The Dead’s Best “Franklin’s Tower” – the ’70s vs. the ’80s

by Peter Wendel
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JerryGarciaPeace“Franklin’s Tower” is the perfectly built Grateful Dead song.

It’s got all the right ingredients thrown into the band’s simmering pot of Americana. It’s got a breezy, energized pace (that never drags). Soulful vocals and syrupy-sweet guitar solos from Garcia. Wide open spaces for the band to stretch out. Towering instrumental crescendos heightened by deep, dewy musical valleys.

And behind it all, stands a lyric arc that explores our spiritual journey toward enlightenment – a personal odyssey fraught with dangers and distractions that can pull even the most tenacious traveler off course.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

What more could you ask for in a Dead song? Well, there is one thing. Could it get better – like fine wine – as the years roll by? “Franklin’s” is one of those Dead songs, like “Althea” and “Eyes Of The World,” that you could argue got better with age. You be the judge (listen below).

THE HISTORY

WinterlandInside

“Franklin’s Tower” debuted at Winterland in 1975

The Grateful Dead broke out “Franklin’s Tower” for the very first time on June 17, 1975, at the fabled Winterland in San Francisco – and along with it, they played “Help On The Way” and “Slipknot” forming the powerhouse suite, Help> Slip> Franklin’s.

Although the band had played a standalone “Slipknot” roughly a year earlier – on June 20, 1974 (listen here) – June 17, 1975, was the big breakout with all the bells and whistles.

The Dead played “Franklin’s Tower” as the anchor and ultimate release for the three-part suite, but the band also performed the song as a standalone – positioned either in the 1st or 2nd set frequently following “Mississippi Half-Step,” “Jack Straw” or “Feel Like A Stranger.” The Dead performed standalone versions frequently during the late-’70s and early-’80s (and again in the late-’80s). The point is the song can stand on its own.

THE MEANING

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The Tower of Hercules stands 180 feet tall

The “Tower” became a calling card (one of many) for the band with its mystical theme of “the guiding light” on life’s journey toward spiritual salvation or homecoming. The lofty “tower” symbol offers guidance and strength – a spiritual landmark to lead us all home.

There’s no doubt that the song resonated with the nomadic legions that followed The Grateful Dead on tour for weeks or even months at a time. Just finding your way back home could seem like a colossal endeavor.

You ask me where the four winds dwell
In Franklin’s tower there hangs a bell
It can ring, turn night to day
Ring like fire when you lose your way

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Sir John Franklin and his entire crew were lost

As to who Franklin is, the jury remains out. Lyricist extraordinaire Robert Hunter has mentioned Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell, but there are clearly other references within the song.

One peripheral explanation that seems to hold water is that the Franklin in the song can be applied to Sir John Franklin – a Rear-Admiral in the British Royal Navy – who perished along with his entire crew on an 1845 expedition to the Arctic.

According to Sir Franklin’s Wikipedia entry:

He disappeared on his last expedition, attempting to chart and navigate a section of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The icebound ships were abandoned and the entire crew perished from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and scurvy.

It is now believed that the expedition wintered in 1845-46 on Beechey Island. … According to a note later found on that island, Franklin died there on 11 June 1847. To date, the exact location of his grave is unknown.

Whatever the true meaning of “Franklin’s Tower” – whether it’s Ben Franklin’s Liberty Bell, a lighthouse for lost ships (like Sir Franklin’s), a church spire for wayward travelers or the Wall of Sound that channels music to revelers – it is a song that holds a special place in the hearts of Deadheads everywhere, particularly those trying to find their way home.

Now let’s get to the music. I’ve gathered the finest performances I could find from both the 1970s and the 1980s. Take a listen and you decide which decade produced the better versions. Tough call to make, but we’re counting on your impeccable ear and your ability to identify brilliance when you hear it.

THE 1970s

August 13, 1975
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA

Everybody loves this one (and with good reason). The definitive early-day rendition – played just two months after the song’s debut – is as clean and crisp as they come. Jerry’s guitar sends you sailing off on a warm summer breeze, smiling from ear to ear. Stellar all-around performance, including the backup vocals. Short and oh so sweet, clocking in at under 7 minutes.

October 9, 1976
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA

Garcia lights the place on fire – peaking in a face-melting shred fest (10:00-11:32) going into the close. The emotional range wrapped up in this one is absolutely massive. Jerry lays down the most unique and exquisite soloing of any “Franklin’s.” Check out the delicate, dewy take on his mini-solos at 6:55 and again at 8:03. Gorgeous stuff from Garcia. And then there’s the brazen, triumphant peak that starts climbing at about 10 minutes in. By 11:15 the venue is entirely engulfed in flames – with Jerry standing right in the middle of it.

May 9, 1977
War Memorial, Buffalo, NY

Here’s a glorious version from May of ’77 – as majestic as a snow-capped mountain. This performance has more edge and nastiness than other versions from ’77. Jerry digs deep on his solos, and his vocals are pure and true (despite a minor muff or two). Listen here to the entire suite (archived tracks 1-3).

May 22, 1977
Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, FL

More than 15 minutes of PURE BLISS! You’ve really gotta hear it to believe it. Higher and higher Jerry goes. Stay with him if you can, but you’ll definitely need to fasten your seat belt. Safety first, folks!

May 17, 1978
Uptown Theater, Chicago, IL

My personal favorite. Jerry’s guitar work is extraordinarily tender and kind. It’s an easy-paced burner that’s often overlooked, but in my opinion, it deserves top-10 status (even top-5). You be the judge. The crowd certainly appreciates it – it’s high energy inside the Uptown. An extremely well-played performance with delicate, syrupy-smooth solos from Jerry (check 1:32, 3:39 and 5:27) and magnificent slide work (11:00) from Bobby. The crazy-fingered interplay between Garcia and Weir is absolutely staggering as they run into the close. Pound for pound, this one’s the best in my book.

THE 1980s

October 25, 1980
Radio City Music Hall, New York, NY

Flawless execution. Super-tight and compressed into 5 minutes and 30 seconds of pure goodness. Brent has arrived. This five-star version was released on Dead Set.

November 29, 1980
Alligator Alley Gym, Gainesville, FL

This one is special, adorned with tasty guitar work from Garcia. The transition from “Shakedown Street” is as strange as you’ll ever hear, but the boys drop into the groove and turn up the heat very quickly. Jerry throws a little something extra into his vocal delivery on this bouncy, high-energy rendition. He lights the fuse at 2:52. Top-10 material all the way.

May 1, 1981
Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

This performance typifies the uptempo, near-perfect execution the band achieved in early-1980′s versions of “Franklin’s.” Garcia’s lightning-fueled soloing will make your jaw drop. This one’s got the power and abandon of a runaway freight train – huge x-factor from a legendary show from Hampton Roads.

March 13, 1982
Reno Centennial Coliseum, Reno, NV

Jerry shoots himself out of a cannon. Higher and higher he goes. It’s one of the finest – and fastest – “Franklin’s” on record. Quite possibly the best ever. Although 1982 isn’t known as a high watermark for the band, this is proof positive that Garcia could still bring down the house (even as his health began to decline). His fretboard dexterity is on full display as he shreds his way into the Reno night. Brent adds gorgeous fills.

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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