The Meaning of Jerry Garcia’s “Mission in the Rain”

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    An Extra Chill Original: The Meaning of Jerry Garcia’s “Mission in the Rain”
    Published: February 21, 2024

    “Mission in the Rain” is a Garcia-Hunter collaboration that was reserved mostly for performance with the Jerry Garcia Band. The Grateful Dead only played this song five times total, and all of them were in June of 1976 during their first tour back from hiatus. It was a staple for the Garcia band, though, and it remained in steady rotation from 1976 to 1995 after appearing on Garcia’s 1976 album Reflections.

    This is one of my personal favorite Garcia-Hunter songs (lyrics by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia), and I think that a lot of other fans of the songwriting partnership specifically would agree that this is one of their finest compositions. “Mission in the Rain” does a fantastic job capturing Garcia’s spirit, and it resonates on a nostalgic, creative level as we picture Garcia growing up and finding his way in San Francisco. It’s just a really special song.

    For this post I’m going to pick apart the lyrics to “Mission in the Rain” to analyze the story being told. Then, I’ll wrap up with a handful of noteworthy live performances of the track by both the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band. Hope you enjoy.

    “Mission in the Rain” (Reflections, 1976)

    “Mission in the Rain” Origins

    The “Mission” in the lyrics is the San Francisco Mission District, which is not far from where Jerry Garcia grew up. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco. At the time that Robert Hunter started writing for the Dead (around 1967), while they lived at the famous 710 Ashbury house, Hunter stayed at 17th & Mission.

    I found some good info on this via Whitegum, which includes a Garcia quote that comes from a 1979 interview on WMMR in Philadelphia.

    It’s about me in San Francisco, that’s what it’s about. It’s as close to autobiographical as it’s possible for me to get working with another guy. Hunter and I both grew up around the Bay Area, and lived in San Francisco, and Hunter is able sometimes to write what I would say, you know what I mean, if it were possible for me to say something in that medium. Every once in a while he’s able to do it for me. So that’s one of those songs where it’s very personal. It’s him speaking about me. So when I do the song, for me it’s a very personal thing, I’m talking about myself, my life.

    Jerry Garcia on “Mission in the Rain.”

    And then, during an interview with Relix (Volume 5, Issue 2), Hunter said:

    Well, yeah. I used to live over in the Mission when I was just starting to write for the Dead full time. I wasn’t living at 710 – I was living over on 17th and Mission and that was very much a portrait of that time, looking backward at 10 years. I like that song a lot – that’s one of my favorite things I’ve come up with.

    Robert Hunter on “Mission in the Rain.”

    Because of Garcia’s deep personal connection with this song, it has a special magic to it that I think sets it apart from a lot of other Grateful Dead music, and especially the material he played with the Garcia band. It’s one of the best Jerry songs, and it’s not even really a Grateful Dead song.

    “Mission in the Rain” Lyrics Meaning

    Lyrically, “Mission in the Rain” paints a vivid portrait of walking through the San Francisco Mission, with lots of things to do but not much motivation to get them done. It’s a reflection on carefree youth with the subtle acknowledgement that it doesn’t last forever, even if it feels infinite while you’re living it.

    Garcia’s spirit was the embodiment of that carefree feeling, and this song captures what I picture to be his personality, and the mindset behind the music, so well.

    Verse One

    I turn and walk away then I come ’round again
    It looks as though tomorrow I’ll do pretty much the same
    I must turn down your offer but I’d like to ask a break
    You know I’m ready to give everything for anything I take
    Someone called my name you know I turned around to see
    It was midnight in the Mission and the bells were not for me

    First verse to “Mission in the Rain” by Jerry Garcia.

    The protagonist is restless, coming and going, with each day bringing more of that same churn. Not a change in sight. Someone makes him a proposition, perhaps for a simple change, but he turns it down and asks forgiveness or leniency. He continues, stating that he will never take more than he gives.

    We picture Garcia giving it all on the stage for thousands of fans, delivering his gifts to the world in a way that somehow feels like a guiding light through the best and worst of days.

    A familiar voice calls out to him just as midnight strikes in the Mission. The church bells ring to make note of a fresh day, but they don’t toll for Garcia. He’s still wandering through the midnight of yesterday.

    As a side note, a reader of the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics pointed out in 2003 that this verse could be read as subtle reference to an encounter with a prostitute, as they were known to solicit in this part of San Francisco during the time that the song references. See the above link for information on that, I’m moving on to the chorus.

    Chorus

    Come again, walking along in the Mission in the rain
    Come again, walking along in the Mission in the rain

    Chorus to “Mission in the Rain” by Jerry Garcia.

    The “come again” and repetition in the chorus give the impression that this midnight walk through the Mission District is a common activity for Garcia. We picture him walking along the sidewalk lost in thought on a rainy evening. It’s a peaceful and inspiring image, just like the arrangement that accompanies these lyrics.

    Verse Two

    Ten years ago, I walked this street my dreams were riding tall
    Tonight I would be thankful Lord, for any dream at all
    Some folks would be happy just to have one drеam come true
    But evеrything you gather is just more that you can lose

    Second verse to “Mission in the Rain” by Jerry Garcia.

    The second verse leans into the nostalgia again, and that vivid picture of Jerry Garcia in San Francisco is again imprinted in the mind of the listener. He sings about himself, but he sings about everybody who feels lost. He looks back on a brighter day when the future was sprawled out ahead of him, and now, ten years down the line, he’s lost that spark and inspiration.

    Having dreams come true is everything to some people, but Garcia reminds the listener to be cautious, because everything gained is something to be lost. It’s not so much an argument against gathering but rather a reminder to be grateful for the things that you do achieve.

    Verse Three

    All the things I planned to do I only did half way
    Tomorrow will be Sunday born of rainy Saturday
    There’s some satisfaction in the San Francisco rain
    No matter what comes down the Mission always looks the same
    Come again, walking along in the Mission in the rain

    Third verse to “Mission in the Rain” by Jerry Garcia.

    The final lyrics also come at the peak of Garcia’s building guitar melody throughout the song, which is an essential contributor to the power behind the lyrics. He layers this melody and it bursts into a solo as he sings about procrastination and finding comfort in the sheer age of the San Francisco Mission District, and how it never seems to change.

    As time and life pass us on, and we put everything off to tomorrow for our whole entire lives, we will be reminded in old age of the relics from our youth that remain stable even as we grow old and pass through.

    Essentially, this final verse ties everything together as a timeless musical representation of Garcia himself. I truly believe this is one of the greatest Garcia-Hunter collaborations, and one that everybody who is a fan of Garcia’s work should familiarize themselves with.

    Live Versions

    I put them in order from oldest to newest. The JGB versions from 1980 are the best.

    6/12/76 – Grateful Dead

    3/17/78 – JGB

    A really good one with Jerry all lit up. Keith and Donna in the band. Amazing video.

    2/28/80 – JGB

    “The Barton Hall of JGB Shows” according to @qrisg in the Extra Chill Community. This version is the cream of the crop in my opinion. For my ears this is one of Garcia’s finest moments. The band for this run of shows was amazing and only played a handful of shows — specifically Ozzie Ahlers on keys.

    3/1/80 – JGB

    A couple days after the Kean College show. This one is very similar but slightly less dank. The whole show is very similar with some moments of increased dankness and some moments of decreased dankness. This one has video though.

    9/5/89 – JGB

    Working that 89/90 happy and semi-sober Jerry magic.

    11/11/93 – JGB

    Late in the game.

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