Why did the Grateful Dead stop playing ‘St. Stephen’?

There were many “holy grails” floating around the extended catalogue of the Grateful Dead. In fact, there are as many different tracks as there are Deadheads, and the definition of a “holy grail” will certainly change between each fan and their own experience. For some, hearing a classic like ‘Casey Jones’ in the 1990s amounted to a religious experience, despite it being one of the band’s best-known songs. Meanwhile, you could still hear dedicated followers yell out ‘Aligator’ well after it was permanently put on the shelf.

For most fans and followers, it was generally agreed upon that ‘Dark Star’ was the holiest of “holy grails”. Played almost nightly throughout the late 1960s, ‘Dark Star’ began to get less frequent as the Dead brought in more jam vehicles like ‘Playing in the Band’ and ‘Bird Song’ to explore the outer cosmos of music. After the band’s road hiatus in 1975, ‘Dark Star’ was only played 37 times across the next 20 years, with only six performances throughout the 1980s.

If ‘Dark Star’ was the main hunt for Deadheads, ‘St. Stephen’ was certainly a worthy second place. Casual fans could find a version of the song on the 1969 album Aoxomoxoa, but that recording is only the tip of the iceberg. The studio version doesn’t include the ‘William Tell Bridge’ section of the song that was frequently played in the 1960s, nor does it barrel into ‘The Eleven’ like most versions at the time did. Truly dedicated Deadheads love to cite the late ’60s combination of ‘Dark Star’, ‘St. Stephen’, ‘William Tell Bridge’, and ‘The Eleven’ as peak primal Dead.

But as the Dead began to turn away from acid-drenched psychedelia, ‘St. Stephen’ became a song lost to time. Actually, it was a bit too much of its time – after 1971, the song wasn’t played at all until 1976. In between, the band members took some time to explain to audiences who called out for the song why it was no longer on the setlist.

At their appearance at the Bickershaw Festival on May 7th, 1972, Bob Weir told the crowd, “If it’d set any minds at ease, we done forgot ‘St. Stephen.’ I mean we forgot it. We can’t play it anymore. We don’t know how.” Weir calls it “Water under the bridge” and even claims, “We may someday try to reconstruct it. You know, listen to the record and cop our licks.”

Less than a year later, on March 21st, 1973, in Utica, New York, Phil Lesh set the chanting crowd straight. “For all you ‘St. Stephen’ fans, we don’t do that song anymore,” Lesh claims. Weir jumps in as well, saying, “The bitter truth. We had to quit doing it ‘cause you liked it too much.”

However, Jerry Garcia was the one who eventually set the record straight.“People ask us, ‘Why don’t you do ‘St. Stephen’ anymore?’ The truth is that we did it to death when we did do it – when we did it, we did it,” Garcia told Mary Eisenhart in 1987. “In fact, we had two periods of time when we did it – we rearranged it later for three voices, with Donna. And we did it, and the people who missed it, that’s too bad, you know? We may never do it again.”

“It’s one of those things that doesn’t perform that well – we were able to make it work then because we had the power of conviction,” he added. “But I don’t think that our present sensibilities would let us do it the way it was, anyway. We would have to change it some.”

A year later, Garcia was once again asked about the status of ‘St. Stephen’. “When we stopped doing ‘St. Stephen’ we stopped doing it – we used it up… ‘St. Stephen’ has some real goofy shit in it,” Garica claimed. “It’s got little idiosyncrasies and verses that are different from each other, and if you don’t remember every bit of it – it’s a piece of material that is unnecessarily difficult. It’s been made tricky. It’s got a bridge in the middle that doesn’t really fit in.

“It’s interesting…because it has a couple of things that work real good,” he continued. “But finally, the stuff that doesn’t work overpowers the stuff that does work; and the reason it does is just the thing of memory: ‘Let’s see, what verse is this?’ They’re not interchangeable; you have to do them in order. So in that sense, a song like ‘St. Stephen’ is a cop. It’s our musical policeman: if we don’t do it the way it wants to go, it doesn’t work at all. That means it’s inflexible.”

Lesh alluded to similar ideas in his memoir, Searching for the Sound. “Jerry was never happy with the fact that the bridge had to be played and sung in a slower tempo than the rest of the song,” Lesh claimed. “He felt that it lost momentum.” On Halloween night, 1983, ‘St. Stephen’ was dusted off for the last time and remained out of the band’s sets until Garcia’s death in 1995.

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