The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”

Bootleg version of Dick’s Picks Volume 8, Harpur College 1970, Friends of the Devil.

“Friend of the Devil” is a quintessential Grateful Dead song, and one of the most popular songs in their entire discography.

With lyrics by Robert Hunter and John “Marmaduke” Dawson and music by Jerry Garcia, “Friend of the Devil” tells the story of an outlaw on the run in a way that seems to capture the entire ethos of the Grateful Dead.

The tune saw official release on the band’s classic 1970 album American Beauty, along with many other excellent songs including “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace”.

“Friend of the Devil” first appeared in the band’s live repertoire in March of that year. It remained in regular rotation during all years except 1971 and 1973, right up until its final performance in June of 1995.

The Dead performed “Friend of the Devil” in many different ways over the years, beginning with acoustic performances in 1970, with the same speedy tempo on the studio recording. Then, they brought it into their electric sets beginning in 1972, still with that blazing hot tempo right up until their hiatus at the end of 1974.

Upon their return to the stage in 1976, the Dead introduced a slowed-down version of “Friend of the Devil”, which gave the song an entirely new character that is more thoughtful and elegant (some fans find these versions boring, however).

They played different variations of this version until the end, with a few instances of kicking the tempo up a notch, such as in July of 1989, with none other than Brent Mydland on keys.

Origins of “Friend of the Devil”

While “Friend of the Devil” feels like the perfect song for the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter initially wrote the lyrics with John Dawson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, with the intention of it being their song.

Robert Hunter spoke on this with with Relix in 1980, during a conversation where he also discussed several of the band’s other noteworthy songs:

I was playing bass with the New Riders, although I never did actually get to the stage with them. We were sitting around practicing one night and I had “Friend of the Devil” more or less already written. I said “Try this out,” and David Nelson and John Dawson helped by smoothing out some of the rough changes. I still have the recording of that evening and it’s not that different. Then, we went down to get some coffee and Marmaduke said, “It’s a real good song but it has that one repeating line.” The line was, “It looks like water but it tastes like wine,” and he asked me if I could get anything punchier. I said, “I got it” and came out with “A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.” He said, “You got it; that’s it.”

So I took the tape back to the Larkspur house where the Riders were staying. When I got up the next morning, I heard Garcia listening to the tape. He had that funny look in his eye. The next thing you know, he’d written a bridge for it, the “Anne Marie” part. Before that, it was the same melody all the way through. The next thing I knew, the Grateful Dead had snatched it up, much to the New Riders’ dismay.

Robert Hunter on writing “Friend of the Devil”, 1980.

Hunter spoke further on this on his online journal in February 2006, where he essentially reiterated the story that he told Relix a quarter-century prior, with a few more details.

First, he says, he wrote the following four verses one afternoon in 1969:

Robert Hunter’s original handwritten lyrics to “Friend of the Devil”.

He brought the song to the New Riders, whom had asked him to join the band on bass, and they got to talking about the song:

We got to talking about the tune and John [Dawson] 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.

Robert Hunter on writing “Friend of the Devil”, 2006.

Once Garcia heard “Friend of the Devil” and added his own embellishments to it, there was nothing that could be done. He simply made the song his own, and it became part of the Grateful Dead.

“Friend of the Devil” Lyrics Meaning

The story being told in the lyrics is one of running from the law, just trying to make it home and get some rest. Our narrator has done some bad things, and finds kinship with others who have also done bad things, including the devil himself.

It begins with the first verse, sung by Garcia:

I lit out from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds
Didn’t get to sleep that night ’til the morning came around

First verse to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

Our narrator leaves Reno, Nevada in a hurry, as there are twenty hounds on his trail.

These hounds are likely to be police dogs, Hunter could also be drawing reference to the hounds of hell, whom hunt down escaped souls and sinners and drag them back to the depths of hell.

Hunter also may have gotten this idea from the 1937 song “Hellhound on My Trail” by the blues great Robert Johnson. This song is about a person who must keep moving or else the hellhounds will catch up to him.

Regardless of what exactly is chasing the narrator, it kept him up all night, and he wasn’t able to fall asleep until morning.

Staying up all night seems to be a common theme for this character, as we hear in the chorus:

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

Chorus to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

The chorus contains the iconic lyric, “a friend of the devil is a friend of mine”, which John Dawson came up with.

If you’re friends with a person based on them being a friend of the devil, then you must also be a friend of the devil. Perhaps the narrator is taking his time in his run from the law because he has plenty of outlaw friends who will help him along the way.

He is essentially saying that he can only truly trust his kindred spirits, or his fellow friends of the devil.

Now, at the time that this song was written, the phenomenon of the traveling deadhead who goes from show to show had only just been birthed.

Looking back, from our space fifty plus years removed, the chorus also reminds us of the journey home from a concert or festival, perhaps having ingested LSD or some other psychedelic substance that lots of other folks at the concert had also taken.

One might find some kinship in a crowd like that, doing things that are frowned upon by society and staying up all night long.

Next up, we have the second verse:

Ran into the devil, babe, he loaned me twenty bills
Spent the night in Utah in a cave up in the hills

Second verse to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

The meaning here is pretty self-explanatory — the devil lent him twenty dollars and he camped out in a cave in Utah, still hiding from the law.

We have another hit of the chorus before Jerry sings the third verse:

I ran down to the levee but the devil caught me there
He took my twenty dollar bill and he vanished in the air

Third verse to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

After loaning him twenty bucks just one verse prior, the devil appears again and takes back the twenty dollars before disappearing yet again.

Perhaps our narrator should not be so trusting of the devil, as he may seem to have your best interests in mind at first but will come around and stab you in the back later.

There is a message in there about drug addiction, and how the drug and its users may seem to care for you in the moment, but they tend to prove foul before long.

Here we roll into the bridge, which was arranged by Garcia while listening to the original demo tapes:

Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night:
The first one’s named sweet Anne Marie, and she’s my heart’s delight
The second one is prison, babe, and the sheriff’s on my trail
And if he catches up with me, I’ll spend my life in jail

Bridge to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

In the bridge, the narrator shows a tender side. He names his “sweet Anne Marie” as one of the reasons he cries every night, as he misses her quite dearly.

Then, he reveals the gravity of his situation. He is wanted for some serious crimes, and if he gets caught he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

We roll now into the fourth and final verse, at least in Garcia’s eyes:

Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee
The first one says she’s got my child, but it don’t look like me

Fourth verse to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

It’s not clear if Anne Marie is one of his wives, or just another woman in his life. Perhaps she is the one in Cherokee – which could be one of four California cities, or a Cherokee in Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, or Texas.

However, the wife in Chino, California has a baby that she claims is his, and he denies the fact based on the premise that the child looks nothing like him.

In Garcia’s versions of the song, we repeat the chorus, bridge and fourth verse again to close out the song.

However, Hunter wrote a fifth verse for the song, which he did give to Garcia, but Jerry never sang it:

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

Fifth verse to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead.

Hunter sang this verse when he performed the tune, as has Phil Lesh, plus Bob Weir with Dead & Company.

He spoke about this during a 1988 interview with Blair Jackson, as published in the 1997 Grateful Dead encyclopedia, The American Book of the Dead:

There is a verse to “Friend of the Devil” that I do and he [Jerry] doesn’t do, which I feel kind of ties the bow on that song in a certain direction. He’s loathe to change something once he feels it’s done, while I’ll tinker endlessly with things, for whatever good it does me.

Robert Hunter on the “lost verse” to “Friend of the Devil”.

Most people who have covered “Friend of the Devil” have chosen to include this verse, but first it’s time to dive into a few of my favorite live versions of this song, as performed by the Grateful Dead (third one has a video, and is probably the best).

“Friend of the Devil” (5/2/70)

“Friend of the Devil” (4/30/77)

“Friend of the Devil” (12/31/78)

“Friend of the Devil” (10/27/80)

“Friend of the Devil” Covers

In addition to being often-played by the Grateful Dead, “Friend of the Devil” has also been covered by more musicians than any other Grateful Dead songs.

Robert Hunter himself once said that if any of the songs he wrote with Garcia would eventually become a standard, “Friend of the Devil” was the most likely contender.

Let’s dive into some notable covers of the classic song below. Let us know in the comments if we missed any of your favorites. Peace!

Lyle Lovett – “Friend of the Devil” (Live, 1991)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Friend of the Devil” (Live, 1997)

Bob Dylan – “Friend of the Devil” (Live, 1999)

Counting Crows – “Friend of the Devil” (2003)

Mumford & Sons – “Friend of the Devil” (2016)

Dead & Company – “Friend of the Devil” (11/1/19)

New Riders of the Purple Sage – “Friend of the Devil” (Live, Unknown)

6 comments on The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”

  • January 5, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    Doom’s Children (Alexisonfire guitar/vocalist Wade McNeil’s solo project) does a haunting hellhounds-on-my-trail vibe cover of Friend of the Devil
    https://youtu.be/a7eFCsIm-y4

    Reply
  • January 7, 2023 at 8:02 am

    Please don’t overlook Mr Lovett’s beautiful version.🥰🥰

    Live long & be good to OUR mother.

    Reply
    • January 7, 2023 at 10:51 pm

      I had the pleasure to see Lyle Lovett the day Jerry Garcia died at Red Rocks. And Friend of the Devil was the first song he played as a tribute.

      Reply
      • January 11, 2023 at 8:21 am

        Thank you! Added Lyle’s version of the song

        Reply
  • January 10, 2023 at 7:24 am

    How can you fail to mention that Bob Dylan has played friend of the devil live on many occasions, including at Aarhus Denmark, where I heard it in 96 or 97. 😊

    Reply
    • January 11, 2023 at 8:21 am

      Thanks, I’ve updated the post to include a Dylan version as well

      Reply

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