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The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”

“Shakedown Street” is one example of a Grateful Dead song that has taken on a life of its own. It was the title track to their 10th studio album, released in November 1978, and was first performed live at Red Rocks on August 31st, 1978.

When the song was released, it was called “disco dead” by fans (including some who didn’t like it), and it was simply a fun groove that the band would often jam out for extended periods of time. This started with “Dancin’ in the Streets” off Terrapin Station, and continued into the Lowell George-produced Shakedown Street.

Over time, as the culture surrounding the band evolved, the song’s title also became the name for the lot scene that developed outside of their shows.

With lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Jerry Garcia, “Shakedown Street” is a different kind of example of the songwriting prowess that the duo possessed together.

While many of their best songs were slower, more spiritual numbers like “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace”, “Shakedown Street” is pure fun from a musical standpoint.

The lyrics encourage listeners to take a closer look to find the beauty in a particular place, before they dismiss it. They also suggest that the darkness that they see in other people, places, or things, might possibly be coming from within themselves, and it’s worth looking into.

It’s easy to see how this message fits in with the rest of the band’s material, which is often about open-mindedness and understanding. “Shakedown Street” is about the dark side of the street — a place that some are afraid of — where you can find the best stuff in town.

This can be applied to just about any run-down place you can find, as meeting the right people is often the difference between writing it off and experiencing the greatness it has to offer.

“Shakedown Street” & The Lot Scene

By the early 1980s, the Grateful Dead had developed such a dedicated legion of fans that people began setting up in the parking lot outside of their shows for the duration of their run through a given venue.

This included people camping out, vendors selling band-inspired memorabilia like t-shirts, stickers, patches, and everything else you can imagine. There were people selling drugs, selling tickets, buying drugs, buying tickets. You name it, you could find it on the lot.

The song’s release and the birth of the lot scene came around the same time, and soon it became part of the Deadhead vernacular — See you at Shakedown?

After Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, the Grateful Dead themselves came to a halt, but the culture still burns brightly to this day. Part of this includes a “Shakedown Street” that pops up at every jam band show, music festival, and gathering of people from these scenes all over the country.

The lot scene at a Phish show is called “Shakedown Street”, and the vendor market at Bonnaroo is called “Shakedown Street”. The list goes on and on. This was inspired by the Grateful Dead, as was the entire format that these entities exist within.

“Shakedown Street” is just one piece of the world created by this band, however it is quite a large part of it, at least for the fans, because exploring what the lot scene has to offer is part of what makes these concert experiences special.

Below is a short documentary created in 1986 featuring interviews with fans and scenes from the lot at a show in San Francisco, CA:

“Shakedown Street” Lyrics Meaning

Now that we’ve covered the background of this song, let’s dive into Robert Hunter’s lyrics, and see what he was really saying. Starting with the first verse, sung by Jerry Garcia:

You tell me this town ain’t got no heart
(Well, well, well, you can never tell)
The sunny side of the street is dark
(Well, well, well, you can never tell)
Maybe that’s because it’s midnight
In the dark of the moon besides

First verse to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

The opening lines bring a big hit in time with the bass line, as Jerry addresses someone who was talking about this town, saying it’s got no heart. By this he means that it’s got nothing to offer, that it’s boring and not worth spending time in.

It’s also worth noting that these lyrics are reminiscent of two songs that Garcia performed with the Jerry Garcia Band in the 90s: Chuck Berry’s “(You Can Never Tell) C’est La Vie” and Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” (which was released after “Shakedown Street”).

When the person in question says that the sunny side is dark, meaning that the things that should be bright and visible are dark and depressing, Jerry replies that perhaps the street is only dark because it’s the middle of the night.

And besides, he says:

Maybe the dark is from your eyes
(Maybe the dark is from your eyes) [x3]
You know you got such dark eyes!

First pre-chorus to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

Saying that someone has “dark eyes” is a commentary on the feeling that they bring. The pre-chorus here seems to describe a person who is surrounded by a dark cloud, and whom is hesitant to look inwards to find the reason for their negative outlook.

The message here is that when we find ourselves judging others, or blaming them for the bad things in our own lives, it is perhaps time to take a step back and consider that we ourselves may be the problem.

Then, we reach the chorus, in all it’s free-flowing funky disco glory:

Nothing shaking on Shakedown Street
Used to be the heart of town
Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart
You just got to poke around

Chorus to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

The chorus describes somebody who is lost, unable to find their way to the heart of town, and declaring that since they don’t see it then it must not exist.

Hunter’s lyrics offer a retort, suggesting that it’s wrong to think the town is heartless, and you’ve just got to poke around to find it. This “poke around” that he sings of is about making connections, and looking in places that you may have previously overlooked.

The second verse goes further into this image of the town, now suggesting that it could also be a metaphor for life itself:

You think you’ve seen this town clear through
(Well, well, well, you can never tell)
Nothing here that could interest you
(Well, well, well, you can never tell)
It’s not because you missed out
On the thing that we had to start

Second verse to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

This part is about thinking you’ve got it all figured out, and that you have nothing more to learn about a particular topic, and thus no longer being interested in exploring it further.

Here, the lyrics suggest that this kind of thinking is not because you didn’t get to experience the beauty of what drew you to the topic in the first place, or perhaps even missing out on life itself — the one thing that everybody has to start.

In the second pre-chorus, we get what could be a drug reference, but could also be a reference to anything that overwhelms the senses:

Maybe you had too much too fast
(Maybe you had too much too fast) [x3]
Or just over played your part

Second pre-chorus to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

Everybody knows that moderation is the key to lasting enjoyment, however many of us have experienced a time when we had too much of a good thing all at once, and discovered the flip side of the coin.

If you don’t realize your mistakes in these moments, you are either doomed to repeat them, or going to swear off the whole experience as something that is not for you and never try it again.

“Shakedown Street” suggests self-reflection as an alternative, and shifting one’s perspective to be willing to give things a second try.

Next up is another chorus, and then Garcia sings the third and final verse:

Since I’m passing your way today
(Well, well, well, you can never tell)
I just stopped in because I want to say
(Well, well, well, you can never tell)
I recall your darkness
When it crackled like a thundercloud

Third verse to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

This verse represents Jerry, Hunter, and the rest of the band saying that they simply decided to point these things out to the listener because they happened to be passing through.

Perhaps it is what the listener needed to hear, as their darkness is remembered for the time it made itself apparent with assertiveness of a thundercloud — the kind that can’t possibly be ignored.

Finally, we roll into one final pre-chorus before the chorus repeats itself until the fade, and the band plays on:

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart
(Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart) [x3]
When I can hear it beat out loud!

Final pre-chorus to “Shakedown Street” by the Grateful Dead.

The overall message to “Shakedown Street” brings to mind a lyric from another Dead staple, “Scarlet Begonias”: “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right”.

Listen to the studio recording of “Shakedown Street” below, and check out some of my favorite live recordings of the tune below that.

“Shakedown Street” (9/16/78)

“Shakedown Street” (3/28/81)

“Shakedown Street” (6/30/85)

“Shakedown Street” (7/9/89)