from the desk of H. Bowie...

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"Box of Rain"

A song written by Robert Hunter and Phil Lesh in 1970

The music for this song was composed by Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, with lyrics by Robert Hunter.

Hunter wrote the words in response to a request from Lesh to help write a song he could sing to his dying father. The song first appeared on the album American Beauty, released in 1970.

There are several unusual aspects to the band’s performance on this track. Lesh plays acoustic guitar, Dave Torbert plays bass, David Nelson plays lead guitar on a Fender Telecaster, while Jerry Garcia plays the piano.

It’s a rich track musically, with intertwining voices and instruments, so it’s best to hear it in as uncompressed and high-fidelity a fashion as possible.

The first thing to note about this song is that, although Hunter could have responded to Lesh’s request with some very specific words about a child sitting with a dying parent, he instead generalized and broadened the song’s scope to instead speak to all of us about the meaning of life and death.

And while I think it’s clear that these are the topics Hunter is talking about here, the second thing to note is how obliquely he approaches them. He certainly doesn’t want to prescribe any answers, but instead wants to speak to us using the language of poetry and metaphor. He perhaps wants to give some shape and color to the smoke, but has no interest in dispelling any mystery: on the contrary, he seemingly wants us to feel the genuine mystery contained in these topics all the more deeply.

It’s worthwhile comparing this song to Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer,” since both deal with very similar topics, and both suggest a similar sense of mystery, yet the two songs take very different approaches lyrically.

Let’s see what Hunter does. I’ll add some commentary after each verse.

Look out of any window,
Any morning, any evening, any day.
Maybe the sun is shining,
Birds are winging or
Rain is falling from a heavy sky.
What do you want me to do,
To do for you, to see you through?
For this is all a dream we dreamed
One afternoon long ago.

In the first two lines Hunter starts by directing our attention to something outside, and yet clearly indicates, by repeated use of the word “any,” that the thing he wants us to observe is universal, and not specific to some special perspective, location or situation.

In the next three lines Hunter continues his suggestion that what he wants us to observe is some universal condition that is present no matter what the physical conditions are around us. Again, though, we are asked to look outside and observe physical phenomena in the world around us.

Hunter then asks what we want from him. And judging by his next observation, that this is all a dream, he seems to be suggesting that he is powerless to help, whether we want something related to the sun and the rain and the birds, or related to larger questions of life and death.

It’s worth paying attention to Hunter’s rhyming patterns here. Most songwriters use a strong rhyme at the ends of their lines, but here Hunter seems to shy away from anything that authoritative. Instead, we have lots of interior rhymes within the lines (morning/evening, shining/winging/falling, do/you/through, dream/dreamed), contributing to the meandering, dreamlike feel of the lyrics.

Walk out of any doorway:
Feel your way, feel your way,
Like the day before.
Maybe you’ll find direction
Around some corner
Where it’s been waiting to meet you.
What do you want me to do,
To watch for you while you’re sleeping?
Then please don’t be surprised
When you find me dreaming too.

Hunter again provides us with instructions, but this time not just to observe, but to act. He asks us to proceed out of any doorway not with some particular destination in mind, but simply to engage with the world around us, and to find meaning from that engagement. He’s not telling us the purpose of life, but he’s telling us how to find that purpose, and it’s not through inner vision, but through outer action. Once again he asks us what we want from him, and then, before we can answer, tells us again that he has no more power than we do, no more answers than we have.

Look into any eyes
You find by you, you can see
Clear through 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.

Now, having asked us to look outside, then to walk outside, Hunter asks us to look into the eyes of another human. Not some particular person, not some special love, but just the ordinary eyes of whatever person we come upon, and then suggests that, by doing so, we can see our way through today’s challenges to tomorrow. Again, he’s suggesting that what he’s asking us to observe is not something special, but probably something that’s been seen before, through other eyes, on our way to whatever we may deem to be “home.” Hunter is not calling our attention to some special occurrence, but to things so ordinary that we run the danger of taking them for granted.

Walk into splintered sunlight,
Inch your way through dead dreams
To another land.
Maybe you’re tired and broken,
Your tongue is twisted
With words half spoken
And thoughts unclear.
What do you want me to do
To do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain,
And love will see you through.

Having set us on a mission, Hunter now urges us to continue onward, no matter what challenges we might face, no matter what condition we may find ourselves in. And what is this promised land we are seeking, what is the answer to our questions, the help we’ve been seeking? Just this “box of rain” we might call the world, and the love we can forge between ourselves and other humans.

Just a box of rain,
Wind and water.
Believe it if you need it,
If you don’t just pass it on.
Sun and shower,
Wind and rain,
In and out the window
Like a moth before a flame.

And now, having finally answered our questions, provided the help we’ve been seeking, Hunter reiterates and emphasizes the answer, just to be sure we haven’t missed it. But rather than insisting that we believe him, he casually suggests we take his advice for what we think it’s worth, and just pass it on if we don’t want it. He further emphasizes his equanimity, suggesting that no matter what the weather, it’s all the same to him. But then, with the last two lines, he adds a sense of urgency, raising directly for the first time the question of life and death with the image of a moth before a flame.

And it’s just a box of rain.
I don’t know who put it there.
Believe it if you need it,
Or leave it if you dare.
And it’s just a box of rain,
Or a ribbon for your hair.
Such a long long time to be gone,
And a short time to be there.

And now, in the final verse, Hunter speaks to us as directly and clearly and urgently as he ever will. Yes, he says, this world we live in is nothing but a box of rain, and he has no knowledge of any divine reason for its existence or ours. You can believe that your life here is meaningful or not, but this may well be all we have, so don’t throw it away lightly.

And then, with one master stroke, with just one line, a mere five words, Hunter swoops down from the general to the achingly particular, offering “a ribbon for your hair,” investing all the potential meaning of our earthly existence in this one simple, physical gesture, conjuring up the beauty and the innocence of a young girl, and daring us to throw this away, to deny its meaning.

And finally, in the last two lines, Hunter summarizes his case, reminding us that the time given to us on this world is so short, and that once we die we are simply gone.

The song structure beautifully supports the thrust of the words. We have four verses with repeated lyrical and musical structures, but no chorus. And then, we have two final verses with very different musical and lyrical structures. The lines and rhymes of the first four verses are meandering, questioning. The last two are short and direct. And while line-ending rhymes eluded us earlier, the last verse drives its meaning home with the confident and conclusive line endings of there/dare/hair/there.

This is a great song, but the original studio recording is also a great performance. The instruments and voices weave in and out, combining in intricate harmonies one moment, then receding to leave a singular voice the next. Although Lesh rarely sang lead vocals, here his rough, untutored voice proves a perfect match for the words, with just the right combination of humanity, warmth and knowing distance, while Garcia and others combine with warm harmonies on key phrases, physically conveying the human connection that the song offers up as key to understanding the meaning of our time here on earth.

It’s hard to think of another song or songwriter or band that would even attempt to deliver such a delicate, resonant impression as this one, let alone one that could do it so masterfully.

Even if the group had never played a single live show, this recording would be one for the ages.

April 26, 2018