‘What’s Become of The Baby’ was recorded by the Grateful Dead while they were all hooked up to nitrous oxide masks, which made it somewhat unlistenable. It was written by Hunter and Garcia and the Dead never played this song live in concert, as the band couldn’t quite capture this sound when they were not in the studio. The only performance of this song took place on April 26, 1969, at the Electric Theater in Chicago where the Dead played a tape recording of this song in an extended encore jam, while they induced feedback and noise through their live instruments. Jerry Garcia said that he was trying to do something here that they didn’t have the technology to accomplish at the time, as he wanted to open his mouth, and have the collective sound of the entire Grateful Dead emerge with every note he sang. It is surprising that the Division of Family Services (DFS) did not try to arrest the Grateful Dead after they recorded this song on their 1969 Aoxomoxoa album for not knowing the where abouts of the baby. However, this song is not about a missing baby and after years of listening to it, I still have no clue what it is about, but it is out there in space somewhere.
Aoxomoxoa is the first album where Robert Hunter contributed as a full-time partner with Jerry and it’s the only album where Jerry sings lead on every song. ‘What’s Become of The Baby’ is filled with weirdness including random electronic sounds and choppy effects swarming on Garcia’s isolated vocal tracks. There is no instrumentation here at all. Garcia’s vocals are put through the effect’s ringer with various echo, delay and reverb to create an outer worldly, acid-laced sound. The band was very stoned from the nitrous oxide tanks that they brought into the studio and this almost a cappella thing with no discernible beat as the product of this recording session.
Jerry said that in order to make ‘What’s Become of the Baby’ work, you have to get a tank of nitrous oxide. Despite Garcia’s optimism, even the most hardcore Deadheads consider this song to be too far out for them to listen to more than once. Aoxomoxoa is as spaced out lyrically as it is sonically, but it was an experiment that seems to have improved over time. The band spent almost eight months in the studio working on the album, which didn’t sell very well, leaving them in debt to Warner Bros to the tune of $180,000. The Dead struggled to capture their psychedelic visions and create elaborate sonic journeys in the studio, but on stage in concert, they were doing this with ease. Another nitrous-influenced piece ‘Barbed Wire Whipping Party’ that features a bit of madness was also recorded during the Aoxomoxoa sessions, but it was vetoed from the album at the last second.
Robert Hunter explained some of the background about how this recording came about, saying that Jimi Hendrix was going to come over to the studio, so they decided to get it good and weird so he could hear it. The timeline that Hunter described fits, as the Dead were working on ‘What’s Become of The Baby’ in the studio in early October 68, and Hendrix played five shows in San Francisco at Winterland during this time. Hendrix may have vaguely mentioned that he’d drop by the studio, but he never did. Also, at this time the Dead were pissed off at Hendrix, because he arranged through music promoter Chet Helms for them to jam together and the Dead waited all night in Sausalito for Jimi, but he never showed up. Hendrix blew them off to be with a girl. Hunter said that this song was a minuet (a slow, stately ballroom dance for two in triple time, popular especially in the 18th century), but they already had one minuet already on the record, which was ‘Mountains Of The Moon’, so they got really ripped instead and decided to screw around with it.
The Baby in this song, may very well be the grateful Dead themselves, as they were young and just starting out at the time this was written. Hunter writes, “Go to sleep you child, Dream of never ending always”, which is cryptic, although never ending usually deals with something that is unpleasant, mostly because it does not have an end, so it is like he is telling the child to have a nightmare. There is line in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where the Duchess flung this baby or some type of creature at Alice, but when it acted up she set it down and watched it trot away. Alice was getting used to all of these idiotic and queer things happening around her and then the Cheshire Cat asked, “What became of the baby?”, and she replied that the baby turned into a pig and ran away. Sunbells could be small flowers that are similar to a petunia, or blue jean bell bottom pants.
Waves of violet go crashing and laughing
Rainbow winged singing birds fly round the sun
Sunbells rain down in a liquid profusion
Mermaids on porpoises draw up the dawn
What’s become of the baby
This cold December morning?
frozen in their flight
drifting to the earth
remnants of forgotten dreaming
answer comes there none
Go to sleep you child
Dream of never ending always
Panes of crystal
Eyes sparkle like waterfalls
lighting the polished ice caverns of Khan
But where in the looking-glass fields of illusion
wandered the child who was perfect as dawn?
What’s become of the Baby
this cold December morning?
rhythms of the sun
all the world revolves
captured in the eye of Odin
Pray where are you now?
All Mohammed’s men
blinded by the sparkling water
Sheherazade gathering stories to tell
from primal gold fantasy petals that fall
But where is the child
who played with the sun chimes
and chased the cloud sheep
to the regions of rhyme?
cries the south wind
Lost in the regions of lead
Shackled by chains of illusion
Delusions of living and dead
Written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie MM Music challenge Dear Mr. Fantasy.