SUMMER OF DEAD 2014: Scarlet Begonias, 1974
Yes! The mighty Jesse Jarnow (of WFMU’s Frow Show and Big Day Coming) checks himself into the Mars Hotel.
The Grateful Dead played “Scarlet Begonias" 28 times during 40 shows in the song’s debut year of 1974, and thank heavens they did because—and this might sound obvious—one never knows how long one is going to get to be the 1974 Grateful Dead. By autumn, the band teetered on burnout and announced a break. When they reemerged in the spring, their nimble and semi-stable quintet lineup had grown, once again featuring second drummer Mickey Hart, absent since 1971. Songs written in the meantime grew new drum parts.
Of the bummers the Grateful Dead perpetrated in the ’80s and ’90s, few seem crueler than the fate that befell “Scarlet Begonias,” transformed into a gaudy dragon-paraded calypso hullaballoo. Jerry Garcia didn’t write many songs like it, before or after, a syncopated bounce with the highly un-Garcia-like characteristic of being quite difficult to play around a campfire on an acoustic guitar. Perhaps because of its bright and straightforward lyrics, it is rarely filed with Garcia’s other complicated prog-Dead era fare, like the jazz harmonies and earthy heaviness of “Eyes of the World.” Its closest relative in the Dead songbook was “China Cat Sunflower,” a similar sunshine beacon that likewise came together around a slinky, snappy Bob Weir rhythm figure. And though “Scarlet Begonias” became one of the Dead’s most durable portable dance parties, its 1974 incarnation was a fairly delicate flower of a song, perfect in nearly every last respect.
The 1974 “Scarlet”s begin with a quick snare snap and then the band is mid-bounce, riding on a sly beat by drummer Bill Kreutzmann. His four bandmates dance around the song’s melodic shape, revealing it between punching bass leads and rich Rhodes figures. It’s a love song, both joyous and wry, replete with an even more joyous kosmik refrain. And, in 1974, the band roars into a jam that seems ready to open up and light out for deeper territories. But it never does. In the airy groove—Garcia said it was influenced by Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”—the band found a way to move around while staying inside that crowd-pleasing bounce, a vehicle for the soaring Garcia guitar lines that paid the bills, karmically and financially. Even so, the song’s brief jams were a perfect frame for Garcia’s qwizzical qwests, jams that seemed like they could go anywhere, the perfect crossing between populist Dead boogie and head- friendly space explorations. Most of all, “Scarlet Begonias” was a song so good that even the built-in Donna Jean Godchaux vocalization was frequently low key, even pleasant, almost Karen Dalton-like.
When Mickey Hart returned to full-time duty in ‘76, the song’s percussion part grew swollen with thumpery, and “Scarlet Begonias” began its long slow-motion monster movie transfiguration, the jam soon only capable of one inevitable destination. Even throughout the stunning takes of “Scarlet Begonias” during 1977, one hears the high-strung chat-chat-chattering of the cowbell, like the pulse of a Hawaiian-shirted alien creature trying to push its way out of the song’s shell. Fuck that. We are left with these 28 unadorned 1974 versions of “Scarlet Begonias,” each with its own destiny that’s sometimes “It Must Have Been The Roses” and definitely not “Fire On the Mountain,” each one a can of sunshine ready for deployment.
Jesse Jarnow / @bourgwick