Grateful Dead: Box of Rain
tylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro;a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Disclosure: I did not have a magical, memorable experience with the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain.” I bought American Beauty a little over two years ago from the $4.99 bin at Media Play, the now-defunct entertainment all-you-can-eat, right after they began stocking the Dead re-masters, and soon after I became secure enough with my music tastes to start buying albums that the kids I hated in high school enjoyed. I bought it at a time that I had so many new records to listen to that it didn’t hit the changer for a week. It was my first Dead album. It was alright.
Fans of Judd Apatow’s cult classic television series Freaks and Geeks know that music plays a big part in the circa-1980 lives of the show’s characters. The show does a yeoman’s job of presenting the tension between classic rock, punk, and disco that were starting to manifest at the turn of Reagan’s decade.
The Grateful Dead were an odd choice for a series that had already championed Zeppelin and The Who as classic rock pillars. Odd because in 1980 the Dead had already released Terrapin Station, an album that made it 80% less likely that high school kids would still give a shit. But the Dead make an appearance in the final episode, when series lead Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) throws American Beauty on and dances badly around her room, apparently freed from the academic and sexual pressures pushing on her at the end of the school year.
She dances badly, but not before exhibiting some grade-A music nerd behavior. At first lying on her bed skeptically, she sits up and grabs the record sleeve and turns it over a few times in her hand, examining the artwork, the band members, the hippie-ness of it all.
In a recent Soulseeking column, Mike Powell carves wood with a friend while listening to the Dead. Perfect; the Grateful Army was built out of right-time-right-place moments. I’ve no idea what song or album Mr. Powell was listening to (nor do I speak for him), but I think his experience, however different from a television character’s, exemplifies the magnetism of the Dead’s work: few artists’ work lends itself to emotional investment better. “Box of Rain” is a somewhat arbitrary choice, but its opening seconds—lazy open chords, half-assed piano, roughshod harmonies—are as sugary and adhesive as you’ll find. They reach for memories, beg for individual subtext.
The lyrics are malleable and unspecific: “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.” Bad poetry? Sure, but that’s long beside the point. “Box of Rain” is a good song, not a great one, and it’d be a hard sell to suggest that simply having a memory to attach to it makes the song any better. “Box of Rain,” its opening lines in particular, make for an especially potent canvas—however clichéd—and for that it is somewhat remarkable.
The idea of being able to go back and listen to a record “for the first time” is so utopian that it’s virtually nauseating. It’s also vaguely meaningless. We listen to records with “new” ears all the time—at the suggestion of a friend or colleague, after it has collected dust on a shelf, after reading a critique. But it’s difficult to mold moments out of something that you listen to under such academic, economic circumstances.
Ascribing experiences to moments in songs is certainly not unique to the Grateful Dead, nor is it unique to “Box of Rain.” I’m drawn to it because of a missed opportunity; not having a moment is my moment, should we wanna get meta-. When the school’s resident Dead-heads approach Lindsay Weir, a pretty, spacey brunette flips her hair and proclaims, “I wish I’d never heard it, just so I can hear it again for the first time.” One wise-ass indie rock fan who bought the record on a whim—and treated it as such—wishes he had the same chance.