The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway”

Jerry Garcia performing with the Grateful Dead in the fall of 1982. Photo by Jay Blakesburg.

First appearing in the Grateful Dead’s live repertoire in the summer of 1982 (August 28th, 1982, to be exact) and then appearing on their 1987 album In The Dark, “West L.A. Fadeaway” is a blues-oriented tune about the slimy underbelly of Los Angeles.

With lyrics by Robert Hunter and music arranged by Jerry Garcia, “West L.A. Fadeaway” is a gem from the later years of the Dead, frequently appearing in their live setlists right up until the end.

There has been speculation over the years that “West L.A. Fadeaway” was initially written as a tribute to actor and comedian John Belushi, who famously died in March of 1982 at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Belushi was a longtime friend of the band, frequently opening for them with The Blues Brothers and naturally partying with them as well (notably at The Closing of Winterland in 1978).

John Belushi onstage with the Dead in 1980.

Hunter’s lyrics here certainly do seem to reference the death of Belushi, opening with lyrics about a “chateau” with 21 rooms. While the Chateau Marmont boasts not 21 but 63 rooms, the lyrics do suggest shady activities going on at this Chateau, with the words expressing renting the room for a short time.

I’m looking for a chateau, twenty one rooms but one will do
I’m looking for a chateau, twenty one rooms but one will do
I don’t want to buy it
I just want to rent it for a minute or two

Lyrics to “West L.A. Fadeaway”

However, while the lyrics were probably written with Belushi in mind, Hunter twists the story a bit so that it can’t be taken as a direct reference. Hunter was known for writing songs with many layers of meaning, as any fan of the Grateful Dead ought to know.

Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia in April 1987.

“West L.A. Fadeaway” smells like cigarettes and cocaine, and the steady groove brings to mind some questionable choices being made. The lyric that says, “Little red light on the highway / Big green light on the speedway, hey hey hey” brings to mind both the idea of being in motion, and perhaps a “red-light district” where one might find a West L.A. girl to spend the night with.

I meet a West L.A. girl
Already know what I need to know
I meet a West L.A. girl
I already know what I need to know
Name, address and phone number
Lord and just how far to go

Lyrics from “West L.A. Fadeaway”

It’s also worth noting that during the time that this song was written, Jerry Garcia himself was burrowing himself deep into the depths of his heroin and cocaine addiction, which meant that he spent many long hours in hotel rooms getting high by himself. Garcia wasn’t alone in this hobby, either, as John Belushi and several others in that circle were also known to partake in such activities. It is how Belushi died, after all.

With this in mind, perhaps we can conclude that “West L.A. Fadeaway” was inspired by Belushi’s death, especially since it was performed for the first time soon after his death, but was not written directly about him. Hunter may have been writing the song as a sort of warning to others, like Mr. Jerry Garcia, who had gotten themselves involved in the same activities to get out before it’s too late.

There are several Grateful Dead songs from the later years that read like a warning sign to Jerry Garcia, as Hunter may had been hoping that Garcia would come to understand that he was singing songs that were written about himself. “West L.A. Fadeaway” is one possible example of this, as is the more famous “Althea”.

Of course, Garcia never did fully heed the warnings, though there were times when he did try. This ultimately led to the guitarist’s death in 1995, just one month after the band’s final concert. Thankfully we are left with thousands of live recordings of “West L.A. Fadeaway” and everything else so we can still experience the wonders of Garcia’s music today, many years after his passing.

Watch a live video of the Grateful Dead performing “West L.A. Fadeaway” in the summer of 1987 below.

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