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The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain”

Phil Lesh live in 2021. Photo from Facebook.

As the opening track to the Grateful Dead’s classic 1970 album, American Beauty, “Box of Rain” is one of the most memorable studio recordings in their entire catalogue.

With lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Phil Lesh, “Box of Rain” is one of two Grateful Dead songs to feature Lesh on lead vocals — the other being “Unbroken Chain”.

First performed live on October 9th, 1972, at Winterland Arena in San Francisco, “Box of Rain” was only in rotation for less than a year before being put away in mid-1973, after which it did not return until March 20th, 1986.

Despite being known to make the fans absolutely lose their mind when performed in the final decade of the Grateful Dead’s thirty year run, “Box of Rain” is one of only a handful of Dead songs for which the going consensus is that the studio version is better than any of the live versions.

Still, everybody loved to see Phil sing, so when the band did choose to bust it out, there was always plenty of support, and nobody seemed to mind if they botched it a little bit. Phil’s stage presence always made up for it anyways, as he’s pretty easy to love.

Often, the Dead actually performed the track in response to cheers of “We want Phil!” from fans, like this time at the Shoreline Amphitheater, summer of 1989, which is an awesome video but a less-than-stellar performance of the song:

“Box of Rain” also has the distinction of being the final song the Dead played in their final show, on July 9th, 1995. Thus, the last words sung by the Grateful Dead were, “Such a long, long time to be gone, and such a short time to be there.”

Pretty weird — as are many things about this band.

Origins of “Box of Rain”

It’s true that most of Robert Hunter’s contributions to the Grateful Dead songbook were born of collaborations with Jerry Garcia.

“Box of Rain” is an exception to that, as it was instead a pairing with Phil Lesh, who wrote the song for his father, whom was dying of cancer at the time. Together the duo of Hunter and Lesh created a song that is right up there in terms of quality with anything Hunter created with Jerry.

“Box of Rain” is born of special feelings that are universal and that many people find themselves able to relate with.

It’s also a great entry-point to the Grateful Dead, for new listeners, as it’s common to start with the ever-popular American Beauty and work from there. “Box of Rain” is often the catchy, memorable hook that draws new listeners to the band, as when they fire up the album they are greeted with those opening chords.

Robert Hunter actually named his 1993 anthology of lyrics after this song, in which he gave notes on his songs in the Dead catalogue. He explains that Phil Lesh wrote every part of the song except the actual lyrics:

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.

Robert Hunter on “Box of Rain”.

Then, in the 1997 Jeremy Marre documentary, Classic Albums: Grateful Dead – Anthem to Beauty, Lesh and Hunter dive deeper into the history of the song:

Lesh: The lyrics came about in an unusual way. This was the first time I had written a song in a long time, and I had worked out the melody and the chords, and in fact the whole song, from beginning to end—introduction, coda, and everything—and I put it on a tape and gave it to Hunter.

Hunter: He’d just written these lovely changes and put ’em on a tape on a tape for me, and he sang along (scat singing of melody)—so the phrasing was all there, I think I went through it two or three times, writing as fast as I could, and that song was written. I guess it was written for a young man whose father was dying.

Lesh: And at that time, my dad was dying of cancer, and I would drive out to visit with him, in the hospital, and also at the nursing home he spent his final days in, and after Bob gave me the lyrics, on the way out there I would practice singing the song. I sort of identified that song with my dad and his approaching death. The lyrics that he produced were so apt, so perfect. It was very moving, very moving for me to experience that during the period of my dad’s passing. I felt like singing it in other situations similar to that since then.

Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter discuss the meaning of “Box of Rain”, 1997.

It seems that Lesh and Hunter made a deep, subconscious connection with “Box of Rain”. Phil channeled his emotions surrounding his father’s final days into the demo recording he gave to Hunter.

Hunter in turn could feel those emotions while listening to Phil’s demo, and was able to produce lyrics that nailed the way that Phil was feeling in a way that resonated with him.

“Box of Rain” Lyrics Meaning

This deep connection that Phil feels with “Box of Rain” is one that is shared by many. The lyrics speak to a universal appreciation for life and its beauty, depicting it as a journey where everyone is simply trying to find their own way.

It also expresses a pure kind of love for fellow humans, felt through both the arrangement and the lyrics, with the general desire to help others find their way, especially during difficult times.

According to “Box of Rain”, these emotions and desires are that have been felt since the beginning of time, and we’re all just here to experience it for a short blip (a lifetime’s worth), although the world will surely keep turning in our absence.

Now that we’ve got the general idea and the history covered, let’s dive into these lyrics, starting with the first 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

First verse to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

The opening lines invite listeners to look outside, no matter the time of day, and see that no matter what the weather may be, the world exists, and is rolling along in its own way.

After this gentle introduction, we reach the first chorus, which feels like a hand outstretched through the confusing mist of life:

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

First chorus to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

Instead of simply doing something that he thinks might help, he instead asks the listener what he might be able to do to help them out. This shows an understanding of the human condition, as oftentimes help that is offered with the best intentions may not be the kind of help that is desired or needed in all situations.

Regardless, though, it’s all just a dream, and it will be over soon, and you will soon snap out of it as if nothing ever happened. This lyric brings to mind a spiritual questioning, and the idea of the interconnectedness between the souls of people.

If life is a dream, from an afternoon long ago, then perhaps the struggles of life do not truly hold any weight, as this lifetime may just be a short dream in the grand scheme of things.

This idea brings two mind two other songs from this album with similar lifetime, nostalgic, and unifying themes: “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace”. “Ripple” especially comes to mind, with the shared imagery of water and rain, which makes sense as “Box of Rain” opens side one and “Ripple” opens side two of American Beauty.

Another song, from a couple years later in their career contains a similar lyric: “Stella Blue” off 1973’s Wake of the Flood, with the line “it seems like all this life was just a dream”.

These connections go to show that Robert Hunter created a world with his lyrics, with themes that span multiple songs and the entire discography. This lends itself to the feeling that listening to the Grateful Dead is like going on a journey, which seems to be one of the main things that draws people to this band.

Next up, we reach the second verse:

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

Second verse to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

The second verse brings to mind the idea of going through life without much of a concrete plan, but rather just feeling your way through each and every day. This means taking every challenge as it comes, and perhaps finding the answers in the places where you least expect it.

Robert Hunter often brought this theme into his songwriting, as well. “Scarlet Begonias” contains a similar line: “once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right”. And the entirety of “Shakedown Street” is all about finding beauty in the darkest of places.

In the next chorus, Lesh sings of his desire to help, but also makes note of his own limitations:

What do you want me to do
To watch for you while you are sleeping?
Then please don’t be surprised
When you find me dreaming, too

Second chorus to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

Here, the lyrics express uncertainty about what to do, as the other person is asleep. The desire to help is certainly there, but one can only do so much before human nature interferes, and soon both people are dreaming away carelessly while the world toils on around them.

No matter what, the human condition cannot be changed, and we are stuck to deal with the flaws of humanity both on an individual and a collective basis.

Hunter also appears to be alluding to the Bible with this line, specifically “The Garden of Gethsemane”, where Jesus’ disciples fell asleep while he was praying. However, this song contains no Jesus, and all of us assume the role of the careless disciple.

A guitar solo is up next, and then Lesh sings the third verse:

Look into any eyes you find by you
You can see clear through to another day
Maybe it’s been seen before through other eyes
On other days while going home

Third verse to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

Here, the singer notices that you can see straight through the eyes of people into another day. This brings to mind the idea that each person is on their own unique journey, and experiences each day differently from another person.

Even if you are standing right beside another person, or going through that day together, each person’s subjective experience will be unique.

Then, Hunter’s lyric suggests that this is not a groundbreaking realization, and that’s probably been seen by many other eyes, even while doing something as casual as heading home.

“Home”, however, is a word that holds more weight than a basic idea like “going home from work”, though it could be interpreted in this way. Some may view life itself as one long journey to a place that feels like “home” — or even the “home” of the afterlife.

The final lyric in this verse inspired the title of the 1987 novel, On Other Days While Going Home by Michelle Carter.

Next up, the Phil sings the first chorus again, and then we reach the fourth verse:

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

Fourth verse to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

Walking into splintered sunlight is like walking out of a dark room into a bright, piercing light. Picture beams of sunlight bursting through the clouds.

You’re making your way through a dream that seems dead, hoping to find a path to another land. This is like working through a difficult time in life, unsure of what to do or say, but trudging onward because it’s the only thing that you can do.

Your thoughts are muddied and you’re beat and tired, perhaps you’ve made some mistakes and left some things unsaid, but you’ve still got to keep it moving.

The fourth chorus is up next, revealing the titular lyric:

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

Fourth chorus to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

“Box of Rain” is of course the title of the song, and as you might assume, the image is that of the planet earth, or the world we live on.

As noted in the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, Robert Hunter confirmed this in a 1996 email exchange with a fan named Charlie Bass:

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, but “ball” of rain didn’t have the right ring to my ear, so box it became, and I don’t know who put it there.

[rh]

Robert Hunter on the meaning of “Box of Rain”

With this in mind, it’s easy to see that the fifth verse describes the earth:

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

Fifth verse to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

Each of the first three lines make perfect sense in this verse, but the final line “in and out the window like a moth before a flame” is more abstract, and calls to mind many old proverbs and poems (far too many to get into here), which are again noted in the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.

The general idea is that a moth is attracted to the flame, and this attraction then causes them to be burned by the flame, and they have nobody to blame but themselves.

Moths have long seemed to fascinate writers, as there have been countless writings over the years that examine their behavior and use their strange tendencies to get trapped in odd places as metaphors for humanity and the struggle of human life.

Take the famous 1942 essay by Virginia Woolf, “The Death of the Moth”, or the similar, same-titled 1976 essay by Annie Dillard, which actually depicts a moth dying by fire (this one could have been inspired by “Box of Rain”).

With “Box of Rain”, Hunter added his own words to this timeless literary conversation.

Finally, the outro leaves us with something to think about, and the beauty of the world to appreciate:

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

Outro to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead.

It’s just a big, floating box of rain, and nobody knows where it came from.

The “believe it if you need it” line seems to be a reference to religion, saying that listeners can leave it behind if they dare. Or, it could be about going to space, leaving earth if you dare.

He compares the earth to a ribbon in someone’s hair, it’s something that you can enjoy for the short amount of time that it’s there, or that you’re able to enjoy it. Because it will be gone before you know.

Listen to the studio version of “Box of Rain” below, and check out the March 1986 bust out below that, just for fun.

“Box of Rain” (3/20/86 Bust Out)

“Box of Rain” in Freaks and Geeks

The cult classic television show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) famously included “Box of Rain”, among many other Grateful Dead references. The short-lived show was directed by the now-legendary comedy director Judd Apatow, and starred many now-famous actors in their younger forms including Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel.

Cancelled in its first season, before the story had reached its conclusion, and the final episode takes a left turn when the show’s protagonist, Lindsey Weir, discovers the Grateful Dead after a conversation with her guidance counselor.

He gives her a copy of American Beauty, and she listens to “Box of Rain”. Then the episode ends with her heading out on the 1980 summer tour while “Ripple” plays.

3 comments on The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain”

  • March 12, 2023 at 8:57 pm

    They are sorely missed by many… Loved them.

    Reply
  • March 12, 2023 at 4:36 pm

    Barton hills choir

    Reply
  • March 11, 2023 at 2:35 pm

    Véry Interesting.

    Reply