China Rider

The first Hunter/Garcia collaboration (and the first Grateful Dead A-listing – for Surreal Songs, back in the Golden Age Of Maddy), China Cat Sunflower had a suitably odd conception.

Robert Hunter: “I think the germ of [the song] came in Mexico …. I had a cat sitting on my belly, and was in a rather hypersensitive state, and I followed this cat out to – I believe it was Neptune – and there were rainbows across Neptune, and cats marching across the rainbow. This cat took me in all these cat places; there’s some essence of that in the song.”

He also said that: “It was originally inspired by Dame Edith Sitwell, who had a way with words” (‘palace of the Queen Chinee’ is a direct quote from her poem, Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone). With its perky little tune and many half-references, it has the feel of an obscure poem for children whose complete meaning has been lost over time.

Paired with it is I Know You Rider, a song first documented in Alan Lomax’s book “American Ballads and Folk Songs” under the title ‘Woman Blue’, which he heard being sung by an eighteen-year old black girl, in prison for murder. She is, effectively, telling her man that he’ll miss her when she’s been executed. They segued China Cat into a number of songs in its first year of its life but, for whatever reason, only a song with a dark heart felt right. The joy of the first song is tempered by the sadness in the second. Which is how Garcia plays it: fun, elation, sweetness, struggle and sorrow.

This is just background. My reason for this post is simply to share yet another of the presents I’ve received from Casey this year: this exquisite performance from La Grande Salle du Grand Theatre in Luxembourg on 16th May 1972. The 13th rendition of the tour, it is so full of gorgeous tunes; not only the standard riffs and melodies but also all the variations and inventions that Garcia dreams up throughout its course. With its subtly changing rhythms, Weir’s chord-waves and tune-lets, Lesh’s immaculate bass and some pretty convincing 3-part harmonies, it’s fast becoming one of my favourite versions.

The performance was broadcast live on Radio Luxembourg, introduced by David ‘Kid’ Jensen, so there’s a very remote possibility that you or someone you know heard it. I didn’t.

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13 thoughts on “China Rider

  1. Thanks Chris. I enjoyed this too. Might well have heard it before, used to listen to Kid Jensen on Radio Luxembourg, years ago. China Cat Sunflower reminded me of this oddity, but no music I’m afraid:

    I am walking down a road to the sea
    I can’t hear it or smell it or see it
    But I know it’s there -
    Red, gold, green, purple, blue and pink
    In the sunset, like it was before,
    In that dream I couldn’t capture
    But always remember

    On my left there’s a cottage,
    Like Hansel and Gretel;
    With lawns sloping down to the wall.
    I can just see over. The grass is
    Covered in slices of toast
    On each slice of toast sits a cat
    All sorts of shapes and sizes

    Black and white, tabby, ginger
    Basking in the glorious sun.
    At first I’m puzzled, but then I realise
    They are marmalade cats, like Orlando
    Regardless of their colour.
    Toast and marmalade, it’s quite obvious.
    I never do reach the sea.

  2. Thanks for the appreciation, especially from ‘not the usual suspects’. I’d love to get some comments from bish and others whose music I’m not always complimentary about…
    Nice poem, Ali. Suitably trippy! I hope you’ve seen the full-size graphic.

    Casey is, indeed, something of a little treasure.

  3. OK, here goes… Listening now. Nice clean guitar work at the start. Can’t quite get on with that rather ‘tossed-out’ sounding vocal. I’m finding it hard to hear/engage with the lyric. What is his motivation for singing about this (whatever this is)? What is his emotional connection to the words? I suppose what I’m saying is it doesn’t really move me. Because it doesn’t sound like it moves him. Or even matters to him much. Oh and now it’s getting a little too noodly for me. I’m getting a bit restless…

    Ah, I’m liking it better now the singing is back. This bit of singing sounds more emotionally connected to me. And the harmonies are nice. Although it all still sounds a bit ‘generic hippy’ to me. (I’m sure it’s not – they were probably just the archetypal hippies and I’m judging ‘backwards’ from having heard pale imitations to the original. Which is unfair. But I can’t help feeling I’d rather listen to CSNY if I wanted something like this.) Yes, I definitely prefer this song to the first one. It sounds like it means something. And the playing sounds much more ‘alive’ (as a result?) too. They sound more enthused by what they’re doing.

    Sorry, I rather suspected this might be the sort of reaction I would have! Have now listened through three times. I don’t have a violent reaction to it one way or another, to be honest. It’s kind of pleasant. If I was still a dope-smoker, I might get into it more. But it just doesn’t say anything to me really.

    • Well, thanks for listening (3 times!!), bish. We seem to look for different things in music, on this evidence. To me, this is a piece of music which includes two, quite different, songs; to you, it appears to be two songs with some noodling between them.
      You’re right, China Cat is not a song that has a motive or is able to ‘move’: it is a piece of ‘archetypal hippy’ whimsy (a la Sitwell?) and can’t really be sung with conviction; I Know You Rider is easier to connect with. Neither, of course, is here delivered in perfect form (a la CSNY), being part of a stage performance rather than a studio production.
      I find the music and musicianship involving and entrancing, whether stoned or not; the vocals are secondary (as with any music I listen to).
      There are Dead songs that I thnk you’d find moving but there’s little point in me keep trying to make you love them, is there?! I’ll just have one more go: the performance of Sing Me Back Home in this post: http://thespillblog.co.uk/2011/11/07/7572/. Failing that, I’m glad you like Ripple….

      • I was going to say perhaps I should have checked out the studio version before commenting – it would have given me a frame of reference. I already knew Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Sing Me Back Home” (with Keith Richards), but this take is much more affecting. I like it a lot. Lovely. Even at that pace!

        You’re right though; as a non-musician myself, musicianship per se doesn’t really grab me. Which doubtless could be construed as making me a philistine…!

      • So glad you liked “Sing Me Back Home”, bish. That was a relatively speedy version! Garcia loved a sad song, so I’m sure there are others you’d like. His voice wasn’t particularly strong – and was never trained – but he could convey emotion quite effectively.

        (The studio version of China Cat is more whimsical and weird than any live version, and there is no studio version of IKYR.)

  4. That was just fantastic, hit the spot. Finally getting a chance to get caught up with these Dead posts i didn’t have time for over the holidays.

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