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
But 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
— “Box of Rain”
The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.
The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.
Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record. It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.
I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits. But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.
But now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed. I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions. Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere. Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.
I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan. I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.
I’m coming to revise that opinion now. Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.
But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium. There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.
Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped“
You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.
But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel. The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.
Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new. Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered. Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.
Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s. He sees this as “creatively formative.”
Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”
I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it. Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox. “Sugar Magnolia….”
The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me. The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.” I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.
But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now. Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.
I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.
Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.