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Say whatever else you will about the Grateful Dead, they're the only band I can think of that regularly performed anything in 11/4 (or maybe it was 11/8) time. This song has much the same surreal lyrical flavor as "China Cat Sunflower", another classic Dead tune, except that in this case it's much easier to guess at some of the literary allusions and mythical references being woven together in the words of lyricist Robert Hunter. For instance, "the great white sperm whale" is almost certainly Moby Dick, and "ride in the whale belly" could well be a reference to the Biblical story of Jonah and the giant fish (although it also makes me think of Whale Rider, even though the song predates both the book and the movie by that title). The "three girls" who "wait in a foreign dimension" are a familiar image: they could be the three Graces, the Fates, or perhaps even the Triple Goddess. However, all these allusions aside, I especially like the way the countdown from seven on down in the last verse is framed by the repeated line, "Now is the time of returning" --- the numbers are returning to the origin, zero. Also, all the images of the ocean suggest to me the primordial soup from which all life on Earth originally grew: another beginning to which "the time of returning" might possibly refer.

Lyrics:

No more time to tell how
This is the season of what
Now is the time of returning
With thought jewels polished and gleaming

Now is the time past believing
The child has relinquished the reign
Now is the test of the boomerang
Tossed in the night of redeeming

Eight-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack
Seven-faced marble eye transitory dream doll
Six proud walkers on jingle-bell rainbow
Five men writing in fingers of gold
Four men tracking the great white sperm whale
Three girls wait in a foreign dominion
Ride in the whale belly
Fade away in moonlight
Sink beneath the waters
to the coral sand below
Now is the time of returning

---Words and Music by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Copyright Ice Nine Publishing.

Reprinted with permissions: copyright Ice Nine Publishing - see Grateful Dead Lyrics

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