Like a One-Eyed Cheshire

Robert Hunter the Grateful Dead lyricist said that the song ‘China Cat Sunflower’ came to him when he was visiting Mexico’s Lake Chapala and a cat decided that his belly looked like a comfortable place to take a nap.  My most embarrassing moment at a Grateful Dead concert came for me at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, when I yelled out ‘China Cat’ and all of these Deadheads looked at me and said, “They already played that song.”  I was humiliated, but I can blame my blunder on the acid that I took.  Well, at least I didn’t request that they play ‘Freebird’.  The Grateful Dead were known for never playing the same concert twice and most of their fans really paid attention to which songs they were playing, although a lot of real stoners did go to the shows.

‘China Cat Sunflower’ and ‘The Eleven’ were the first lyrics that Robert Hunter wrote for the Grateful Dead and they were composed while he was on LSD.  He mailed them to the band from Arizona.  The Grateful Dead first performed ‘China Cat Sunflower’ on January 17, 1968 and it was recorded on their 1969 studio album Aoxomoxoa, and later released on the triple live album Europe ’72, played as a suite with the John A Lomax & Alan Lomax traditional blues tune ‘I Know You Rider’.  The two songs segued together perfectly, with ‘China Cat Sunflower’ almost always preceding ‘I Know You Rider’ and the Grateful Dead performed this combination well over 500 times.  Excluding drums and space music only 6 songs were played more times than ‘China Cat Sunflower’, those being ‘Playing in the Band’, ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Me and My Uncle’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘I Know You Rider’ and ‘The Other One’.

Up until November 1977, Robert Hunter said that nobody ever asked him about the meaning of this song.  Hunter was asked about the song by BAM: The California Music Magazine, and he gave an interesting answer that was published in 1978 and included in the American musician, songwriter, and music journalist David Gans’ Conversations With the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book in 2002.  In this song, Hunter tells a story of mind-altering situations including words coming out from out a silk trombone and ringing a silent bell, and I don’t think that he ever wanted anybody to know what these lyrics were about.  The significance of this song, is that it helped Hunter land a job as being the band’s lyricist.  In mid-1967, Hunter mailed the lyrics to the Dead, along with the lyrics for another song ‘The Eleven’ and by September 1967, he was working with the band in Rio Nido. California.

Hunter said that ‘China Cat’ took him a long time to write and that it was originally inspired by Dame Edith Sitwell, who had a way with words utilizing assonance and alliteration.  Hunter said that he was in a rather hypersensitive state when he wrote this, and he followed this cat out to what he believed to be the planet Neptune, where there were rainbows across Neptune, and cats marching across the rainbow.  This cat took him to all these cat places and that along with the LSD that he dropped, became the essence of this song.  The Dame Edith Sitwell poem Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone which is about a couple of cats having a love affair ends with the line “In the palace of the Queen Chinee!”  A china cat is most likely a porcelain cat, not a cat from China, although there is a common Japanese figurine that is called Maneki Neko known as the beckoning cat, which is believed to bring customers and wealth to a merchant’s establishment when it is displayed in front windows of restaurants and teahouses.

The phrase, “I rang a silent Bell” could refer to an old gambling term when betting was illegal, and when someone won, it was called ringing the silent bell.  The Cheshire Cat is a fictional cat that was popularized by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which can disappear and reappear whenever it likes and it is known for its distinctive mischievous grin that sometimes stays in view when it vanishes.  Vincent van Gogh made a series of psychedelic Sunflower paintings and perhaps Hunter saw one of these on his trip to Neptune.  In 1955, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem titled Sunflower Sutra, which is about a desolate American landscape, that was destroyed and devastated by the careless work of modern society.

Arctic regions like Scandinavia and Alaska are often called the land of the midnight sun.  The Led Zeppelin tune ‘Immigrant Song’ says, “We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.  The very odd line “Copperdome bodhi drip a silver kimono” is puzzling, but copper was often used in architecture because of its durability, prestigious appearance, and ability to form complex shapes.  The “Bodhi Drip” is a way of existence, a dewdrop of positivity from one leaf of the Tree of Enlightenment, which stems from Buddhism, putting an end to the cycle of transmigration and leading to Nirvana.  The line, “Comic book colors on a violin river cryin’ Leonardo” could be referring to Leonardo da Vinci writing in mirror script as a way of keeping his hands clean and preventing him from smudging his ink.  George Herriman created the Krazy Kat comic strip which featured a cat and a mouse and the US Postal service issued a Krazy Kat stamp in 1995.

Hunter was known to like the Old West, as he read Wyatt Earp, when he was young, and one of his grandfathers was a cowboy who occasionally lassoed him as he ran about the yard.  He was also a train enthusiast and steam locomotives needed to make stops at water towers, where a railroad worker would line up the spout with the water hatch on top of the tender, loading water so they could keep running over long distances.  The fireman climbs up on the tender and pulls the spout into the tender’s hatch.  He then pulls on a chain attached to the water valve in the bottom of the tower.  Water flows out through the spout into the tender, but on real hot days, he might let some of this water flow onto his head to cool off.  Maybe he would get under the waterfall to get some of that coal dust washed off of him.  The line, “To a double-e waterfall over my back” may have something to do with the 1965 Bob Dylan song, ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, because it contains the line, “Don’t the brakemen look good, mama, flaggin’ down the ‘Double-E’”, as Double E locomotives were at one time the largest trains.  Warren Zevon’s 1976 song ‘Poor Pitiful Me’, also contains the line, “Laid my head on the railroad track, waitin’ on the Double E”, which later became a big hit for Linda Ronstadt.

Look for a while at the china cat sunflower
Proud walking jingle in the midnight sun
Copperdome bodhi drip a silver kimono
Like a crazy quilt star gown through a dream night wind

Na na na, na na na
Na na na, na na na
Ooh, oh, oh

Crazy cat peekin’ through a lace bandanna
Like a one-eyed cheshire, like a diamond-eye jack
A leaf of all colors plays a golden-string fiddle
To a double-e waterfall over my back

Na na na, na na na
Na na na, na na na
Ooh, oh, oh

China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat

Comic book colors on a violin river cryin’ Leonardo
Words from out a silk trombone
I rang a silent bell, beneath a shower of pearls
In the eagle-winged palace of the queen Chinee

China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat, china cat
China cat

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is Bird/Cat/Dog/Fish/Pet.

15 thoughts on “Like a One-Eyed Cheshire

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