Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today we will continue with our third in a three-part series in which we examine how crucial some of the basic elements of music are to the Grateful Dead’s sound. The first in the series was rhythm. Last week was dynamics. Today is form.
Form is a musical term that, if you’re not a formally trained musician, you may not have heard. No, it’s not the thing you fill out at the DMV. In music, it’s the order in which things happen within a piece. A list of operations, as you might say. Intro, verse, chorus, etc. Kinda boring, right? Nope! It’s absolutely crucial. Just imagine for a second if I’m singing, I don’t know, “Bertha” for instance. I’m in the third verse of the song, “test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?!” And my bandmate goes to the chorus, “I had to move…” How do you think that would sound? The answer: BAD. Even if we are both singing our parts correctly, in tune, and with emotion, we will BOTH sound like we don’t know what we’re doing if this mishap should occur. In fact, when mistakes like this DO happen, we musicians, being the drama queens we are, refer to them as train wrecks. That’s right, if we blow the form, it’s the musical equivalent of a train coming off its rails and spilling its cargo off the side of the mountain.
Even though we can each recall times in which the Grateful Dead made mistakes on stage, not too many of them are form mistakes. They are usually missed lyrics or the occasional cue that goes unnoticed—things that can be recovered from somewhat easily without stopping the song. The detail and intricacy that goes into the form of a song can make it or break it. It’s a script that is agreed upon in advance so we all know what direction the ship is sailing. It’s a road map telling us where to start and where to end. The adventure contained within is why we all go to hear the music live.
Let’s listen to “Bertha” from 7/4/89.
If you have a notepad and a pen available, jot down what happens as the song travels its course. Your list should look something like this:
This list lives in each of their heads, guiding them simultaneously. But this wasn’t always the form of this song. Let’s go back and listen to the version from Skull & Roses performed live on 4/27/71 in New York City.
You’ll notice that after the second chorus, where we had a guitar solo in the 1989 version, they instead sing a third verse and chorus. Only then do we get the guitar solo. In fact, it’s an abbreviated solo compared to later versions. He only solos over the verse changes, not the chorus changes. In the 1989 version, the solo went v-ch-v.
As I mentioned earlier, these details could seem almost mundane, as if we were removing some magic from the music by even considering the song as an inventory or checklist. However, when the band is confident and trusting of themselves within the form structure, they are free to act more freely within the emotional aspect of the performance. Summer and fall 1989 are prime examples of the Grateful Dead being at the top of their game with their arrangements and forms.
Often, the form of a song could differ from the studio version to the live version. For instance, the studio version of “Fire On the Mountain” does not have a guitar solo between chorus one and verse two. Garcia goes right into verse two, “Almost ablaze…”
However, listening to a live version, you’ll hear a guitar solo both after chorus one and two.
Knowing the endless potential for improvisation that “Fire” presents, it makes clear sense why an additional guitar solo was added for live performances. The list of songs in which the studio and live version differ is long. The list of songs that had form changes throughout the years is long. My listening challenge for you this week is to find more examples of form changes within the Dead’s catalogue. Active listening will excite your membrane and give you endless enjoyment for years to come.