Dark Star (song)

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"Dark Star"
Single by Grateful Dead
B-side"Born Cross-Eyed"
ReleasedApril 1968
GenrePsychedelic rock, acid rock, space rock[1]
LabelWarner Bros.
Songwriter(s)Grateful Dead
Robert Hunter
Producer(s)Grateful Dead
David Hassinger
Grateful Dead singles chronology
"The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)/Cream Puff War"
"Dark Star"
"Dupree's Diamond Blues/Cosmic Charlie"

"Dark Star" is a song released as a single by the Grateful Dead on Warner Bros. records in 1968. It was written by lyricist Robert Hunter and composed by lead guitarist Jerry Garcia;[2] however, compositional credit is sometimes extended to include Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, and Bob Weir.[3][4] "Dark Star" was an early Grateful Dead classic and became one of their most loved and anticipated numbers, often with the group using it as a vehicle for musical improvisation sessions that extended well beyond the original structure of the song. The song is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list and was ranked at number 57 on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. "Dark Star" was often the basis for jamming during the Dead's live shows, allowing the band to employ techniques typical of improvisational jazz.

Composition and release[edit]

In May 1967, Garcia composed the preliminary chords of the song, but it was at the time without lyrics.[2] A handful of months later, Robert Hunter, who would become a longtime collaborator with the Grateful Dead, arrived back in California and overheard the band playing around with the track. He immediately sat down and wrote the opening line, contributing the lyrics and name of the song.[2] As Hunter has explained on multiple occasions, he reworded the opening lines of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as the chorus.[5]

"Dark Star" was initially released as a single in 1968, backed with "Born Cross-Eyed", a track written by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. The single, to quote Phil Lesh, "sank like a stone."[2] Of the 1600 copies that made up the original shipment in 1968 by Warner Bros., only about 500 actually sold.[6] A classic live version appeared in 1969 on Live/Dead, the Dead's first live album. It also appeared on later compilations What a Long Strange Trip It's Been in 1977 and The Best of the Grateful Dead in 2015. It also appears as a bonus track on the 2001 reissue of Live/Dead. It also features Hunter's only appearance on a Grateful Dead record, reciting a monologue at the end of the song.

Performance history[edit]

Due to the relentless touring of the Grateful Dead, and the fact that fans were allowed to tape the band's shows, many live versions of "Dark Star" exist. The studio recording of "Dark Star" lasted only 2:40, yet the song was known for its lengthy live performances, many of which clocked in at 20–30 minutes. Running over 23 minutes (13 minutes of it consisting of Jerry Garcia's guitar solo), the popular rendition as found on the Live/Dead live album was a blend of psychedelia, jazz, and jam elements. "Dark Star" defines the Dead's early improvisational music.

After 1973, "Dark Star" fell out of the normal rotation at Dead shows; the song was not performed at all between October 18, 1974 and December 31, 1978. Being present for a "Dark Star" performance became a "Holy Grail" for Deadheads. The song became so legendary that it was often referred to as "IT" by dedicated Heads. Knowing this, the Dead would sometimes tease the song's introduction before switching into another song, finally bringing it back in the end of the seventies on New Years 1978, at the closing of Winterland. Semi-regular guest pianist Bruce Hornsby would later incorporate such teases into his own concerts, knowing a good number of Deadheads might be in attendance.

After the New Years 1981 show "Dark Star" would only appear once more in the first half of the eighties (at the Hearst Greek Theatre on July 13, 1984) and would lie dormant until revived at the legendary "Formerly the Warlocks" two-day run at Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia on October 9, 1989. Shortly after, performing as the Grateful Dead, Dark Star returned on October 16, 1989 in a performance at the Meadowlands Arean (FKA Brendyn Byrne Arena) which later was released as "Nightfall of Diamonds". After its 1989 revival, this song would become a dreadnought, performed frequently through 1990, and occasionally through the rest of the band's career. A memorable post-revival "Dark Star" is from the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, on March 29, 1990, with jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis sitting in with the band. One of these performances was featured in the syndicated The Grateful Dead Hour[7] radio program, extending the song's legend somewhat outside the inner circle of Deadheads; the entire show appears as the vault release Wake Up to Find Out.

In 1993, Phil Lesh approached music collage artist John Oswald to do a project with "Dark Star." He was given over a hundred different performances of the song from between 1968 and 1993. Oswald then built, layered, and "folded" these many performances to produce two large, recomposed versions, one running 59:59, and the second 46:46. The project is called Grayfolded. This is the only recording known to include performances by every member of the group, from inception in 1965 through 1995. The final live performance of "Dark Star" by the Grateful Dead occurred on March 30, 1994 at The Omni in Atlanta, Georgia.

Selected performances[edit]

During the period when the Grateful Dead were mixing their first official live album Live/Dead, the band played a run of shows at San Francisco's Fillmore West and the performance of "Dark Star" recorded at this venue on February 27, 1969 is highly regarded.[by whom?] The entire show has been released as part of the Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings box set, which includes the full four-night run. During this period, "Dark Star" began to take thematic shape and became a cornerstone of the Dead's jamming.[original research?]

Some Deadheads consider February 18, 1971's version at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY to be the best.[8] Lasting 22 minutes in length, this version of "Dark Star" flowed into the song "Wharf Rat" and then back into "Dark Star".

Another well-loved performance considered by many fans to be the peak rendition of "Dark Star"[9] is from the Fillmore East on February 13, 1970. This performance of the song includes the "Feelin' Groovy Jam", so-called because of its passing resemblance to "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" by Simon and Garfunkel.


  1. ^ ""Dark Star", both in its title and in its structure (designed to incorporate improvisational exploration), is the perfect example of the kind of "space music" that the Dead are famous for. Oswald's titular pun "Grayfolded" adds the concept of folding to the idea of space, and rightly so when considering the way he uses sampling to fold the Dead's musical evolution in on itself." – Islands of Order, Part 2, by Randolph Jordan, in Offscreen Journal Archived September 20, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, edited by Donato Totaro, Ph.D, film studies lecturer at Concordia University since 1990.
  2. ^ a b c d Lesh, Phil (2005). Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-00998-9.
  3. ^ Dodd, David (2003). "The Annotated "Dark Star"". The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Retrieved 2007-05-19.
  4. ^ Allan, Alex. "Dark Star". Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder. Whitegum. Retrieved 2007-05-19.
  5. ^ Dodd, David (September 2013), Greatest Stories Ever Told - Dark Star, Grateful Dead (dead.net)
  6. ^ McNally, Dennis. A Long Strange Trip The Inside History of the Grateful Dead. New York: Broadway Books, 2002, p. 274.
  7. ^ David Gans (musician)
  8. ^ "Grateful Dead - Dark Star February 18, 1971". headyversion. Retrieved 29 November 2019.
  9. ^ "The Greatest Grateful Dead Show Ever?". New York Times. Archived from the original on 27 May 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2013.

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