March 24, 2017

Terrapin Station (Guest Post)

by Aaron Donovan, 1999

This unforgettable suite is on the short list of Core Dead: signature pieces that exemplify the creative talent of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia and define the band itself. The haunting melody is easily recognizable by even casual Deadheads and ingrained in the psyche of more serious heads, while its lyrics produce more vivid images than just about any the Dead ever wrote. An example of musical extremes, from its great moments of climax to sections of emotion-laden quietude, "Lady with a Fan" and "Terrapin Station" were two of the most powerful songs to come from the Hunter/Garcia juggernaut. Though it could be a tad repetitive and lyric-heavy when compared with the other Dead gems, this suite is nonetheless a welcome addition to any show in which it was played.
There were two overlapping phases in the life of "Terrapin Station" that characterize where it was placed during a particular show: The first from the suite’s fourth performance on 3/19/77 until 12/31/81, and the second from 4/29/80 to the suite’s final performance on 7/8/95. In the first phase, the band played the suite during the pre-Drumz section of the show, frequently using it to lead into "Playin’ in the Band" or some other familiar tune in the Weir staple, before moving on to Drumz. The Dead followed up "Terrapin Station" with Playin’ in the Band" 55 times after the 106 performances in the first phase, or 52 percent of the time. The second phase of the suite’s touring life is much the same as the first, except that the band dropped the post-"Terrapin" Weir interlude, and segued directly into Drumz. The Dead performed "Drumz" or "Space" after 179 of the 226 versions included in this period, or 79 percent of the time.
Throughout both cases, the suite provided a spooky vehicle from which the Dead could meander into Drumz and Space. The structure of the two-segment suite lent itself to extended, if structured, improvisation, and was often more than 15 minutes long. It was such a reliable bridge between the pre-drumz section of the show and Drumz itself, that the Dead never let the suite drop out of the rotation for more than 12 shows. Save for a handful of shows when the Dead used the suite to open the second set, after 1978 the suite almost never left the pre-Drumz slot. But there was one show in particular that makes the "almost" the crucial word of the sentence: the show given on the cold, clammy night of 3/28/91 at the Nassau Coliseum.
"My recollection of that show was that [up until the encore] it was incredibly average, uninteresting and short," said Jim Roberts, an editor of regional news for The New York Times and Deadhead since 1973. He said when the band got to the final song of the second set, "Good Lovin’," Roberts said he remembered thinking, "I can’t believe this is it."
Rather than perform a song out of the standard fare of the era, which probably would have been a soothing ballad like "The Weight," "Brokedown Palace," "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue," or "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," the band threw the audience a real curve ball that night, playing "Terrapin Station" just when it was least expected. The "Terrapin" encore that night made up for the bands mediocre playing, turning a forgettable show into one for the history books; it was the first performance of "Terrapin Station" as an encore in the 907 performances since the classic show of 7/8/78 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

But it was a set of extraordinary circumstances that led to the creation of such a successful suite. The scene in which the lyrics and music to this suite were written is fantastic: Robert Hunter, sitting alone in an unfurnished room, looking out through a picture window of San Francisco Bay, at an intense lightning storm. The Inspiration Hunter twice refers to in the lyric has a distinctly visual element. But even more unbelievable is that at the very same time, Garcia was struck by a similar burst of creativity, and incredibly, what the independently inspired words and music fit perfectly together. Whether it was the weather, or some unseen force beyond human control, Hunter and Garcia came up with the most mystical song of their career. "Terrapin’s" otherworldly lyrics provide an appropriate match to the eerie melody.
The lyrics to "Lady with a Fan," presented in eleven [1] stanzas of four lines, tell a fable of a foolish sailor and a prudent soldier who are respectively seduced by some kind of angelic siren and able to avoid seduction. The song starts out with Hunter writing a stanza to his Muse. "Let my inspiration flow / in token lines suggesting rhythm / that will not forsake me / till my tale is told and done." The music to the song hadn’t yet been written (or if it had, Hunter wasn’t aware of it), so he was stating in the song itself what he hoped would come of the words he was then writing. He also notes that he hopes the words will be carried through to completion of a text. Hunter then introduces us to the setting: A story being told by a fire. Ominously, he writes, "While the firelight’s aglow / strange shadows in the flames will grow / till things we’ve never seen / will seem familiar." It is out of these shadows that the form of a sailor develops, and in fact whole of the narrative emerges. Anyway, you know how the rest of the song turns out and what happens between the three main characters. In the end the old storyteller quietly closes his book, I imagine, and vanishes. But the story’s end is never told.
The next segment of the suite, "Terrapin Station" proper, again opens with Hunter asking the creative Powers that Be for some help: "Inspiration, move me brightly, / light the song with sense and color, / hold away despair." My favorite line comes in the beginning of the second verse, "Counting stars by candlelight / all are dim but one is bright." It may sound contrived, but for me, a person turned on to the Dead in the 1990s, the stars in this line symbolized the incredible group of rock and jam bands that came out in late ’60s. By the 1990s, all the bands of import had long since stopped performing or creating music of any kind on a regular basis — all but one, that is. There is a line that more aptly illuminates that fact, from "Built to Last": "All the stars are gone but one."
There is an ingenious line woven in the second half of the second verse: "Crickets and cicadas sing / a rare and different tune." Deadheads chose to apply that last line to the song itself, and in fact many of the Dead’s songs. But the line creates a great image. Hearing crickets and cicadas singing anything but the usual would spark intense religious fright or scientific wonder. This line leads up to the end of the song, but not before Hunter’s lyrical genius shows through once more. The lines "Some rise, some fall, / some climb . . ." seem to me at least to want to end with "some crawl." But that would be the natural, easy progression. Hunter avoids the commonplace, instead ending the second line with ". . . to get to Terrapin." The crescendo and climax in the latter half of this song is overwhelming.

The earliest versions of the suite, those performed in the spring and summer of 1977, were introduced by a pronounced, four-note riff played by Bobby. This riff, never performed more prominently than when it appears on the studio version, is present as well in versions performed a decade or more later, but it is never used to open the suite; when heard at all, Bobby starts playing it after Jerry has introduced the suite with his own signature "Lady with a Fan" lick. It appears that in the early versions, the band would actually plan to play "Terrapin" ahead of time, and so that way Bobby’s riff could be played simultaneous with or before Jerry’s. In the later versions, Jerry would unilaterally decide that the band would play "Terrapin," and would begin playing his riff. After that, the other members would get the hint and follow.
But though easily recognizable, there is a good deal of confusion about what to call the sections of the suite, and about when the various parts of the suite begin and end. Like "That’s It For The Other One," "Weather Report Suite," "Blues for Allah," and "King Solomon’s Marbles," "Terrapin Station" is listed on a Dead studio album as having component subsections that are sometimes considered separate songs, sometimes not. All the suites pose labeling problems for Deadheads, but none of them are labeled as many different ways as "Terrapin Station."
"Terrapin Station Part One," the suite, appears on "Terrapin Station" the studio album, with seven subsections including "Terrapin Station" and "Terrapin." Two of those subsections, "Lady with a Fan" and "Terrapin Station," appear on "Terrapin Station" the limited-edition live album (recorded in Maryland, home of the University of Maryland Terrapins), but are listed together only as "Terrapin Station," even though they are listed separately on "Dozin’ at the Knick" and "Ticket to New Year’s." Besides all this, Robert Hunter’s book A Box of Rain lists nine sub-sections to the "Terrapin Station" suite.[2] Of the seven sub-sections on the studio album and the nine subsections in A Box of Rain, a mere three, the only three of the recorded seven that have lyrics, are listed in both places: "Lady with a Fan," "Terrapin Station," and "At a Siding." Hunter in his footnotes refers to these three sections as "Part One." The other six must be "Part Two." Another "Terrapin"-related subsection, "L’Alhambra," is listed by Hunter separately, outside his "Terrapin Station" suite pages.[3] DeadBase lists this section (without the L’) as having been played on a single occasion: 3/18/77, Winterland Arena. Finally, a review of that show in Dead to the Core [4] incorrectly states that "At a Siding" is the same musical piece as "L’Alhambra." (Hunter wrote that "L’Alhambra" "evolved into a wordless melodic segment of Terrapin Station" — implying that it is a separate section from "At a Siding," which has its own words listed elsewhere in his book.)
Of these 14 "Terrapin"-related sub-sections, only two, "Lady with a Fan" and "Terrapin Station," were performed regularly. DeadBase lists both under the heading "Terrapin," but applies the same label to instances when either one of the sections was performed without the other. The only deviations from the standard "Lady with a Fan" > "Terrapin Station" pairing that I have heard occurred on 5/22/77, Pembroke Pines, Florida (digitally preserved by "Dick’s Picks Vol. 3"), when the Dead performed a stand-alone "Terrapin Station" out of "Wharf Rat"; the 4/13/86 show at Irvine, California, when the Dead performed only "Lady with a Fan"; and the "So Far" video, in which "Terrapin Station," if it was played, is edited out. It seems likely that there were other instances where one of the two sections were omitted.

Of all the live versions of "Terrapin Station," the most interesting is the third performance, the famous and unique 3/18/77. The version from that night is singularly important because it was the most complete version of the suite ever performed live. Rea Simpson and John Corley, in their review of the show that appears in DeadBase, write that this version "gives us a taste of what the album might have sounded like without all the orchestration that was added." [5] But how does that night compare with the studio version? Actually, it sticks to the basics blueprint of the suite quite well. Here’s a breakdown of the studio version:

"Terrapin Station" studio version:
Starts / Suite Segment / Ends / Length / Characterized by . . .
00:00 Lady with a Fan 04:38 / 4:38 / 4-note lead guitar, "Let my inspiration flow . . . "
04:38 Terrapin Station 08:50 / 4:12 / Crescendo, "Inspiration, move me brightly . . . "
08:50 Terrapin 09:20 / 0:30 / Spacey interlude: violins, tinkling glass, gong
09:20 Terrapin Transit 10:09 / 0:49 / Soaring, easily-identifiable lead guitar theme
10:09 At a Siding 11:03 / 0:54/  Trumpets, "While you were gone . . . "
11:03 Terrapin Flyer 13:57 / 2:54 / Aural roller-coaster: Up-tempo, dynamic theme
13:57 Refrain 16:16 / 2:19 / Return to "Lady with a Fan" theme; choral section

Luckily, the segments are easily identifiable, all with clear-cut thematic or instrumental changes. The first two sections are the standard two that were performed live. The "Terrapin" section refers to the short "Space"-ish segment on the album version. "Terrapin Transit" is what Eric F. Wybenga so accurately described as a "hair-raising" and "eerie arabesque" section. [6] It is marked by Jerry’s distinctive guitar, which sails up and down the register like a falcon riding an atmospheric updraft in the Serengeti plain. The "At a Siding" on the album refers to the brief lyrical portion late in the suite that begins after the theme from "Transit" has ended, and has a different rhythm. The aptly-named "Terrapin Flyer" section refers to the tempestuous melody that follows the lyrics, heralded by staccato trumpet blasts and racing violins. The final section, "Refrain," consists of a return to the latter "Lady with a Fan" theme with vocals from The English Choral.
Here’s how the only near-complete live performance of the "Terrapin Station" suite compares:

3/18/77, Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA:
Starts / Suite Segment / Ends / Length / Characterized by . . .
00:00 Lady with a Fan 06:24 / 6:24 / 4-note lead guitar, "Let my inspiration flow . . . "
06:24 Terrapin Station 10:58 / 4:34 / Crescendo, "Inspiration, move me brightly . . . "
10:58 Terrapin 11:12 / 0:14 / Indecision, Jerry holds long chords
11:12 L’Alhambra/T. Transit 12:50 / 1:38 / Bright keyboard chords in synch with Jerry’s four-note figure; then Jerry "takes off," at 11:53, with "Transit’s" eerie signature.
12:50 At a Siding 14:00 / 1:10 / 6-note, well-structured jam, but no vocals
14:00 Terrapin Flyer 14:32 / 0:32 / "Flyer" jam starts (Phil and Jerry alternating with drums), but band loses it before it gets off ground

The first two sections are performed as usual. Then, there is a 14-second moment of indecision, as the band decides to continue the suite. During this time, Jerry strums long chords and Keith noodles around on the keys. Then, while the audience remains silent, in rapt attention, Jerry begins playing an four-note figure never heard before or since and Keith brilliantly matches it. The two continue with the four-note structure that builds in volume and intensity to the soaring guitar section that constitutes "Terrapin Transit" proper. I have lumped "Terrapin Transit" with the four-note figure that precedes it because Keith continues the structure underneath Jerry’s lead as it is performed. I also call it "L’Alhambra" because it has the distinctive, four-note structure that is absent from "Terrapin Transit" as it appears on the studio album.
The jam shifts markedly after this section ends, in favor of the next section in the suite’s sequence: "At a Siding." This section is marked by its own rhythm and the same six-note figure that appears, nearly imperceptibly, underneath the vocals and rhythmic effects in the studio version of "At a Siding." After this, a few lackluster stabs at the "Terrapin Flyer" staccato blasts mixed with rapid drumming occur, but the band can’t quite nail the complicated rhythm down, and the last segment fades into "Drums." With that, a unique, historic version of "Terrapin Station" enters the history books.
Though this version is the most similar to the studio cut, it also contains several key differences. This version lacks the "Refrain" section, but adds to the suite elsewhere in the form of its two unique jams, the four-note figure that precedes "Terrapin Transit" and a stronger version of the underlying, six-note "At a Siding" jam. For these reasons in addition to the fact that there is none of that "overproduced" orchestration that accompanies the studio version, this version of the suite is different enough from the album version, and should be obtained by fans of Unique Dead or "Terrapin Station."

[1] Anybody who has read Hunter's book Idiot’s Delight will notice Hunter’s obsession with the number eleven. That book is organized into eleven chapters of eleven stanzas, each eleven lines long.
[2] Robert Hunter, A Box of Rain (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 310-320.
[3] Hunter, p. 5.
[4] Wybenga, Dead to the Core (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1997), p. 136.
[5] Simpson, Rea, and John Corley, "03-18-77 Winterland," in John W. Scott, et al., eds, DeadBase X (Cornish, N.H.: DeadBase, 1997), p. 370
[6] Wybenga, p. 137


  1. This is the 14th in a series of fourteen Guest Posts I’m adding this month.
    These essays were written in 1999 for a now-dead webpage meant to accompany the Deadheads’ Taping Addendum. The Addendum concludes, “For those readers interested in reading more from our team of crack contributors, check out our lyrical and musical essays on the Grateful Dead’s most illuminating songs.” A variety of Compendium writers contributed essays on various songs, but their webpage was only up for a short time before it was was taken down some 13 years ago.
    The essays haven’t been reprinted elsewhere (as far as I know), so they’re little-known today. I thought they should be revived in a more accessible presentation for readers who might be interested in them.
    I didn’t include the essays on song-lyric interpretations, or (with one exception) songs written after 1974, since those are of much less interest to me. The full contents are still linked on the Web Archive for those who want to read more in those areas.
    Obviously some performance histories are a little incomplete or out of date, since fewer shows were available then, but I haven’t updated or revised them [except for a few minor corrections]. The date of writing should be kept in mind.
    I don’t always agree with the authors – these are their opinions, in their style! – but including these essays here doesn’t preclude me writing my own posts about some of these songs in the future.
    More guest contributions on early songs, shows, or Dead history are always welcome, of course.

  2. Thank You for bringing these gems back to life

  3. Great, informative article I'm only just now coming upon. Thanks!

    Is the 4 note line the main ascending triplet line? I ask because I hear that line as considering of 5 notes (the pickup, the triplet, and the note it resolves to a half step down).

    As much as I appreciate this article I am left with the same "is it just me??" feeling re: Terrapin. I appreciate the ambition (especially coming as they slid into a long era without much in the way of compositional ambition -- or even just new compositions!! -- from Jerry) of the music and multi-section arrangement, but I find the lyrics a complete misfire; slight and aimless. It reads like a first draft to me, and I can't help feeling that the profundity that so many fellow fans seem to read into this comes from some combination of the persuasive grandeur of the music, a few aphorism-friendly phrases, and a general wishful thinking mistaking crediting a shallow strain of ambiguity with depths it does not possess. And I say this as a fan of many Hunter lyrics, it should be noted. ever, maybe it's just me! Thanks for the great write up.

    1. I hear it as a 5-note line too.

      Lyrically, it's interesting to compare Terrapin's opening with the folk song 'Lady of Carlisle' that was Hunter's inspiration:

      Hunter told David Gans in 1977 that he wrote Terrapin in a state of inspiration: "I must have written a thousand words on it, 8 12-inch pages, song after song after song... [Jerry] got the first page & a half and the last page set. There are about 7 pages in between that aren't set to music and probably won't be. [But after a fan asked what the connection was between Lady with a Fan and the rest of Terrapin Station], I realized that without the further development and the tying in of symbols which occur later, there is no connection." (Conversations with the Dead p.25-26 - see also p.270)

      Garcia talked a bit about Terrapin in a 1977 interview with BAM magazine -
      Q: [Hunter] said that he gave you ten pages, and what we hear is page one and some of ten.
      JG: No, it's page one, some of two, and some excerpts from stage three. I have two other tunes which we set and are part of Terrapin, which we'll probably perform.
      Actually, Terrapin is a long unfinished work, and maybe I'll finish it, maybe not. Hunter has written a complete thing, but I find it cumbersome. I edited it liberally, except for the first song, which I thought was perfect. The rest is edited drastically.
      Q: Lady with a Fan gives the impression that it's about to introduce an epic, which never arrives. The piece becomes largely musical.
      JG: That's right, and that's because Mickey had these two compositions that were nonspecific in nature, and were nothing really but rhythm and bass lines. So that was what the content was.
      [Flyer was] Mickey's, which started with the bass and drums. When I heard that stuff, I realized that there was a key relationship to the stuff I'd written for Terrapin, and I felt there was a good possibility that the tunes could be made a part of the "out" - the places where, playing live, we can instrumentally go out.

      You can hear Phil & Mickey working on those separate parts with Jim McPherson in 1976, apparently before the actual song part of Terrapin was composed:
      Personally I think it made sense for the live version to end where it does, rather than continuing with the extended instrumental sections.

      Later on Hunter added (or restored) more song parts to the cycle to complete the Terrapin suite. David Dodd writes, "The Grateful Dead's realization of the piece is, in Hunter's view, lamentably incomplete, leaving out as it does the lyric resolution. Garcia intentionally uses only a fragment of Hunter's lyric... Hunter's own recording of Terrapin on Jack O' Roses is complete, and attempts to incorporate a plethora of imagery and iconography from all over the Grateful Dead map... Ultimately, Garcia's decision to treat the piece as a fragment is far more satisfying... So much is perfect about the lack of resolution."

      Alex Allan's site has more info on the various song parts:
      The site includes a breakdown of the song section timings in the studio version which differs quite a bit from the one in this post:

  4. What a beautiful ride and spiritually uplifting! I love how it goes in an out of being Hunter himself and then Hunter the channeler. And the synchronous way that the music came to Jerry that very same stormy, San Franciscan day. Beautiful. “His job is to shed light, and not to master”. While time is just a 3D illusion, I must say we are so blessed to be here now concurrent to this brilliant masterpiece. The compass always points to Terrapin for sure. Stay on course my fellow friends. We will all take side streets and detours throughout but never doubt your path. I love you all.

  5. The only thing that was incorrect about the 3-28-91 Nassau show was that it was an unnaturally warm and beautiful day for March in the NY area