Dark star crashes,
pouring its light into ashes.
the forces tear loose from the axis.
for faults in the clouds of delusion.
Shall we go, you and I while we can
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
in formless reflections of matter.
Glass hand dissolving
in ice petal flowers revolving.
Lady in velvet
recedes in the nights of goodbye.
Dark Star was one of the earliest singles produced by the Grateful Dead, who had previously been well known only in the San Francisco area as performers of acid-tinged boogie-woogie and jug band music. The studio single was released in April 1968, but failed to chart on Billboard. I include it in a later chronology because the B side of the single, Born Cross-Eyed, was released on the Grateful Dead album Anthem of the Sun, reaching a larger audience in July 1968. The single version of Dark Star is not on this album. Most people know the song as a signature improvisational piece of Grateful Dead concerts; the most famous version is a 23 minute jam found on the album Live / Dead issued in November 1969. The compact studio song under consideration here bears little resemblance to the live version.
As with the Moody Blues album In Search of the Lost Chord, the Grateful Dead are among the last of groups to use a sitar in their recording (and for this song only!). About this time, in August 1968, the Rolling Stones issued their last bit of sitar color at the end of the single Street Fighting Man, much like the Dead did here. (The Stones’ single is not included in the Trance Love Airwaves collection because the song only has minimal psychedelic “sound effects” and expresses a spirit unrelated to the psychedelic spirit by advocating violence.) Both groups seemed to “throw in the kitchen sink” in the codas of their singles. The Dead (like the Beatles in I Am the Walrus) create a universe of overlapping radio signals in the last seconds of Dark Star; there is even a piece of wild banjo picking trailing off at the end like a comet rapidly disappearing in the sky.
Reportedly, Dark Star is the first Grateful Dead song that Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics for. The lines to the verses are irregular and dense in imagery, in lines that are only occasionally rhyming. They are sung in such a manner that it is difficult sometimes to make out the words. The lyrics seem to be reflections on the collapse of matter into a black hole, releasing a pulsar of energy, and they invite the listener to meet the poet at that point of anti-matter in order to join him in the release of his song. Pulsars were a new phenomenon in the late 1960s, having been discovered in 1967, and quickly (through such popular science fiction television shows like Star Trek) became part of the psychedelic mythology of exploring the galaxy: “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. The aesthetic of psychedelic music assumed there were also unexplored universes of sound, unexplored universes of mind.