. If the rest of the show was as good as this Dire Wolf, this is a show that should be made available.

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