Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - “When Push Comes to Shove”

By David Dodd

Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)

“When Push Comes To Shove”

Just pokin’ around looking for an appropriate song for Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, it occurred to me that “When Push Comes to Shove” does deal explicitly with fear. My first choice for this week had been “Touch of Grey,” but I think I’ll save that one.

Lots to be afraid of out there in the world, but with all that there is to fear, what is it that the character in the song (the person to whom the singer is addressing the song) afraid of?


There may be a phantom in the closet. Or a mystery killer from Channel Four, but those pale in comparison to love.

And although it may not be the strongest Grateful Dead song, or even one that has a lot of staying power, it does in some way exemplify a talent of Robert Hunter—finding the surprising contradictions in our lives and exposing them—in this case, humorously or perhaps sarcastically, but with serious intent behind his castigations. Garcia gives it a catchy, bouncy tune, but there is something lacking, conviction-wise, in the end product, I always found. Maybe it’s the lack of a bridge.

The song was first performed on December 15, 1986, at the Coliseum Arena in Oakland. Also debuted in that show was “Black Muddy River.” It was played a total of 58 times, and given its final performance on July 17, 1989, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. The song appeared on “In the Dark,” released in July 1987.

I find it very interesting, lyrically, that the instrument of torture, and of the love that kills, is the perennial Grateful Dead symbol, the rose. Hmmmm. Yes, it is in the garden, surrounded by roses, that the character in the song is punched, captured, slapped, and ultimately loved to death, wrapped in their sweet perfume.

Could it be that everyone, by this point in the band’s journey, was simply sick and tired of roses?

Hunter once said “I've got this one spirit that's laying roses on me. Roses, roses, can't get enough of those bloody roses. The rose is the most prominent image in the human brain, as to delicacy, beauty, short-livedness, thorniness. It's a whole. There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, life, than roses.”

The Psalter Map, c. 1265

So here he takes those “bloody roses” and makes them the symbol of a deadly love, a love to be feared.

And really, in the context of the entire body of lyrics—especially Hunter’s, but of the band as a whole, this makes sense. Love, as an abstract concept, may be esteemed and put forth as the greatest value (“love will see you through,” “without love in the dream it will never come true,” etc.), but when it comes to actual, described love relationships, there isn’t a song in the repertoire that makes sense to sing, say, at a wedding.

The lovers in Grateful Dead songs are mostly either losing one another, or struggling along in some way: telling “sweet lies, one last time,” or “sitting and crying at home.” The song with the sweetest line, “I love you more than words can tell,” “Brokedown Palace,” is nevertheless about saying goodbye to that lover—perhaps in mourning at her passing, but nonetheless, within the context of sadness.

“Push,” then, puts that right out there. It takes THE big Grateful Dead motif, the rose, and has that symbolize the thing to be feared, which, conversely, is also the thing most to be prized: love. Roses, as so perfectly stated by Hunter in the previous quote, express the duality of all things (Gurdjieff said “roses, roses, thorns, thorns”). There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, love, than roses.

I do really enjoy the litany of things to be feared brought up in the song. There are surprises, obscure references (“bullets made of glass” seems to be a nod to an element in a Jules Verne book, for instance), and the evocation of the fear inherent in any kind of serious exploration of the unknown: “here there may be tigers” as a corollary of a convention in ancient maps to warn of danger: “here be dragons.” (Although, when I actually went looking for such maps, I really couldn’t find any…oh well. Doesn’t mean it’s not part of our consciousness, just because it doesn’t exist in “reality.” Checking Wikipedia today, I find an article entitled “Here be dragons” which cites two occurrences on ancient maps. So, real after all. But still.)

We’ve all, probably, had love relationships that have not been the easiest thing. And maybe we come to be afraid of love. Maybe we feel smothered by its sweet perfume and thorny branches. But really, when push comes to shove, is there anything we’d rather risk?

Probably not a great prompt for online discussion via the comments. Who wants to bare their soul about this topic in particular. So maybe we could look at some great scary stories—they don’t have to be about love. Fear is a good one, all on its own!

Happy hallowe’en, everyone!


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Joined: Jun 28 2007
Wedding Songs

"If I Had The World To Give" played during our first dance 7/3/95.
We celebrated our honeymoon in Chicago at Soldier Field. These turned out to be the final Grateful Dead shows. : (

Joined: Jun 14 2007
Wedding Songs

My wife and I walked down the aisle at our wonderful outdoor wedding to the sound of "Sage And Spirit".

Joined: Nov 11 2013
Wedding song

Not Fade Away

mp51's picture
Joined: Sep 19 2007
when push comes to shove...

i really like this song. it has grown on me over the years. i agree it is much under appreciated. i really like the album version, too. i never really knew the lyrics when the boys played it. and as for some other late songs, after so many roads come out, i really got into liberty and esp days between. i always liked lazy river road. as for day job, totally different. never liked it. and it was weird, once near the end of them playing that song, at a merr post i think, they ended a 1st set w let it grow. mickey was actually up off his kit, when jerry broke into day job. mickey stood there, bewildered, then finally went over and sat and 'played' along. billy sat there with one hand on his chin, and played his kit with his other. sometimes i think the band didnt retire that song, as hunter said, 'at the insistence of fans', but at the insistence of other band members...!!!

Joined: Feb 28 2011
Pushin' and shovin'

reminded me of living with a VW van for a while... and the push starts and shoving to a safe place to do and engine swap..

and Roger Cohen weighed in today on NYT blog about last Kombis from Brazil. His reverie was about an epic trip across the vaunted hippie trail in a Kombi named "Pigpen" with a royal straight flush splashed on the front. Check it out here:

"truckin’ on, torrid nights and the sounds of the Grateful Dead (until of course the cassette player got stolen because somebody somehow forgot to close a window)."
and "those simple little sail-shaped, push-out front windows (easily pushed-in by thieves after the sound systems blasting the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “White Line Fever”)."

My trips were south to Palenque, San Cristobal, Belize and the Yucatan but a lot resonates.

Joined: Jun 4 2007
Wedding Songs

My wife and I also had "They Love Each Other" in our wedding ceremony as the recessional song. Ten years ago last month. I don't remember the version we used, but it was from a concert tape, not an official release.

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011
Stuffed Tigers

This song has cute imagery -- a tiger that's going to punch you in the ear? I think of a stuffed animal here. But it's really too cute for the GD. I like the suggestion that this would have made a better JGB song. I wonder how Jerry decided which were which (and which were both). This one lacks a certain seriousness or dark twist that I think is part of most Dead songs. Also, I can't imagine this ever having been played before the 80s. I think the early-stage Dead would have been embarrassed by it. It's funny how folks grow out of those boundaries, not always to the betterment of their art.

hippyjameZ's picture
Joined: May 4 2008

I've always thought this song would have been perfect for the Jerry Garcia Band. Jackie and Gloria adding some vocal fills at the end of each verse, along with Melvin's swirly organ.

reric's picture
Joined: Nov 18 2007
"They Love Each Other" @ our wedding

first of all, i love reading these, so thank you David. i do have to chime in and say that i just got hitched last Sunday and we played "They Love Each Other" from 5/12/77 for our 2nd song. i don't think anyone else knew the song but it went over well.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
also in the Middle Ages

was the whole Roman de la Rose, which was the equivalent of a huge bestseller around the 12th century. In my grad school days I spent a good deal of time studying it. The first half was a big enough hit that another guy wrote a sequel. With new theology!

Rose iconography a go go in the Middle Ages.

I tend to think Hunter is well versed in such things.

As evidenced by the fact that he not only writes a pretty profound song called "Rose of Sharon," he follows it up with another one called "Althea," which is the botanical name for Rose of Sharon. I do not think for one second that this is an accident.


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