Certain Songs #540: The Grateful Dead – “Friend of The Devil”

grateful dead american beauty Album: American Beauty
Year: 1970

If I was forced at gunpoint to choose my favorite song by The Grateful Dead (and seriously, who would ever actually do that?), it would be the outlaw fantasia “Friend of The Devil,” one of the key tracks on their 1971 classic American Beauty.

I’m definitely not alone in this, of course, and while I don’t really remember “Friend of The Devil” being on the radio in the same way as its contemporaries such as “Casey Jones” and “Truckin,'” over the years, it’s the song that has come to define the Dead for me.

Or at least the Dead I like the most: easy-rolling mostly-acoustic songs with rough vocals and intricate guitar work. So basically Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

I set out running but I take my time
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight

As Jerry Garcia is singing Robert Hunter’s myth-making lyrics, there’s a hint of amusement in his voice, as if he’s giving away that the words he’s singing — about borrowing money from the devil, who almost instantly demands payment (at least he didn’t charge interest) — have absolutely nothing to do with the life he actually lives, but he’s also fine with you thinking it is his real life.

This is most apparent in the bridge:

Got two reasons why I cry
Away each lonely night
The first one’s named sweet Anne Marie
And she’s my heart’s delight
Second one is prison, baby
The sheriff’s on my trail
And if he catches up with me
I’ll spend my life in jail

The (American) beauty, of course, is that the actual veracity of a song like “Friend of The Devil” doesn’t even matter. Because Garcia is so clearly enjoying imagining himself as this polygamous outlaw who will probably ask the devil for a bong hit the next time they see each other, it allows us to imagine ourselves having that kinda of freewheeling lifestyle, regardless of the details.

Which, I guess, is one of the reasons it feels like such a key text in the Dead’s mythology: songs like “Friend of The Devil” probably helped people decide to dedicate their lives to following them around, hoping to capture the thrill of the endless life on the road it so effortlessly described.

Some of them might even have.

“Friend of the Devil”

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