How I Accidentally Ripped Off the Jerry Garcia Band

Dominic Angelella on the time he unknowingly plagiarized a riff from “Rubin and Cherise” (and learned to appreciate the Dead along the way).

The line between inspiration and plagiarism is incredibly thin. A songwriter’s worst fear is to have been struck by a powerful bolt of a song only to find out that the melody was accidentally lifted from something that appeared on their Spotify Weekly playlist the previous week. What’s even worse is when the record in question goes through the entire process — mixing, mastering, pressing to vinyl — before the people involved in the recording realize that a song is basically a retooled “Magic Man.” The absolute worst-case scenario is when it’s a song you’ve never heard before.

I was mixing a solo record a few years back with an engineer friend of mine. This friend remarked that the guitar line in a song was remarkably similar to the end of “Rubin and Cherise,” a song off of the Jerry Garcia Band’s 1978 album Cats Under The Stars. I was dumbfounded. How did this tune, written by someone whose music I thought I didn’t like, make its way into my brain? At the time, I was not yet initiated into the vast and wonderful world of Garcia’s music. The extent of my experience was one casual Deadhead bandmate who would listen to “Terrapin Station” on long drives to intensify the road-trip madness of everyone else in the van. At the time, I saw Garcia and Co. as a group of silly, drug-added noodlers who would occasionally come up with a good idea or two, but nothing more.

Regardless of my personal feelings regarding The Grateful Dead and its various offshoots, I had to figure out where this melody found its way to me. So, a few weeks after the recording session, I started digging deep, listening to various cover versions and asking other musicians about the song. It was only when I reached the Bonnie “Prince” Billy (otherwise known as Will Oldham, Palace, etc.) and The National’s cover of “Rubin and Cherise” off of the mammoth tribute compilation Day Of The Dead that I discovered the genesis of my accidental plagiarism. In this version, a guitarist (who I assume is one of the Dessner brothers) takes the ending horn melody and places it at different points, transforming it into the main theme of the song. I must have picked it up while checking out this compilation, amazed that so many artists I loved and respected would pay tribute to a band that left me mostly confused.

What ended up happening as a result of my deep-listening odyssey? I realized that I absolutely loved “Rubin and Cherise.” With each listen I descended deeper into a pit of which there was no return. I found myself punishing friends and family with this song, discussing the story of the lyrics and how it reminded me more of a Harlan Ellison short story than “Sugar Magnolias.” To my uninitiated ears, Garcia’s lyricist Robert Hunter seemed to tap into a deeper interpersonal world that I had never heard in his lyrics previously. In the song, Rubin and Cherise are a couple preparing for a carnival in New Orleans. As Cherise is putting on her costume for the evening, she confesses her insecurities about her relationship to Rubin as he strums his mandolin. Though he continuously tells Cherise that there is no one for him but her, the events of the evening tell a different story. A woman named Ruby Clare shows up, Cherise’s worst fears come true, and Rubin ends up walking the streets of New Orleans until dawn, holding Cherise’s limp body in his arms.

Robert Hunter’s unedited lyrics to this song include a fuller version of the plot, making it clear that “Rubin and Cherise” is a parallel to the story of Orpheus, but to my ears, the song touches on something universal. Garcia sings about Rubin being unable to keep himself from hurting someone that he loves. Garcia apparently had difficulty being emotionally open to the people in his life, from romantic partners to family members. It’s easy to draw parallels between him and Rubin, the character who can’t help but attract people by his very nature, and unknowingly hurting people in the process.

It’s no surprise that Garcia’s live performances of this song are drenched in melancholy. “Rubin” ranks up there with the best of The Dead’s slow, sad jams, conveying a deep sadness with detachment, as if to completely give yourself to the emotions of the situation would be too much to bear. The Day Of The Dead version, on the other hand, revels in the complicated emotions of the song. When Oldham sings as Cherise, he sounds cautious and careful, trying to express her directionless feelings of malaise without seeming overbearing. When he plays the character of Rubin, he sounds exasperated and worried that something out of his control will happen. The carnival scenes are conveyed with the excitement and abandon that sweeps you up and takes you out of yourself, and at the end of the song he returns to the observational voice that Garcia used in his ballads, lamenting the demise of the couple.

After countless listens, I felt that I had cracked the code, and discovered a favorite new song. However, after doing my Googles I realized that the Day of the Dead version of “Rubin” was released a week after the recording session in question. There was no way that Will Oldham could have incepted me with his bewitching cover. I obviously have no issue with this, mainly because I know now that the Garcia estate won’t sue me. Most importantly, my fear of being a accidental plagiarizer introduced me to what is now one of my favorite songs, and showed me a door to music I never imagined I’d enjoy.

Dominic Angelella is a songwriter and musician from Baltimore, Maryland. He currently plays bass for Lucy Dacus, has toured with Natalie Prass and MewithoutYou, and has played on records by Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, Hop Along, and more. He has released records with his projects Lithuania and Drgn King as well as music under his given name, and is currently working on a new solo LP.

(Photo Credit: Josh Pelta-Heller)