by Alan Friedman, Gary Hartman & Barney IssenHouston, March 1999
By the time "St. Stephen" made its first appearance on a studio album, leading off Aoxomoxoa in June 1969, the song had been in the Grateful Dead's concert repertoire for at least a full year. Live Dead, released in November 1969, captured the monumental version performed at the Fillmore West on 2/27/69 and revealed how quickly the song had matured into a centerpiece of one of the Dead's defining medleys. A fixture in the rotation throughout '69 and '70, "Stephen" was played out by the fall of 1971. One of the surprises of the Dead's post-hiatus emergence in June 1976 was the immediate revival of "Stephen" in a radically revised arrangement, which was heavily played for the remainder of '76 and throughout '77. Sporadic appearances during '78 preceded one last performance on 1/10/79 at Nassau Coliseum. Last, that is, until the mysterious breakout of "Stephen" for three performances in October 1983.
Before looking at some representative examples of "St. Stephen" as the song prospered and (arguably) declined in its time, let's examine some of the mysteries and myths surrounding its place in Deadhead lore. Discerning aficionados of '60s rock will note the similarity of the instrumental intro of "St. Stephen" and the defining riff of Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers of America." Regarding the latter, songwriter Paul Kantner in the liner notes to the 1987 Airplane compilation 2400 Fulton Street attributes the riff to an old fiddle lick. One might speculate, then, that the two songs share a common heritage in the bluegrass music assimilated by Garcia and Kanter early in their respective careers. As to St. Stephen specifically, David Gans reports a conversation with Phil Lesh in which Lesh says he wrote the Stephen intro, based on the chord changes of the instrumental bridge.
That brings us neatly to the musical content of the infamous vocal bridge...a whole other story. In short, according to Deadhead folklore, the disappearance of Stephen from the performing repertoire is due to Jerry's finding the "ladyfinger" bride unsingable. Hearsay evidence includes reports of this explanation from such worthies as Weir, Brent, and Vince; but diligent research reveals no documentation of Jerry himself making this claim. Perhaps the best evidence is circumstantial, in that the most conspicuous rearrangement in the post-hiatus version is the waltz-time bridge with Donna joining Jerry in a duet on the vocals. Completists will want to hear 2/27/77, during which Jerry apparently forgets the waltz arrangement and reverts to the original version of the bridge.
"St. Stephen" and the other songs on Aoxomoxoa represent the first full flowering of Robert Hunter's songwriting genius. While only one of his songs, "Alligator," had appeared previously on a Grateful Dead album, Hunter penned all of the Aoxomoxoa songs. A number of the compositions ("China Cat Sunflower," "Rosemary," "Mountains of the Moon," "What's Become of the Baby") were seemingly not about anything - other than perhaps the psychedelic experience - and relied on imagery to convey emotional meaning. At the other end of the spectrum, "Dupree's Diamond Blues" reworked an old blues theme in a conventional narrative. A middle ground was occupied by "Doin' That Rag," "Cosmic Charlie," and "St. Stephen," which portrayed characters who might have stepped off the streets of the Haight - lovable misfits trying to wade in the water without getting wet or to go back home or to find answers. This is the surface lyrical attraction to these songs; the listener encounters characters with whom to identify and empathize. But, unlike more mature Hunter works such as "Wharf Rat," "Cumberland Blues," "Jack Straw," and "Brown-Eyed Women," the character-driven songs on Aoxomoxoa lack a coherent narrative. "St. Stephen" and its companions are slice-of-life stuff, journalistic snapshots of a particular lifestyle in a certain time and place. As such, one might expect them to suffer from superficiality and datedness. Fortunately, they do not because Hunter uses history, myth, religion, literature, old radio programs - in short, all the cultural allusions in his storehouse - to add levels that transcend his characters' place in time.
"St. Stephen" may or may not be Stephen Gaskin, a notable Haight activist in the 60s; but he is definitely Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the Catholic church, who was stoned to death for proclaiming his vision of the truth and for exposing the hypocrisy of the religious/political establishment. At a time when it was still possible for the Dead to see their music as an agent of radical change in society, the messianic reference is apropos. Typically, however, Hunter wraps "Stephen's" certainty of purpose with layers of ambiguity and doubt. Throughout the song, "Stephen's" mission is beset with questions: "Did it matter?" "Does it now?" "What for?" "Did he doubt or did he try?" "Can you answer?" Never a writer satisfied with easy answers, Hunter insists that the truth to the cosmic questions is available only in the "bye and bye," not in this mortal existence. The "answer man," the radio personality master-of-all-knowledge from Hunter's youth, makes a fitting pop culture stand-in for the almighty, to whom "Stephen" will ultimately answer.
The cautionary note is plain for listeners who, having gained a personal vision of truth through drugs, meditation, music, or what have you, might attempt to privilege that personal "truth" over others' perception of reality. But, as with other songs in which Hunter displays his delicate sense of irony (see "Casey Jones"), the subtlety may have been largely lost on both audience and band. Who among us can forget the fans who had "too much too fast" screaming for "CaseyfuckinJones!!!" or "St. Steeephen!!" during the quiet parts of a show? And who, really, can blame them? Garcia and his musical collaborators gave their most anthemic, arrogant tones to these stubborn characters; and, of course, we love 'em for it.
Considering the plethora of undocumented shows in the spring of 1968, there is no way to accurately pinpoint the debut of "St. Stephen." There is a tape circulating as "unknown '68" which could date from as early as March or April and which starts at the tail end of what could be "St. Stephen" or a "Stephen" jam. However, eminent authorities (even Mr. Getz) believe that this tape dates from the fall of the year and that the music in question is the end of "He Was a Friend of Mine." [It’s now thought to be from May or June ’68, and catches the end of a Stephen. – LIA] DeadBase asserts that St. Stephen was performed on 6/7/68 (or 6/8 or 6/9 - the good folks at DeadBase don't seem too sure about this one). We can only be certain that, as of this writing, 6/14/68 is the earliest documented, circulating tape that includes St. Stephen.
6/14/68b Fillmore East, New York City. If this is a first, boy howdy, what a debut! This single-set show features an inverse setlist, opening with four minutes of fairly intense "Feedback" leading into a slow but powerful take on "The Eleven." Then, the time of returning becomes the time of emergence as our protagonist is heralded with the soon-to-become familiar instrumental intro, in this instance kept brief with a "Volunteers"-like riff from Jerry and matching chords from Bob. The melody line sounds stark and primitive compared to the tune that would evolve in coming months. The verses proceed uneventfully to the "ladyfinger" bridge, launched by a sped-up "lowered down, lowered down again" and proceeding at a lilting 4-beat tempo with Jerry pushing the pace and even attempting to drop a beat by jumping the gun on "several seasons." In the post-bridge instrumental passage, Phil picks up the "Volunteers" pattern in earnest while the guitars counter with a "Cosmic Charlie" riff, making it clear that this is a power version, but the band gallops right into the final vocals without pausing to jam. Suddenly, they've raced through to the concluding answer, which would appear to be "Wham bam, we're outta here!" But wait, the jam here is after the last verse. After "answer man" comes more riffing on the "Volunteers" and "Charlie" themes, then a quick repeat of the last vocals. Finally, the space gets truly hot as the band tears through an instrumental restatement of the "answer man" theme > jam > almost-"Eleven" jam > full-fledged instrumental treatment of the "answer man" verse > full stop. By now, seven minutes have elapsed since the opening notes (a length that would become just about average over the many times the song would be played), and a star has been born. While the song would never be played remotely the same - most notably, the jams would occur internally, not at the end of the song - there is nothing tentative or unfinished about this early performance. It rocks.
Note: Here's one of the true joys of the Compendium endeavor: discovering a delightful tape that you would otherwise never seek out. Our copy of 6/14/68 is a seriously skeevy audience tape, and you're probably not going to find a copy without severe levels of both hiss and distortion. But get it anyway; 18 minutes into this one-hour set, you're not going to be worrying too much about the tape quality.
8/22/68 Fillmore West, San Francisco. Where are tapes of the eleven shows that DeadBase lists between 6/14/68 and 8/21/68? By August, "St. Stephen" has gained a new component, the William Tell bridge, and any resemblance to "Volunteers" has been shed. Here the song appears mid-set as the first part of a 3-song medley. The intro is still short but is played faster than in June. The instrumental accompaniment to the "ladyfinger" bridge has evolved: behind Jerry's vocals Bob is strumming, Jerry is noodling spacily, and somebody (Mickey perhaps? TC won't appear for another 3 months) is working a glockenspiel beautifully. The boys experiment with the timing of the breaks, pausing after "spills" but not after "home." The "answer man" verse is followed directly by the William Tell bridge, which features deviations from what would become the standard lyrics. A tight jam with the intensity of a freight train propels the transition into "Stephen's" soon-to-be-favorite partner, "The Eleven." Is this a better "Stephen" than that of 6/14/68? No, but it does sound a hell of a lot better on an ultra-clean soundboard, allegedly remixed by Dan Healy himself.
2/27/69 Fillmore West, San Francisco. By 1969, the song had jelled, both in terms of its internal arrangement, and its position as the conduit between "Dark Star" and "The Eleven." Only "Lovelight" and "Dark Star" were played more often in 1969, and no other year enjoyed nearly so many "St. Stephen" performances. This is "Stephen's" prime - the reason any of us bother to read essays about his evolution. For casual listeners and veteran tape collectors alike, 2/27/69 is the defining rendition - if not the ideal toward which the song strives; for most of us it was THE version we heard when we first grokked what this saint could do for our souls. Individual 1969 reviews would be redundant: every version was strong, and despite constant experimentation with the "ladyfinger" bridge and occasional variations in the military cadence behind William Tell, every version was also similar. Collect them all; trade them with friends!
William Tell has stretched his bow till it won't stretch no furthermore. Deadheads have long debated whether William Tell was a final verse of "St. Stephen," an introduction to "The Eleven," or a song unto itself. Robert Hunter's A Box Of Rain: Collected Lyrics leaves little doubt that he considered this to be part of "St. Stephen," and the track markings on the CD releases of Live Dead, Two From The Vault, and Fillmore 2/11/69 would concur. The 2/11/69 release even includes the post-Tell jam within the "Stephen" track, and does not increment the track counter until Mickey hits the double rim shot to launch them into 11-time proper. The band, however, seems to have considered the sole function of this final verse to have been to serve as a gateway into "The Eleven," and the two were retired more or less simultaneously in early 1970.
1/17/70 OSU, Portland, OR. This is the last performance of William Tell that we could find, but "Stephen" also segued into "The Eleven" on 4/24/70, so it would be prudent to check that tape before making any definitive pronouncements. [It’s there. – LIA] This is a relaxed, sparse arrangement with strong organ work from TC near the end of his tenure and an extended jam between the early verses. It is also quite sloppy at times, however, noticeably stumbling during several transitions.
2/8/70 Fillmore West, San Francisco. By 1970 the prodigy had matured into a full-grown hootchie-cootchie man; and, while still rambunctious, "Stephen" could be trusted with the keys to the car. Since every Deadhead in the world knew and loved Live Dead, its signature anthem invariably sparked the crowd whether played (a) standalone, (b) as the takeoff point of a medley, (c) in the middle of a song cycle, or (d) as the wrapping of a musical sandwich. On 2/8/70, "St. Stephen" pulled double-duty in fulfilling roles (c) and (d). The audience, doubtlessly feeling no pain as the second set opener "Dark Star" culminated in a perfectly pretty treatment of the Feelin' Groovy theme, gives an appreciative cheer to the opening note of "Stephen" and is treated to an intro which stretches for well over a minute. The band, which has mastered the half-waltz half-march tempo, proceeds proudly and confidently to the bridge, at which point they throw a hum-dinger of a curveball. Instead of "ladyfinger," they move directly into the 4th-ever "Not Fade Away." Yes, the entry into the Buddy Holly cover is hesitant (it's easy to imagine Jerry and Bob exchanging "are we really going through with this?" glances), but the performance itself is decent if not revelatory. All in all, a neat trick for avoiding the difficult "ladyfinger" bridge - a tactic they should have perhaps utilized more often. And the return to "St. Stephen" is like a Swiss watch, to cop a Bobby phrase. "Stephen" concludes triumphantly before it segues into a more familiar cohort, "Lovelight."
2/13/70a Fillmore East, New York City. This version launches from a dead start after "Hard To Handle" with a tight, up-tempo intro featuring cute Weir rhythms just before first verse. The overall feel is polished, not the '68-'69 ruffian "Stephen." The vocal bridge is played with backing guitars only. Nice power chords after "spills" lead to an excellent jam with lots of Phil, and Jerry playing "China Cat" fills over the top.
5-6-70 MIT, Cambridge, MA. With the demise of William Tell, "Stephen" became paired with "Not Fade Away" fairly often, particularly in 1976-77, but also fairly commonly in 1970-71. This version launches headlong into "NFA" after the "one man gathers" verse. The "Stephen"/"NFA" marriage is consummated with Jerry playing "Stephen" figures over "NFA" patterns from the rhythm section throughout the jam, then a return to "Stephen" for the last verse, and back into "NFA" fulltime after "answer man".
5/15/70a Fillmore East, New York City. Here, "St. Stephen" sets the plate for the evening's piece de resistance, a long trip through "That's It for the Other One" > "Cosmic Charlie." After another extended introduction highlighted by Jerry's creative lead, the real sparks fly in the second half of the song. A rifle crack drum shot following "spills" propels a frenzied jam that inspires Jerry to some fancy fanning. The jamming energy carries over to the last verse, which is accented by tasty percussion from Mickey. Then, contrary to DeadBase and (regretfully) Compendium Volume 1, "answer man" is met by a dead stop. During a 5-second pause, Bobby can be heard counting down to the start of "Cryptical." So remove that ">" from your setlist, would ya?
4/28/71 Fillmore East, New York City. This is a special evening, as former keyboardist Tom Constanten rejoins the band for the medley to end the second set. His organ and various keyboard sounds, beginning with the by now classic "Dark Star" > "Saint Stephen" combination, bring some of the feeling of Live Dead and 1969 back to the listener, but also contribute to some tentative moments during transitions, perhaps because of TC's "lay-off." The "Dark Star" segue into "Stephen" is identical to the famous 2/27/69 version (and most that follow), with the notable addition of a loud roar of recognition from the crowd, as Jerry plays a sweet pre-intro which leads into a confident/proud/deliberate/strutting intro of roughly 90 seconds. The overall feel of the tune is a slower but more mature sound than the upstart, youthful bravado that typifies the 1969 "Stephens." The first verses are well sung, and the short musical interludes are likewise tasteful but hardly gripping. At the "ladyfinger" bridge, we are treated to Jerry singing quite well, initially with just guitar and tambourine, then cymbals replace the tambourine and finally the whole band joins in for the end of the bridge. The guitar has the perfectly spacey, underwater/tremolo sound of "Stephen's" youth, which has been etched into the soul of all Deadheads, but the boys have trouble synchronizing the first power chord out of the bridge. They play the chord a number of times, as always, but without the force and conviction of its heady youth. A disappointingly short jam ensues before the instrumental refrain of the "Stephen" theme and the last verse. Unfortunately, Bobby hasn't kept track too well, and starts the wrong verse. Jerry, who has the correct verse, laughingly convinces Bobby to join him. They wind up at "answer man" with nowhere to go, as the William Tell bridge is long gone. After a short (still less than 3 seconds) pause, the band launches into a fairly pedestrian rocking (but not jamming or spacing) "Not Fade Away" > "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad" > "Not Fade Away" to close this "reunion" medley. With the help of old friend TC, "Stephen" has enjoyed his little blast from the past, but he's now fully adult and "respectable" and can't seem to be bothered with the frenzied exuberance of days gone by.
4/29/71 Fillmore East, New York City. Perhaps inspired by the previous night's festivities, this show features a notable "Stephen" jam sans vocals, appearing in the awesome improvisation between "Alligator" and "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad."
8/6/71 Hollywood Palladium. "Stephen" opens the 2nd set admirably in a rare standalone rendition. Slow and slinky at the start, this version is muscular and forceful, like a tethered beast in stark contrast to the domesticated pet "Stephen" would become a few years later. Even the short 4-bar instrumental bursts between verses are in-your-face proclamations. Probably due to microphone malfunction rather than intentional song arrangement, the bridge is largely instrumental (and very effectively so) until "several seasons." A truly great jam follows, abruptly ending after "answer man." This "Stephen" shows a lot of vim and vigor, with absolutely no indication of imminent retirement, and the crowd is instantly energized.
The left-handed monkey wrench. After Keith's second show on 11/21/71, "Stephen" was set out to pasture, but the "Stephen" jam consistently found refuge within "Greatest Story Ever Told" throughout the post-Europe 1972 shows. Your authors compiled and listened to a tape consisting of at least a dozen examples of "GSET" as performed during the summer and fall of 1972 (kids, don't try this at home!). During the instrumental break within "GSET" in that time period, the Dead usually hinted at "St. Stephen," peaking with a full-out treatment on 9/28/72. Listen to that Stanley Theater version, but skip the rest.
6/11/76 Boston Music Hall. The boys brought "Stephen" along when they returned from their touring hiatus. Myth has it that Robert Johnson, having disappeared for a time from his Mississippi hometown, returned with such a newfound dose of musical genius that his neighbors decided he had sold his sold to the devil. Would that "St. Stephen's" reappearance after nearly five years' absence could prompt such speculation! Rather, "St. Stephen" must have been consorting with the angels, because he returned a well-mannered citizen. Why are we disappointed? It's not the waltz-time that's a drag, nor the fact that Jerry gets to take a lead after every verse, nor even Donna's appearance as a duet participant throughout. It's that the whole feel of the damn thing is so tame and polite. "St. Stephen" should be raw, rude, crude, and strutting to an anthem. When "Stephen" arrives in town, the people all complain; they don't serve him sprouts and granola. This show's 2nd set opens with the full waltz tempo of the new arrangement. The crowd responds with surprised awe, but quickly settles into languid stupor. The waltz-time "ladyfinger" bridge is downright syrupy. The extended solo is probably as good as post-retirement "Stephens" ever got, with interesting cowbells from Mickey and rare electric piano from Keith, but essentially amounts to little more than tonal noodling with a slight rhythmic shift towards the end. A segue into disco "Dancin'" then adds insult to injury for anyone who recalled the prior vitality of these two testosterone titans. Was this a kinder, gentler Dead?
7/18/76 Orpheum, San Francisco. In the midst of a legendary segue combo, Phil starts creeping towards "Stella" out of the "Other One," but Jerry gently tugs the band toward "Stephen" instead. The result is very slow and lethargic, even by 1976 standards, and marred by timing errors with both Donna and Keith prematurely launching verses and chord changes. A glacially slow and barely interesting jam eventually evolves into "NFA." After "NFA," noodling turns to absolute silence, then drums lead back to the final "Stephen" verse (blown on re-entry by Donna), which then unremarkably exits into the "Wheel."
10/9/76 Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA. To many Deadheads, the rearranged "St. Stephen" is the epitome of Dead-Lite. Having said that, this version is about as good as it gets in '76. Leading off the second set and sandwiching "Not Fade Away," it serves as the platform for a medley that constitutes the entirety of the set.
5/8/77 Cornell (Dwork look out!). The mature "Stephen," about to become part of what is arguably the most popular show of the late 70's, requires considerable tuning and thought before making his appearance (don't we all, nowadays?). Hardly the in-your-face 1968-70 rapscallion, about whom the people used to complain, this is a far more soulful and educated Saint. The middle aged "Stephen" begins with a nice up-tempo intro of moderate length, featuring the drawn out, lyrical, Jerry phrasing that typifies this famous era of Dead-dom. Phil is forceful yet deliberate throughout. The vocals, with Donna as a full partner, are on-key and in-synch, but somehow she just doesn't have the testosterone to speak for our hero. The instrumental break is now quite short, and the rather tame vocals bring us to a classic 1977 Jerry solo, where he noodles up and down the scale of the "Stephen" theme, to the delight of the crowd. The waltzing "ladyfinger" bridge is marred initially by Donna's false start (one can almost picture Jerry and the crowd wincing), but the duet is eventually quite well done. Despite the polish, it is still far too tame and has lost the wonderfully spacey quality that defined the acidified bridge of old. Jerry then restates the theme with solid guitar leads and the band is firmly behind him through the final verse. After "spills," the "Not Fade Away" drums kick right in with no jam. After a 16-minute romp through this rock and roll classic, the band finishes off the medley with a return to "St. Stephen will remain..." and the crowd goes wild. "Stephen," really an appetizer for the "Morning Dew" entree to come, is now more of an icon from the past than a true rebel to be reckoned with. The crowd certainly loves it, but it is nostalgia for days gone by, not angst, that fuels the fire.
12/31/78 Winterland closing. The previous show had been blessed with the first "Stephen" since the previous January, and our hero was again pressed into duty to anchor this legendary 3rd set extravaganza ... what else could possibly follow the long awaited 4-year breakout of "Dark Star"? "Wharf Rat" gradually gives way to the opening waltz theme, featuring tubular bells and gongs, leading to a forceful and stately extended instrumental introduction. The interludes between verses are majestic and joyous enough to overpower the exaggeratedly waltzed bridge and the blown lyrics entering the second verse. Thanks to an exceptional jam, with particularly strong work from Jerry, Phil, and Mickey, this version approaches the strut and swagger of a much younger "Stephen." Nice to know that the old boy could get it up when the occasion demanded.
1/10/79 Nausea Coliseum. The last performance of "Stephen" for 4 years, and its final pairing with "Dark Star," starts out very tentatively, then launches directly into the first verse with little fanfare. The leads are strong, and everyone in the band (except for an inaudible Keith) is "on" and contributing. This "ladyfinger" bridge has a much less pronounced waltz feel to it, with a subtle syncopated pulse and effective slide guitar work from Bobby throughout. Not quite as strong as the Winterland version two weeks earlier, this is still among the more muscular and interesting post-1971 "Stephens," with no hint whatsoever that retirement again waited in the wings.
10/15/83 Civic Center, Hartford, CT. In the middle of 3 appearances in 1983, "Stephen" steps out of set two space like an old friend. An extended jazzy, "Spanish Jam" / "Other One" improvisation produces a "Stephen" halfway twixt '69 & '77 - the waltz feel is still present but in a rougher, less polished form. The "ladyfinger" bridge is played by the full band behind Jerry's solo vocal, and the energy is maintained through a spirited jam after "spills." By the last verse the crowd is predictably excited and is rewarded by some nice waterfall keys after "answer man," as the band jams its way into ... "Throwin' Stones." Yes, the Dead's new Bo Diddley-inflected composition replaces "Not Fade Away" as "Stephen's" dance partner, but it's a short-lived affair. After one more outing on Halloween '83, "Stephen" would be left on the shelf for good. If you look close, you can see the tears on this clown.