Inspiration: Celebrating 40 Years Of Terrapin Station – ‘Terrapin Station Medley’

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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. For the “Terrapin Station Medley” several of our favorite artists recorded the seven parts of the suite at various locations, which were pieced together into a single seamless performance. The video features Railroad Earth, moe., Stanley Jordan, Strangefolk, Moonalice, The Mountain Goats, Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, Jake Peavy, Holly Bowling, Poor Man’s Whiskey, Grahame Lesh & Kirby Lee Hammel, Eric DiBerardino and others. Footage of the collaborative cover of the “Terrapin Station Medley” as well as background on the writing and recording of the song follows below.

Lyricist Robert Hunter was watching a lightning storm from a picture window overlooking the San Francisco Bay from inside his unfinished home at China Camp State Park on Marin County’s San Pablo Bay. It was early 1977, and electrified by the storm Hunter sat down at his typewriter, inserted a piece of paper and simply typed:

Terrapin Station

Those two words led to an appeal to the muse, and Hunter was answered with a burst of inspiration. Hunter’s request for creative intervention was memorialized in the opening lyric in which he wrote:

  • Let my inspiration flow
  • in token lines, suggesting rhythm
  • that will not forsake me
  • till my tale is told and done

Part One of Hunter’s multifaceted epic “Terrapin Station,” which itself took guidance from the traditional ballad “The Lady Of Carlisle,” was born during that initial, storm-influenced writing session.

***

Guitarist Jerry Garcia was in his car travelling across the Richmond Bridge (seen in the background while Holly Bowling performs in the video above) spanning the Bay the same day of the lightning storm. Garcia was struck by a musical inspiration and immediately hurried to his home in Marin and quickly preserved the instrumental idea before it was forgotten.

The following day Garcia visited Hunter at China Camp. When shown the words Hunter had written for “Terrapin Station,” Garcia responded that his concurrently composed music paired perfectly. The guitarist pieced together components of various verses, leaving the story “Terrapin Station” told purposefully open-ended, in contrast to Hunter’s fully formed tale.

***

Drummer Mickey Hart, who had rejoined the group in 1974 following a hiatus that began three years earlier, was at the time developing a number of original instrumental sequences. Tapes in circulation from a recording session held at Hart’s barn dated June 1, 1976 feature the drummer alongside Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, as well as pianist Jim McPherson working on elements that would later be joined with Garcia and Hunter’s newly penned parts to form what became the “Terrapin Station” suite.

Listed as “Terrapin Station” on the back cover of Terrapin Station, the lone song on Side-B was presented on the vinyl record’s label as a seven part suite entitled “Terrapin Part 1.”

  • 1. Lady With A Fan 4:20
  • (Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter)
  • 2. Terrapin Station 2:12
  • (Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter)
  • 3. Terrapin 2:12
  • (Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter)
  • 4. Terrapin Transit :35
  • (Mickey Hart & Bill Kreutzmann)
  • 5. At A Siding 1:43
  • (Mickey Hart & Robert Hunter)
  • 6. Terrapin Flyer 2:56
  • (Mickey Hart & Bill Kreutzmann)
  • 7. Refrain 2:18
  • (Jerry Garcia)

In his book of lyrics A Box Of Rain, Hunter presents the Terrapin Station suite in nine parts, three of which – “Lady With A Fan,” “Terrapin Station” and “At A Siding” – were included in the song’s final structure. The book also includes “L’Alhambra,” which Hunter notes was written “to a Moorish setting composed by Mickey Hart” that eventually “evolved into a wordless melodic segment of Terrapin Station.” Later issued digital editions presented the final track as “Terrapin Station Medley” with the original seven sections under the all-encompassing title.

***

Then Garcia and I started talking. He said, “I’ve got this weird thing called ‘Terrapin Station.’” “What’s a terrapin?” “A turtle.” “Oh, okay.” And he started telling me about it; just sitting with me telling me the story of it. And I got completely swept up in it and my mind started going: “Why don’t we put together like a suite, like a concept record?” During this first meeting we even talked about orchestrating it. Garcia thought the song would be “theatrical,” which appealed to me. — Keith Olsen in 1978.

Terrapin Station marked the Grateful Dead’s debut on Arista Records, and the legendary head of the label Clive Davis requested the band work with an outside producer, which they had not done since their 1968 LP Anthem Of The Sun. Keith Olsen was available, and despite not being familiar with the band’s music, was chosen in part because of the Studer equipment and Neve console he used at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California.

Olsen and the Dead worked on Terrapin Station at Sound City between February and June 1977 (with additional recording sessions held in May at Automated Sound Studios in New York City as well as in London at Abbey Road, AIR London and Trident). As sessions began to be drawn out, Olsen tasked the band’s longtime crew member Steve Parish to nail the doors to Sound City shut, with the members locked inside with nothing but a bathroom and break room beyond the recording area.

Among the well-documented controversial decisions Olsen made was the addition of orchestra and choir parts performed by The Martyn Ford Orchestra and The English Choral on “Terrapin Station.” Derided by several members of the band, Hart shared this vitriolic story regarding the producer’s contributions:

[Olsen] did something that was one of the most disrespectful things that has ever happened to me musically in my life. On the second side of Terrapin, “At A Siding” and “Terrapin Flyer” are mine. The “Flyer” was supposed to be a timbal solo with me and Garcia doing duets, timbal and guitar. Olsen erased one of the beautiful timbal tracks in Europe and replaced it with all these strings. He played it for me, and my mouth dropped … He took a lot off, and then I put my timbal solo back on. But he didn’t ask – he erased it off the master and replaced it all with strings.

***

“I didn’t care for our recording of [“Terrapin Station”] because the producer took it into the studio in England by himself and threw all kinds of lush strings on it,” Hunter said. “I’ve never been able to listen to that without gritting my teeth, but I love the song.” Drummer Bill Kreutzmann called Olsen a “megalomaniac” who he had heard was “a motherfucker on drummers” and made Billy “do stuff I didn’t want to do,” later critiquing that the track “sounds really grandiose, like somebody’s ego is playing those strings.”

A more diplomatic Bob Weir, who would go on to enlist Olsen to produce his 1978 solo LP Heaven Help The Fool, described initially being “pissed off” and needing a “long negotiation” to find common ground with the producer. After agreeing to dial back some of Olsen’s orchestration that included Paul Buckmaster’s arrangements, Weir seemed content with the outcome.

“I could find fault here and there, but in general, I like the lines,” Bobby said. “There was just too much of it and I thought it needed to be backpedaled considerably.”

In 1977 a complimentary Jerry Garcia said Olsen had, “A really excellent ear, and he’s worked really well with us. It’s an indication that he’s a pretty good man. It’s hard to work with us.”

***

The Grateful Dead opened their February 26, 1977 concert at Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California by debuting “Terrapin Station.” Taking a much different form from the highly orchestrated studio version that would be issued five months later, the band predominantly played “Lady With A Fan” and “Terrapin Station” during live shows.

The closest the Grateful Dead came to playing the complete “Terrapin Station Part 1” suite as it appears on Terrapin Station occurred at their March 18, 1977 show at the Winterland in San Francisco. Six of the seven parts of the suite were attempted, including the believed to be only complete live offerings of “Terrapin,” “At A Siding” (without lyrics) and “Terrapin Flyer.”

Primarily a second set song that regularly segued into “Playing In The Band” and later “Drums/Space,” after more than 300 performances “Terrapin Station” last appeared during the band’s second set of their penultimate show at Soldier Field on July 8, 1995.


Watch the previously shared Inspiration: Celebrating 40 Years Of Terrapin Station covers of “Estimated Prophet,” “Dancin’ In The Streets,” “Passenger,” “Samson And Delilah” and “Sunrise” here:

[Estimated Prophet]

[Dancin’ In The Streets]

[Passenger]

[Samson And Delilah]

[Sunrise]

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