Alabama Getaway

With last Tuesday’s ground-breaking repudiation of Roy Moore this past week in the Alabama special election a Facebook friend shared a few lines that opened up a journey down a rabbit hole that I had to share.

Thirty two teeth in a jawbone
Alabama cryin for none
Before I have to hit him
I hope he’s got the sense to run

If you know me, you know I’ve had an obsession with the Grateful Dead that spans many years. There are so many aspects of this band that make them an endless well of lore and history. While I get my own special satisfaction from their music it is the rich history of their songs and performances that makes them so fascinating. Like an intricate Tibetan mandala, the closer you look, the more you see.

Reason those poor girls love him
Promise them anything
Reason they believe him
He wears a big diamond ring

Go to Heaven was released in 1980 during the dying days of disco. Funkytown, Captain & Tennille, and the Commodores were in the Billboard 100 but green shoots of something new were coming through from Blondie, The Police, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Rolling Stone was impressed by the band’s cover photo which they felt was “very contemporary, very artsy, airbrushed soft-focus portrait” but not by the music which they dismissed as “uninspired fluff”

What many didn’t seem to realize is that the incessant pranksters were pulling an epic inside joke on the entire music industry. This was their last album under their disastrous record contract with Arista before they could go back to releasing live albums which curated the best music from the shows which they and their fans loved so much. Go to Heaven was the band’s giant kiss off.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

Which brings me to Alabama Getaway. Ever the free love, why-can’t-we all-just-get-along types from Northern California, the band has always had a love/hate relationship with the South. Tracing their roots from jug bands and bluegrass pickers from folk America, many of their songs told tales of cowboys and the backwoods spirit of frontier folk. But while they celebrated the spirit of the individuals, they shunned the racist and divisive culture from where they came.

Majordomo Billy Bojangles
Sit down and have a drink with me
What’s this about Alabame
Keeps comin back to me?

I think Alabama Getaway, the opening song on Go to Heaven, is the band’s way of sneaking in a political message wrapped in a hard-driving Chuck Berry beat that would have fans in the South swinging their hips before they knew what hit them. References to male privilege, corruption, and lynching are woven throughout the cryptic verses, hidden in plain sight.

Heard your plea in the courthouse
Jurybox began to rock and rise
Forty-nine sister states all had
Alabama in their eyes

Neil Young didn’t do himself any favors by so directly confronting the South with his accusatory anthem Southern Man. I’m sure he stirred up quite a bit of controversy and probably wore out his welcome. Lynyrd Skynyrd even took his message and turned it into their own hit with Sweet Home Alabama’s rallying cry, “A Southern Man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

The Grateful Dead were more subtle. Like a Shakespearean court jester they will have you laughing and singing before their deeper message sinks in. Yes, they wanted to send a message but knew they would not be able to do so shouting down at people or dividing their fans against their friends. As any “social media consultant” will tell you today, the best way to crowdsource a movement is via your core fans. The only way to deliver this particular medicine was with a spoonful of sugar.

Why don’t we just give Alabama
rope enough to hang himself?
Ain’t no call to worry the jury
His kind takes care of itself

But none of this was really obvious to me until I carefully parsed the lyrics and consulted the lore. It was not until I looked into the history of this song that I unlocked the masterful prank being played. Go to Heaven was released on April 28, 1980. That very evening, the band made a special trip for a one-day concert at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. The first song? Alabama Getaway.

Twenty-third Psalm Majordomo
reserve me a table for three
in the Valley of the Shadow
just you, Alabama and me

It cracks me up to think that all these years the band would play this song all across the South with no one the wiser. Look at the photo on the album cover again. They are all trying desperately to keep from smirking, determined to play the part of cool disco kings – only Phil Lesh, in the back, can’t keep from cracking up. Merry Pranksters indeed.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
turn around and leave
and walk away

If you want to listen to the Grateful Dead playing Alabama Getaway at that concert in Birmingham in 1980, visit this page and click play. It’s the first song.

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