AUK’s Chain Gang: Grateful Dead “Friend of The Devil”

So, the mention of Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Tony Rice doing ‘House of The Rising Sun’ via Dave Van Ronk last week brings us to Grateful Dead and their ‘Friend of the Devil.’ It is one of their classic songs from ‘American Beauty,’ certainly one of their best studio albums, with which The Dead established themselves as one of the forerunners of modern Americana.

While from inception The Grateful Dead was essentially a roots band, ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’ left, at least temporarily, elements of overt psychedelia in the background. Of the two albums, ‘Friend of the Devil’ can be picked as one of the top five compositions on both. And while ‘House of the Rising Sun’ spoke about ‘houses of ill repute,’ ‘Friend of the Devil’ continues in the vein of covering all things illicit, themes both roots music and rock share in full.
The album credits list John Dawson (of the New Riders of The Purple Sage) Garcia and Dead’s resident poet Robert Hunter as the authors. Supposedly, Hunter originally envisioned the song for NRPS, for whom Garcia played pedal steel on their first album. Still, Garcia picked up the song for ‘American Beauty’ turning into a gentle, interplay of acoustic picking and bluegrass shuffle.
“Set out runnin’ but I take my time
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
Just might get some sleep tonight”
And you got everything in there that has some connection with another side of the law. Whether it was intentional or not, in many ways the song is a tribute to the blues legend Robert Johnson and the stories about his ‘devil connection.’
Grateful Dead were in a way probably the greatest covers band ever. The number of their versions of songs by the others certainly outnumber the versions of their songs by others. Worth a truly honourable mention here is the version of ‘Friend of the Devil’ by Lyle Lovett, recorded for ‘Deadicated’ the Nineties tribute to Grateful Dead. This version not only retains the best elements of the original but give it another Americana dimension.

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Andrew Trott

A certain Mr Dylan does pretty fair cover versions of “friend of the devil” , especially throughout 1996 .

Pat Chappelle

One curious thing about this song, to me, is why the Dead always missed out a verse from Hunter’s lyric, as sung in full on his solo LP, “Jack O’Roses”. That wasn’t released till 1980 so I guess he could have added it later, but it’s such a killer verse I would never have excluded it, and I’m always surprised that no one else seems to know it. Tacked on at the end of the song, it goes: “You can borrow from the devil, you can borrow from a friend; the devil will give you twenty when your friend got only ten.” Hunter’s solo works are well worth seeking out, especially the first two on Round (“Rum Runners”, “Tiger Rose”). Great live too: I was privileged to see him twice, both in intimate little venues, including one time he was backed by a band including Peter Perrett (of The Only Ones) — not sure how that came about, but they rocked!

Martin Johnson

Pat, In his journal for 23 February 2006 Robert Hunter gave this account of writing the song:

“I was just remembering how Friend of the Devil got written. First off I wrote these four verses one afternoon back in 1969.

“I was living in Madrone canyon with the Garcias. The NRPS had asked me if I wanted to play bass with them and it seemed like a good idea at the time. So I worked up that song on bass, added a few verses plus a chorus and went over to where David Nelson and John Dawson were living in Kentfield and taught them the tune. The “Sweet Anne Marie” verse which was later to become a bridge was only one of the verses, not yet a bridge. The chorus went:

I set out running but I take my time
It looks like water but it tastes like wine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight

“I’d changed the fourth verse, about parlaying the twenty dollars into five thousand and, except for the all important Friend of the Devil hook, the lyrics were pretty much as they stand today minus a fifth verse which goes:

You can borrow from the Devil
You can borrow from a friend
But the Devil give you twenty
When your friend got only ten

“We all went down to the kitchen to have espresso made in Dawson’s new machine. We got to talking about the tune and John said the verses were nifty except for “it looks like water but it tastes like wine” which I had to admit fell flat. Suddenly Dawson’s eyes lit up and he crowed “How about “a friend of the devil is a friend of mine.” Bingo, not only the right line but a memorable title as well! We ran back upstairs to Nelson’s room and recorded the tune. I took the tape home and left it on the kitchen table. Next morning I heard earlybird Garcia (who hadn’t been at the rehearsal – had a gig, you know) wanging away something familiar sounding on the peddle steel. Danged if it wasn’t “Friend of the Devil.” With a dandy bridge on the “sweet Anne Marie” verse. He was not in the least apologetic about it. He’d played the tape, liked it, and faster than you can say dog my cats it was in the Grateful Dead repertoire. Although I learned all the tunes, I never did play a gig with the NRPS, who were doing strictly club dates at the time. For one reason or another I never quite fathomed, though I have my suspicions, I got shut out. Either that or I misread the signs and wasn’t inclined to push. Nothing was ever said. In any event, a fellow named Dave Torbert showed up about that time. Just as well. One dedicated songwriter in the band was enough.”

Pat Chappelle

Thanks for that, Martin, really interesting on many levels. Have to admit I wasn’t aware of Hunter’s journals — are they available in book form anywhere?

Martin Johnson

Pat, You May find this site of interest Martin