By Nate Lapointe

Fire On the Mountain, Literally

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. Finding a term for the event that took place in Portland, Oregon, on June 12, 1980, can be challenging. That night, the Grateful Dead performed a show at the Portland Memorial Coliseum. The show started at 7:05pm. Following the set break, set two began with “Drums” >“Scarlet Begonias”>”Fire On the Mountain.” At 9:18 p.m., during “Fire,” Mount St. Helens erupted just 74 miles away.

Ok, how did this happen? Being the closest major city to Mount St. Helens (Washington), Portland certainly had other events happening that Thursday evening. If you’re reading this column, you likely agree that there were few things more special than attending a Grateful Dead concert. You could probably submit 850 words to Scrib just on the magic you felt each time you were in the room with Jerry Garcia. Add in the fact that there was literally a fire on a mountain 74 miles away at the precise moment the Dead played “Fire on the Mountain,” and you might term 6/12/80 as cosmic. In A Long Strange Trip, Dennis McNally, who is also the editor of this column, said about the event, “They were also still righteously in touch with whatever peculiar ethos it was that made them who they were.”

I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time this word would apply to this band. The aforementioned author in the same book describes a rainy night in early 1977 in which Robert Hunter was inspired by a lightning strike on the San Francisco Bay to begin writing what was to become “Lady with a Fan,” the first part of the “Terrapin Suite.” At that same moment, Garcia happened to be driving back to Marin over the Richmond Bridge, just minutes from Hunter’s home, when he heard a song in his head. He got home that night, wrote down the tune, and went to China Camp the next day to see Hunter. Hunter showed him his work and Garcia was able to match his tune to the first, second, and last pages of Hunter’s writings. McNally writes, “Very quickly, they had a new tune, if a majestic, rolling, near-symphony can be called a tune.” Cosmic.

But “Fire on the Mountain” was in regular rotation at the time, getting played every three to five shows. And Portland is a reasonable stop for a touring act traveling from Boulder, CO, to Seattle, WA. In addition, both Hunter and Garcia were very creative and hard-working people, generating content frequently. Isn’t it possible “Terrapin” wasn’t the first time they both had inspiration moving them brightly on the same date? Coincidence. That’s what this is. It’s just a coincidence.

Mount St. Helens had a more significant and catastrophic eruption occur almost a month prior on May 18, 1980. It is quite common for volcanos to be active for years following a major event. In fact, the same author quotes Kreutzmann about the event saying, “…I knew it was gonna happen.” It had been five shows since they’d last performed “Fire.” Maybe they were saving it for when they got near the volcano? As far as the “Terrapin” legend stands, has anyone ever heard Garcia tell a story? He’s great at it. Maybe too good. Did he ever exaggerate? Possibly. Were tall tales part of the Grateful Dead’s existence? Likely. Conspiracy. I’m convinced now, this whole thing is just a conspiracy.

Gosh, that’s no fun. Conspiracy theories take all the charm out of the stories they rebut. Coincidence makes sense because I’ve experienced it. In Cubensis, I recall performing a show on November 11, 2011. 11/11/11. Yes, we noticed it and planned on playing “The Eleven” that night. However, without a setlist in hand, we just didn’t know when in the set we would bust it out. Our production man Johnny Murchison had a projector and a screen at this show in Long Beach and had projected a clock so that folks could see when it turned 11:11pm. As we jammed out of “Fire on the Mountain” it was clear that we weren’t going to reprise the “Scarlet” riff as usual as our leader Craig had other plans. He began to noodle into “The Eleven” and we all caught on and hit it with him as the clock struck 11:11 exactly. The clock was at our backs, we couldn’t see it. We didn’t plan that, it was coincidental.

Or was it? At that point in our existence, that exact lineup had been together for six or seven years, performing hundreds of shows. Maybe collectively we all decided to alter our “Fire” arrangement and get into “The Eleven.” All I know is that it was a natural progression. Yep, it was cosmic.

I should add that during the second instrumental of that “Fire on the Mountain” from 6/12/80, Jerry is playing some explosive  sixteenth note riffs unlike any other version I’d heard before. Maybe HE triggered the eruption. You decide…cosmic, coincidence, conspiracy, or Jerry’s doing?

Nate LaPointe is a member of Cubensis, SoCal’s premier Grateful Dead music experience. In addition, Nate has worked with many artists including Bobby Womack, Vince Welnick, and Selena Gomez. Nate currently resides in Redondo Beach, CA where he performs, teaches, and records music.