Inspiration: Celebrating 40 Years Of Terrapin Station – ‘Estimated Prophet’

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In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the release of the landmark Grateful Dead album Terrapin Station, this week JamBase presents the Inspiration: Celebrating 40 Years Of Terrapin Station video series featuring covers of each of the songs originally issued on July 27, 1977. JamBase hosted a High Sierra Music Festival Terrapin Station 40th Anniversary Playshop featuring a band made up of guitarists Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz and Stu Allen, bassist Murph Murphy, keyboardist Jordan Feinstein and drummer Ezra Lipp. Footage of the collective’s cover of the album opener “Estimated Prophet” as well as background on the writing and recording of the song follows below.

Though credited to lyricist John Perry Barlow and guitarist Bob Weir, the genesis of the album opening “Estimated Prophet” can be traced to Jerry Garcia’s boredom-breaking bible reading while the Grateful Dead toured in the 1970s. Particularly motivated by Old Testament stories in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, after a show Garcia called Weir’s hotel room in the middle of the night, waking his band mate and imploring him to read the same inspiring passages.

Weir later brought the verses (Ezekiel 1:1 – 7:27; 10:8 – 19 and Daniel 7:9) to Barlow, his longtime friend and writing partner, and the two came up with “Estimated Prophet.” Barlow’s loosely based lyrics on the biblical Hebrew prophet Ezekiel’s first vision, also closely reference the traditional folk song “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” which was recorded by Woody Guthrie and many others.

Weir stated in a 1977 interview with David Gans shortly after the release of Terrapin Station that “Estimated Prophet” was about a “bug-eyed” guy that’s “taken a lot of dope” having a vision concerning the guitarist or the band. He elaborated that he sees that type of person at “nearly every backstage door” and that the point of the song is “you shouldn’t take it all that seriously.” Decades later, Bobby’s assessment of “Estimated” would remain true to the time of its inception, telling the Poughkeepsie Journal in 2003:

I took up music to begin with because it does something that words by themselves can’t do It takes you to a place that words by themselves can’t take you to. That said, for most folks, it’s experiencing the moment and when they leave that moment, they just know it’s there and they know they can go back there in another concert. Or maybe it will come their way in another experience. But there are some folks who aren’t prepared to leave that moment and try to take that with them and these are the folks that are walking a very, very perilous path, because if you can’t let go of that moment … those people are the acid burnouts who are trying to live in that moment or keep it always and they miss the appreciation, the beauty of the moment that it is fleeting. And they think they can live there that’s something you can’t have, it’s elusive. If you spend your time trying to reconnect with it rather than being open to visiting it every now and again, you’re basically chasing your tail. If there is a message in “Estimated Prophet,” that’s it.

The song’s original 7/4 time signature was conceived by Weir using a metronome-like device known as a Trinome. The song’s structure was pieced together by self-described “shards of stuff in seven” Weir had been working on with a riff that he developed during a band rehearsal. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann took Weir’s at-the-time fascination with 7/4 and further developed the rhythm to give the LP’s lead track its “groove.”

“Bobby came and showed me ‘Estimated Prophet’ at rehearsal,” Kreutzmann explained to Alan Paul in 2015. “And he had it going, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven … ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven …’ I said, ‘Bobby, that’s no groove, That’s not working.’ I went home on a rainy night and stood in front of my fireplace by myself, rocking my body back and forth and counting and thinking. And I went, ‘Wow. Why don’t we make it half time and make two bars of seven into a 14? So it’s seven doublets and you come down on an even number!’ So we play sevens in bars of two; phrasing it that way is much more musical. That’s how I gave ‘Estimated Prophet’ groove. [sings the beat] The half time is the end of four, which takes you to a new seven.”

Producer Keith Olsen brought in Tom Scott to perform a solo on the electric woodwind instrument known as a lyricon for the Terrapin Station version of “Estimated Prophet.” Scott’s other credits included sessions with George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Wings, Pink Floyd and many others.

“Estimated Prophet” made its live debut on February 26, 1977 at the Dead’s show at Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California – the same evening “Terrapin Station” was first performed. The common jam vehicle became a showcase for Garcia’s Mu-Tron III envelope filter pedal as the lead guitarist handled Scott’s solo from the studio recording. In regular rotation for the rest of the band’s career, “Estimated” was played by the Dead over 385 times, a final performance coming on June 28, 1995 at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

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