All I know is something like a bird within him sang
All I know he sang a little while and then flew on
That’s how Phil Lesh sings Bird Song these days, changing the song’s subject from Janis Joplin, as originally written by Robert Hunter, to Jerry Garcia, who died 20 years ago today, having just turned 53 years old.
Hunter wrote the lyrics soon after Joplin’s much more premature, heroin-related death and they are little more than an amazed reflection on a mercurial talent – a more articulate version of ‘Wow, man, she sure could sing!’ Their application to Garcia’s playing (and, to a lesser extent, singing) is entirely appropriate.
Look and listen:
From the Sunshine Daydream film of the 1972 Veneta concert, this is a sublime version of the original song that also lets you see the inspiration flow through Garcia’s subconscious, via his fingers, into the bright light of day, as he remembers Janis and paints her spirit swooping and playing in the sky. You don’t see that because he’s doing the gurning axe-man thing that rock guitarists do, or the choreographed jumping around that performers do, or the concentrated face-twitching that jazzers do; you see it through his psychedelic eyes and the waves of rhythm nudging his self-proclaimed ‘just standing there’.
The instrumental segments are musically very simple and, to a casual listener, uneventful: a jam in E7 that ends/reverts to vocals when the 11-note motif that kicked the song off is played. The rest of the band provides the musical atmosphere and Garcia selects the melodies and rhythms he feels/hears, somehow weaving a coherent, unique piece of music. You can see that’s what he’s attempting as he invents, builds, modifies, undercuts and re-works his own thoughts, both melodically and rhythmically. Did ever a lead guitarist engage so closely with a drummer? Did ever a lead guitarist produce such tonal range and subtlety from his instrument? Did ever a lead guitarist create such beautiful tunes? Did ever a lead guitarist derive such obvious, deep joy from his work?
There are plenty of examples of Garcia’s invention and virtuosity elsewhere (just scroll along to Dark Star for one, or listen to his late acoustic work with David Grisman for another) but this is my favourite, as it shows him simply as an artist in the process of creation: a thing of unique and, unfortunately, ephemeral beauty.
Anyone who sings a tune so sweet is passing by