Grateful Dead's Truckin'.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
In 1970, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter would compose a song that would eventually come to summarize everything the band had gone through up until that point, and everything they stood for at the time. Included on their 1970 album American Beauty, “Truckin'” would go on to become one of the biggest staples of the band's live shows for the rest of their career.
Said Dead bassist Phil Lesh of the song: “We took our experiences on the road and made it poetry… the last chorus defines the band itself.”
Given how much time the Dead spent on the road, that's a lot of experience to pack into one tune. In their book Deadbase X: The Complete Guide to Grateful Dead Song Lists, authors John W. Scott, Mike Dolgushkin and Stu Nixon estimate that, through 520 performances, “Truckin'” was the eighth-most frequently played song at Dead shows.
After so many plays, though, one would assume that all the mystery of the track would be exhausted at this point. Fortunately, for the sake of this column, this is not the case. Take the “Dallas, got a soft machine / Houston, too close to New Orleans” line. No one can seem to agree on the meaning of it.
The problem in this case is that the simplest answers don't necessarily provide the clearest explanations.
The most obvious reference Hunter could have been making in his line about Dallas is to the William S. Burroughs book The Soft Machine, which was first published in 1961. Per the book's appendix, the “soft machine” is a name for the human body. The book, in turn, relates to the manner in which “control mechanisms” invade the body. But neither this explanation, nor the novel's other major themes/plot devices (see: drugs, time travel, mind-control) seem to be implicitly about Dallas either.
Between the publication of Burroughs' book and the penning of Grateful Dead's song, there was, for a brief period, a band from the UK who called themselves Soft Machine. As far as we can tell, though, their only ties to Dallas relate to a pair of appearances by the band in February and August of 1968, during which they opened for Jimi Hendrix at Fair Park Music Hall and SMU's Moody Coliseum. Still, it's hard to imagine that a band that couldn't even command a headline billing in the States would've been deemed important enough by the Dead to be included in such a seminal tune.
So let's take a look at what other machines were making headlines in Dallas in 1970.
For starters, there was the Vendi-Talker, the world's first talking vending machine, which was developed by Dallas company Ussery Industries and which made its debut at a Dallas convention in 1970. The machine, which would say “Thank you!” when a coin was inserted and offer up a one-liner voiced by Henny Youngman, even made an appearance on the Johnny Carson show in 1971. But even though this machine's “politeness” could be viewed as “soft” trait, the dates between the song's recording and the machine's unveiling are still a few months off, pretty much ruling it out this theory.
Another popular theory is that the “soft machine” line refers to the fact that Dallasite Mariano Martinez invented the world's first frozen margarita machine. Folks were known to come to his Mariano's restaurant from all around to drink his famous frozen concoction. Aside from helping to popularize the cocktail — now one of America's biggest sellers — Martinez's achievement was recognized by the Smithsonian, which now displays Mariano's original machine. This theory, however, is quite easy to debunk: It is a widely available fact that Mariano didn't invent his machine until 1971 — a year after the Dead originally recorded “Truckin'.”
Still, this fact doesn't preclude Dallas' other famous frozen drink machines from being at the heart of the reference. The Dallas-based chain 7-Eleven, which was conincidentally the inspiration for Mariano's machine, began serving its now-famous frozen Slurpees in 1967. That drink was named by 7-Eleven employee Bob Stanford, who was attempting to describe the sound that one makes while they're drinking it.
Upon further inspection, though, the Slurpee was just a licensed version of the Kansas-based ICEE, which has been around since 1958. Interestingly enough, that company has some Dallas ties as well. In 1958, Omar Knedlik, who owned a Dairy Queen in Coffeyville, Kansas, began placing bottles of soda in his freezer since his store hadn't yet installed a soda fountain. To his surprise, his customers were quite taken with the frozen, slushy sodas, and he realized a machine that could replicate these concoctions on a bigger scale would be good for business. That's when Knedlik contacted the John E. Mitchell Company in Dallas, who at the time were manufacturing aftermarket AC units for automobiles. Five years later, the ICEE machine was born — although, back then, Knedlik intended on calling it the “Scoldasice” machine. After a friend suggested he rename his product the ICEE, a staff artist at the Mitchell Company developed the blocked logo with icicles that remains on the company's cups to this day.
The fact that Dallas is the undisputed frozen drink machine capital of the world maybe makes Hunter's line make sense. Perhaps he was so enamored with Slurpees that, in his mind, they were the aspect that most embodied Dallas culture in 1970 as a whole.
No, looking at the song lyrics as whole provides a fuller explanation. The fact that the Dead didn't like Houston because it was “too close to New Orleans,” is almost certainly relating to the band's drug bust that year, in which 19 members of the band and crew were arrested at their hotel following a gig. According to many accounts written by insiders in the years after the bust, it had all the makings of a setup. The line “Busted, down on Bourbon Street, set up, like a bowlin pin,” further proves the band believed this. In those days, New Orleans wasn't all that welcoming to touring musicians. But authorities would pretty much leave bands alone so long as the right people had been paid off. From what we've pieced together from various accounts, the band's manager at the time, the father of Dead drummer Mickey Hart, seemed to think the Grateful Dead were a big enough band that this system of bribery didn't necessarily apply to them.
Back in Dallas, though, the band never had to pay anyone off to avoid trouble, hence why they preferred the “soft machine” of Dallas to the nearby big cities Houston and New Orleans.
This explanation fits the truck-driving theme of the song, too. Much like moonshine runners and other truck drivers in the day, certain tolls were required to be paid when going through certain areas with certain loads (see the intro to Johnny Cash's “Rock Island Line” for another example of this phenomenon). And though not everybody agrees that this is what Hunter meant with his lyric, the metaphor for touring musicians paying off cops to truck drivers paying tolls seems like a perfect explanation in our minds.
Sure, the Grateful Dead didn't like being harassed by authorities in the '70s. But hindsight is 20/20. The band has since endeared itself to the nation and is looked upon as a perfect encapsulation of a certain period in this country's history. In 1997, Congress officially recognized “Truckin'” as a national treasure.
What a long strange trip it's been, indeed.