Song 296: The Grateful Dead, “Scarlet Begonias” (1974)

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I think I just have to finally face the fact that I really like The Grateful Dead. I always respected them–they’re clearly great musicians–but I got tired of hearing them, and hearing about them. And their obsessive fans. Oh lord, the fans.

But here’s the thing: Jerry Garcia was a brilliant guitar player. I don’t mean that he was fast or innovative (though he could be both), but that he made his guitar sound beautiful. For one thing, his tone, that unmistakable Jerry Garcia sound, was warm and fluid, making his guitar sound like another instrument entirely. I often think of him like the Allman Brothers Band’s Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, guitarists who could play solos that were pretty. They weren’t light, or insubstantial. They were often like melodies, separate songs dropped into “Blue Sky” or “Melissa.”

There’s plenty to like about “Scarlet Begonias,” especially that simple but effective melody. But what I love most is Garcia’s solo, which starts at around 2:37. It’s not long, and it’s not complex. But it’s beautiful, and its concision is an apt reflection of the sweet fleeting moment in the song. It sounds like it’s the beginning of an involved musical passage (which it undoubtedly was in live performances). It’s fitting that the last line before the solo is the song’s bittersweet centerpiece: “I had to learn the hard way to let her pass by.”

I love the way this song treats seeing this woman on a London street. It’s all in the mind of the narrator, all his perceptions and guesses about what this mystery woman is like; this isn’t so much a romantic song as it is a fantasy based on a momentary glance. And the idea that “it never turns out the way it does in a song,” sung in a song? That’s funny.

And speaking of lyrics, you don’t get much better than “There ain’t nothing wrong with the way she moves.” So simple but so well put.

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