The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World”

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    The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World”
    Published: March 31, 2023

    “Eyes of the World” / “Weather Report Suite” 7″ single (1973)

    “Eyes of the World” is one of the quintessential Grateful Dead live songs. Frequently spanning north of 15 minutes, the track truly allowed the band to stretch their wings (“a mile long”) and show off every aspect of their sound.

    The lyrics, too, seem to capture the essence of the Grateful Dead — to experience life in its purest form, understand there is always more to learn, and find peace within the self and the universe at large.

    Released on the band’s 1973 album Wake of the Flood, “Eyes of the World” first appeared in the live repertoire on February 9th, 1973, and remained in rotation until the very end.

    Like many of their best songs, the song boasts lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Jerry Garcia.

    With over two full decades worth of performances, “Eyes of the World” has a plethora of excellent live recordings to explore and enjoy, giving us as listeners plenty of time to ponder the song’s abstract, worldly meaning in relation to our own lives.

    “Eyes of the World” Lyrics Meaning

    Robert Hunter was always known to draw from a wide range of influences with his songwriting, and “Eyes of the World” is particularly interesting in that regard. While the song does have some references, Hunter’s perspective in “Eyes” is more of a general sense of knowing, placing himself in the context of everything that has come before and everything that will come after.

    As we go through the lyrics, I will analyze them according to information found in the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, elsewhere on the web, and of course my own personal thinking and understanding about this song.

    The track begins with an extended jam that may go on for several minutes before any vocals are even sung. Jerry plays that iconic guitar intro and everybody knows what song they’re playing, and then the band takes however long they want to reach the first verse:

    Right outside this lazy summer home
    You ain’t got time to call your soul a critic no
    Right outside the lazy gate of winter’s summer home
    Wondering where the nuthatch winters
    Wings a mile long just carried the bird away

    First verse to “Eyes of the World” by the Grateful Dead.

    The opening lyrics present a cozy image of summer vacation. However, though it may feel laid back, especially with Jerry’s delivery and the breezy instrumentation, upon closer inspection we can see that we are actually outside of this comfortable place, and seemingly in a hurry to get in.

    Your soul, or your inner self, could be called a critic, which brings to mind the idea of treating yourself unkindly. Perhaps the lyrics, right off the bat, are suggesting that life is too short to expect perfection from yourself or others.

    Still, even with this nugget of wisdom, and the so-called desire to take it easy, you find yourself outside of the summer home, in the middle of winter.

    Or — in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the desire to get away, like the nuthatch.

    The nuthatch is a common type of bird with many species native to North America. While the lyrics suggests this bird to be one that travels, there is only one species, the Red-breasted nuthatch, that is known to do significant migration in the winter.

    Regardless, this lyric connects with the idea of free-spiritedness, and seeking out a place that is more suited to your preferences. It’s reminds me of the line in “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad” (a traditional folk song the Dead often played): “Goin’ where the climate suits my clothes.”

    The final lyric in this verse, presenting the image of “wings a mile long”, suggests that the bird can travel great distances with ease. Our narrator hopes to be like this bird, or at least is wondering where the birds might be spending the winter, so that he can go there, too.

    Jerry Garcia’s vocal inflection on this line often hits like a warm blanket before the band drops into the chorus:

    Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world
    The heart has its beaches, its homeland and thoughts of its own
    Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings
    But the heart has its seasons, its evenings and songs of its own

    Chorus to “Eyes of the World” by the Grateful Dead.

    The chorus suggests a spiritual awakening — “wake up to find out”. This is something like opening your mind to the understanding that your perspective is only your own perspective.

    You Are The Eyes of the World is also the title of a translation of the Buddhist scholar Longchenpa’s (1308-1363) practical guide to the tantra. While Longchenpa did not precisely use this phrase (nor did he speak anything close to English), the translators connect Hunter’s lyrics with Longchenpa’s instructions on how to achieve pure presence, and thus they printed some of his lyrics on the inside cover and chose to reference it with the title.

    Each person’s heart, the deepest part of their being, has its own vision of home and paradise, and thoughts on those and everything in between.

    Encouraging the listener to wake up seems to be encouraging them to express themselves creatively, and see that they are capable of producing the songs of the morning.

    This is perhaps a reference to the nuthatch that was missing in the opening verse, with the chorus affirming that the person is able to fill the air with their own songs, in the case of the absence of the bird song.

    You might have noticed that I just referenced two additional Grateful Dead songs that relate to the “Eyes of the World” lyrics, “Ripple” and “Bird Song”. This points to the interconnected world that Robert Hunter created with his lyrics — something that I notice more and more the deeper I look into these songs.

    Robert Hunter’s “heart has its seasons” line may have been referencing the French philosopher Blaire Pascal and his posthumous work Pensées (1670), which contains the musing:

    “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?”

    Blaire Pascal’s Pensées no. 277

    You can see that both the rhythm of that opening sentence as well as the overall theme of the above quote seems to jive right in line with what Robert Hunter was exploring with this song.

    Essentially, the idea is to find harmony between the self and this universal being, or “the world”, despite the natural inclination to focus on one and shut out the other.

    After the chorus we reach another jam segment, which again goes on for as long as the band may feel like it. Then Jerry sings the second verse:

    There comes a redeemer
    And he slowly too fades away
    There follows a wagon behind him
    That’s loaded with clay
    And the seeds that were silent
    All burst into bloom and decay
    And night comes so quiet, it’s close on the heels of the day

    Second verse to “Eyes of the World” by the Grateful Dead.

    The “redeemer” in this case is any prophet that comes along who people believe will save them. Religion comes to mind with the use of this word and the rest of the way this verse is worded.

    Hunter’s take on it here is more of a warning to those who worship a redeemer as these prophets share their fate, which is to someday die and fade away. Hunter provides the image of a wagon (think “bandwagon”) who follows behind him, filled with a substance that is known for being impressionable and moldable.

    That is not to say that this song is anti-religious. It more just cautions against putting your trust into people who claim to have the answers, as those people are all just trying to find their way through the cosmic goo just like you are.

    There is a notation in the Annotated Lyrics that connects this verse to Gnosticism, which is a belief system that involves a spiritual perspective and the belief in a “divine spark” that certain humans have.

    Some can recognize the spark, but don’t necessarily have it themselves, and others simply don’t understand and are as impressionable as clay. It is suggested there that Hunter may have written this verse with the Gnostic creation story in mind.

    The idea of “seeds that were silent” makes one think of untapped potential, as in seeds that could grow into beautiful flowers but have not yet germinated. This spark causes them to bloom in a burst of energy, only to decay as all living things eventually do.

    The night is creeping up on the the daytime, and it’s always closer than you might think. This lyric seems to reference death, and how it can happen sooner than you expect. As it follows a line about bloom and decay, it is implied that the right time to sow the seeds that exist within your soul is right now.

    The chorus hits again, followed by another jam before the third and final verse:

    Sometimes we live no particular way but our own
    And sometimes we visit your country and live in your home
    Sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone
    Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own

    Third verse to “Eyes of the World” by the Grateful Dead.

    This verse is all about the duality of life, and how at times you keep to yourself while at others you may connect deeply with others.

    It also makes me think of the Grateful Dead themselves, traveling around the country and living in our home in the form of their shows blaring out of our speakers, our walls plastered with their posters, and even wearing their merchandise.

    Robert Hunter himself even spoke directly about the meaning of the line “Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own,” during a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone:

    I think it’s possible each of us may have some tune, or song, that we hum or sing to ourselves, nothing particularly amazing or fine, necessarily, that is our own song.

    Robert Hunter on the meaning of “Eyes of the World”, 2015.

    Perhaps the most interesting of all the connections to be made with this song, for those interested in psychedelics and their impact on this time period and band, is the similarity between this verse and a verse from the Lead Belly song “Goodnight Irene”, which the Dead performed live one time (NYE ’83).

    Sometimes I live in the country
    Sometimes I live in town
    Sometimes I take a great notion
    To jump in the river and drown

    Lyrics from “Goodnight Irene”.

    While this in itself is not supremely interesting, as Hunter had been known to reference other works prior to this, what is interesting is the fact that these lyrics from “Goodnight Irene” are the same ones that inspired Ken Kesey to title his second novel Sometimes A Great Notion (1964).

    It’s well known that Kesey and Hunter were friends, but it is less known that the pair were also both part of the MKUltra experiments conducted by the CIA. These experiments included giving subjects LSD to see if it could be used as a means of mind control, among other things.

    Take what you know about the 1960s and the psychedelic revolution and compare that to the timeline of these experiments: 1953 to 1973. The fact that Kesey and Hunter were both introduced to psychedelics in this way and then went on to influence the minds and hearts of so many is truly astounding.

    Those who have tried psychedelics may not find it surprising that the CIA was not successful in controlling those to whom they gave them. In fact, many of the subjects actually found the effects quite pleasurable and mentally stimulating.

    The fact that “Eyes of the World” is where the Grateful Dead overlap with Ken Kesey on an artistic basis is telling of the song’s meaning and intent. The Grateful Dead were hoping to help people open their minds, and “Eyes of the World” is one fairly direct example of that.

    Enjoy the Wake of the Flood version and a few of my favorite live versions of “Eyes of the World” below. Check out some notable cover versions below that.

    “Eyes of the World” (Studio)

    “Eyes of the World” (10/19/74)

    This is the “Eyes of the World” from The Grateful Dead Movie, which was filmed during the band’s pre-hiatus concerts at Winterland Arena in San Francisco. It features a recently remastered video that is not only incredible, but also features a skinny Jerry Garcia during perhaps the healthiest and most creative time period in his life.

    “Eyes of the World” (9/3/77)

    “Eyes of the World” (3/29/90)

    This is an excellent version of “Eyes of the World” featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone. It was this version in particular that caused me to go down the rabbit hole of live Grateful Dead music, and the whole show that this comes from is worth checking out.

    “Eyes of the World” (6/17/91)

    While many listeners scoff at anything in the post-Brent era, this 1991 “Eyes” is exceptional. It is the only time in the history of the band that they opened a show with “Eyes of the World”, and it features Bruce Hornsby on keys.

    Phish – “Eyes of the World” (12/1/84)

    While more notable for the novelty than the greatness of the cover, this is early, early Phish covering “Eyes of the World” during one of their first-ever shows. They were still in college at this point.

    Dave Matthews Band – “Eyes of the World” (8/11/95)

    Dave Matthews Band played a cover of “Eyes of the World” in Berkeley, California just two days after the death of Jerry Garcia. This is a nice cover of the song in my opinion, and it was also a heartfelt tribute from one musician to another.

    Keller Williams – “Eyes of the World” (Gathering of the Vibes 2009)

    Keller Williams version from Gathering of the Vibes 2009 that features none other than Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals.

    Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros – “Eyes of the World” (6/9/21)

    Slow, but nice version from Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros in 2021 that includes a medley into “What’s Goin’ On” by Marvin Gaye.

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