Friday, March 20, 2009

China Doll - Grateful Dead Song Review

In my opinion, here's what makes a "great" China Doll:

-Jerry nails all of the words
-the band makes the changes together
  - the background vocals are on key

...but if you are lucky enough to get he above, then you hope for this to make a "perfect China Doll":

-cool transition into China Doll from another song
-soulful well executed guitar solo

... and there are definitely some "perfect" China Dolls out there.

China Doll is a moody ballad with one of the most beautiful transitions from minor to major in rock music that I've ever heard. This song was originally released on the From the Mars Hotel album in 1974 and featured harpsichord.

China Doll
is very much revered but is still underrated. China Doll should be an even more high profile Grateful Dead classic than it currently is. I am sure the song is virtually unknown outside of Deadheads so it earns the distinction of being For Deadheads Only.

This song is so deep, eerie, and mysterious it disappoints me that more people aren't exposed to it. It is a very slow melancholy dirge and another thing that might detract from it's popularity amongst Deadheads and the public at large is that the lyrics are very vague. I am not even sure what the plot of the song is or if the dialogue is a one person monologue or between two people, etc. The opening lines are vague:

A pistol shot at 5 o'clock
The bells of heaven ring
"Tell me what you done it for"
"No I won't tell you a thing"
It has been written in the books that (per Robert Hunter) the opening shot refers to a suicide but without that 3rd party information I wouldn't have known that. This fact of the vague lyrics does not bother me at all because I love China Doll so much but I am just conjecturing that the unclear storyline and lack of identifiable characters (ie no "Black Peter" in this one) might have caused the song not to receive the fanfare I think it deserves.

The song goes on with cryptic lyrics until the unbelievable tension release before the final lines:

Take up your china doll
it's only fractured
just a little nervous from the fall

This transition from minor to major is chillingly effective and really a compositional triumph on Jerry's part. This part gives me goosebumps pretty much every time I hear it. Also I must mention that Jerry always played an anguished, minimal, and soulful solo on China Doll in a "slowhand" style with lots of bent notes that was not his typical style.

I can honestly say that when I'm listening to a Dead show recording or a podcast and the 2nd set Drums/Space section is winding down the song I honestly want to hear most is always China Doll. I love this song a lot and always listen to see if I can hear Jerry start to outline the Dm chord that starts China Doll. This song just transports me to a dark (but comfortable) place and then delivers me to a wistful state of mind by the final refrain "La la la la la la laaaaa." I love Jerry ballads above all else so it should come as no surprise that I am hoping for a China Doll in every show I hear.

In my relatively few Dead shows I attended (17) it was not meant to be for me to hear a China Doll. Really, the vast majority of Deadheads probably didn't get to hear China Doll - it was played pretty intermittently throughout the Dead's career. The most frequency the song had was in the mid 80s - especially 1984 and 1985. It's been a while since I really analyzed the timeline of Jerry's drug use and physical decline in the 80s but I am going to go out on a limb and say that this song was played quite frequently during this period and he probably was in a lot of pain too. Maybe it was therapeutic for him to sing this song of loss and wail on the soulful solo...

China Doll
Song Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 9.3

: This is part of my review of every Grateful Dead song from A-Z. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so keep in mind that this is one man's opinion (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).


bathmate said...

Very nice posting. Thanks.

mevarsh said...


GDmike said...

Thanks for the comment mevarsh! I was 'locked out' of the blog for close to 3 years for some gmail/google issues (due to user error!), but I'm back and sharing opinions about GD songs like China Doll is exactly why I started this.

GDmike said...

Thanks bathmate!

monkey said...

Not sure why they do not mention it, but this song is 100% about Alexander Pushkin. Quite amazing actually.

GDmike said...

Wow, I would like to know more about this.... I am not familiar with the poet (just googled him)