One For Marmaduke
One more glance back at 2009 – and I promise I’ll stop after this.
I was walking with Bonnie the Chesapeake this morning on the Damariscotta River Association trail just down the road apiece. This is snowshoe territory right now, of course. We’ve had two dumpings of snow earlier this week (9” and 8”, respectively) on top of the foot and a half or so we got over the New Year’s weekend. Bonnie and I had made the big loop through the woods and along the shore and were headed back to the trailhead when I realized that right where I was standing (under close to 3’ of snow, of course) was the spot where the stage for the Great Salt Bay Music Festival had stood.
Back in July.
When, by rights and the law of averages, it can be sunny, warm, and beautiful here in Maine.
But it wasn’t this year – not for that weekend, anyway.
This year’s Great Salt Bay Festival found us, the Horseshoe Crabs, opening for Jason Spooner (another Mainer) and Inner Visions (wicked reggae from the Virgin Islands). As near as we could tell, the sun had come up that morning, but the skies were just chock full of sog with the air a humid mix of fog/heavy mist/light rain … you get the picture.
The weather held the attendance to maybe half of what it usually would be. They were the right half, though, if you like playing for people who are getting off on it. (Peter, our blind pedal steel player, said at one point, “Jesus – it sounds like quite a crowd!” We let him go with that image.) It was a nice mix of greys (like us) right down to the little ones.
So we were three songs into the set and it seemed like the right time, so I said, “This week the world of rock ‘n’ roll – hell, the whole world – lost one of the greats: John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson, one of the original New Riders of the Purple Sage.”
(Some applause; a couple “Marm – a – duke!” shout-outs.)
“If there really are some of you out here in the field who don’t know who Marmaduke was, let me toss a couple song names at you:
“‘Last Lonely Eagle’.”
“Or maybe … ‘Panama Red’.”
(Then, of course, they went ape shit.)
“I could keep you standing here in the rain for quite awhile listing off names of great songs that Marmaduke and the New Riders have given us, but I won’t.
“What I will do is tell you a quick story: this next song is one that was born of a late-night songwriting session between the great lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter, and Marmaduke and David Nelson of the New Riders. According to Nelson, they had the bulk of the song written by the time Robert Hunter left to head back home to the place he shared with Jerry Garcia. The story goes that Jerry wanted to know where Hunter’d been half the night – and when Hunter showed him the song they’d come up with, Jerry said, “Let me see that …” Hunter hit the hay; and by the time he got up in the morning, Jerry’d added a bridge to the song and had it ready to go, beginning to end. When the New Riders heard what Jerry had done with the song, they just said, ‘Aww, take it, man – it’s yours.’
“So this next tune is one that everybody associates with the Dead, but that’s only because – in the nicest of ways – ol’ Jerry snatched it up. Today, we’re gonna steal it back. This one’s for Marmaduke.”
So we started the number off like we usually do: just an on-the-spot little jam in G that sometimes is flavored with back-porch Headneck stomp; sometimes with funky little jazzy prickles … that particular day’s was just a gentle cascade – the 12-string and the pedal weaving while Paul’s old Hofner bass just swooped and glided around us. We brought it down to a hush (at this point the bulk of the crowd had no idea where we were going) and then I started that simple descending G-scale – the one that David Nelson had played all those years ago just to warm up and Hunter said, “That’s it! That’s the intro!” – and then tossed it to Peter to take over while I got the chords going to … “Friend of the Devil”.
And for a moment, in that rain-soaked bowl of a field on the shore of Great Salt Bay in the little town of Damariscotta, Maine, a cluster of mud-spattered poncho’d people let a collective roar out of them that I really, really like to think could be heard all the way up yonder and made ol’ Marmaduke smile.
By the time we let Peter loose on the solo, the rain had stopped.