Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Grateful Dead and Dangling Participles, Written While the Dose Was Coming On


In honor of the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well tour, let’s consider the sentence, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones is ready, watch your speed.” The participle clause here is, “Driving that train (gerundial phrase),” which is followed by yet another participle clause, “high on cocaine (adjectival phrase).” The adjunct clause that both participle clauses modify is “Casey Jones," behaving here as the subject, with "is ready” acting as the object. Boom. The sentence is set up and resolved and everyone is happy, except perhaps a few nervous passengers who may have seen old Casey clacking out a couple of lifters in the rail station bathroom. “Watch your speed” is pure gravy in terms of sentence structure, and when you think about it, just damn good advice.

If you were to remove the adjunct clause, you would be left with, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, watch your speed,” resulting in a dangling participle and an incomplete sentence. In a word, buzzkill. “Driving that train” is all set up to modify something, and when we are deprived of it, it is unsatisfying.   

The next time the lyric comes around, Jerry sings, “Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed,” which is a dangling participle of sorts in that this third person advice for Mr. Jones to watch his speed doesn't relate directly to the setup of the participle clause of being zipped out of his bean on some serious Peruvian blaster flake while he operates a cross-country passenger train, but the lyric has moreover by this point become a purposeful misdirection of the expected sentence and has grown into a collection of metaphors depicting train schedules and the combined thrill and danger of being an engineer, along with general images of life and love on the road, a thing musicians can relate to, and a thing which also seems to have led to the entire sense of this article being dismantled by the example I selected to illustrate it, which when you address anything abstract using The Grateful Dead as your springboard for argument, this kind of thing is to be expected as there is no end to the mischief you can be courting once you start to go down that rabbit hole, not the least of which manifestations is the inadvisable length of the last sentence of this piece, the one going on right now, which is taking up an entire paragraph.