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?