by Thomas Mullen, 1999
All of us can pinpoint monumental moments when our lives changed irrevocably for weal or for woe: weddings, births, arguments, movies, parties, trips, our first emails or rec.music.gdead posts. My life was never the same after January 8, 1979 at Madison Square Garden, the first time I saw ‘Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain’ performed. The visible joy, the reggaeish energy, the booming reverberations, have echoed in my mind ever since; indeed, this combination of songs has become my benchmark for Dead shows.
Alas, in comments published in one of the last issues of The Golden Road, neither Garcia nor Hunter recalled anything special about the genesis of this song, and we can only dimly, falteringly imagine the inspiration, early growth, and development of one of the most singable, danceable, memorable, and affirming Dead songs. But the performances we have trace a record of inspiration second to none. Separately they are beautiful; in synergy they transcend mere beauty to become uplifting and edifying. They complement each other in an enigmatic synergy; the former is very lyric-driven; the latter very beat-driven. One is an understandable encounter; the second is much more elliptical. One was jammed primarily towards its conclusion; the other constantly erupts into bright glories. One sings of 'I' but is extroverted; the other sings of 'you' yet is introverted to the core. The former promises, the latter delivers, the former completes.
After confidently debuting it on March 23 in the great year of 1974 (and just two days before they started recording Mars Hotel), the Dead performed it throughout that year (28 times in 40 concerts) and 1976 (18 times in 41 concerts). Now, inevitably looking back through the pyrolithic lens of Fire on the Mountain, we often forget how strongly, dynamically, and aggressively this song was explored and jammed during this period. But as my comments below indicate, many pre-Fire versions are exquisitely played and jammed. As for its lyrics, when we juxtapose them as performed by Hunter and by the Dead, we see Jerry's consistent erosion of specificity, for example Hunter's Bristol girls (to rhyme with curls) is gone, and the lyrics as the Dead perform them tell of a casual encounter, a narrator who wavers on taking a chance, and its uncertain results. With the exception of solecisms and missed words, these lyrics will remain constant throughout the life of the song, or should I say, its singer. About three years later, Scarlet Begonias was publicly paired with Fire on the Mountain for the first time on the enchanted Winterland evening of March 18, 1977. Thereafter, with occasional separate performances and infrequent trios (a handful of Scarlet>Touch of Grey>Fires and Scarlet>Victim or the Crime>Fires, the two songs were inseparable.
The known history of Fire on the Mountain dates back to a 1971 studio session (an aborted Hart LP) with Mickey singing a surprisingly rap style of lyrics rather different from what we hear now. As might be expected from an early studio version, the lead vocals, Jerry’s brief solo, and the backup vocals all seem to soar in isolation, without the layered synergistic interplay which later comes to characterize Fire. Also, this early delivery is closer to Hunter’s originals than the dreamy, Row Jimmyish verses we have all grown to love and dance to. In Box of Rain, Hunter himself tells the lyrics’ origin: composed at Mickey's ranch as local fires seared the hills and neared their studio. But as usual they are re-written in a characteristically more evocative, open direction sometime between 1971 and 1977. After this studio session, Fire smolders in obscurity until March 18, 1977, when it is first performed, hesitantly, unexpectedly, out of Scarlet.
Unlike Scarlet's lyrics, which recount a chance encounter whose passions are reflected in a game of cards, Fire is deeply, powerfully, positively problematic. Addressed to the long-distance runner who can't leave the barroom floor, who is almost aflame but cannot sense the heat, compelled to stay, the singer questions his motivation:
You say it's a living we all gotta eat,
But you're here alone, there's no one to compete
You gave all you got, why you wanta give more?
The more that you give, why, the more it will take
Fire tells of obsession and compulsion, of inability to look away from the flame, of aesthetic rapture which blinds to danger and continues even when passion has passed, carried on by its own internal momentum. Hunter's original lyrics emphasize the images of the encounter, and in fact go far afield. In particular, the third stanza chronicles the recording process, and the fourth describes a pig-roast. Interesting though they are, in concert they would have had two effects. On the one hand, the task of delivering five long stanzas would have vastly cramped the improvisational impulse, in much the same way that the lyrics of Terrapin Station, so beautiful, nonetheless are so imperative that there has never been a significant jam within the song, only at its end. On the other hand, the rich space of Fire would have grown cluttered with details. As usual, Garcia re-crafted these away from specificity in the direction of evocative ambiguity, much as he did with lyrics such as those of ‘Morning Dew’. As they stand now, it’s all too easy to read the band and ourselves into these ellipses, but the power of Fire does not lie in any mirror. Rather, the delight is in juxtaposing a song whose lyrics counsel moderation and caution with a song whose music provided the improvisational opportunities for such awe-inspiring creativity. We long ago crossed the thin line beyond which you really cannot fake. Below I would like to examine the key points to look for in any performance of Scarlet or Scarlet>Fire, and then present many examples.
Scarlet's Great Points
I encourage everyone to get the tapes below for superb versions of standalone Scarlets. In them, the great improvisational spaces lie mainly after the third verse (ending ‘to let her pass by, let her pass by’) and the final stanza (ending ‘the heart of gold band’). In all cases below, the real fireworks start after the lyrics have passed. In later years, these incendiaries became foreplay for the Everest-like ascents of Fire, and were all-too-often abbreviated.
05-25-74: Great 1974 version in an outstanding mix for an audience tape. Minor lyrical variations, good underlining by Donna, excellent keyboards. Jerry’s solo after ‘to let her pass by’ is isolated and short, but pretty. After the final verse, though, the entire band kicks loose for a couple of minutes with a delightful jam.
06-30-74: An audience tape more distant from the stage. Longer, meandering, less intense instrumental with Jerry and Phil leading and Keith providing the background structure. Donna is oddly absent from this quietly pleasing jam.
07-19-74: This version beats a fast pace all the way through the song, and barely pauses after ‘the heart of gold band’ before plunging into a high-energy jam which recoups the Scarlet motif for thirty seconds or so with the whole band in high gear (and great vocals from Donna!) before Jerry ignites into a searing solo. Phil weaves in and around him, and Keith brilliantly improvises. This goes on for several ecstatic minutes. A must!
07-29-74: The drummers and Keith lay a firm, soaring backbeat as Jerry spirals into several orbits. Regrettably, Donna is absent from this beautiful performance.
07-31-74: Delightful extended jam, Donna absent, Jerry and Phil leading. And this opens the show!
08-04-74: Played hard and fast, with a great jam at the end featuring on-target Donna vocals which open the gates to almost three minutes of inventive fury from Jerry, in which he throws off extended riffs from the basic Scarlet theme while the band sustains a fast, hard iteration of the song’s beat.
08-06-74: One of the most unusual appearances of a tight ‘Scarlet’, right in the middle of a spacey Playin’ in the Band! The abrupt transition into and out of Scarlet reward attention. It’s surely the last thing anyone expected.
09-11-74: The entire band rocks through this performance, and the extended jamming after the final stanza is raucously perfect. The backbeat is gruff and beat-driven, Donna's vocals are superb, and Jerry's jamming builds and elaborates on and against this background. Rocking glory!
10-14-76: Frenzied, inventive, long, and glorious. Jerry and Phil seem to compete to outdo each other in the post-last stanza instrumental, with the drums providing structure until Keith emerges from the chaos to guide the song home. I’ve listened to this exceptionally beautiful version and thrilled to it for years, even on my decidedly B audience tape; so will you.
As noted, Scarlet was performed on 46 occasions during 1974 and 1976, in about half the shows of this period, and the band had honed its performance down to a fine delight. Nonetheless, its bright, upbeat melody prevented it from achieving the gravitas accorded to Wharf Rat, Stella Blue, or Row Jimmy, and one might have wondered if it would eventually become a lightweight tune along the lines of Touch of Grey. This makes it all the more surprising when we hear these searing performances. And in later years when it almost inevitably led into Fire it often seemed foreplay, yet as the above dates suggest, Scarlet Begonias contains impressive potential and inspiration for improvisation. In fact, if the improvisational power and pleasures of these distant early performances had been paired with the rocking, driving dynamism of later years’ Fires, we would all have long since stopped listening to Live Dead.
Scarlet>Fire: What to Look For
Be that as it may, outstanding performances have abounded since 1977. Since my first experience of this on 01-08-79 I have collected and listened to every performance of Scarlet>Fire save two (02-07-79 and 09-26-80), and have come to the conclusion that only Dark Star and Eyes of the World are as varied and inventive. And whereas Dark Star flourished only for six years or so, the Dead explored, developed, and moved us with Scarlet>Fire for almost twenty. And, really, which one is better for dancing?
Whereas Dark Star has definite periods, and it'd be easy to listen to one and date it to within two or three months, Scarlet>Fire displays less evident evolution; the changing styles of a gifted series of pianists and keyboardists are the clearest index of change. And everywhere, from 1977-1995, we can find sterling examples of its grand improvisational promise amply fulfilled, which can hardly be said about even titans such as Dark Star. More to the point, its greatest performances are not be defined by mere time and space; instead, this is a piece of music which makes and follows its own laws of development and aesthetic destiny, and if we are to understand its power, it behooves us to understand its internal structure, and architecture of creativity. Hence, below I’d like to suggest the key moments to watch in any performance of Scarlet>Fire. After that I'll list and comment on some of the greatest, most mind-bending, most inexhaustible performances, in some of the unlikeliest places.
1. Scarlet: The post-second stanza moments are traditional for jamming; often this is where the band kicks loose, especially in the 1974-1976 period. Sometimes Jerry leads or jams exclusively; other times the entire band, especially Phil and Keith, feels the muse. But even in the post-1977 period, Scarlet still could shine in and of itself, as in 02-03-79 and 04-24-78. And see my comments on Scarlet for great examples of great potential greatly fulfilled.
2. Transition: There are two broad trends to note. First is Dick Latvala's favorite, the extended spacey, jazzy transition, as in 10-14-83. Other outstanding examples of this include 03-10-81, 05-26-95, and 11-05-79. You can listen to these and forget where you are on the tape, the music seems to flow inexhaustibly, from inexhaustible springs, like the Nile on acid. Second is the tighter, more rhythmic transition, such as 01-08-79, 05-08-79, 12-03-79, 10-14-94, and 05-21-77. In these cases (which, by the way, are easier to memorize and replay mentally ad infinitum), the ideal is an aggressively jammed lead out of Scarlet, exploration of its theme, and a slightly wandering jam which ends with a hotly anticipated completion into a great Fire intro. The best example of this I can think of is 10-14-94. In this second group, sometimes Jerry will cycle through a single musical theme multiple times, exploring and varying it. Other times, he crafts a single long, complex development, ideally with or (often) without the supporting embroidery of the band.
3. Entry to Fire: Sometimes this is slow, as in 05-21-77; other times it is hot and fast, or with contrapuntal wrestling, as in 12-03-79 and 09-13-91. Sometimes the entire band seems to instantly shift from a swirling flock of seagulls to a focused constellation of eagles, as in the awesome 05-08-79. For me, this play of anticipation and fulfillment is a pivotal moment of any show. Normally Jerry leads, but there are times, as on 11-30-80, when Phil and Bobby pull the show along until Jerry succumbs. And in fact, the intricate play of talents frequently foregrounds Phil and Bobby; certainly the entrance to Fire would merely simmer without Weir’s powerful rhythm playing.
4. Post-First Stanza Jam, which starts after the lines ‘Fire, fire on the mountain’. In terms of improvisational genius and intensity, this is the peak of almost any performance. Usually Jerry leads, sometimes in isolation with the rest of the band just repeating the Fire motif, as on 05-21-77, and on other occasions the entire band is exploring, staying close to him all the way. Ideally, this section features cyclic exploration of themes, and sustained development. 10-14-94 is the epic example of this, but so are 02-03-79, 12-05-79, 05-21-77, 09-04-91, and 09-13-91. Often the most intense moments of the night’s show are fiercely embedded here.
5. Pre-final stanza instrumental: main jamming. Two superb examples of this date from surprisingly recent times: 09-04-91, and 10-14-94. In each case, after the final ‘Fire, Fire on the Mountain’ iterations, the band fires up the theme again, and Jerry starts jamming almost in a frenzy. Some good examples of this would be 05-25-77 and 03-31-88. Unlike what goes before and after, this is often very free-form, with different elements of the band moving in and out of focus. But Mickey and Billy consistently craft a strong beat.
6. Peaks before final entry to Scarlet: 05-25-77: beautiful soaring peak, too delayed: only a hint of what might have been: infuriating. On the other hand, in 09-04-91, there is a similar rocket-like soaring just before a quick, elegant reprise of the Scarlet theme, but in this case it concludes a near-half-hour of passion and power nearly without parallel this side of the Big Bang. In most cases by this time we expect to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, and only on one occasion (10-14-94) did I start to wonder if we were going to take off again. So this is usually predictable, but powerful and poignant.
Why have this brief reprise at all? In a few cases, such as 03-10-81, it is absent, and the sky didn’t fall. The beauty of the reprise is its framing effect. As the narrator in Scarlet stumbles down the street, ‘the sky was yellow and the sun was blue’, and he seems as totally disoriented as the music is affirming. Against this backdrop, Fire explores obsession and the strongest passions beyond volitional control. As the chant ‘Fire, Fire on the Mountain’ rises in intensity, it can almost seem too much, and the song itself offers no resolution, and can appear as chaotic and lost in its own inner logic as a dream. However, the sudden reprise frames these flames in human experience, and anchors Fire's dark meditations in Scarlet's promise that life goes on, and everyone’s playing in the Heart of Gold Band. That’s why these few seconds exert such influence.
With this map in mind, let's review some awesome performances of Scarlet>Fire over eighteen incendiary years. As we do, it will be amazing to see how strongly these songs were performed even at the end of the line, when many people were starting to drift away from the scene, and when Jerry seemed to be in occasional decline. In fact, at least one of the greatest performances ever, 03-23-95, dates from the last six months!
03-18-77: This first version is notable for the uncertain, hasty transition into Fire and some lyrical imprecision; clearly they were relieved to find their way. But on the circulating boards, it’s very pretty nonetheless.
05-08-77: Rightfully one performance against which all are measured, this features extended, exceedingly rich jams from Jerry, outstanding Phil, and great work by Keith. As Jeff Tiedrich never tires of telling us, everyone must get this tape.
05-17-77: As fully mature and moving as 05-08-77, but without the former’s progressive, ascending quality. But tighter and more energetic. Long, lovely, and a must-listen.
05-21-77: This glorious show features superlative lyrical jamming from Jerry. Though on first listening this show seems simpler (and indeed slower) than others, its sheer beauty is incomparable, and encouraged me during the darkest days of my first mortgage.
05-25-77: An immensely frustrating performance where the jams are competent until the last ten seconds when they catch fire. Then Jerry dives back into Scarlet and abruptly chokes it off. Talk about coitus interruptus!
01-31-78: A long, jazzy, dreamy transition into Fire, a perfect, percussion-driven foreshadowing of many great performances this year.
02-05-78: One of the highest-energy, flowing, dynamic transitions ever emerges from a great Scarlet, and Phil seems to guide the transition to Fire. The jams following the first stanza of Fire are dreamy yet intense, yearning yet spacey. A classic!
04-24-78: Scarlet is played with 1974ish excitement and a long instrumental interlude that turns into its own strong jam. The mellifluous, riff-laden transition takes on a rich life of its own. Bobby and Jerry play brilliantly off each other during the intro as Phil and Keith provide the guiding beat. Outstanding jams everywhere seem to explore every improvisational opportunity; this is why we go to shows!
09-02-78: One of Dick’s personal faves, for its great Scarlet, extended, tricky transition, rockin’ from Bobby, and deceptively easy-going pace. The post-first-stanza jam is note-drenched honey from the entire band, not simply backup for Jerry.
01-08-79: The first one I ever saw, immemoriably memorable for its reggaeish joy, the long jazzy transition, cool Bobby rhythms, perfect singing from Donna, and the driving beat through Fire. The happiest night at Madison Square until the hierophany of 10-14-94.
02-03-79: For years one rec.music.gdeader has campaigned for this show. A great solo early in Scarlet shows the thrill is not gone; later Jerry plays contrapuntally throughout the intro to Fire. Good jamming throughout, and a sudden, out-of-the-blue jump into the Scarlet reprise.
05-08-79: Like riding a rocket! Fast, aggressive, yet intricate jams throughout. The entry to Fire in particular is lovely, as are the improvisations throughout Fire. One of the best!
09-05-79: Long, complex, pretty solos after the first stanza of Fire, strong integration with the whole band, and revisitings of earlier jams in this performance make this a densely structured delight. Jerry shines in several jams.
11-05-79: Famous for its length and extended jazzy transitions; truly one of the classics of this strain.
12-05-79: Rhythm and percussion present strong momentum as Jerry throws off string after string of riffs, keeping us in suspense for Fire to start. Worth the wait! Jerry’s contrapuntal playing to the rest of the band during the entry, and then his dovetailing into the flow of the song, is perfect. The post-first-stanza jam is sustained, sophisticated, and beautiful, even using feedback for lyrical effect.
08-17-80: Spectacular use of feedback and echoes during transition jams (not to mention Mickey’s cowbell), and an outstanding post-first-stanza solo and jam. And all of this follows an absolutely rocking Scarlet! One of the best!
11-30-80: Long jam out of Scarlet which intensively explores and builds variations on the song’s melody. As this is cranking up, the band starts a tentative move in the direction of Fire; Jerry veers away, not done jamming from Scarlet, and does not rejoin until Phil and Bobby have led everyone else into Fire. The jam after the first stanza is searching, poignant, and powerful, continually refreshed by the band’s cycling of the Fire motif. After the second stanza, another soaring round begins, with Jerry repeating and varying elements from the Fire melody until the band reasserts the basic Fire theme, against which Jerry plays for several seconds. An outstanding version.
03-10-81: Vigorous instrumental during Scarlet, a careful, structured exploration of the Fire theme after the first stanza, and long, leisurely jams thereafter. If you like 10-14-83, you’ll love this. No Scarlet reprise!
09-12-81: Fire features three solos from Jerry, in the usual locations, after the first and second stanzas, and the final ‘Fire, Fire on the Mountain’ reprise. Each is strong, tight, soaring, and exceptionally closely supported by Phil and Bobby. Brent’s keyboards percolate throughout.
04-03-82: Very strong Scarlet jam, reminding us of its inexhaustible depths. Also, the transitional jam has two distinct phases, one adhering fairly closely to the Scarlet theme, and the other jazzier. The entry to Fire is reggaeish and joyful. Beautiful instrumentals proliferate throughout, and this one ends too soon.
07-25-82: Notable for its jazzy improvisational interludes, prominent percussion, great rhythm, and its return to jamming when several times it seems to be winding down. This is the way it should be!
10-14-83: Dick’s pick for the extended, intricate, jazzy transition; more than once Phil (and later Brent) starts the opening moments of Fire but Jerry’s not ready to go. The anticipation is agonizing, and when it finally comes, the entry into Fire is a multi-layered delight, and the post-first-stanza jam ascends and just seems to get better and better. In fact, it never ends; the rest of the band rises to overtake it.
06-16-85: Well-known for some intricate jamming and strong support from Brent. Like many 1985 performances, very jazzy, roaming transitions.
09-15-85: Brent and Bobby springboard Jerry to some impressive heights in the transition and post-first-stanza spaces.
03-31-88: Strongly played all the way through, with Garcia nonetheless ratcheting up the energy towards the end; alas that this did not happen fifteen minutes sooner!
03-22-90: Forceful, innovative transitional jam, foregrounded keyboards and MIDI, which unusually expands and builds on Scarlet's melody. Great, heartfelt jamming after the first Fire stanza, and energetic jamming after each stanza. Very beautiful!
09-14-90: Excellent intro to Fire with lovely contrapuntal jamming from Jerry. The post-first-stanza jam is superb, with great, lyric soloing from Jerry, and full-throttle playing from the entire band, and exceptional keyboards. This dense, full involvement foreshadows 10-14-94. Truly this composition never got old.
08-16-91: In this unusual Scarlet>Victim>Fire, the former is average, whereas the latter receives a long, lovely, elaborate workout not just once but twice, in jams following the first two stanzas.
09-04-91: Fast, inventive, and joyful, with outstanding contributions from Hornsby. Great instrumental inside Scarlet, full of piercing, longing solos, especially after the first and last stanzas of Fire, bolts of feedback just prior to the Scarlet reprise. Spirit-lifting, skull-cracking, and superbly danceable.
09-13-91: Seldom has Scarlet been played with such emotion, energy, and inventiveness since 1977. The jam which eventually culminates in Fire’s fulminations is broad and band-based; Jerry leads but Bruce and Phil weave around him on Bobby's rhythmic support. The long, deeply passionate solo after the first stanza is one of the best. And then the same thing happens again after the second stanza! Indeed, there are longer Scarlet > Fires, but few better ones.
10-14-94: See my review of this show, the alpha and the omega of this composition, unparalleled for sustained intensity, improvisational inventiveness, perfections of solos, and band synergy, especially Vince’s aggressive support. Nothing ever superseded this.
03-23-95: One of the greats, following an Unbroken Chain and preceding a killer Corinna. Awesome jamming throughout from Jerry, superb keyboards, densely-layered all-band jams, with nary a dull moment. It doesn’t get better than this powerhouse on fire! And this is 1995!
05-26-95: Another long performance with inventive transitions and great jamming. This is widely regarded as one of the best late Scarlet>Fires.
Take a look again at the first and last dates on this and odds are you’ll be shocked. Full-throttle, evocative, lyric performances of this composition crowd an eighteen-year span, with scarcely a year passed over and some of the greatest and most intense shows occurring towards the end! How different from Dark Star, which flourished for a mere six years (1968-1974). In fact, over thirty years, only a very few songs, such as Eyes, China>Rider and Truckin', continued to catalyze the band’s improvisational genius for so long; other greats (and personal favorites), such as Help>Slipknot> Franklin and Terrapin Station, are often brilliant, but did not display the vast scope of improvisational resourcefulness seen in Scarlet>Fire. From the beginning to the end, the band continued to mine gold from the deep, rich veins of these songs. And even the few versions listed above show how differently the band could play the same 30- or 40-second segments of these songs over the years. Many songs have been played brilliantly; few so consistently inspired.
And so it is that Hunter's innocent narrative of a chance encounter and his elliptical portrait of obsessive vision have weaved around each other for years, like DNA, like white-hot binary stars locked in bright eternity, informing, interrogating, and finally fulfilling each other and everyone who heard them then and who hears them now. Their infinitely and endlessly varied performances promise that each time we hear one, we hear the others, for each iteration evokes, refracts, illuminates, and enlarges others in the mind’s ear. When we listen to 03-18-77, we hear the seeds which grew into 10-14-94 and watch them grow. When we hear the jazzy transition of 10-14-83, we feel it depart from and accentuate the tight, powerful structure of 05-08-79. Even a lesser version is often redeemed by its recall of others as we listen, compare, and evoke. On a personal note, my favorites over the years have been 05-08-77, 05-21-77, 01-08-79, 05-08-79, 09-04-91, 09-13-91, 10-14-94; nothing else the Dead have played has given me such joy. The glorious synergy of their improbable, intricate, saturating power has never failed to stir the senses and kindle the heart, which is why so many of us keep the beautiful melody and words of these songs unto infinity and beyond and then some.
This essay is dedicated to my brother Sean, who got me a ticket to 01-08-79, as well as my first tape, a copy of this sublime and savage show. Special thanks to Michael Goetz and John Coulter for awesome generosity in the sharing of tapes.