In a three-decade career chockablock with musical anomalies, Blues For Allah still stands out as a highly unusual song among the several hundred that the Grateful Dead wrote and played and a rare statement from a band that largely eschewed politics. Given the never ending cycles of conflict in the Middle East, that statement remains every bit as relevant as when the eponymous album was released 41 years ago today.
As studio albums go, Blues For Allah was one of the Dead's best, recorded as it was at the apex of their most creative phase -- the middle years of the 1970s, in my view -- and as was their wont, several songs from the album got a thorough working over in concert. The Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower medley is a personal fave, and a vehicle for the band at their jazziest best. Then there's The Music Never Stopped and Crazy Fingers, the latter "the hardest damned Dead song I ever tried to play" because of the complex chording, according to an accomplished musician friend.
But what we're concerned with here is the title track, which was only played live a handful of times in 1975 prior to the album's release and never again after that.
The album, the Dead's eighth, was conceived in late 1974 as the band came off the road and went into semi-retirement, and the song Blues for Allah was an anomaly from the start. It used a free-flowing, unmetered melodic line (there is no time signature in the sheet music) that breaks out from Western musical norms and, as lyricist Robert Hunter explains it, unlike the band's usual spontaneous weirdness, the weirdness here was meticulously planned down to the last note.
Hunter in his book, A Box of Rain:
"This lyric is a requiem for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a progressive and democratically inclined ruler (and incidentally, a fan of the Grateful Dead) whose assassination in 1975 shocked us personally. . . .
"The lyric may be a requiem for a certain King, but it stands as a universal statement about war."
The lyrics were printed in Arabic on the jacket of the Middle Eastern release of the album. Here they are in English:
Arabian windThe needle's eye is thinThe ships of state sail on mirageAnd drown in sandOut in no-man's landWhere Allah does command.What good is spilling blood?It will not grow a thing;"Taste eternity" the swords sing:Blues for AllahIn 'sh'Allah.They lie where they fallThere's nothing more to sayThe desert stars are bright tonightLet's meet as friendsThe flower of IslamThe fruit of AbrahamThe thousand stories haveCome round to one again,Arabian nightOur gods pursue their fight,What fatal flowers of darknessBloom from seeds of light.Bird of Paradise fly in white skyBlues for AllahIn 'sh'AllahLet's see with our heartThese things our eyes have seen,And know the truth must still lieSomewhere in between.Under eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueUnder eternity, under eternity, under eternity blueBird of Paradise fly in white skyBlues for Allah
Of the Dead's 90 or so albums, most of which are retrospective live albums like the Dick's Picks series, some 21 went gold or platinum. Blues For Allah did not.