Grateful Dead: Box of Rain

21 Dec

Grateful Dead: American Beauty

The back side of the Grateful Dead’s 1970 release American Beauty. Jason Ankeny of allmusic.com: “American Beauty remains the Dead’s studio masterpiece — never again would they be so musically focused or so emotionally direct.”

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear to another day
Maybe been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home –
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It’s all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

The first time I ever heard the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain it was wafting from the speakers in my brother’s room. He was home from prep school; when I heard it, I wondered what the place had done to him.

I liked the song from the first note, the way the smell tells you what’s cooking will taste good. It was new, almost mystical (hey, I was 15) — I had no idea there was a world of music beyond AM radio (WFIL and WIBG in my case) — and I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to my older brother. He already had all the advantages of seniority. I sure wasn’t conceding a note to musical taste or knowledge (my first 45 was Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston’s It Takes Two; his was Georgy Girl. Nothing against the Seekers, but they can take their dowdy feathers and fly).

I’m thinking of Box of Rain today as I often do when I think of my brother, because he celebrates another birthday, if not like he used to. I don’t want to reveal how old he is, but we can say Keith Richards isn’t feeling threatened. Yet.

I listened to American Beauty with him that day long ago — and in my adolescent mind, he was the coolest guy I knew (in my adult mind, he’s not, except if you’re playing cards against him. When he starts twirling his hair between his fingers as if it were the guitar strings between Garcia’s, you might as well put your cards on the table, because he can see them in his mind as clearly as you can with your eyes).

Years went by. I got my own copy of American Beauty and his speakers. We went to two Dead concerts together, where I learned why many of the most devoted fans were called Deadheads — they really were dead in the head, if chemically induced. Many of them walked as if they had vertigo; I once couldn’t avoid a collision with an oncoming Deadhead, which wouldn’t have been unusual except I was seated. “Sorry, dude,” he said, and wobbled away. I think he meant it.

Like many fans, my brother started collecting Dead concert tapes. San Francisco ’72. Copenhagen ’74. BFE ’75. BF deal I thought — they all sounded the same to me (and a pox on any tape where Friend of the Devil is played at the pace the aforementioned Deadhead was walking). It was about then that I retracted the idea of his hipness. I liked The Dead without becoming a Deadhead. Some groups, like AARP, you don’t want to join, even if you’re eligible.

Not much has changed in my brother’s musical taste since. If you asked him today to name his 10 favorite bands, more than half would be The Dead and/or Dead spinoffs. If you asked him about new bands, he’d probably mention Dire Straits. If you walked into his room today, Box of Rain might still be playing. And it would sound just as good.

As any Deadhead could tell you, Phil Lesh wrote the music to Box of Rain for his father, who was dying. Any Deadhead could tell you Robert Hunter wrote the words, and that Hunter used Box of Rain because Ball of Rain didn’t sound right. “The lyrics that (Hunter) produced were so apt,” said Lesh, “so perfect, it was very moving. Very moving to me to experience that during the period of my dad’s passing.”

And any Deadhead can tell you it was the last song The Dead ever played in concert, 25 years after it was released, the final encore of a 1995 show in Chicago, a month before the death of Jerry Garcia.

It’s a reminder of the truth in the last lines of the song: “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.”

Which brings me to the point of this post. Happy birthday, bro. Sometimes you’re still the coolest guy I know.

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One Response to “Grateful Dead: Box of Rain”

  1. Cousin Larry December 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    Good words Dave on behalf of your bro. As you well know I can vouch for the GD addiction. It was, and is still, genetically ciphered onto the shared Markowitz clan DNA. However, neither your sibling nor any of the cousins could properly play or sing BoR. Off American Beauty FotD was much more our speed.

    Happy birthday Andy. Go Eagles — “it’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon.”

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