The Dead’s Very Best “Althea”

by Peter Wendel
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JerryAltheaSusanaMillman SongMango.com

Bobby, Jerry and Vince in 1992 [photo: Susana Millman]

Is “Althea” about Jerry’s slow downward spiral into heroin addiction? Does the song represent a crossroads – the confounding juncture at which Garcia chose hardcore drug use over the band? Of course, one of the reasons so many people (including myself) loved the man and his music so much is that he was flawed – just like the rest of us.

The band debuted “Althea” on August 4, 1979, at the Oakland Auditorium Arena in northern California. The song would appear on Go To Heaven released in April 1980 – a time when Jerry was increasingly isolating himself to focus on drugs rather than the band and the music they were creating.

DeadGoToHeaven SongMango.comThe trouble began in 1973 when The Dead started using cocaine on a regular basis. In 1975, the situation went from bad to worse for Garcia when he began using smokable heroin. By the early-’80s, the rest of the band members, particularly Phil, were growing deeply concerned about Jerry’s destructive devotion to “the Persian” and his failing health.

According to Robert Greenfield’s biography “Dark Star,” the late Rock Scully, the band’s longtime manager, said this of Garcia: “[O]nce it became a real habit, he wouldn’t look after himself, and he started burning up the bedroom and the hotel rooms and so on. His nods got to be very scary.” The band’s concern led to an intervention in the mid-’80s.

If you read into the lyrics, “Althea” seems to be a song about the growing tension between Jerry’s heroin use and his obligations to the band. From Tony Sclafini’s book The Grateful Dead FAQ:

Rock Scully, Jerry and Tom Wolfe

Rock Scully, Jerry and Tom Wolfe

“Althea” is a classic Dead slow rocker with a down-and-out protagonist [Jerry] who seeks advice about his confused life. Considering Garcia’s personal situation at the time, it’s little wonder he took to this Hunter lyric.

The opening lines hint at the tension and confusion heroin brought into Jerry’s life – and the resentment toward those who were trying to make him give it up:

I told Althea I was feeling lost
Lacking in some direction
Althea told me upon scrutiny
My back might need protection

More heroin-feuled tension:

Ain’t nobody messin with you but you
Your friends are getting most concerned
Loose with the truth
Maybe it’s your fire
But baby…don’t get burned 

Garcia SongMango.comConsider this from Stephen Peters’ The Stories Behind Every Grateful Dead Song:

Though on the surface “Althea” seems to tell the tale of a cat-and-mouse game of love or to be a commentary on the dangers of being preoccupied with words instead of feelings (“Talking a lot about less and less/And forgetting the love we bring”), some fans have interpreted certain passages from the song as having an underlying meaning meant to address Garcia’s continued use of drugs at the time.

Although Robert Hunter has denied the existence of drug references in “Althea,” one would imagine it would be difficult for him to admit to them (for any number of reasons). Remember, John Lennon claimed “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” isn’t about LSD. Of course, we all know better.

The Grateful Dead would play “Althea” more than 270 times – with roughly the same frequency as “Bird Song,” “Peggy-O” and “Row Jimmy.” They would perform “Althea” right up to the very end. The last time Jerry would sing it was at the band’s second-to-last show on July 8, 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

December 31, 1979 – Oakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA
Here’s one of the early ones. Professionally shot black-and-white footage from the band’s New Year’s Eve show in ’79. “Althea” was the 3rd set opener.

May 16, 1980 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
Absolutely flawless, and perfectly paced. Crisp, clear vocals from Jerry. Check out his solo at 5:51 – starts slow and relaxed but finishes in a frenzy. Commercially released on Go To Nassau.

December 31, 1980 – Oakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA
Although there are better versions of “Althea” on record, this is solid video definitely worth watching. This is from a three-set New Year’s Eve show, sandwiched between “Looks Like Rain” and “Lost Sailor.”

March 14, 1981 – Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT
Slow-groove version packed with vocal emotion from Jerry. If this doesn’t tear at your heartstrings, nothing will. A true gem not to be missed. Hailed as one of the very best ever audience recordings of “Althea.” Listen (archived track 8).

March 28, 1981 – Grugahalle, Essen, West Germany
Stellar all-around performance! Great close-up footage from the Rockplast Festival in West Germany. Although Jerry looks a little haggard, he rips his closing solo (not to mention the others) – and Phil pushes it over the top.

August 7, 1982 – Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI
The groove is on – slow good, like syrupy-sweet molasses in the summertime. Jerry lays down crisp beautiful solos, and Brent drops in some gorgeous fills at just the right times. Commercially released on Dick’s Picks Vol. 32.

October 14, 1983 – Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT
Another sick performance from Hartford. Jerry takes the closing jam to a whole new level. Brent tickles the ivories to utter perfection. “You know this space is getting hot…” Commercially released on Dick’s Picks Vol. 6.

July 19, 1989 – Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI
This one speaks for itself from a venue that produced some of the band’s best performances. Jerry (fucking) burns it up. Seriously. Great to see the Big Man feeling so damn good.

March 15, 1990 – Capital Centre, Landover, MD
Perfect in every way. The band is tight, and Jerry’s guitar and vocals are inspired. A great way to celebrate Phil’s 50th birthday. Released commercially on Without a Net.

September 13, 1991 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
A raging version with Jerry ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. With both Vinny and Bruce tickling the ivories. Listen (archived track 7).

August 22, 1993 – Autzen Stadium, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
One of the best late latter-day versions. Jerry nails the lyrics, which is saying something for a ’93 show. His guitar play is clean and sharp. Listen (archived track 5).

“Althea”
Lyrics by Robert Hunter/Music by Jerry Garcia

I told Althea I was feeling lost
Lacking in some direction
Althea told me upon scrutiny
My back might need protection

I told Althea that treachery
Was tearin me limb from limb
Althea told me: Now cool down boy 
Settle back easy Jim

You may be Saturday’s child all grown
Moving with a pinch of grace
You may be a clown in the burying ground
Or just another pretty face

You may be the fate of Ophelia
Sleeping and perchance to dream
Honest to the point of recklessness
Self centered to the extreme

Ain’t nobody messin with you but you
Your friends are getting most concerned
Loose with the truth
Maybe it’s your fire
But baby…don’t get burned

When the smoke has cleared, she said
That’s what she said to me
You’re gonna want a bed to lay your head
And a little sympathy

There are things you can replace
And others you cannot
The time has come to weigh those things
This space is getting hot
You know this space is getting hot

I told Althea
I’m a roving sign
That I was born to be a bachelor
Althea told me: Ok that’s fine
You now I’m out trying to catch her

Can’t talk to you without talking to me
We’re guilty of the same old thing
Thinking a lot about less and less
And forgetting the love we bring

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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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