Saint Stephen with a rose
In and out of the garden he goes.
Country garland in the wind and the rain.
Wherever he goes the people all complain.
Stephen prosper in his time?
Well he may, and he may decline.
Did it matter, does it now?
Stephen would answer if he only knew how.
Wishing well with a golden bell
Bucket hanging clear to hell.
Hell half way twixt now and then.
Stephen fill it up and lower down, and lower down again!
Lady finger, dipped in moonlight
Writing "What for?" across the morning sky.
Sunlight splatters dawn with answers.
Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye.
Speeding arrow, sharp and narrow
What a lot of fleeting matters you have spurned.
Several seasons with their treasons
Wrap the babe in scarlet colors, call it your own.
Did he doubt or did he try?
Answers a-plenty in the by and by.
Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills--
One man gathers what another man spills.
Saint Stephen will remain.
All he's lost he shall regain.
Seashore washed by the suds and the foam
Been here so long he's got to calling it home.
Fortune comes a-crawling, Calliope woman
Spinning that curious sense of your own.
Can you answer? Yes I can.
But what would be the answer to the answer, man?
According to David Glaser’s How Airshow Remastered the Grateful Dead Studio Albums, available online, the Grateful Dead “had already initiated recording sessions for the album when Ampex manufactured and released the first multitrack recording machine offering 16 tracks of recording and playback (model number MM-1000). This doubled the number of tracks the group had available when they recorded Anthem of the Sun the previous year. As a direct consequence, the group spent eight months off-and-on in the studio not only recording the album but getting used to—and experimenting with—the new technology. Garcia commented that ‘it was our first adventure with sixteen-track and we tended to put too much on everything ... A lot of the music was just lost in the mix, a lot of what was really there.’ As a result, Garcia and Lesh went back in the studio in 1971 to remix the album, removing whole sections of songs for a re-release. The first release from 1969 has not been commercially available since the 1971 remix replaced it. Although somewhat rare, this original mix still circulates among tape traders and vinyl collectors to this day.” Though I probably had the 1969 version shortly after it came out, I don’t recall the difference between this version of St. Stephen and the original.
Whereas the Grateful Dead’s experimentation with eight track recording on Anthem of the Sun still sounds messy to me, I find Aoxomoxoa to be far more coherent despite its psychedelic complexity. By my estimate, Aoxomoxoa was the last psychedelic album in the classic style, produced with full confidence in the psychedelic aesthetic, even though by 1969 that aesthetic had lost its dominance. Though the Grateful Dead were an important group in the West Coast Summer of Love scene, it took them a couple of years to master the recording studio. I’m glad they stuck with it until they had put their psychedelic vision on record. They would distance themselves from this aesthetic (at least in the studio) with future albums. Their most successful studio work, on the Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums (actually a double album released individually), released the following year, took on the country and folk music inflection that had become increasingly popular since its introduction in late 1967 with Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Having finally made their own psychedelic masterpiece in Aoxomoxoa, the Dead would soon follow the example of the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, who though quite proficient in recording psychedelic music, found larger audiences and greater success with simpler, stripped-down tunes for the “working man”.
Gone in 1970 was the complexity of music found in St. Stephen. Not only did St. Stephen have three distinct melodies, but three entirely different musical breaks (!) plus intro and coda. The lovely B section is accompanied by something that sounds very much like a glockenspiel. Also in Robert Hunter the group had a top notch psychedelic lyricist. The quatrains rhyme sometimes but are not tied closely to the beat. They tell of a “seeker” (which was much more the metaphor for the psychedelic mind than that of the working man), in a language heavily inflected with question marks. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, a saint that was (wink wink) stoned to death, a persecuted pioneer on the path of a new religion. Perhaps the poet identified the principles of the Summer of Love (which in two years seemed so far in the past!) as if he was a member of a new movement or evolution of humanity beyond the assumptions of traditional metaphysics. If one has the answer, the song inquires, to the question of existence (“What for?”), then what is the answer one has to that answer when that answer poses yet another question? The poet sees reality as “layers of an onion” (to use a metaphor of psychedelic reality popularized first by the Incredible String Band) without end, but believes that one can approach ever closer to the essential truth. Further, the poet seems to think that all aspects of reality play their part in communicating the essential truth: “One man gathers what another man spills”, he says, casting the American proverb “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” in Biblical sounding terms. The spinner of these various impure truths, warp and woof, into something greater than individual perception is Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry and mother of Orpheus, a musician and poet who successfully visited the Underworld.