As part of my “Season of Songs” project, I thought it would be fun to have some of my friends offer up second opinions on some of the songs I’ve already written about. First person to accept the challenge was Spat Cannon, Pittsburgh ex-patriate currently living in Leeds, UK. I first became aware of Spat when he was pretty young and playing in the acapella punkrock jugband TBA. Spat recently just completed his first book (or at least the first to get published), “Press Here and It Will All Make Sense“, a semi-autobiographical tale of a young punk rocker living in Pittsburgh. Using a random number generator, I assigned Spat a song from my first 45 days of this project and he got the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain” (from my Day 12) which is apt as his write-up ties in nicely with some aspects of the storyline from Spat’s book. You can holler at Spat through his Twitter handle: @spatcannon Thanks to Spat for agreeing to be part of this project – Q
When I was in 9th grade we had a class called Social Sciences that was meant to give us a taste of many of the different fields that fall under that umbrella: history, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, et al. As a portion of the anthropology section the teacher showed us a documentary about fans of the Grateful Dead, which was meant to illustrate that their Deadhead culture was the only true counterculture that America had produced, the rest being subcultures (the difference being a counterculture stands in opposition to the dominant culture, in this case American consumerism/capitalism, whereas a subculture is derived from that culture and still maintains its prominent framework). Being an overzealous teenage punk rocker I was not going to let it be said that the hippies had done something that the punks had not been able to. What was meant to be a fifteen-minute conversation turned into an 8 class long debate. My family had just gotten our first computer so each night I’d go home and research things like the squatting movement of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Food Not Bombs, and the following morning I’d come into class armed with my new info. This debate ran the whole way until our winter vacation. In January the teacher never returned, having opted for an unannounced sabbatical, but I respected him, and I had grown to respect the travelling community built up around the Grateful Dead.
Of course when I went to the library and listened to one of their albums my suspicions were confirmed, they were awful. Flash forward to college. I and my spiky haired friends sat in a dorm room working quickly through a case of Cider Jack when it came up that beneath his studded jacket and blue mohawk one of my closest friends was in fact a Deadhead. I told him of the rumors that I may have driven a teacher mad with my derision of the Dead, but he still sent me home borrowing the American Beauty cd. I still hated it.
Each year, I would give it another go, based on my friends advice I would try a new album but it all fell on deaf ears. I wanted to share my friends joy, I wanted to experience this counterculture, but it just wasn’t happening.
Eventually the opportunity arose for me to check out a show by one of the post-Jerry Garcia’s death- Dead related projects, where members of the band carried on the legacy. The parking lot was just as I’d seen in that documentary except I was also seeing other punks in the crowd. People I’d known from Pittsburgh, who were aesthetically more punk than me, yet ended up in this hippy parking lot in a different state. It took about half of the first set, but eventually I started to enjoy the show with the rest of the audience. This truth I’ll stand by, the Dead are a band meant to be listened to live (I still think most of their LPs are shit).
The end result of this is 20 years after that fateful high school class I’ve cashed in all my frequent flyer miles so that I can be in Chicago in July for the Grateful Dead 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well gigs. So when Q. asked me to be part of this project and his random number generator assigned me Day 12: Box of Rain it seemed all too fitting.
I must admit, I agree with Q, Box of Rain is not their best song. It isn’t even their best song about weather (I would take Cold Rain and Snow, Early Morning Rain, Here Comes Sunshine, Looks Like Rain, Morning Dew, Sunrise, Sunshine Daydream, Weather Repost Suite, or even Clouds Cast, over it any day). Apparently the song was inspired by bassist Phil Lesh’s father dying, which may explain why I feel like his vocals on the track seem frail. Anomalous to most Dead songs, this one doesn’t even particularly have any tremendous stand out live performances. The version from February 28, 1973 at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City is probably where Phil’s vocals turn out best, Donna’s backing vocals also help, and Jerry’s playing almost make up for what is, in my opinion, a sub par composition, but for the most part it is no better than the album version.
I would never recommend anyone listen to the Grateful Dead, but if I discover someone is a fellow enthusiast it does form a sort of instant bond. Upon moving to England they became symbolic to me as the epitome of America. They take, in their music, everything that America had created before them, from bluegrass, to blues, to jazz, and early rock and roll, and out of it they created something distinctly new that can’t be found elsewhere. I can go see Hip Hop acts from Moscow, Ethiopian bebop, or Swedish bands that describe their sound as “New York Hard Core,” but there is no equivalent to the Dead and their type of sound/ experience outside of the U.S. For those of you who are Dead curious I’d stick to live shows. The Dead lived a fascinating and haunted existence (at one point they had to do an entire tour with the houselights on due to Jerry getting death threats beyond what their security felt capable of handling) and it comes through in their performances. There are moments when the pain and anguish in their voices are as brutal as my favorite crust punk 7”s and the lyrics even venture toward social politics (see: Throwing Stones). But if they don’t grab you, it’s ok, the world is brimming with terrific music, look elsewhere.
This was written while listening to the Nassau Coliseum show from Uniondale, NY 3/29/90 where Branford Marsalis sat in through most of the show.
Written by Spat Cannon
May 5, 2015