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!)
California has been begging for rain for a few years now, and we are in the midst of a serious drought. Right now, though, and for the past few days, it has been raining—a long, soaking rain with periods of intense thunderstorm activity.
Last night, I went to a local nightclub to hear Bill Kreutzmann’s new band, TryptoBand, and on their setlist was “The Wheel,” which was perfect given the pyrotechnics going on in the air outside the show.
Which led me to think about “Looks Like Rain,” a beautiful song with an implied story, deftly told by John Barlow, and sung and played so well over the years by the band.
I remember being lucky enough to be in the first rows of a Greek Theater show in Berkeley in the early 1980s, when, between songs, an audience member shouted up to Phil Lesh, “Does it look like rain, Phil?” He put a finger to his lips with a sly smile—don’t spoil the surprise—and the band eased into the song.
That opening phrase sequence, with Weir strumming the quiet arpeggios, then his voice entering, and finally: “You were gone…” and the band enters, reinforcing the emotion behind the words.
When The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics came into being as a printed book on paper, we were lucky enough to have Barlow contribute an afterword for the book, in which he relates a very personal perspective on the song. It’s a longish passage, but I think he wouldn’t mind my quoting it extensively here.
When I wrote “Looks Like Rain,” I had never fallen in love. I had certainly heard a lot of love songs. I had been to an opera or six. I was not unfamiliar with the huge literature of amorous helplessness. But I remained skeptical. I secretly believed that “falling in love” was a conceit that people had made up in order to make themselves even more miserable for their perceived insufficiencies. People do stuff like that. Nevertheless, there this song was on a winter day in Wyoming, and I didn’t try to stop it from coming into existence merely because it trafficked in emotions I hadn’t quite experienced. I didn’t know who these people in the song were or, really, what they were experiencing, but as it arrived, it seemed as genuine as any other love song.
That was in 1972. Twenty-one years later, I fell in love for the first time in my life. I looked across a crowded room and saw somebody’s back and knew. Don’t ask me how I knew. Don’t even ask me what it was that I knew.
Now, mind you, this was after I’d had about two hundred people come up to me in various contexts and tell me that “Looks Like Rain” was the song they fell in love to, or was the song that was played at their wedding, or was the song that changed their lives and helped them feel like one person. I would nod and smile as if I knew what they were talking about.
In any event, I was instantaneously in love with some person who face I hadn’t seen yet. She turned around and fell in love with me.
After we’d been together almost a year, enjoying a relationship so radiant that other would gather around it like cats to a fireplace, we were at a Dead concert in Nassau Coliseum (of all grim places). Bobby started to sing “Looks Like Rain,” and I started singing it to her myself so that she would get all the words. About halfway through, I realized that I was getting all the words for the first time. I finally knew what the song was about. I finally meant it. Or perhaps one could say more accurately that it finally meant me.
So, there you go. That is as explicit an example as you are going to find of how these songs work over time. They accrue meaning. They change in resonance with the individual listener. Sometimes, they explode in your brain in a revelatory moment, and sometimes, they quietly gather strength over the years.
“Looks Like Rain” has also been the subject of some rather hilarious speculation over the years due to the line “written in the letters of your name.” Was it a clue of some kind? I quote, in the book, an interview conducted with Weir by Al Franken, in which Weir uses a chalkboard to reveal that the song is actually about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Other attempts to derive a name from the song, whether from the letters of the notes, or of the chords, or of the first letter of each line, etc., have proven to be a fruitless, if fun endeavor.
Weir’s end-of-song rave up of “Rain rain, go away…” is another in a long line of examples of nursery rhymes in Grateful Dead songs—the subject of an essay I wrote on the annotated lyrics website which did not make the printed book. Over the years, Garcia’s part in this extended cadenza-like part of the song became fairly formalized—a baroque-sounding figure which seemed to grow in intensity and majesty along with the crescendo, underneath Weir’s pleading lines. Stunning.
The song itself was often played in the context of the weather. (And it was one of the most-played songs overall, with over 400 performances.) If they were playing an outdoor concert with rain threatening, they might break out “Looks Like Rain.” One of a number of weather songs in their songbook, and one I am thinking of today. Let’s hope it continues to look like rain, at least here in California, for a few more soaking months.