Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture

Part 3: “I Know You Rider”

Patrick Walsh-Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Among the many jobs I’ve had, several came through a temporary employment agency. One of these was a six-month stint in 1998 doing data entry for a pharmaceutical company. I was 30 and had returned from Ireland after having completed a Master’s degree at Dublin’s Trinity College. I needed to put some money together quickly so I could move out of my parents’ house and resume the lifestyle to which I’d grown accustomed (not to mention start paying off those student loans.)

The work was mind-numbing. To offset the boredom, we were allowed to wear Walkmans. Mine had both a cassette player and radio. Playing tapes ate up batteries, so I tended to listen to the radio. Our “office” was a one-story, light-industrial warehouse outfitted with cubicles and endless banks of bare fluorescent tubes overhead. For some reason, the building blocked all radio reception except for two college stations—Hofstra’s WRHU and Nassau Community College’s WHPC—which both broadcast within a mile of the place.

Both stations had a weekly Grateful Dead hour on different days. Grudgingly at first, I began listening to these shows. The usual format involved a live set on a particular date practically anywhere in the band’s long career. I quickly developed an ability to predict whether the show would be good or not based on the given date. As even the most devout Deadhead knows, the band can be notoriously sloppy in concert.

So one evening the deejay says he’ll be playing the Dead live in concert from 1972. On a hunch I turned up the volume. I guessed right. It was one of those performances where the Dead, especially Jerry Garcia, was “on.” Early in their set they played a song I’d never heard before, “I Know You Rider.” When they arrived at these lyrics I stopped what I was doing:

I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train,
I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train,
I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain.

I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone,
I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone,
Gonna miss your baby from rolling in your arms.

The epiphany was immediate, total, and, weirdly, retroactive. 

I was working as a temp entering numerical responses to customer-satisfaction questionnaires about aspirin, antacids, and arthritis creams. I was back on Long Island. After college, four years as an officer, a few years of semi-Bohemian life in Princeton, and two years studying Irish literature in Dublin, I had come full-circle, but, for the moment, not in a way I wanted. 

Yes, the temp job was just that: temporary. But being tethered to a desk with my mind so underutilized and having to come back each night to my old room as a kid for six months chafed my soul: I too wanted to be the headlight on that train, or at least be in Colorado or on a train bound for somewhere. My car, in which I’d driven across the country twice, sat baking outside in the parking lot. The temptation to just quietly get up, leave the day’s fresh stack of questionnaires on my desk, and start driving west was a physical urge I had to restrain.

And somehow, in the haunting melody and melancholy harmonies of “I Know You Rider” I suddenly understood The Grateful Dead, their massively ambitious agenda, their aesthetic mission, their deeply American musical philosophy.

As I say, it was a strangely retroactive epiphany; my soul seemed to brim with an appreciation of the world as it had been when the Grateful Dead moved within it. Jerry Garcia was dead three years and it almost seemed as if he was singing that chorus from beyond the grave, so keenly did I hear those lines, “I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone.”

After a listening-lifetime of despising The Grateful Dead, I actually missed Jerry. Soon I’d find myself on an unexpected road, discovering masterpiece after masterpiece, or re-discovering standards I’d dismissed before I was ready to inherit this priceless legacy. The Dead’s diptych of 1970, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, those gorgeous sister-ships of “cosmic American music,” as Gram Parsons would have called them, have become two of my most played, most cherished albums.

Several years after my epiphany, I discovered on a bootleg tape of the Dead at Cornell in 1977 their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” The lines “She was born in spring but I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate” aptly characterized how I felt that afternoon, almost teary-eyed in my dreary cubicle, listening to what I instantly understood to be magnificent American music from a vanished era.

To read the other two parts of this column, click on the links:

Part 1

Part 2

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Patrick Walsh served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2018 Patrick Walsh
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




July 2018

Volume 19 Issue 2

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