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As the Grateful Dead celebrate their Golden Jubilee, we share what some of their songs mean to us historically, spiritually, personally

SUGAR MAGNOLIA

She could dance a Cajun rhythm alright! The first time I see Frankie Weir is as a dancer on the old live rock ‘n roll TV show, Shindig! I first meet her on the phone when she informs me Bobby is at the World Series game in Oakland. They are not married but share the same name.  Frankie is a big inspiration for a song Bob wrote with Robert Hunter called “Sugar Magnolia”. It’s the liveliest, moist danceable song the Grateful Dead do; it’s the most upbeat, inspirational, positive tune that actually has a lot of blood, sweat and tears & love poured into it. It’s a sacred song about nature. It’s a song that reaches into heaven. The music rocks your socks off in waves of vibration, gravity soaring, energy rising in the air and everywhere in the surrounding horizon.

It was wintertime, and I am at the King’s Castle in Nevada to see Bob Weir and his band play. It’s a critical, crucial, worrisome night for Bob, because of something that happened to Frankie. I’m not going to discuss or write about his private life, but most musicians would have cancelled and rescheduled their gig. Bob played his heart out that night. In between songs he would look for his piece of paper, and check to see what the next song on the set list is. Anytime the Grateful Dead were in a crisis they would cling to their music that would elevate and massage their senses, alleviate them from the burden of their thoughts, and keep their focus, to help them through the changes, and bring refuge from a stressful situation. It is one of the best shows he ever put on. He did three encores that night, most memorable, “’Round And ‘Round”, “One More Saturday Night” and “Sugar Magnolia”. We were snowed in and no one could leave the next day. We went to the local pizza parlor and Bob Weir is singing here.

Sugar Magnolia” is Bill Graham’s favorite Grateful Dead song and for many years played an instrumental part in the opening of each new year with that song, playing different characters each year, riding or flying through the air, greeting us as “Uncle Sam” or “Father Time”, ringing that bluebell.

Bill Graham is the producer of each of these shows and plays a part reminiscent of Martin Scorsese, who appears as a character in many of the movies he directs:  as Goodley, the manager of Birdland in the jazz film Round Midnight; as a television director in The King of Comedy, as a stagehand in Raging Bull, as a passenger in Taxi Driver, as a patron at the diner in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, as a portrait photographer in The Age Of Innocence, as a client in a brothel in Boxcar Bertha, as the interviewer in The Last Waltz. He is producing a documentary for the Grateful Dead’s fiftieth anniversary celebration.

Opening chords set the stage for Sugar Magnolia, blossoms blooming,  as we empty our minds to open our ears, and hearts to listen, and dance in spring, or summer, winter or fall, y’all at peace, high air, rushes rollin’, drop of morning dew, ultraviolet rays, shortest on the musical light spectrum, dawn awakens, walk in the sunshine rising over the seaside, standing on a mountain waitin’ for the moonset day rise, in the wings alive, flyin’ above the dance, spinnin’ in the best air with a wave and a flare, humming the tune until the bells all a-ring and the band comes together to sing & we’re dancing in air!

 

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