My Top 1000 Songs #245: Scarlet Begonias
Previous Grateful Dead picks making the list have included tracks that are perfect in their original studio context (i.e. "Ripple," "Box of Rain," Jerry Garcia's "The Wheel") and those that thrive primarily within the domain of live performances (i.e. "Dark Star," "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider"; perhaps "Franklin's Tower").
"Scarlet Begonias" occupies that rarified Grateful Dead middle ground. The original studio version, on 1974's imperfect yet reasonably solid From The Mars Hotel, is a surprisingly perky pop song, the sort of thing one can imagine actually getting some radio traction had the band opted to release it as a single. There's an intricate, twisting Garcia guitar figure (a bit reminiscent of the afore-referenced "China Cat"), wrapped around Keith Godchaux's playful piano and the often under-appreciated Bob Weir staccato fills, played out against a funky and intricate Phil Lesh/Bill Kreutzman rhythm; it's a bit of showy instrumental virtuosity that the band didn't often emphasize in the studio. Garcia's vocals are at their most charming, aided by some pleasant backing from Donna Godchaux.
And of course Robert Hunter's lyrics nicely incorporate and create various images from the band's iconography, from the title flowers to the playing of the heart of gold band to, especially, the road-friendly mythos of "strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hand." Hunter's invocation that "once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right" had the makings of endless stoner youth yearbook quotes.
But the song has its separate existence as a long-running live staple, which after a couple years of (relatively) concise performances was stretched out into a lengthy coda jam which segued into "Fire On The Mountain." The "Scarlet > Fire" duo is a favorite of many fans, myself included. Like many 'heads, my initial introduction to the universe of live Dead included a hissy copy of a tape of the band's legendary 1977 show at Cornell University, shared by a college buddy (finally receiving an official release a couple years back), and that show's 20+ minute performance of the medley played a significant role in my ongoing obsession with the Grateful Dead.
As a stand-alone live track in 1974:1977 "Scarlet > Fire" performance: