1970’s American Beauty is the only Grateful Dead album I own, and the only one I’ve ever wanted to own. While I’m sure the Dead have many treasures in their discography, I’ve never had the urge to dig any deeper, largely due to my general aversion to jam bands.
American Beauty, though, is a deserved classic. The opening trio of ‘Box of Rain,’ ‘Friend of the Devil’ and ‘Sugar Magnolia’ alone puts it up there alongside the great folk rock albums of the era.
Today’s song is the album’s penultimate track, a lovely lullaby featuring the band’s signature harmonies.
I stumbled across a message board post from the 90s in which a student recounted her experience writing a paper about this song for her English class. Somebody suggested she reach out to the song’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, to ask his thoughts on the text. TO her surprise, he replied within just a few hours.
Here’s what he wrote:
I guess I have to give the stock answer: if I could say it in prose I wouldn’t need to write the song. Poetry is evocative – it’s meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience.
I guess the best I could say is that “you flew to me” is an affirmation of the concept of grace –
No, this is not a song about being stoned. It’s a song about the soul.
In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me
I have spent my life
Seeking all that’s still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play
You played to me
In the book of love’s own dream
Where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days
And all my lights grow old
When I had no wings to fly
You flew to me
In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me
As with other cult/stoner bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, my reflexive presumption as a teenager and even young adult about the Grateful Dead was to assume I wouldn’t like their music unless I too were high. However, the truth is the stoners generally knew what they were talking about and all three bands have some very strong material, most of which can be appreciated while perfectly sober.
I only recently started listening to some Grateful Dead when John Mayer joined the band and they rebranded themselves as Dead and Co. I follow a couple John Mayer fan accounts that mostly just post his guitar solos from different performances throughout the years. The occasional Dead song slips through the mix such as “Althea” or “China Cat Sunflower” and I always enjoy the songs I hear from them. I don’t think I’ll be calling myself a Dead Head soon but I see the appeal. Not a huge fan of this song of the day. Though the lyrics are pretty and harmonies tight, there’s a level of monotony to it that I don’t love! If Mayer added a guitar solo to it, it would definitely add a welcome flare that would make me enjoy it more!
The attics of a person’s life could be a reference to looking back at your younger self, or an attic can be used to store things, like a person’s memory. This song is full of vivid images like, “cloudy dreams”, “tastes no tongue can know” and “lights no eye can see”. This song contains a group of unlikely scenarios such as, “When there was no ear to hear You sang to me, I have spent my life Seeking all that’s still unsung, Bent my ear to hear the tune, And closed my eyes to see, When there were no strings to play You played to me.” Hunter wrote, “When I had no wings to fly You flew to me” and these words say love or desire to be with someone making this a spiritual song, almost hymn-like exhibiting the concept of grace.