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. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
I am going to postpone the song I had planned to write about this week (hang in there, Bolo24…), because of the performance I experienced last Saturday night. Furthur played the Greek Theater in Berkeley—an old haunt of mine, and they kind of blew me away with their rendition of “Mission in the Rain.” Even the occasional lyrical … discrepancy … could not diminish the song’s power.
Weir sang it. He started it pretty much unaccompanied—just his voice in that old Greek Theater space, and people actually shushed each other to get everyone to stop talking and listen. It worked. The place got real quiet. People realized what they were hearing.
Now, I’m not up on the regular Furthur setlists, but I do know that a live performance of “Mission in the Rain” was something I myself had never heard outside of a Jerry show, so it seemed like something special. And it was. It was one of those moments when the crowd at a show coalesces into a community of listeners, each of us, for the duration of the song, following the memories it called up or the admonitions it engendered.
One of the friends I was at the show with sat down and seemed to be going deep inside. I just stood there and let it soak in.
“Ten years ago I walked this street, my dreams were riding tall,
Tonight I would be thankful, Lord, for any dream at all…”
Are there any sadder lines in the Grateful Dead repertoire? Is there any stronger picture painted by Hunter of the human condition? There are companion pieces, surely: “Wharf Rat” seems to me to be one. And “Comes a Time.” And perhaps even “High Time.” But this song is so vivid—we can picture the scene, we can feel the rain, we can hear the bells. We are in San Francisco’s Mission District, whether we’ve actually been there or not.
This Hunter lyric was set to music by Garcia, probably in 1975, and released in 1976 on the Garcia solo album, Reflections. In an interview, Garcia said “Mission in the Rain” was “... a song that might be about me. It's my life; it's like a little piece of my life. Hunter writes me once in a while.” The performance on Reflections featured a classic Garcia Band lineup, and included Nicky Hopkins on piano, playing a part that perfectly complements the song.
Hunter, in a Relix interview, said "I used to live over in the Mission when I was just starting to write for the Dead full time. I wasn't living at 710, I was living over on 17th & Mission, and that was very much a portrait of that time: looking backward at ten years."
The Grateful Dead played it just five times in June 1976 before it became a staple of the Garcia Band repertoire, played nearly 250 times between October 1975 and April 1995, according to the Grateful Dead Family Discography.
It debuted on June 4, 1976 at the Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon. (Interestingly, that show also featured the first “Cosmic Charlie” in five and a half years. They played their final “Cosmic Charlie three months later, in spite of a years-long Cosmic Charlie Campaign.) The final performance of “Mission in the Rain” was on June 29, at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago.
The Mission District in San Francisco is so named because it surrounds the 18th-century Spanish building, Mission Dolores, located between 16th and 17th on Dolores Street. According to the WPA Guide to California:
"...founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra. First named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, common usage soon gave it the name of Mision de los Dolores from a nearby marsh known as Laguna de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores (Lagoon of Our Lady of Sorrows). The first mass was sung five days before the Declaration of Independence was signed at Philadelphia. The adobe building was begun in 1782 and is an unusual example of Spanish mission architecture.
"...Behind the mission in the high-walled, flower-covered graveyard are buried many of the famous dead of San Francisco's early days, ... The graves of Casey and Cora, hanged by the vigilantes in 1856, are a reminder of lawless days. Many of the graves are unmarked."
I’m assuming, for the sake of atmosphere and logic within the song, that there are mission bells in the old church. However, at least one listener has floated the idea that Hunter might be punning here, and that the “bells” were actually “belles,” and that he may have been referring to the practice of the oldest profession prevalent, at times, in the neighborhood. I’m unconvinced. I think it’s bells, pure and simple. That’s me: pure and simple.
There’s something about that ten-year interval. It’s a good handy milestone for looking backward. Another song that comes to mind with some of this same sentiment is Pink Floyd’s “Time,” from Dark Side of the Moon:
“And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”
It’s a wake-up call, as I said earlier: an admonition.
So — anything you can think of you’d like to share, looking back over your own last ten years? Where were you ten years ago? Are you where you want to be now?