To celebrate the 50th anniversary remaster of the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, we begin our track-by-track exploration of the band’s bittersweet 1970 masterpiece, powerfully embodied by opening track “Box of Rain,” featuring archival audio, and guests including co-producer Stephen Barncard and Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig.
Box of Rain supplementary notes
By Jesse Jarnow
When the Grateful Dead began the summer of 1970, they’d just released Workingman’s Dead, their most successful album yet. Warner Bros. pumped money into promotion, and arranged a cross-country tour for the band, eventually known as the Medicine Ball Caravan. When they returned, the Dead would play four nights at Pepperland--a new venue in San Rafael with a quadraphonic sound system by John Meyer--and record their next album live, as they had done in 1969 and as they would repeat in 1971. The night before the Medicine Ball Caravan’s departure, the band backed out, but their crew went along.
The Medicine Ball Caravan is a complicated story of its own, almost lost to history, but fascinating. In her memoir, Dancing With the Dead, Rosie McGee tells the story from the perspective of a Dead family member, though other accounts proliferate, and copies of François Reichenbach’s 1971 documentary (edited by Martin Scorsese) float around the far reaches of traders’ circles.
Without their usual engineers, the Grateful Dead decided to make their second new album in less than a year. By the end of August, they band their way to Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco to work with the gifted young engineer Stephen Barncard.
“Box of Rain,” the first song on the album, was the last song completed. Phil Lesh had spent the year working on the music and melody. When the song was ready for words, Lesh mentioned to
lyricist Robert Hunter that he would be practicing his vocals on the long drive to visit his dying father in a hospital north of San Francisco. Hunter responded with a powerful celebration of life. Its final line--”such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there” echoes the first verse “Little Birdie,” as performed by the Stanley Brothers. (Jerry Garcia would sing this version with the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers in 1962, available on the Before the Dead box set.)
On the recorded version of “Box of Rain” on American Beauty, Phil Lesh would perform on acoustic guitar, an instrument here rarely played, while Jerry Garcia accompanied on piano. An alternate mix from The Angel’s Share highlights the acoustic guitar. Listen to it here.
I love your podcasts. I'm so glad season two has begun. I was sad when the eight episodes of Working Man's Dead ended. I'm listening to the first American Beauty podcast and I want to offer a correction. Sal Valentino was the lead singer for The Beau Brummels not the Youngbloods. Later he sang with the bay area rock band Stoneground. Love the show!
I was thinking about the August 23, 1987 version of Box Of Rain as I listened to your incredibly informative podcast. Darned if you don't end the show by mentioning it. That was my first live Box Of Rain. Both of those shows were amazing. Santana and El Reo X opening and air shows between acts. Including Santana jamming on All Along The Watch Tower and a phenomenal Dear Mr. Fantasy.