Formed in 1965, Grateful Dead is an American rock band that has produced multiple hits that have garnered popularity all over the world. Grateful Dead were known for their instrumental jams that they performed live. They were a band that experimented with their art and paved the way for newer artists who took inspiration from them. The genres that they dabbled in included psychedelic rock, jazz, blues, gospel, folk, bluegrass, and even country. With such diverse elements in their music, the band was destined to change the rock and roll industry. Due to their significant impact on musicians and fans all over the world, they were inducted into the rock and roll Hall of Fame in 1994, just a year before their lead vocalist and guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death.
The founding members of the band were Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann. The band was pretty fluid as it incorporated a lot of other members in it and performed together with various other bands in San Francisco. In a sense, they did not let the fame get to their heads and helped various other local bands a lot to find their tunes. Their song “Brokedown Palace” was released as part of their album “American Beauty” which came out in 1970.
What does the Title mean?
The title of the song “Brokedown Palace” refers to something abstract that was once intact or in good shape, but not anymore. All ‘Deadheads’, fans of the Grateful Dead, as well as critics know that the Grateful Dead are quite cryptic with their lyrics. They are often open-ended and the listener is left with a lot to interpret on their own terms. Thus, the Brokedown Palace can refer to a broken relationship, life, addiction, or anything negative. The word palace implies that this particular thing was grand prior to its ruination.
Verse 1 – What does it mean?
“Fare you well, my honey
Fare you well, my only true one
All the birds that were singing
Have flown except you alone
Goin’ to leave this brokedown palace
On my hands and my knees, I will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time – in my time – I will roll, roll roll”
The song begins with a grim farewell to a loved one. This can be interpreted as a goodbye to someone who has perhaps left the narrator or has died. It can also be a goodbye to something abstract such as his own self. The third line is quite important to the song in a lyrical sense. This is because The Grateful Dead have been known to reference the phrase “singing birds” quite a lot in their songs. For instance, they wrote a song called “bird song” that was dedicated to Janis Joplin after her death. The second part of this verse is about leaving a place that the narrator dreads. This could be a stage that he is in his life or it could also refer to a specific place. For instance, many people aspire leave their poverty and they often end up associating it with their immediate surroundings. Moreover, it could also refer to an abstract place such as the dark abyss of addiction. When people start to get high on drugs, the feeling is often amazing. Slowly, they come to realize that it’s worse than hell with the cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Thus, it’s akin to a “Brokedown Palace”.
The end of the verse is about finding a peaceful place away from the Brokedown Palace. The narrator paints a beautiful picture as he uses the phrase “make myself a bed by the waterside”.
What does the Chorus mean?
“In a bed, in a bed
By the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul”
The chorus continues the imagery from the first verse. The chorus is perhaps about the recuperation of the narrator’s soul. As he gets himself away from the Brokedown Palace that he dreaded, his soul will recuperate and find the rock and roll spirit once again by the waterfall and amidst the sweet songs of the river.
Verse 2 – What does it mean?
“River gonna take me
Sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy
All the way back home
It’s a far-gone lullaby
Sung many years ago
Mama, Mama many worlds I’ve come
Since I first left home”
As mentioned before, The Grateful Dead often have cryptic lyrics. Thus, a lot can be left to the listener to interpret. This verse seems to be associated with a peaceful passing. It seems as if the narrator just wants to let go of control and go to an eternal sleep. As the river sings him lullabies, he will become one with nature once again. The word ‘Mama’ here can refer to Mother Nature or a single universal soul. The last two lines of the verse are perhaps about the journey of the soul through multiple lifetimes and its eventual homecoming to nature. This is viable as during the 70s, Eastern culture had made a significant impact in the West.
Verse 3 – What does it mean?
“Going to plant a weeping willow
On the banks green edge it will grow, grow, grow
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go – the river roll, roll, roll”
The weeping willow is a tree that is very important to the Western culture in a symbolic sense. For Hebrews, it is a sign of mourning. They use it as a symbol for their captivation in Babylon. Moreover, it is also associated with unrequited and unlucky love in Western cultures. Thus, the interpretation of this song as something associated with a broken relationship that has caused the narrator great pains can be very much accurate. In the second line, it seems that the narrator is going to plant his sorrow or unrequited love in nature and it will continue to grow. Maybe it’s a meta reference to this very song which is immortalizing this unrequited love or Brokedown Palace in the very first place. The last line makes the listener leans towards the interpretation that Brokedown Palace is in fact a ruined relationship that was nothing short of paradise for the narrator. Moreover, it also hints towards the momentary nature of life as all things including something as significant as love are temporary.
The significance of this track in American popular culture cannot be undermined. In fact, it even inspired Jonathan Kaplan to name his film after it. One great thing about the songs of this band is that they provide a lot of room for the listener to interpret. They rarely reveal the meanings behind their songs and that adds a cryptic and mystical element to their tunes.