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?
A little off topic, but in terms of songs to listen to after a hard breakup... When I had a tough breakup in college (long time ago), I listened to the Jerry version of Positively Fourth Street a lot. Still really love that song, and now married almost 25 years (to someone else).
I listened to this song a LOT while I was splitting up from my ex-wife in the dark autumn of 2002 and its bittersweet, optimism from grief lyrics and chord structures were a refuge for me at the time. Still listen to the song 11 years later from the perspective of a totally new life but it always brings (to my mind, anyway) a feeling of shelter from an emotional storm. Well, I guess words are what you make of them, sentiments Mr Hunter would no doubt approve of. Greetings to all you Deadheads.
We are all on a simmilar trip. We are born. Our mothers and fathers die, before us, if they are so lucky! I choose not to be a father, but life goes on, and i will die! My mother is in the hospital for the twelth time in seven years. Knowing she will die and her suffering will end, brings no peace to my soul! I have to go through the transitive light axis! I give a nodd to the dodd! Thankyou for this outlet. Few understand, and fewer care, but so easily i go into despair. It must be the direction that was waiting there!
The dead are the one constant in my life over the last 20 plus years! I never heard box of rain live. I am grateful they recorded most of it! I got a tape labeled 2-9-73 with abox of rain, and that was the date of my first birthday on this world with four corners! What was that old folk song pretty boxes every ones in boxes, i am not translating correctly, but the truth is there! When i drove my father home from the diagnosous of cancer i didnt hear the dead , but some country song i have forgotton! I listened to the dead to comfort my soul as my father died in 2005, 10 years and a several days after Jerry died. My dad was 76 and i was 33! He had a full life, and he often commented that he had seen and done all that he wanted to do and see! Open your window and look out the door! Any thing is possible, all you have to do is explore, and turn the knob to that sound device!
The dead are still alive, as i listen to the tapers section, and the many hours i have purchased of commercial releases! The dead commfort me! My misery will not last forever!
This is one of those rare tunes that I can remember hearing for the first time, and it did leave me with a lingering before-this/and-then-everything-after kind of vibe.
I'm not at all a trained musician and haven't picked up any real education in it via nontraditional curricula, but the track struck me then and has done ever since as, in addition to tuneful and magnetic, quite challenging to the listener in a way that stands in stark contrast with, for instance, "Ripple."
I lack the vocabulary to put it as well as I wish that I could do, but I hope that it's enough to say that with all of the options at his disposal, Phil elects string a lot of interesting chords together in a wholly unique way, and the whole work asserts a musical logic entirely its own --there's just no other tune like it that I've ever heard, unless of course one chooses to cheat and include "Unbroken Chain" heh.
As a listener, I always appreciate a composition that grabs my attention by not going for the obvious but which still manages to makes perfect sense and instead of pushing me away draws me in deeper in an effort to wrap my ears entirely around it. It's more of a puzzle than a passive exercise in listening and absorption, and while it need not be that way in order to grab me, it's never unwelcome (Frank Zappa and David Bowie earned my fandom for life by going much the same route)..
And of course Bob's lyric is just genius. His invitation to walk into splintered sunlight, coupled with the musical accompaniment, evoked for me from the beginning and with the sharpest clarity the idea of a walk alone deep amidst a forest of redwoods (and it's only since after '95 that I learned about the thematic origins of the tune, which only adds intrigue).
But anyway whatever --we all get out of it what we get out of it, each in one's own way. Such a great, great tune; on that much I think that we all might agree.. And thanks to DD for the essay and annotations.
Long long time to be gone, such a short time to be there. It always gives me chills, now too, that this was the very last line the Grateful Dead sung. Even as one of the longer lasting bands, 30 years just doesn't seem long enough. But of course, that line works for everything really. Nothing lasts forever and there's nothing you can hold on to for very long. I do think this is a comforting song. Everyone has troubles but this song, to me, just says you've got a friend that will help you.
As far as the songwriting goes, I was under the impression that this was how Jerry and Robert wrote a bunch of their songs. Jerry would have the music and melody and Robert would just add the words. It makes sense but it is amazing on how he can make a coherent song that way.
What a masterpiece.
A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through.
Yes, thank you Phil and Robert!
in each verse is pretty cool when strung together.
Same for each respective line/verse combo.
The line in this song that never fails to tug at my heart strings:
"Such a long, long time to be gone
and a short time to be there"
Nice of Mr. Hunter to put that little 'gotcha' right at the end of the song, too...
Phil and Hunter are at their warlockian best in this song. I don't know if they had any other collaborations but this one was, if not the only, certainly the best. Why? I'm not so sure about the lyrics themselves. My brother used to make fun of me as a deadhead - mock singing "In and out the window like a moth before a flame" over and over again. It was like nonsense to a lot of people.
To me, though, this song highlights the chemistry between the members of the band and the collective power they had, especially when referring to anything having to do with the Dead. Hunter seems to confirm this by saying the lyrics just about wrote themselves. Like perhaps the paranormal phenomenon of "auto-writing"? I am not suggesting that. What I am saying is that this song had power and purpose and involved impending death and a reflection of life and it's sure termination.
Why did it come back in '86? I saw it like four times on that tour. Once in every city they went to. I believe because of the group gestalt Phil had a premonition about Jerry's health. And, as we all know, Jerry went into the diabetic coma shortly after the RFK show that summer. Amazing foresight or coincidence? I'll leave that for the reader to decide. On the summer tour preceding Jerry's second illness related absence in '92, out of 17 shows, they only did the "Box" once towards the beginning of the tour. So it wasn't always an indicator of things to come. But then we have the last show at Soldier Field and the last song. Clearly Jerry wanted a Black Muddy encore to end but Phil defied the curfew and led them through a Box even as the warning beeps leading to possible power cut-off were happening. He was saying good-bye to his long-time friend. They finished it under the wire.
I never much liked anything "The Dead" did during their three tours between 2003-2009 but there were always moments, songs, sets even when you could hear the old magic ring through. The Box Of Rain encore from Charlotte in '09 was extremely powerful. I had a good cry thinking of my mother's death the first time I heard it and when I'm in the mood will play it for effect. It just wasn't because I knew Phil wrote the song as his father was dying. I was swept into a wave of Phil's creation. And Robert Hunter's also.
Thanks Phil, Thanks Robert.
one of the great, eternal songs that inspire one to think about the eternal questions: meanings, values, choices, separating the wheat from the chaff in life's journey. Anothe rreason that we are still hanging onto this trip for all these years. They are not the best at what they do, they are the only ones who do what they do. To paraphrase.