Hot as a Pistol but Cool Inside

The Grateful Dead song ‘He’s Gone’ came out on their Europe ’72 album is a song about not crying over spilled milk.  The Grateful Dead realized that there was no need to express regret about something that has already happened or cannot be changed.  Like many others, when I first listened to this song, I thought it was about Pigpen, but further investigation revealed that I was wrong, as the Grateful Dead song ‘He’s Gone’ is about their money manager Lenny Hart who disappeared with their profits.  I guess this was their way of saying that they could make lemonade out of the lemons that they were handed.  People seemed to know that Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was going to die, even though he was still alive when this song was written, because of all the years of hard living and hard drinking that he did, and over time, the meaning of this song did change and it became an anthem for Pigpen.

Lenny Hart was a drummer who owned and operated Hart Music, selling drums and musical instruments in San Carlos, California.  He was the father of Mickey Hart, one of the percussionists for the Grateful Dead and he was also the Grateful Dead’s original money manager.  In late 1969, Garcia was invited to work on the soundtrack for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point, playing the guitar music for the “Love Scene” in the desert.  Lenny went to L.A. with Garcia to negotiate for music in Zabriskie Point movie, but Garcia never got paid for his work, since Lenny Hart stole the check from MGM.  In March, 1970, Lenny disappeared along with approximately US$155,000 of the group’s profits.  He was caught, arrested and convicted of criminal embezzlement and sentenced to six months in jail.

He promised to pay the group back cleaning out all the bank accounts, but the band didn’t even have any money to go on the road with.  As a result of the fiasco, Mickey Hart, feeling ashamed of his father’s actions, left the band in February 1971, not returning to the group on a full-time basis until 1974.  Lenny Hart died of natural causes on February 2, 1975 and Mickey went to the funeral home, took out the snakewood sticks that he had from when his dad left when he was still a child and played the traditional drum melody, ‘The Downfall of Paris’ that features a multiple bounce roll on Lenny’s coffin, and then he split.

Bill Graham the iconic concert promoter and he owned both The Fillmore and Winterland Arena, two of the Dead’s most played venues, helped to manage and promote the Grateful Dead in their early days before April of 1969 when Lenny Hart got the job.  In early March 1970, the band discovered he’d been stealing checks, keeping fake books, and squirreling away their money in his own secret bank accounts.  Lenny fled to Mexico in a hurry, taking the money with him and leaving the band broke.  Hunter wrote the line, “You know better, but I know him”, because he knew that Lenny Hart was ripping off the band and this was his way of saying “I told you so”.  Hunter knew that Lenny was a rat for stealing their money and he was caught on a limb, so he took off for Mexico.  After the departure of Lenny Hart, John McEntire took over as the group’s manager with Rock Scully doing the promotion, he guided the Grateful Dead through the era of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums and into the 1980s.

The phrase “Cat on a tin roof” probably stems from the Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and it makes me think about the 1958 film Cat On A Hot Tin Roof staring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives.  This song has a line in it that says “Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride, hot as a pistol but cool inside Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile.”  This song always makes me smile and the slogan “Smile, smile, smile” was used by William Howard Taft for his 1908 Presidential campaign who was known as the most jovial man in politics.  At one time many trains were propelled by steam and it is interesting to watch the steam coming out of the stack and then disappear out of sight and be gone like Lenny Hart.

The line “Steal your face right off your head” is probably the first occurrence of identity theft in rock music and it alludes to Lenny being able to gain the trust of others while doing all sorts of underhanded things.  The single most recognized image for the Grateful Dead, even more so than Garcia’s face, or his stubby finger, or the roses and dancing bears is probably the “Steal Your Face” logo that is commonly referred to as the “lightning skull”.  The concept was born out of necessity, as their longtime sound engineer (and noted LSD chemist) Owsley “Bear” Stanley needed an easily identifiable symbol for the band’s gear, so when they played concerts with other groups that their equipment was undoubtedly acknowledged when it was jammed in with other boxes and cases in backstage areas.  A spray paint-ready stencil was created with the help of Bob Thomas, a graphic designer that consisted of a circle with a clear delineation between one blue side and one red side, the lightning bolt and the skull.

Rat in a drain ditch, caught on a limb
You know better, but I know him

Like I told you, what I said
Steal your face right off your head

And now he’s gone
Now he’s gone, Lord he’s gone
He’s gone
Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track
He’s gone, gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back
He’s gone

Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride
Hot as a pistol but cool inside

Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile

Going where the wind don’t blow so strange
Maybe off on some high cold mountain range
Lost one round but the price wasn’t anything
A knife in the back and more of the same

Same old
Rat in a drain ditch, caught on a limb
You know better, but I know him

Like I told you, like I said
Steal your face right off your head

Ooh, nothing’s gonna bring him back
Ooh, nothing’s gonna bring him back
Ooh, nothing’s gonna bring him back

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is Cool/Freeze/Heat/Melt.

17 thoughts on “Hot as a Pistol but Cool Inside

  1. I just now had time to read your write-up and listen to the song. There was a lot info that needed to be told to have it make sense and you did a wonderful job of fitting the pieces together. I don’t know how these managers always seem to get away with their dirty tricks of stealing money, song rights, etc. with usually no consequence or a light tap on the wrist. Six months in jail is nothing! I’m sure those last 3 lines was a clear message to him, like dude stay away and stay away forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I read that in a book I couldn’t believe it. Mickey felt devasted by that…what a low down thing to do…not just to do but to your son’s band.

    Liked by 1 person

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