Robert Hunter’s Box of Rain

Thinking about Robert Hunter today.

Have you ever read the lyrics to Box of Rain? I’ve always loved that song. But I only started to understand why after I found a letter excerpt posted online between Robert Hunter and a fan who had asked him to explain the meaning of “box of rain.” Hunter was always reluctant to do this, “because 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.”

And fair enough. But, in this case at least, he decided to make an exception, and wrote: “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.”

Sigh.

So when you read those lyrics now, which originally came out of Phil Lesh visiting his dying father to help him move on (“what do you want me to do, to do for you, to see you through?”), they are just heartbreaking, because I don’t know anything that captures the poignancy of living and leaving than the last two lines of that song, which are:

Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there.


It’s such a beautiful thought, and since Robert Hunter is one of the great voices of our time, here’s the full lyric, which reads as well as it sings:

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?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

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?
Well please don’t be surprised
when you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear through to another day
I know it’s 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

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 a box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through

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

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

Robert Hunter

A Conversation with my Daughter, Who Wants a Tattoo

Ursula is fourteen. We were driving.

Dad I want a tattoo.

No way.

Why not? I’m old enough.

If you have to ask that question you’re not old enough.

Silence in the car.

If you did get one (I ask), what would it be?

Little Bear.

(Melting): Ursula. That’s what we used to call you, sweetheart.

Yeah, I know. That’s what my name means.

Do people call you that?

Yeah, that’s what they call me.

(Wiping eyes): Really? I didn’t know they called you Little Bear. God, I loved reading that book to you.

Yeah. So dad, what what would you get?

If I got a tattoo?

Yeah.

(Thinking): I’d get Frog and Toad.

The Friars Club is in Trouble

I spent an afternoon there for lunch once; it’s a cherished memory. Oak panels, the Frank Sinatra room; you could almost see the smoke from the Rat Pack lingering. I’d been invited by a close friend, now gone – an ex-boss, one-time band mate, and one of the great people in my life. So when I read about the Friars Club troubles in the NY Times, it was with a twinge.

On my visit, Stewie Stone was working the room, going from table to table, like a tummler out of Grossingers in 1956. Here’s Stewie to a guy decked out in a three-piece suit: “You must be old money.” It was like visiting my favorite uncle, only with better material.

Being there made me feel like a Borscht Belt comedian myself – I guess it’s steeped into the place. Going up the elevator, three young women got in at the second floor, so breaking the silence on our way to the third, my friend Frank and I went into this routine, and he gave me the setup, too:

Frank: So, are you ladies famous?
Them: No (laughing), we just work here. How 'bout you?
Me: Actually I’m infamous
(Laughter)
Frank, pointing in my direction: You know the band Rush?
Them (wide eyed): Yeah!
Me: I have all their records

I hope they find a way through these troubles and make it right. Because the Friars Club is an important link to an historical moment in time that – for all its admitted shortcomings – is well-worth remembering.