My Top 1000 Songs #402: He's Gone
In some ways, "He's Gone," even more so than definitive jam platforms like "Dark Star," is the quintessential Grateful Dead track. Musically, it's got a slow, loping vibe, an arid groove ideal for Jerry to lay down some of those distinctive Garcia licks. Mostly, though, it's just packed with memorable catchphrases for the tie-dye set. Ostensibly commemorating the theft of the band's finances by drummer Mickey Hart's father, Lenny, who briefly served as the band's manager before embezzling their money and skipping town (leading Mickey to take a hiatus from the Dead in the early 70s), the song mostly provides an opportunity for lyricist Robert Hunter to craft a handful of deliriously nonsensical yet imagery-rich couplets. These are the little Dead-isms that I've found myself humming at the most random times throughout my life, whether in the car or walking the hallways of my office.
"Nine mile skid, on a ten mile ride. Hot as a pistol, but cool inside."
"Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile. Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile."
And of course: "Like I told you, what I said. Steal your face right off you head!"
The latter lyric became a permanent part of Dead lore, repurposed as the title of the fairly terrible 1976 live album shown above (a contract-fulfilling hodge-podge marred by bad sound and weak song selection/sequencing, though fixed up a bit on later reissues)--which, oddly, doesn't even include "He's Gone" among its tracks. That album is probably best remembered for the cover's prominent Steal Your Face (or "stealie") skull & thunderbolt logo that riddles the Dead ethos (though the logo had been used by the band previously).
"He's Gone" is also among the shortlist of Dead songs which never appeared in a studio version... although its first officially-released version, part of 1972's triple-live LP Europe '72, included enough production sweetening that it may as well be a studio recording. Plenty of great live versions are available to the public--the song remained in Dead setlists throughout their run--but that Europe '72 take highlights Garcia's vocals at their most charming, with some lovely and atypically in-tune harmonies.Live in '72:Slowly ambling performance in '81: