Dead Best: 10 Top Performances of “Terrapin Station”

by Peter Wendel
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TerrapinStationMainIf you had to pick one song – or suite – that best captures the mystique and mysticism of The Grateful Dead, “Terrapin Station” would have to be on just about everybody’s short list.

Both literally and figuratively, the “Station” became a central point of arrival and departure for The Grateful Dead and their fans – a way station of sorts, enabling deep-space travel connections across the universe.

“Terrapin” on its face is, of course, a train station, but as with most original Dead songs, there are as many meanings and interpretations as there are stars in the sky. Lyricist Robert Hunter and frontman Jerry Garcia wanted it that way.

“Terrapin” can be a space station, a concert venue, heaven, home, spiritual enlightenment, the Deadhead scene, the Earth (terra is Latin for earth) or life itself (possibly one of many).

TerrapinStationGD

Terrapin Station?

Is this the end of the journey or just the beginning? The possibilities surrounding “Terrapin Station” are only limited by your imagination (and possibly by how good the acid is).

The lyric arc of “Terrapin” runs deep – far into the mystical mind of Robert Hunter – tackling lofty questions about the human experience and where life’s journey takes us. These are heavy thoughts more often addressed in philosophy books than in song, but hey, we’re talking about The Grateful Dead.

Is “Terrapin Station” just one stop along the way to “further”?

THE TERRAPIN SUITE

Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics and Jerry Garcia composed the music. Here’s how Hunter set up the suite lyrically (other instrumental sections were added to the final album version):

RobertHunterPromo

Lyricist Robert Hunter

Part 1
Lady With A Fan
Terrapin Station
At A Siding

Part 2
Return To Terrapin
Ivory Wheels, Rosewood Track
And I Know You
Jack O’ Roses
Leaving Terrapin
Recognition

Legend has it that Hunter wrote Part 1 of the “Terrapin” suite – which the band would never perform live in its entirety – while sitting in an unfurnished house watching an electrical storm over San Francisco. Jerry conceived of the music that same day.

Here’s how “Terrapin Part 1″ appears on the album (with instrumental sections added):

Lady with a Fan
Terrapin Station
Terrapin
Terrapin Transit
At a Siding
Terrapin Flyer
Refrain

DeadAccording to Wikipedia:

“Terrapin Station Part 1″ was never performed live in full. Recordings of live performances listed “Terrapin Station” generally refer to the first three parts of the song that appeared on the studio album, and were usually 10-15 minutes in length. … The most complete performance, which includes parts of the sections ‘Terrapin Transit’, ‘At a Siding’ (without lyrics), and ‘Terrapin Flyer’ was performed on March 18, 1977 at Winterland Arena in San Francisco. This version was only played live once, and is incorrectly labeled as “Alhambra” and part of “Drums” on circulating copies of the show and the Internet Archive.

TerrapinStationHartford77 SongMango.comThe band’s exclusion of “At A Siding” during live performances didn’t sit entirely well with Hunter, who didn’t like the incompleteness of it – the omission of the suite’s lyric resolution. While Garcia thought it played better without “At A Siding,” Hunter felt that approach lacked closure.

Jerry may have thought the lyrics to “At A Siding” were too dark for a crowd with a collective head full of LSD:

Terrapin station, at the siding
While you were gone
These faces filled with darkness
The obvious was hidden
With nothing to believe in
Sullen wings of fortune beat like rain
You’re back in terrapin for good or ill again
For good or ill again

You can hear “At A Siding” on the studio version (listen below).

THE MEANING

The Muse – the inspiration behind "Terrapin"

The Muse – the inspiration behind “Terrapin”

Robert Hunter (and Jerry by extension) is the suite’s “storyteller.” In keeping with the high-minded ancient Greek poets, like Homer, Hunter calls upon the muse to help tell the “Terrapin” tale.

Calliope, the muse of poetry and writing (at right), was the source of inspiration for Homer’s The Odyssey and The Illiad – two masterpieces that delve into the human experience. Is it merely coincidence that Hunter and Homer both invoke the muse?

In calling on the muse for inspiration, Hunter reaches far back in time to summon all the power and import of Western civilization and thought. This is serious stuff. Like Homer, Hunter is embarking on a lofty tale that attempts to shed light on age-old questions surrounding the human experience.

Ancient Greek poet Homer

Ancient Greek poet Homer

Let my inspiration flow
Token ryhme
Suggesting rythym
That will not forsake me
Till my tale is told and done

“Lady With A Fan” tells the story of a sailor and a soldier, and of course, a lady with a fan. These are everyman, archetypal characters, that symbolize us all. Are you more of a doer and risk-taker like the sailor? Or more of a strategist and theorist like the soldier, who is more grounded in thought than action?

The lyrics seem to tell of two very different approaches to living life:

LadywithFanTerrapinStationWhich of you to gain me, tell
Will risk uncertain pains of hell?
I will not forgive you
If you will not take the chance

The sailor gave at least a try
The soldier being much too wise
Strategy was his strength
And not disaster

Will you take the chance or are you too wise and cautious to even try?

As to the role of Hunter, Garcia and the rest of the band in this tale (and others), the lyrics leave no doubt that their job is merely to tell the story not to dictate what is right or wrong, good or bad. That determination can only be made by the individual listener or audience member (e.g., you and me). Perhaps this is Hunter and Garcia saying, “we don’t have all the answers”:

Storyteller makes no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice
His job is to shed light
And not to master

JerryTerrapinStationThe end of “Lady With A Fan” offers no resolution. The tale is left unfinished, leaving the audience/listeners thirsting for closure:

Since the end is never told
We pay the teller off in gold
In hopes he will come back
But he cannot be bought or sold

The next song in the suite, “Terrapin Station,” explodes with another invocation of the muse with bright, hopeful optimism:

Inspiration!
Move me brightly!
Light the song with sense and color
Hold away despair

The lyric arc has moved beyond earthly concerns of love and courage (e.g., the sailor and the soldier) to deeper philosophical thoughts on the vast mysteries of life itself (beyond the earth) and where we are within the grand design.

MoonVenusTerrapinStationThe storyteller offers no answers – no statements of truth – instead conveying that life’s secrets are ultimately unknowable (and supposing otherwise would be the height of human vanity). The best we can do is live life without despair.

Faced with mysteries dark and vast
Statements just seem vain at last

There are many different ways to get to Terrapin, and there is a rising-and-falling cyclical structure to it. Is it the cycle of life: birth, death and rebirth?

InfinityTerrapinCycleSome rise
Some fall
Some climb
To get to Terrapin

We rise, fall and climb to get there in cyclical repetition. It is an endless circling – a never-ending cycle that ultimately returns to where it once began. That cycle is reflected in the fourth song of the suite, “Return To Terrapin,” which begins Part 2. Although The Dead never performed “Return To Terrapin,” it is interesting that the “return” – the closing of the loop – was an integral part of Hunter’s grand design.

Lost Tracks of TimeThe final lyrics of “Terrapin Station” are coupled with an instrumental crescendo as the train screams into the station or possibly careens off the tracks. Is this the end or the beginning? What happens next is unclear. Does the cycle remain unbroken?

(Terrapin!)
I can’t figure out
(Terrapin!)
If it’s an end or the beginning
(Terrapin!)
But the train’s put its brakes on
(Terrapin!)
And the whistle is screaming
Terrapin!

“TERRAPIN” PERFORMANCES

SwingAuditoriumCA

Swing Auditorium

The Dead performed “Terrapin” more than 300 times – the first on February 26, 1977, at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, CA, and the last on July 8, 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago (the band’s second-to-last show).

“Terrapin” was almost always placed in the 2nd set. The suite was released commercially on the band’s 10th studio album, Terrapin Station, on July 27, 1977.

We’ve assembled some of the most moving renditions of “Terrapin” from across The Dead’s long strange run, including the studio version, the live debut, the last time the band performed it (which yes, is worth listening to), and other extraordinary performances – such as the most complete live version ever played from March 18, 1977, at the Winterland in San Francisco.

Studio Version
Terrapin Station (1977)

THE 1970s

February 26, 1977
Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA

Here’s the debut, and it’s one of the very best performances the band ever laid down. Top-5 material for sure. Crispy clean and concise, clocking in well under 11 minutes. Jerry pours his heart into the vocals, and he offers some tasty, unique soloing (check 3:07 and 4:16). This one opened the first show of what would arguably be the band’s best-played year ever. As with many of the band’s debuts, it is one of the most unique performances you’ll ever hear.

March 18, 1977
Winterland, San Francisco, CA

The complete package! This is the most complete version of the suite ever performed, which includes well-played parts of “Terrapin Transit” (11:15), “At A Siding” (without vocals) and “Terrapin Flyer.” This one is special even without the historical, one-off significance.

May 17, 1977
Memorial Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, AL

Flawless. One of the most beautifully played versions of all time. Garcia gets the lyrics just exactly perfect, and check out his extended double-dip solo at 3:12.

September 3, 1977
Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ

Here’s a seriously underrated version from an epic show. In my opinion, it’s among the very best performances of 1977. Hearing is believing! It was one of the few times the band played “Terrapin” as an encore.

December 29, 1977
Winterland, San Francisco, CA

Killer top-10 version with a little extra edge and rawness from Garcia’s guitar. Phil and Keith shine on. Jerry scorches the close.

THE 1980s

March 24, 1987
Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

Big-ole BURNER, blowing red-hot energy up to the rafters. Jerry lights it the fuck up, and the Hampton crowd loves every second. The X-factor doesn’t get any bigger or badder.

July 4, 1989
Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, NY

Magnificent top-10 performance from a legendary show. Jerry’s feelin’ it! Gorgeous fills from Brent. The jams get trippy so hang on to your hat.

THE 1990s

March 24, 1990
Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY

Best-played performance of the ’90s. Jerry’s vocals are weathered and soulful. Spectacular interplay between Garcia and Mydland. Short and sweet at just 6:30.

June 23, 1993
Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN

This one is MASSIVE!! Who says the magic was gone by the early-’90s? This version is exhibit A in proving that claim to be complete bullshit. Although Jerry’s vocals are rough and fairly sloppy, the post-lyrics jam is friggin’ HUGE. Talk about catching fire. Don’t miss it!

July 8, 1995
Soldier Field, Chicago, IL

Glimpses of glory! It’s Jerry’s second-to-last show ever, and he’s still got Terrapin’s number (vocals aside). The train put its brakes on for the last time. The whistle would scream no more.

The Terrapin Suite, Part 1

“Lady With A Fan”

Lyrics by Robert Hunter/Music by Jerry Garcia

Let my inspiration flow
In token rhyme
Suggesting rhythm
That will not forsake me
Till my tale is told and done

While the firelight’s aglow
Strange shadows from the flames will grow
Till things we’ve never seen
Will seem familiar

Shadows of a sailor forming
Winds both foul and fair all swarm
Down in Carlisle he loved a lady
Many years ago

Here beside him stands a man
A soldier from the looks of him
Who came through many fights
But lost at love

While the storyteller speaks
A door within the fire creaks
Suddenly flies open
And a girl is standing there

Eyes alight, with glowing hair
All that fancy paints as fair
She takes her fan and throws it
In the lion’s den

Which of you to gain me, tell
Will risk uncertain pains of hell?
I will not forgive you
If you will not take the chance

The sailor gave at least a try
The soldier being much too wise
Strategy was his strength
Not disaster

The sailor, coming out again
The lady fairly leapt at him
That’s how it stands today
You decide if he was wise

The storyteller makes no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice
His job is to shed light
And not to master

Since the end is never told
We pay the teller off in gold
In hopes he will come back
But he cannot be bought or sold

“Terrapin Station”

Inspiration, move me brightly
Light the song with sense and color
Hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
Faced with mysteries dark and vast
Statements just seem vain at last

Some rise
Some fall
Some climb
To get to Terrapin

Counting stars by candlelight
All are dim but one is bright
The spiral light of Venus
Rising first and shining best

Oh from the northwest corner
Of a brand new crescent moon
While crickets and cicadas sing
A rare and different tune
Terrapin station
In the shadow of the moon
Terrapin station
And I know we’ll be there soon

(Terrapin!)
I can’t figure out
(Terrapin!)
If it’s an end or the beginning
(Terrapin!)
But the train’s put its brakes on
(Terrapin!)
And the whistle is screaming
Terrapin!

“At A Siding”

While you were gone
These faces filled with darkness
The obvious was here
With nothing to believe in
The compass always points
To terrapin

Sullen wings of fortune beat like rain
You’re back in terrapin for good or I’ll again
For good or I’ll again

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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