I spent the past few days listening to one of the lesser-known songs in the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter catalog … only to be frustratingly reminded, in the end, why it’s lesser-known.
“Mission In The Rain” is another in the long series of Garcia-Hunter weepers — if you know the Dead’s repertoire, think “Black Peter,” “Wharf Rat” and “Stella Blue” for comparison.
For the most part, the song is the inner monologue of an also-ran loser as he picks his way through San Francisco’s Mission District on a rainy night. Indeed, if you could hear the drunk from “Wharf Rat” talking to himself, it might sound kinda like this.
Although the Dead were Bay Area icons, this is one of the only Garcia-Hunter songs — maybe the only one — to be explicitly set in San Francisco, which lends the words a certain personal weight and resonance coming from Garcia’s mouth.
(Hunter has said the lyric is autobiographical. Garcia, in a separate interview, said the lyric felt autobiographical to him, even though he hadn’t written it.)
Garcia recorded the song, with the Dead backing him, for his 1976 solo album Reflections. The Dead played the song at five concerts, all in the summer of ’76, before letting it slip out of their repertoire.
Garcia kept “Mission” in his solo repertoire until his death, performing it at 250 Jerry Garcia Band concerts over 20 years. Still, because Reflections was not a big seller and the Dead dropped the song quickly, the tune’s familiarity is probably pretty well limited to Garciaphiles.
(Just to close one of my favorite loops, “Mission” does not appear in the ARSA database of local radio playlists, suggesting it never rose to local-favorite status on any of America’s radio stations.)
Briefly captivated by “Mission”‘s downbeat feel, and fancying it the Great Lost Grateful Dead Ballad, I burned myself a CD last week with seven different versions of the song — six from Jerry Band gigs between January and September 1976, and one from a Dead show at the Boston Music Hall on June 12 of that year.
After several solid days of listening, I think I’m sated.
The lyric, sadly, takes a couple of Hunter’s best, saddest couplets and mates them with lines of unsatisfying first-draft rawness. Take, for instance:
All the things I planned to do
I only did halfway
Tomorrow will be Sunday
born of rainy Saturday
I am reminded of the old Firesign Theatre line about primitive man “harnessing the secret of the calendar.”
I also find the positive uptick in the final verse out of place. How can there be “satisfaction in the San Francisco rain” when it represents the washing away of ten years of dreams?
And what’s the comfort in the Mission “always (looking) the same” when stasis and stagnation seem to be at the heart of Our Narrator’s problem?
(The standard disclaimer applies: Hunter is a rock n’ roll legend; I am a guy writing in his basement in Allentown, Pennsylvania.)
Although I think I’ve explored all the depths this song has to offer, I do find myself returning to the Grateful Dead version on my mix CD.
Before they got old and tired, the Dead could kick a slow shuffle along pretty nicely, and their version has a snap the Jerry Band versions don’t have.
Judge for yourself.