This appeared previously here at Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) in October of 2018. It has been slightly adjusted to reflect how it will appear in my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1).
An infinite number of rockin’ pop tracks can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
THE GRATEFUL DEAD: Uncle John’s Band
Written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
Produced by Bob Matthews. Betty Cantor, and Grateful Dead
From the album Workingman’s Dead, Warner Brothers Records, 1970
It’s the same story the crow told me
It’s the only one he knows
Like the summer sun you come
And like the wind you go
Ain’t no time to hate
Barely time to wait
Oh, but what I want to know is
Where does the time go?
OCTOBER 21, 2018
We try to hold on. We try to cling to things we cherish. We can’t hold on. We shouldn’t. We can’t.
When I was a teenaged college student matriculatin’ my way through the late ’70s, I actively loathed the Grateful Dead. To this power-poppin’ punk rocker, the Dead’s music, image, and interminably jamming vibe were anathema. Gimme the Ramones. Gimme the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, the Flashcubes. Gimme British Invasion. Gimme the Monkees. Gimme something short ‘n’ sharp, fast ‘n’ catchy, and play it loud. Gimme some truth. The Grateful Dead? No. Thanks anyway, but no.
Nonetheless, somewhere in this time frame, I heard the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” Maybe not for the first time–it was, after all, released way back in 1970, the lead-off track on the Workingman’s Dead album, and some radio station somewhere must have played it within my sovereign air space–but maybe for the first time that mattered. I still found time to hate the Grateful Dead. I made an exception for “Uncle John’s Band.”
Why? There was something…inviting about the track. I dunno. Something comforting, something pretty, something intrinsically appealing on a deeper level. Something that mattered. By the early ’80s, I quipped that “Uncle John’s Band” was a great track, and that I just wished it was by the Hollies instead of the Dead. I think I said the same thing about Van Halen‘s “Dance The Night Away” and “Lorelei” by Styx, in each case ripping off something I’d once read in Phonograph Record Magazine about “Cherry Baby” by Starz. Collectively, these were the beginnings of my eventual conviction that even a band you despise might be capable of putting out one track you adore.
I grew up. I’m sure I have that in writing somewhere. I graduated from college in 1980, got married in 1984, and became father to a newborn baby girl in 1995. Now, that baby girl is herself a college graduate, herself deep into the process of growing up. And today, she’s moving out of our house. She’ll be close by–not even ten minutes away–and she’ll still carpool to work with her mother during the week. I’m sure I’ll see her often. It’s a good thing, a great thing. A necessary thing. Our pride in our daughter far outshines the fragile nature of our emotions. It is a moment to celebrate. My eyes sting just the same. Where does the time go?
She and her boyfriend are moving into the house where I lived from 1960 until 1980, birth to graduation. My mother’s house. Mom doesn’t live there anymore. Dad passed away in 2012, and my sister (who lives in England) bought the house to keep it in the family as the inevitable marched its odious way in our direction. The inevitable happened faster than anticipated, as my mother fell at home in December of 2017. It soon became apparent that she could no longer live on her own, and she relocated permanently to a nursing home facility by the end of 2017. Ain’t no time to hate. Barely time to wait.
I see Mom every day after work. I check in, I chat, I see if there’s anything she needs, anything I can do for her. I get her audio books, even though her hearing is diminished. I make sure her TV is working, even though she’s now legally blind. I get her to the few doctor’s appointments that aren’t handled on the premises. I check her mail. I handle her accounts. I make sure she’s adequately stocked with whatever is appropriate to keep her as comfortable and content as we can. And then I go home for supper. I am Sisyphus. And like the summer sun I come, and like the wind I go.
I started to develop a little bit of appreciation for the Grateful Dead in the ’80s. Perhaps to my horror, I discovered that I loved their 1987 MTV hit “Touch Of Grey,” and I felt compelled to purchase both their then-current LP In The Dark and the greatest-hits set Skeletons In The Closet. The ’67 psychedelic rocker “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” became another fave rave, much later joined by another debut album track called “Cream Puff War,” plus “Can’t Come Down,” an earlier track dating from when the Dead were billed as the Warlocks. Cool stuff, all of this.
“Uncle John’s Band” remained the kingpin. Such a mystically comforting track, even as we feel time slipping away, the sands within its hourglass dropping at a rate too rapid to comprehend. Come hear Uncle John’s band playing to the tide/Come with me or go alone, he’s come to take his children home. Magnificent sadness, magnificent glory. In spite of the obvious fact that it really doesn’t sound anything like the Kinks, it is somehow a peer to the peerless music of my favorite Kinks album, The Village Green Preservation Society. At 18 or 19, I never envisioned myself speaking glowingly of the Grateful Dead alongside the Kinks. At 18 or 19, I never envisioned the melancholy ache of the question: Where does the time go?
Tomorrow, I’m going to help my daughter install some smoke detectors in her new abode. I’ll see my Mom tonight, like every night. I’ll eat supper with my wife in a house that will seem emptier than it did just a moment ago. I will hold her close. We first met forty years ago this weekend. My roommate at the time was into the Grateful Dead, and he vowed to make a Deadhead out of me. It never happened, except in the ways that it did.
Well the first days are the hardest days. Life has never looked like Easy Street. There has always been danger at our door. Another singing group tried to tell us that all we’d need was love. We also need to be strong. We need to hold on. Our walls are built of cannonballs. And we’ve got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide. We’re grateful. We ain’t dead yet.
POSTSCRIPT: Mom left us on December 9th, 2021. Time is the enemy. Yet it’s an enemy we’re grateful to have for as long as we have it.
“Uncle John’s Band” written by Jerome J. Garcia and Robert Hunter
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