"Althea" was exposed to the world by The Grateful Dead on their 1980 release, "Go To Heaven". It lives as the third track of the album right in-between, "Far From Me" and "Feel Like A Stranger". The song first appeared in the bands live rotation in August 1979, 8 Months before the studio release.
Today, the song "Althea" has secured its place as one of the most popular tracks in the Grateful Dead's vast collection, standing alongside hits such as "Touch of Grey", "Friend of the Devil", "Casey Jones", and "Ripple" in terms of mainstream recognition. (Currently 3rd most played Dead song on Spotify)
Crafted by the dynamic duo of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, "Althea" represents one of the many examples of their superb songwriting abilities.
The song stands out not only because of Garcia's impeccable guitar skills but also because of the intriguing lyrics, which can be interpreted as being autobiographical of the circumstances surrounding Garcia's life during the time it was written, as well as his last 15 years.
However, the beauty of Robert Hunter's songwriting lies in its versatility, allowing listeners to draw inspiration from the song's meaning and relate it to their personal experiences as they grow and mature.
In this piece, rather than gushing over my admiration for the Grateful Dead, we will focus solely on the significance of "Althea". We will delve into the lyrics, the inspiration behind the song, and its relevance to Jerry Garcia's life, who was grappling with a severe heroin addiction from the late 1970s until his death in 1995.
The Name "Althea"
The origin of the name "Althea" can be traced back to Greek mythology, specifically to the ancient Greek name "Althaea," which translates to "healer of wounds."
In Greek mythology, Althaea was the mother of the hero Meleager. The Fates visited Althea when Meleager was a child and informed her that her son's life was tied to a specific log in her fire. Althea removed the log and kept it in a safe place for years.
As an adult, Meleager participated in a hunt for a boar terrorizing his village. His girlfriend Atalanta landed the first blow on the boar and was awarded the prize. Althaea's brothers, Meleager's uncles, were displeased that the prize had been awarded to a woman and got into a fight with Meleager, resulting in their death.
Althea, upon learning of her son's actions, took the log from its hiding place and burned it in the fire. Meleager, who was nearby, suddenly felt a pain in his chest and died.
The poet Richard Lovelace also used the name "Althea" in his 1649 poem "To Althea From Prison," which was written for a real-life woman named Lucy Sacheverell.
Additionally, "Althea" refers to a type of hibiscus flower, such as the Marsh Mallow or Hollyhock.
It is plausible that Robert Hunter was aware of these references when writing the lyrics to the song "Althea" and drew inspiration from them while crafting the song's meaning.
"I told Althea I was feeling lost Lacking in some direction Althea told me upon scrutiny That my back might need protection
I told Althea that treachery Was tearing me limb from limb Althea told me, now cool down boy Settle back easy, Jim
You may be Saturday's child all grown Moving with a pinch of grace You may be a clown in the burying ground Or just another pretty face
You may be the fate of Ophelia Sleeping and perchance to dream Honest to the point of recklessness centered to the extreme
Ain't nobody messin' with you but you Your friends are getting most concerned Loose with the truth, maybe its your fire Baby I hope you don't get burned
When the smoke has cleared, she said That's what she said to me You're gonna want a bed to lay your head And a little sympathy
There are things you can replace And others you cannot The time has come to weigh those things This space is gettin' hot You know this space is gettin' hot I told Althea, I'm a roving sign That I was born to be a bachelor Althea told me, OK that's fine So now I'm trying to catch her Can't talk to you without talking to me We're guilty of the same old things Thinking a lot about less and less And forgetting the love we bring"
"Althea" also draws inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet, with the first reference "being a clown in the burying ground". The Clown who provides comic relief during tragic times. Th
is reference is followed by two others, including a comparison of Jim to Ophelia, who died by suicide after becoming emotionally overwhelmed, and the use of the famous "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy.
All of these references serve to paint "Jim" as a troubled figure who may be on a path to self-destruction due to his recklessness and self-centeredness. The lyrics of the song encourage listeners to look at things from a fresh perspective and avoid getting caught up in self-destructive behaviors and attitudes.
By using literary allusions, Hunter/Garcia created a poignant and thought-provoking piece that speaks to the struggles of the human condition. The use of Shakespeare's themes and characters adds to the depth and complexity of the lyrics, making "Althea" a powerful reminder of the dangers of falling into destructive patterns of behavior.
Modern Impact of "Althea"
Since Jerry's death in 1995, Althea has relentlessly contributed to the preservation and perpetuation of the Grateful Dead Legacy. A case in point is the remarkable event of early
February 2015, when John Mayer took on the hosting mantle of the Late Late Show for three consecutive days. During his second episode, he invited Bob Weir to the show as a guest, to promote the Grateful Dead's 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well Show. Subsequent to the show, Mayer and Weir joined forces with the studio band to perform a live rendition of "Althea." The artistic symbiosis between the musicians during the show, and particularly while performing the song, led to the formation of Dead and Company.
In conclusion, the Grateful Dead's "Althea" is a masterful example of songwriting that has endured the test of time. Its intricate lyrics, combined with Garcia's expert guitar playing, make for a truly remarkable listening experience. Whether interpreted as a personal reflection of Jerry Garcia's struggles with addiction or as a universal message about overcoming self-destructive behaviors, "Althea" continues to resonate with audiences around the world. Its timeless quality serves as a testament to the band's enduring legacy, as well as the songwriting prowess of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.
Listen to the first episode of "Dead Talk", where we discuss "Althea" in great detail!
Article by Noah Kenneth Smith, February 26th, 2023.
Notable Live Performances Mentioned in The Podcast Episode:
Grateful Dead - Althea Live; Nassau Coliseum, May 16th, 1980
*max's current favorite*
Althea Live @ Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 3/9/81
*Noah's Current Favorite*
John Mayer and Bob Weir Perform "Althea" on the Late Late Show, February 2015. Birth of Dead and Company
John Mayer Playing Althea on Jerry Garcia Wolf Guitar Made By Doug Irwin. Dead And Company, June 2019
Joe Russo's Almost Dead Performing Althea, Brooklyn Bowl, November 25, 2019