#261: Grateful Dead, "American Beauty" (1970)

The soccer coach runs down the sideline, the crown of his head shining in the stadium lights, his ponytail bouncing against his tie-dyed shirt. During the day, the soccer coach is a bankruptcy attorney, but he doesn’t think of himself as the bankruptcy attorney. He is the soccer coach and he runs up and down the field griping at the refs, pulling at his hair, shouting encouraging words at his girls. This is a recent development, the running and shouting, the hair pulling. Just for the last six months to a year or so. The soccer coach used to be chill. That’s not to say he didn’t care, before. He always cared, but now he cares furiously.

After the game, he will go home and burn one. He used to smoke in the bathroom, blowing out the open window, but a while back he started to worry that the neighbors were suspicious—the houses in the soccer coach’s neighborhood are closely situated and small, their yards smaller. Also, around the same time his wife started complaining about having to shower in a room that smelled like an art school dorm. Tonight, he will smoke in the garage, as he’s done for the past few months. He’ll pop a tape into his Walkman and slide the foam covered headphones over his ears. He will sit on the hood of his wife’s Mitsubishi Mirage because he can’t sit on his own car—microbuses aren’t good for sitting, exactly—and he will listen to one of Dick’s Picks, or the ‘72 Veneta set he loves so much, or that ‘82 Iowa City show that he was actually at the summer—one of the summers—that he followed the Dead on tour, that particular time to celebrate passing the Bar, or maybe even something more recent, another show he attended a year before in Cincinnati. Yes, that’s probably the tape he will listen to. And he will remember the cool April air everywhere around him, and the Ohio River creeping behind the band as they performed beneath a bloated night sky, thick with hope or nostalgia or dread.

But for now, beneath a similar night sky, the soccer coach runs up and down the sidelines of a high school stadium, jumping and yelling until the refs miss a call when one of his girls is tripped while making a run on goal. Here, the soccer coach sprints onto the field and shouts, “You blind fucking prickhole,” with the kind of passion and loathing that most people his age save only for themselves. When the ref, a college kid working for a few extra bucks, pulls out his red card and holds it over the soccer coach’s head, he pulls at his hair and walks to his van where he sits and watches the scoreboard in his rearview mirror, thinking to himself, “What the fucking fuck?”


The soccer coach rolls a joint on the hood of his wife’s car, then sits in the same spot. He puts on his headphones and lights up, watches the smoke swirl and grow to fill the air in front of him as he listens to a cheering Cincinnati crowd—he was one of them—and the opening piano chords of “Let the Good Times Roll.”

He remembers the concert, for the most part. He and his wife and some friend drove down in his microbus and spent the afternoon sneaking puffs and throwing back Yuenglings that one of his friends had brought back from Pittsburgh. When he started to feel too fucked up, the soccer coach sneaked off to some nearby woods and stuck his finger down his throat, returning all that Yuengling and half-digested grilled meat to the earth.

The soccer coach hadn’t intended to drop acid that night, didn’t go to the trouble to procure any, even, but once he was in his seat—an hour early—waiting for the show to begin, and after he scanned the amphitheater’s seats, full of people like him who he desperately didn’t want to be like, and turned to look at the crowded lawn, full of younger fans—he desperately wanted to trip. So, he did the only thing that made sense—after guessing, probably correctly, that none of the other concert-goers sitting around him, all in their thirties and forties, like him, wouldn’t have any acid—the soccer coach made sure he had his ticket stub, went out the side of the amphitheater, and walked the long way around to the lawn area talking to younger concert goers until he found a group of kids, seniors in high school or younger college kids, who sold him a single hit for two bucks. Since he didn’t have any singles he gave the kids a ten and told them to keep the change. Then he ate the hit and returned to his seat.

Once the band was on stage, the soccer coach was glad that he’d eaten the acid, even though it hadn’t kicked in yet. Despite having seen the Dead play a hundred and thirty-seven times, this was the first show he’d made it to in a few years and—pre-trip—the soberest he’d been for one in even longer, maybe ever. What struck the soccer coach most about the band was how much they looked like the crowd, looked like they could be teachers, doctors, advertising executives, mid-level managers, bankruptcy attorneys. The soccer coach remembered going to Dead shows in the seventies, the way the audience swayed and danced, all the flowing locks and bare breasts, hypnotic dancing and good vibes, but there he was in Cincinnati, in 1989, looking up at Jerry and Bob and Phil and Mickey and Brent, who didn’t really count because he hadn’t been around in the ‘70s, all looking like upstanding citizens, like everyday guys—and that felt wrong, felt bad. That wasn’t how the Dead were supposed to be. Not how their fans were supposed to be.

And then, about halfway through a long-but-not-too-long rendition of “China Cat Sunflower,” the acid kicked in.

But tonight, after the game, in his garage, the soccer coach sits on his wife’s car and smokes a joint and listens to a fan-traded recording of that show and thinks about when he was younger—not last year when he went to the show, but ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, before his idols got old. Before he got old.


The soccer coach’s favorite thing about the Cincinnati concert was the encore—“Box of Rain.” This is a point of contention between the soccer coach and many Deadheads who don’t like the album it’s from—American Beauty. The album is too polished, they say, too structured, too clean. They say, the Dead are about their concerts, about jamming, about the performance. American Beauty, they say, is a pop album, not a Dead album. But it’s also the album that made the soccer coach love the Grateful Dead. And “Box of Rain” is most of the reason why. When the soccer coach first heard the song, stoned at a friend’s house during his senior year of high school, he felt what Phil Lesh was saying about love and loss. “Such a long time to be gone,” Lesh sings at the song’s end, “and such a short time to be there,” on that box of rain called Earth. Box of fucking rain, the soccer coach thought to himself when he was seventeen—who calls the Earth a goddamn box of rain. His interest grew when he learned that Lesh had written the song about his father’s death to cancer, something that the soccer coach knew a great deal about at seventeen, having lost his mother two years prior after she, in an era without pink ribbons or national awareness months or even basic and pervasive public knowledge, failed to detect the lump that ended her. When he heard “Box of Rain” after that, he regretted not having the wisdom to say to his dying mother, “What do you want me to do / to do for you to see you through?”

The year after he first heard American Beauty, when he enrolled at the Ohio State University, the soccer coach started going to every Dead show he could, following them on tour, even, over summers.

Of all the Dead shows he attended, the soccer coach saw them play “Box of Rain” only a handful of times, mostly in ‘72 and ‘73 when American Beauty was still fresh. They didn’t bring it back into regular rotation until the late eighties, after the soccer coach had more-or-less stopped following the band on tour. The Cincinnati performance—that was the first live performance of the song he’d witnessed since he made it out to Watkins Glen for a late July show in ‘73.

When he heard “Box of Rain” that night, he thought something changed inside him, or for him, or something.


But here in his garage, the soccer coach swaps the first tape of the Cincinnati show for side two of the second and fast forwards to the encore. This isn’t his usual practice. He normally listens to the concert from the beginning, and rarely all the way to the end. He’s listened to the encore of “Box of Rain” maybe twice since one of his tape trader buddies sent him the cassettes—once when he first received the tapes, and then a few months later, after he and his wife had had a fight after he got a vasectomy without telling her, ensuring that the couple would never procreate. What was the point in having a kid at this point, the soccer coach had thought to himself when he scheduled the procedure for when his wife would be out of town, visiting her sister for a week. Most of the time when he listens to the Cincinnati set, though, he avoids “Box of Rain.” It means too much, he thinks, though he isn’t sure why, not anymore.


At that show the previous year, when, during “China Cat Sunflower,” the soccer coach started to feel the acid doing what acid does, he smiled. For the first hour after that, he mostly saw only trails, like every movement on stage and every movement around him was a jet cutting through the sky’s vapor. During “Space,” which he’d seen the band play at almost every show he ever attended, he walked out from under the venue’s shelter and looked up at the sky, moving his head back and forth so that the stars became lines. When his head stopped moving, the stars didn’t. His trip had picked up. He saw satellites floating through space, watched the stars move in the sky, forming shapes—an acorn being eaten by a squirrel, a 1986 Honda Civic with its bumper falling off, a bathtub full of pushpins, a soccer ball. He didn’t—still doesn’t—know why he saw any of those things except for the last, and it was after seeing the soccer ball that he walked back to his seat to enjoy the rest of the show.

By the encore, the soccer coach was tripping hard. When Phil Lesh walked back out on stage in his professional-dressed-casual-for-a-relaxing-weekend attire, the soccer coach saw globes of soft light rise up from each band member and swirl above the stage before separating and returning to their sources in a bright, blinding burst. As his eyes readjusted to the darkness that followed the flash, the soccer coach saw that the band’s appearance had changed—now they all looked exactly like him. He stared in horror, closed his eyes and reopened them, but nothing changed. He looked away from the stage and was alarmed to see that it wasn’t just the band that looked just like him—the entire audience had taken on his appearance, had become him. A woman he had earlier seen shimmying to the music in a tank top and daisy dukes was him now, his body, face, ponytail, male-pattern baldness, but still wearing her own clothes. He was his wife, the ushers, the roadies. And he was disgusted. He thought this is what it is to get old, man.


And tonight in the garage, when the soccer coach cues the tape to the beginning of “Box of Rain,” he remembers that moment, and then he remembers sitting on his buddy’s sofa in 1971, stoned stupid, and the immense feeling of wonder and possibility he felt in the song. A box of fucking rain—our planet Earth! And he remembers all the gigs he attended in the ‘70s, all the acid he ate, and the dope he smoked, and the women he fucked, and every note of every solo, and every warm feeling and stoned hug and heavy conversation and then he thinks of the red card hanging over his head, the long trek from the soccer field to his microbus, of the client list at his day job, and he hears Phil Lesh sing the line about how if you look into any eyes around you, you’ll see “clear through to another day.” The soccer coach thinks of his mother’s lump, and his own vasectomy, and he thinks of his wife inside, probably watching the eleven o’clock news, or sleeping on the couch after Cheers, and knows that he doesn’t have any other eyes to look into and probably shouldn’t anyway because seeing clear through to another day doesn’t mean anything, not anymore. The soccer coach closes his eyes and lets the tape play past the end of “Box of Rain,” past the closing crowd noise, and through several minutes of silence until the side ends with a click.

—James Brubaker