Annotations and Interpretations: He's Gone

The most wonderful part, I believe, about the timeless music of the Grateful Dead, is that the songs hold such a distinct and different meaning to each listener. Sure, each song has an ‘official’ meaning, referring to certain events or actions, but one can discern a song into their own making. I think such is the case with “He’s Gone.” The song was originally penned for Mickey Hart by Robert Hunter, with Jerry putting together the music, after Mickey’s father ran off with a large sum of the band’s money, being their manager at the time. However, when I first heard this song, I didn’t attach it to any of that; rather, it held its own meaning to me. One of a lost friend, someone who’s passed on, someone who’s gone, and there’s nothing we can do to bring them back. Anyways, let’s get down to it, and see what this song offers. I’ll break down the song, and I’ll try to interject both the ‘real meaning’ of the song and what other meanings the song could hold if I can pick up on them.
 
Rat in a drain ditch caught on a limb
You know better, but I know him
 
This song opens up with an odd image. A rat in a drain ditch? Caught on a limb? It’s an interesting image for sure, but what does it mean? Thinking about it, the ‘rat’ itself could refer to Mickey’s dad running away, being stuck somewhere feeling guilty about what he just did, being “caught on a limb.” A rat is usually a dirty creature, often subsisting off trash and the works of others. So in this analogy, it seems to be a direct shot right at Lenny Hart. What about “You know better, but I know him”? Maybe Mickey knew that his father was a thief, maybe he knew about his immoral ways. And since he was his father, maybe Mickey couldn’t see that, but someone else could. We often don’t see the faults in ourselves or those close to us, but those unconnected by bond or blood easily see past such ruses. It could simply just refer that the narrator, who’s probably Jerry, knows that this was a bad idea, but didn’t want to interject.
 
Like I told you like I said
Steal your face right off your head
 
Here’s an infamous line, all deadhead’s know this little line: “Steal your face, right off your head”! The Dead's live album, ‘Steal Your Face,’ recorded at the farewell shows in 1974, created perhaps what is the most powerful image that the band uses and the one that we are all familiar with. It’s on shirts, tattoo’s, shoes, with millions of variations of the logo. Beside the point, this lyric could refer to someone, Lenny perhaps, stealing your sense and feeling. You can steal someone’s faith, someone’s bond with you, by a simple action or a few words. The first line in this stanza, however, seems to refer to telling someone that this has already happened before, and they should be familiar with such experiences. “Like I told you like I said,” it sounds familiar, right? I told you so; ever hear that? It could be the same gimmick that we tell someone when we’ve warned them of a poor idea.
 
And now he's gone
Now he's gone, Lord, he's gone
He's gone
Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track
He's gone, gone, and nothing's gonna bring him back
He's gone
 
We are now emphasizing on this loss. Whether it was the loss of a man, the loss of someone close to us, or the loss of someone close to you and moving away; they are gone regardless. Nothing can bring them back. The only thing that does waken the slumber of the deceased is the memories we relish once they pass. Few things do more to keep death alive than a discussion of memories and past happenings. The simile here of a steam locomotive is an easy one to discern; once that train leaves the station, it ain’t coming back. Just accept it, and move on. There are few things in life we can do with the passing or loss of someone, but at the end of it all, we just got to accept that they are gone.
 
Nine-mile skid on a ten-mile ride
Hot as a pistol but cool inside
 
Here are some interesting lyrics that can be divulged in a variety of ways. Referring to the first, a “Nine-mile skid, on a ten-mile ride.” I actually found very little information on what this line means online. Perhaps this goes back to that ‘I told you so’ line I was referring to earlier. You want to stop, but seemingly, can’t shake a belief in a certain person, thing, or place. You hit the brakes, and end up skidding for a long time, dragging your rubber and burning your car out. You shouldn’t have had to skid for so long, but you did, and in the end, damaged your car (you) more. It’s an odd lyric, for sure, up to everyone’s own dissection. The second line, “Hot as a pistol, but cool inside,” can be broken down a little more simple. Maybe on top, you’re angry. You’re pouting, mad, flustered, bewildered by the actions of someone, but inside, you know that you’ll be fine. Inside, you know this storm will pass over, and the barrel of this pistol being you, know that eventually, it will cool. Someone’s death may cause you to be angry, to question their motives, to ask why they did it. But inside, you can’t get angry at them. You don’t know how this person felt, and know that their family, as well as you, now suffers. You must be cool inside.
 
Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile
 
We got some imagery here in this next line. “Cats on a tin roof, dogs in a pile.” The first thing that comes to mind is the visual. We see a cat in the moonlight walking on a roof, and a bunch of dogs in a pile. But what does the lyric extend to beyond that? A cat meandering across a tin roof; it could mean wanderlust. Cats often find themselves in all kinds of curious places, wandering here and there driven by their insatiable curiosity. One could compare themselves to a cat, perhaps, in the search for something more following the loss of someone. We look for new paths, we look for new journeys, new ways to heal, and new ways to live. Dogs in a pile, though? Well, when we often are sad, we often look towards others for warmth and pleasure. We often look towards others for help and guidance. Perhaps dogs in a pile is a reference to that. We bask in the warmth of others, and sometimes, a pile of others. The last line, “Nothing left to do, but smile, smile smile,” is a wonderful and simple line. There’s nothing we can do now that he’s gone. We can simply smile, and continue to do so.
 
Going where the wind don't blow so strange
Maybe off on some high cold mountain range
Lost one round but the price wasn't anything
A knife in the back and more of the same
 
The bridge of the song here seems more directed towards Lenny than any other parts. I think in large part they are discussing where he is going, and his actions. The first two lines can discern where he might be going. It also, however, could refer to us suffering a loss, once more. We want to change where we are, or even perhaps, our state of mind. It always seems strange when we lose someone close to us, and we just want to go somewhere that does not constantly remind us of this occasion. It can be a place of mind or physical space itself inhabited by constant reminders. The third and fourth lines: “Lost one round but the price wasn’t anything, a knife in the back, and more of the same.” Seems to me like they really directly reference Lenny here. A knife in the back? Easy, Lenny took their money; it’s a knife in the back, a backstab. As for the line preceding that one, it’s just a reference to money isn’t nothing. They may have lost some money here, but “the price wasn’t anything.” They will move on and continue moving forward.
 
 
Same old
Rat in a drain ditch caught on a limb
You know better, but I know him
 
The song goes full loop and goes back to the “Same old” rat that we knew. The songwriting here, the circle of lyrics, could easily paint the circle of life. We go back to meet these same people, having these feelings, and once more, making the same mistakes. We’re only human. It’s bound to happen.
 
 
Like I told you like I said
Steal your face right off your head
 
Once more with the circle of lyrics. We often have our “faces stolen,” our thoughts twisted, and regretful actions (though sometimes heads refer to having a ‘face stolen’ as eating a little too much paper and just becoming someone new by having their being, in a sense, taken). We will have our faces stolen many times, and learn to trust no one but those close to us. It will persist, but again, maybe that’s why this song loops back to these two particular lines.
 
Ooh, nothing's gonna bring him back
Ooh, nothing's gonna bring him back
Ooh, nothing's gonna bring him back
 
The end here, often repeated many times, is an excellent way to bang a nail into the coffin of the song. Repeated lines like this can often instill a deeper meaning in us. Obviously, the band wants us to take heed to these lines. Nothing will bring back the dead. Nothing will bring back those who have stabbed you in the back. Nothing will bring back past lovers. Nothing will bring back your past mistakes. It’s a simple line, for sure, but sometimes you don’t need to hide lyrics in the leaves of metaphors so that one can see the entire tree rather than just the branch. It can be simple as this. Nothing will bring them back, so in a sense, there’s nothing left to do, but to smile, smile, smile.
Dead He's Gone

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