Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Box Of Rain"
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.
This last week, on March 15, Phil Lesh turned 73 years old. When he was a youngster of only 29 or 30, he and Robert Hunter collaborated to write “Box of Rain.” It was a song written to and for his father, who at the time was in his final days. Lesh was driving out to the Livermore Valley (where I grew up!) on a regular basis, and this song came to be during those drives. In describing the evolution of the song, he says he gave Hunter a tape with each syllable of the melody, and Hunter drafted words to go with the melody and the sense of the song as conveyed by Lesh. Have you ever tried that? I’m not even sure how it was possible to write a coherent song, much less a great song, using that method. But there you have it. But according to Hunter, “Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words. If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did—as fast as the pen would pull.”
Lesh’s own version is slightly different, as laid out in his autobiography, Searching for the Sound: “…actually, I merely mentioned casually that I’d be working out the vocals as I drove to visit [my father]. One way or another, that must have been a catalyst for his imagination—a day later, he presented me with some of the most moving and heartfelt lyrics I’ve ever had the good fortune to sing.”
The song, which features Lesh in his first lead vocal for the band, opens side one of “American Beauty,” which was released in November 1970, but it didn’t appear in concert until October 9, 1972, at Winterland. It didn’t stay in the rotation long—just through mid-1973 or so—after which it fell away for, oh, 13 years. It was finally brought back on March 20, 1986 (first day of Spring, Lesh’s birth-week…), at the Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. It stayed in the repertoire after that, and was the last song ever played in concert by the band, on July 9, 1995.
Hunter’s imagery—a box of rain, ribbons for your hair, splintered sunlight—and the situations into which they are inserted in this lyric—someone communicating with someone else, or with everyone else, about the mysteries of this life: what’s coming up around the next corner?—make this song swirl around endlessly. Try to explain it—worth a shot. I will decline to do so, as usual, opting instead for acting as a pointer to possible avenues of conversation.
Hunter once said in an email response to a listener that he wrote the “box of rain” line because “ball of rain” didn’t “have the right ring.” And what is a ball of rain? Again, Hunter, in the same exchange: “Well, I don’t like to do this, since it encourages others to ask about what I had in mind when I wrote a song, and mostly you’d need to have my mind to understand even approximately what I had in it. By ‘box of rain,’ I meant the world we live on…”
So, there’s a little clue from Hunter. Myself, I always thought, before I heard Hunter’s explanation, of the boxes built by the wonderful artist Joseph Cornell/ I pictured a box you would open up and there, inside would be, somehow, rain. I’m sure someone has built such a box, inspired by the song. If you have, please share a photo of it!
What have you taken from this song? I think that the relationship it describes, with the singer asking “what do you want me to do?” is evocative of very many kinds of relationships. Even knowing, as we do, that Hunter wrote it for Phil to sing to his ailing father, we still might put those lines into other situations: lover to lover, parent to child…
I don’t know how many times I have used, to myself, the phrase: “believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.” It helps me when I am challenged by an idea, to let myself consider the idea without belittling it or dismissing it out of hand, and it gives me an out if I decide it’s not for me. And, deeper, the line that follows in the next verse: “…or leave it if you dare,” seems to be to offer that clear choice we all have at any given moment of keeping on with our lives, or opting out. And there are many ways to opt out, right? At any rate, we only have a short time to be there, on that ball of rain.
The song’s closing lines bring to mind the traditional tune “Little Birdie,” which has these lines:
Little birdie, little birdie,
come sing to me your song.
I've a short while to be here,
and a long time to be gone.
Hunter chose this song as the title of his anthology of lyrics. Lines from the song have been lifted for book titles, song titles, and mottoes. Again, like “Uncle John’s Band,” it’s a source of aphorisms—little snippets and snatches of lyric that ring true in different, evolving ways throughout the course of our short lifetimes. Is there a line from a Grateful Dead song that you would use to title your own life or life’s work? I once wrote a novel with the title “Though I Could Not Caution All,” about some experiences I had as a community organizer. Not really a catchy title, but definitely apt for the book. (Don’t bother trying to find it—it will remain forever unpublished and unpublishable…)
Really, then: is this song a comforting one? Has it seen you through? Or does it challenge you to stick it out despite what you’re going through, because we only have a short time on this ball of rain?
The sorrowful yet beautiful back-story of this song (Phil Lesh constantly driving back and forth from the Bay Area to Livermore to visit his dying father) poignantly illustrates a pattern I've seen play out many a time over the past several decades. Namely that:
In real life, 1960s counterculture people (and later generations raised in that milieu/ethos) have much stronger family values than the noxious hard-right "family values" agitators who've been in our midst since the emergence of the New Christian Right.
Phil Lesh, the acid-eating longhaired hippy freak rock musician, was faithfully spending long hours on the road daily, to visit and comfort his cancer-stricken father. When he (the dad) was unconscious (through medication, etc.), the exhausted Phil would sometimes drift off to sleep in the chair next to his bed ("What do you want me to do, to watch for you while you're sleeping? Well please don't be surprised when you find me dreaming too").
This was during the era when rest homes like Hill Haven (Hell Haven) were starting to boom because 'good,' 'upstanding' short-haired, establishment, conservative people didn't want to be bothered with aging relatives, and thought it a good idea to warehouse the unfortunate gomers instead.
I've seen this happen numerous times. Including the case of my old friend R. Holtz. He's been a lifetime deadhead and is a fine bay area musician. A decade ago he left his well-paying job to care for his ailing, dying parents full time. He lost several years of work and all that money, so he could care for them unto death. He did that because he's tuned in and turned on.
Next time you meet a Bible-thumping family values agitator, check the background: how well to they take care of their families? And while divorce is always tragic, it takes a right-wing family values champ like Gingrich to hand divorce papers to his wife when she was dying in the hospital from cancer.
In real life, turned on people are much more likely to show care and compassion to their ailing or aging relatives.
When I heard the first song on side one of American Beauty for the first time, it was like stepping into a beautiful new dimension, and seeing the world in a new way.
Right up there with Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, this song more than any other set the Grateful Dead apart for me. I just can't say enough good things about the lyrics and I finally got to hear them play it live while standing in the rain at RFK during their final tour. After having followed them for over thirty years, I can't think of a better way to have said goodbye. I sure do miss those guys.
This song has meant so much to me for so long-- especially the line...
"Maybe you'll find direction around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you"...
There have been many many times when I really didn't know what to do next, and this line has always given me great comfort that some energy -within me, or from some universal source - was waiting for me to just keep going and .... wow.... that's the answer... !
Grateful Dead music has always been "my religion" and lyrics like this just reinforce the cosmic connectedness that is always happening... the magic that's always just around the corner...
I have to think that you all have found the same magic in this music....
Kids of all ages,
Years ago, I listened to Hunter's CD titled, "A Box or Rain." A recorded live show! Interestingly, upon my waking journey, a rather hip woman who realized the truth of the lyrics, " There's nothing you can hold for very long," came my way and gave me a book titled, "A Box of Rain." Honored with the fact she would share her love of the "Grateful Dead" with me, I opened the book with the hope of finding my name inside. I combed through pages and found a poem titled, "Row Jimmy." It was the way I spelt my name at a early age. An age upon being old enough to ask a teacher, "If I swallow an orange seed, will it grow out of me?" Now at this age, and graduated from college, I still haven't seen any orange leaves growing out of me. None the less, I was intrigued with the opening lyrics "Julie catch a rabbit by his hair.".
I must have been moving at a turtles pace to find the song years after it had been written, as many people had danced to the tune within many concerts. The Band would slow the groove down sometimes during a show with a 3/4 beat, to let that locomotive engine cool off from all of its steam. It was a enlightening moment, because I came to realize there wasn't a particular Julie in mind. Later, within the time frame, I decided to lay the book down with the CD on top of it. Only to return to a rare gem moment that gave meaning to "STEAL YOUR SPACE." Hopefully, whoever has the the songbook and CD enjoys it.
Aside from not knowing a particular Julie during that time frame, I'll save the rest for another time, should there be a moment when the Greatest Stories Ever Told continues with the featured song "Row Jimmy." We'll see if I'm batting .500 in the batters box. "A Box of Rain" is a great song should one let the music become a part of one's journey. I like the song, especially the words, "Love will see you through."
was tickling the ivories on this one.
I dont know for sure why David Nelson played lead guitar on Box of Rain but I have a theory. That was right around the time that NRPS started and they were all really close with the band and may have simply just been around. Also, Jerry played quite a bit of pedal steel guitar on American Beauty and probably spent a lot of time working out his parts. Guitar is one instrument but pedal steel...I dont know if you have ever tried playing a pedal steel guitar but its not an easy instrument to play, not as easy as a regular guitar at least...in my opinion. But Jerry learned how to play it really fast and really well, of course, and I think this shows how talented and "deadicated" Jerry really was, haha!
Glad to hear these stories from everyone. And hey, I think from now on I will simply have to state that any and all facts included in my little essays are open to correction! First performances seem to be one thing I almost always get wrong...so please, feel free to keep correcting me.
This song has gotten a lot of us through a lot of hard times--just knowing that there's a commonality in our sorrow is helpful. A paragraph written this week by David Gans comes to mind: "Years ago I wrote that 'happiness shared is happiness doubled,' and I think the corollary to that is that the weight of grief is diminished when it is shared by friends."
It will be a fun thing to do, over the course of looking at these songs, to see if we know anything much about the composition style--whether the words or the music comes first, or simultaneously, or if there is much of the syllable-by-syllable style in which Box of Rain was composed. The songs on Blues For Allah, or some of them anyway, were written that way, with the music firmly in place prior to the lyrics. I'll try to round up that info when I can find it.
It blends acoustic and electric instruments to perfection. And as a previous poster noted, it has a wonderful logic - and the suspended ending; kinda leaves you off balance - in a good way. When the first notes of Friend of the Devil ring, it's back to terra firma.
Have always wondered why Jerry didn't play the break in it - though I think David Nelson's is great. Anybody?
Its weird how the universe works. We had to put our family dog down yesterday of 15 years. As much as it was her time, its never easy. I listened to this song on repeat over and over yesterday. Then today I jump on here and this song is the blog. Everything happens a reason. "Just a short time to be here and a long time to be gone" RIP Sara we will miss you!