"Welcome to Terrapin Station": A Story About Bird Song

On March 7, 1981, the University of Maryland Terrapins lost to their rival, the University of North Carolina Tarheels.  It was the final game of the ACC Tournament and UNC pulled ahead 60 to 61.  The Terps played away in Chapel Hill that day; and for a good reason.  Their home court, Cole Field House, was temporarily renamed: “Terrapin Station.”  The Grateful Dead were in town.

Now, not a lot happened in history on March 7, 1981.  It was kind of a disappointing day.  The weather was cold and blustery.  Bob Marley and the Wailers were scheduled to open the show and were listed on the ticket.

However, Marley injured himself a few months before and unbeknownst to the world, he would pass away two months later on May 11, 1981.  The Grateful Dead dedicated “He’s Gone” to Bob Marley the next night: “This one’s for Marley.”  What a treat it would have been if Bob Marley sat in with the Dead or, if Jerry sat in with the Wailers on that blustery March day in 1981.

I remember when the Cole Field House show circulated on the 80’s page of DeadNet Central back in the days of dial up modem.  You had to sign up for a “vine,” list your address, and in a few days a package arrived in the mail.  You’d burn the CD and send it on to the next person on the list.  Folks on the site posted about their memories of the show.  I remember someone said that there was a mechanical windup bird flying around the venue before the show and that a banner was hung that read “WELCOME TO TERRAPIN STATION.”  I also read a post from someone who recalls Phil stepped on stage pre-show to check things out and somebody yelled, “Hey man you guys gotta play Terrapin tonight.”  Well, if Phil Lesh saw the mechanical bird flying around the auditorium and then saw a banner boldly laying claim to Terrapin Station and heard some kid demand the band to play Terrapin; what do you think happened?  Correct, they didn’t play Terrapin Station.  Instead, they played the longest Bird Song in Grateful Dead history; over 17 minutes!  Maybe this photo was taken during the song?

Bird Song had taken a long winter’s nap from September of 1973 until it was revived for the acoustic shows in the Fall of 1980.  The Cole Field House show was only the fifth time since 1973 that the Dead played Bird Song in an electric set.  Only an audience recording of the show exists, and the Bird Song was captured very nicely.  Jerry’s playing is crystal clear and Brent’s bell-like tones are a great melodic backdrop.  Click here to listen. 

As for the structure of those 1980's Bird Songs, they relocated the chorus so it followed the jam.  I do think that building up the E7 jam and walking up to the C#m chorus creates a nice tension and release.  That’s pretty much how the structure of Bird Song remained until its final appearance on June 30, 1995- which actually is not a bad version to check out.  One of the iconic photos of Jerry was taken at that show. 

Bird Song had a different structure in the early 70’s. Back then, verses 1, 2 and the chorus were repeated as bookends around the jam.  In the middle of the jam, Jerry played the Bird Song intro and the instruments fell quiet for a round of drum fills. Then, a big Phil open E crashed and the band was back into the jam.  I think one of the best examples of this structure is Old Renaissance Fairgrounds, Venetta, OR 1972.  Click here to listen to that version.  Actually, RFK June 10, 1973 is pretty cool too.

I went back through some ZenDog archives and I’ve found versions of Bird Song where we played it in a 1980’s structure. Here is a nice matrix from our May 11, 2019 soundboard and Audience recording from our community archivist Rich from Southeast PA Live Music Collective.  More recently, we’ve been playing Bird Song in the early 1970’s structure with the book end verses and the drum break in the middle of the jam. Click here to listen

Now, whenever anyone talks about the March 7, 1981 University of Maryland show at the home of the Terrapins, there is an air of sadness because the band did not play Terrapin Station and it was the only time the Dead played at UMD. Also, don't forget the weather put a damper on the parking lot festivities and Bob Marley and the Wailers didn't play.  But, don’t despair, they played a beautiful 17 minute Bird Song and that is a song about sadness and letting go of despair.  

Bird Song is one of the few songs about which Robert Hunter reveals his intention.  In his book Box of Rain, Hunter writes “for Janis” on the pages for Bird Song.  Before I knew it was a eulogy, Bird Song made me reflect on the imagery of nature and life in the song: birds, singing, laughing, snow, rain, sunshine, crying, wind, and stars.  Basking in the lyrical imagery against the backdrop of the melody, I was always at peace with myself when hearing that song.

As a eulogy, the song takes on even more beauty. Stringing a few lyrics together the meaning is clear,  All I know is something like a bird within her sang, all I know she sang a little while and then flew off … Anyone who sings a tune so sweet is passing by … sleep in the stars, don’t you cry, dry your eyes on the wind.”  It's sadness and resolve in prose.  I think we have all known someone who was so full of life, but passed away too early. In that sense, the song expresses a universal lamentation and need to move on that we all understand.  I am still at peace with myself when I hear Bird Song.  Knowing now that the song is a eulogy, it’s a different peace. Not better, not worse; but more spiritually enlightening.

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