"Dark Star crashes, pouring its light into ashes..." Within a few bars of the opening lines of the Grateful Dead's epic, Dark Star, the listener can tell that one is about to embark upon a cosmic journey of interstellar magnitude.
Dark Star's lyrics were written by long-time Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter in 1967 and immediately entered the Dead canon as perhaps the most important song the band wrote, and certainly, performed. It's origin story is the stuff of legend as it was the first song Hunter ever wrote with the band. It's not often fact and mythology intersect in such a serendipitous manner but... thus is the nature of Dark Star. Hunter had previously arranged a few of his lyrical compositions for the band ( the classics St. Stephen and China Cat Sunflower among them) but had not actually entered the group-mind and musical gestalt that was always at the center of the Dead's musical journey.
The music itself, a seemingly endless, free-flowing exploration of musical spaces light, dark, ridiculous, profound and sometimes quite unsettling, speaks for itself. One can hear hints of classicism in the overture, John Coltrane inspired "Sheets of sound" in the main body, elements of "found" and "prepared" music (a la John Cage except for its spontaneity) along the way and, of course, Good Old Grateful Dead psychedelic feedback-inspired weirdness throughout. The musical experience of Dark Star is the seminal Grateful Dead experience. It is the 'fuse that drives the green rod through the flower" of the band's music. and the listener either loves it or hates it. There is no middle ground, no neutral territory, in the Dark Star experience. It is the ultimate microcosm of the Grateful Dead experience as a whole.
But what of Hunter's lyrics? Well, they might just be his most powerful and deceptively simple ones of all.
On a purely physical level a "dark star" dies in the heavens, it's light becoming ash. We are witnessing a cosmological event. But perhaps also a mind crashes, a belief system crashes ("reason tatters"). In this context, which might quite possibly emulate mental illness, religious/spiritual rapture or an LSD experience (something the Dead were oh so familiar with at this point), the lyrics paint a picture of a personal "letting go." Not only do "the forces tear loose from the axis" in a galactic or universal sense but also in the inner reaches of the mind.
But all is not lost to those who retain some sense of self; "Searchlight casting for faults in the cloud of delusion." Hunter's lyrics offer a way out, an opportunity to cast away the clouds billowing out from the dying star (or mind or self or consensual reality) and find the fault lines in that "delusion," a path in that unreality that might lead back to safety or a new destination.
"Shall we go, you and I while we can, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds." Hunter asks of his listener if they are ready to make the journey to "the other side" made famous by Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison and the Dead's own partners in crime, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. There is a choice to be made in these lyrics, to make the transition together or perhaps remain in those clouds of delusion forever alone.
It should be noted that this line clearly owes its inspiration to the opening line of T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of the most influential pieces of literature of the 20th century. Eliot begins Prufrock "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky..." While Hunter's particular account in Dark Star encompasses a vastly different journey than that of Prufrock, they both are journeys of profoundly weird magnitude and the nod to Eliot is clearly no coincidence. Let us remember also that Eliot himself was certainly something of a "Dark Star" in his time so perhaps Hunter's genuflection works on more than one level.
The song continues with lyrics of dissolution and destruction. A "Mirror shatters," matter is "formless." a "glass hand" dissolves and a "lady in velvet recedes." The images are fragmented but not contradictory; something is very definitely going on here, Mr. Jones, but what it is neither the listener nor the inhabitants of the song can make quite clear. Suffice it to say, the journey is coming to an end, the perhaps mystical, imaginary or unreal things and places of the song are falling apart.
Hunter restates the "shall we go" lyric one final time and the listener is left wondering whether this coda is an invitation to begin the journey once again, whether repeated visits to the land of the "Dark Star" would really pierce the clouds of delusion and illuminate a sublime or personal truth.
Dark Star is the Grateful Dead experience codified. In an oxymoronic twist, this seemingly endless, wide-open, unstructured song, the centerpiece of the Dead's on-stage improvisational prowess, is a road map of sorts through both the Grateful dead's musical world and their internal dialogue. It is justly considered the Holy Grail of Grateful Dead music.