It is no surprise that an American band who has toured as extensively and endlessly as the Grateful Dead would write a song about traveling the American roads. However, the Dead’s view of the promise of the American road is far bleaker than the vision of the Beat generation before them. In 1970, on their song “Truckin’,” Jerry Garcia and his bandmates draw a parallel between physical traveling and drug usage to show how something which initially appears to be liberating can lose its initial pleasure and become something utterly grueling.
Guitarist Bob Weir’s opening lines in the son, “arrows of neon and flashing marquees down on Main Street” reveal the initial promise that the road holds over its travelers. These inherently American images of flashing lights have a hypnotic hold over the song’s speaker as they imply prosperity and opportunity awaits. However, the glitz and glamor of these symbols of promise dissipates as Weir goes on to describe these images as “your typical city involved in your typical daydream.” In other words, after traveling from “Chicago, New York, Detroit,” the hopes of the road and of the American city in general are revealed to be chimerical fantasies and it loses its appeal. In the song’s alternating choruses, in which the Grateful Dead describe the action of “trucking,” this action of “trucking” down the road is not a liberating experience. Instead, it is more of a necessity. For instance, the line, “takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin’ on” sounds like more of a taxing experience than a pleasurable one. Touring the country and traveling the country generally is no longer an alluring experience. Rather, “trucking” is a monotonous grueling experience. As the song progresses, they list more and more cities to show how much time they have spent on the road. At each allusion to a city, the lyrics become more and more jaded to the hope of the road. The Grateful Dead seem to view the road as a sort of cyclical maelstrom much like the typical daily life from which the road initially appeared to be an escape.
It does not exactly take a genius to figure out that a Grateful Dead song is about drugs. However, in “Truckin’” the road itself is a rather clever metaphor for drug usage. Initially, psychedelic drugs such as LSD and marijuana appear to be the perfect escape from reality, much like the road itself. However, after years of drug usage, the Dead no longer see drugs as the same blissful egress from reality as they originally were; now, it has become an addiction that must be satisfied. When Weir sings, “what in the world ever became of sweet Jane? She lost her sparkle you know she isn’t the same,” it is clear that just as travelling across the country has become debilitating and monotonous, drug usage has taken its toll on him as well. Well over a decade after Kerouac and his cohorts initially purported that the road and drugs are two perfect modalities of escape, the Grateful Dead are acknowledging the bleak reality that the bliss of escape via travelling or drugs will inevitably fade into a hazy mess.
At the end of the song, Jerry Garcia sings, “truckin’ I’m a goin’ home.” Now, the dream is no longer of going home. Now, the true end goal for him is to just go home and “patch my bones.” Ultimately, the bright lights and glamor at the beginning of the song are swapped images of rest and relaxation. While the road may be a great vehicle for temporary liberation from reality, its beauty and majesty are important. In fact, it is dangerous to live within this escapist daydream for too long, as it will begin to take a physical toll on your mind and body. Once again, another American Dream-the dream of psychedelic escape on the road- is shot to flames before Hunter S. Thompson’s drugs even began to take hold.