Is This The Grateful Dead’s Best “Cosmic Charlie”? I Just Don’t Know

by Peter Wendel
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CosmicCharlieFirst Time: October 8, 1968
Last Time: September 25, 1976
Total Times Played: 35
Songwriter(s): Hunter, Garcia, Lesh

“Cosmic Charlie” stands tall among the larger-than-life characters created or co-opted by The Grateful Dead and mega-lyricist Robert Hunter. As the song’s title and lyrics suggest, Charlie is an acid-ingesting hippie – an archetypal character from the heart of the 1960′s San Francisco scene.

No one doubts that Garcia ran into more than a few cats that fit the bill of Cosmic Charlie back in the day. And although some have claimed the song is about a specific Haight hippie by the name of Charles Bosch, Hunter has denied it. Hell, we all met Cosmic Charlie bouncing around the shows – eyes wide, grinning from ear to ear like a kid on Christmas.

ElectricBlueCosmicCharlie2Along with Stagger Lee, Jack Straw, Saint Stephen, the Candyman and many more, Cosmic Charlie breathes life – very literally – into The Dead’s expansive songbook. All of those characters combine to tell the story of The Dead’s long strange trip, and it seems “Cosmic Charlie” may play an important role in the band’s evolutionary timeline.

The twist in the song’s lyric arc is that Cosmic Charlie has to go home. He has to leave the scene because as the song states “your mama’s calling you.” Could this be a signal that the heavy psychedelic phase of The Dead was coming to a close or that recreational use of psychedelics was being stamped out?

AcidTestCosmicCharlieCosmic Charlie how do you do
Truckin’ in style along the avenue
Dum de dum de do da lee do
Go on home your mama’s calling you

The timing of the song’s debut – October 8, 1968 – came just two weeks before Congress passed the Staggers-Dodd Bill, which criminalized the recreational use of LSD-25. Coincidence? Or could The Dead feel the end coming?

Here are three stellar (pun intended) versions of “Cosmic Charlie” from the three big years for the song – 1969 (12 times), 1970 (15 times) and 1976 (6 times).

COSMIC CHARLIE
January 25, 1969
Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA

Ragged-but-right, old-school version performed when both Pigpen and Tom Constanten were playing with the band. The uptempo, garage-rock feel is indicative of performances from ’69. Future versions got a little more polished but became slower and gooier. This could be the best-played version from 1969, or the one from March 1, 1969, at the Fillmore West.

COSMIC CHARLIE
May 2, 1970
Harpur College, Binghamton, NY

The complete package? You be the judge. Commercially released on Dick’s Picks Vol. 8.

COSMIC CHARLIE
June 19, 1976
Capital Theatre, Passaic, NJ

A top-notch, laid-back “Cosmic Charlie.” It’s good and gooey but never gets stuck in the mud. Inspired play and vocals from the entire band (including an energized Donna). This one has to be on the short list for the best all-time performance.

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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