Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: September 12, 1988 (Listen Now)

Believe it if you need it, or leave it if you dare.

By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


Let’s start this week’s chapter with a question: What do Quentin Tarrantino and the Grateful Dead have in common? The answer is that they are both acquired tastes. The first time I saw the movie, Pulp Fiction, I literally got up and walked out (probably during the scene in the basement of the pawn shop, but I can’t exactly recall). But over the years, Pulp Fiction has become one of my favorite movies of all time, and whenever a new Tarrantino’s film is released I rush to see it. Similarly, the first time I listened to the album, American Beauty, I just didn’t get it. 

I recall the moment well. It was New Year’s Eve, 1973, and I was home for winter break during my sophomore year at UCLA. My girlfriend and I had been given the key to a friend’s vacant apartment in Newport Beach, and shortly after we arrived I came across American Beauty in his record collection. The Grateful Dead had been described to me in glowing terms by friends who had migrated north to Bay Area universities, so I decided to give it a spin. I was singularly underwhelmed. In those days I was into Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, the Beatles, even the Allman Brothers Band. Consequently, the acoustic, country, pedal steel stylings of this particular facet of the Grateful Dead failed to satisfy my musical appetite.  

The following summer, I was introduced to the Skull and Roses (AKA, Skull Fuck) album, and became immediately enamored of the Not Fade Away<Goin’Down the Road cut from the April 5th, 1971 performance at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. So much so, in fact, that I listened to it every day that summer. Having drunk from the (electric) kool aid, I gave American Beauty another chance, and it quickly rose to the top of my playlist, before playlists were even a thing. Seriously, if I were ever stranded on a deserted island with only one movie and one album, they’d be Pulp Fiction and American Beauty (with apologies to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and every other Grateful Dead album).

My selection for T.W.I.G.D.H. is one of Dan Healy’s most primo “UltraMatrix” recordings:  9/12/88, from the Spectrum in Philadelphia. One of the highlights of this rare late-period gem is the second set opener, Box of Rain, the first song on the American Beauty album. Aside from the numerous, highly enigmatic metaphors in this tune, what is unique is that it’s a Phil Lesh/Robert Hunter collaboration, sung by Lesh, and features a unique musical lineup: Lesh on acoustic guitar, Jerry Garcia on piano, and Dave Torbert and David Nelson from the New Riders of the Purple Sage on bass and lead guitar, respectively.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Box of Rain is the title itself. I would bet there isn’t a Deadhead alive who hasn’t pondered the question: What exactly is a Box of Rain? Luckily, Hunter himself provided an answer in a correspondence with a fan some 25 years after the fact:

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.

Hanging your hat on a belief system for which there is no proof – such as the belief in a creator who put the “box of rain” here – is a dangerous habit, for it leads to the possibility of believing just about anything.

Within the context of Hunter’s explanation that Planet Earth is the box of rain, not knowing “who put it there” takes on certain significance, as it places the author firmly in the camp of those of us who might be characterized as “non-believers.” This group is juxtaposed, of course, against those who believe that they do, in fact, know who put it there: a creator of some sort, more commonly referred to as “god.”

At the risk of oversimplifying perhaps the greatest mysteries that we confront as inhabitants of our “box of rain,” there are two broad groups: those who adhere to a doctrine that provides definitive answers to life’s most confounding questions – “Is there a god?” “Why am I here?” “What will happen to me after I die?” –  and those who accept that we simply don’t know the answers and spend their lives wrestling with these fundamental questions. To say, “I don’t know who put it there,” places one firmly in the latter class.

To take this a step further, hanging your hat on a belief system for which there is no proof – such as the faith in a creator who put the “box of rain” here – should be done with due caution, as it can open the door to the possibility of believing just about anything that serves an agenda of personal gain, rather than what’s based in fact. There are numerous examples of this in our world, perhaps the most concerning being that climate change is cyclical by divine design, rather than caused by human behavior. While there’s overwhelming evidence that our actions are endangering the Earth to the point where it may become uninhabitable in the not too distant future, accepting that truth and making the corresponding changes is a daring proposition. Which brings us to our headline lyric from Box of Rain.

Our lives are functions of our beliefs, and the path of least resistance is to hold fast to them, whether they serve us or not. Take some time to ponder your beliefs and consider whether some fall into the category of “believe it if you need it,” purely out of habit and conditioning, rather than through critical thinking. Over the course of a lifetime, things change and new information arrives. And “who can stop what must arrive now?” 

We do ourselves a disservice by continuing to hold on to hardened beliefs that are mere habits when “something new is waiting to be born.” If I had allowed my initial impressions of Pulp Fiction and American Beauty to be permanent, rather than opening my mind and giving them another chance, I would have missed out on a film and a record that are now among my favorites. What are you missing out on because you allow yourself to be mired in opinions you believe you need (and may have at some point in the past), but which are outdated or even demonstrably false?

Be willing to revisit your beliefs throughout your life, and if you find one that no longer serves you, “leave it if you dare.” This is not the path of least resistance, but it’s the best way to live in harmony with the ever-changing, adventurous nature of the “box of rain” from which we are inseparable. To quote one of the most courageous figures of our time, Helen Keller:

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Given the options of “believe it if you need it,” or “leave it if you dare,” the choice is obvious. You will never regret the adventure of taking the risks associated with being daring; the outcome promises to be a life of greater possibilities and deeper fulfillment.

Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: September 12, 1988 (Listen Now)

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