Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mortality Lurking: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Buy For Me the Rain

Back when I was a kid in Pickering, there used to be a drug store up at our shopping plaza that sold deleted 45s. They cost about ten cents each and occassionally I'd grab things that changed the temperature in the room. I found singles that never hit AM radio in Toronto like - believe it or not - Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," The Byrds' "Eight Miles High," and a trippy track called "Tomorrow's Ship" by The Sparrow. Who are The Sparrow, you ask? They were nobody in 1966 -- but, within two years, they became Steppenwolf.

One day in 1967, just before we moved to Oshawa, I found this song called "Buy For Me the Rain" by a group called The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I never heard of it (or them). But I liked the band name (did they come equipped with brooms?) and besides there was nothing else of interest at the drug store that day. When I took it home, I was immediately struck by the simple elegance of the track and the urgency of the singing on it. "Buy For Me the Rain" was like listening to the Kingston Trio with strings (but good strings). This was a love song, but like most traditional folk music, mortality lurked in the grooves. The opening melody, which is established on what sounds like a harpsichord, was doubled by a banjo and it provided a cheerful ambient bed for the urgent pining of the lyrics.

Buy for me the rain, my darling, buy for me the rain;
Buy for me the crystal pools that fall upon the plain.
And I’ll buy for you a rainbow and a million pots of gold.
Buy it for me now, babe, before I am too old.

The promise of romantic ardor in "Buy For Me the Rain," by the end, turns to the promise that can't be kept.

I cannot buy you happiness, I cannot by you years;
I cannot buy you happiness, in place of all the tears.
But I can buy for you a gravestone, to lay behind your head.
Gravestones cheer the living, dear, they’re no use to the dead.

The group would become moderately famous by the '70s with roots albums like Will the Circle Be Unbroken and covers like "Mr. Bojangles." But this is their only tune that doesn't feel bound by the forms that came to define the band. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band originated in Long Beach, California, in the 1960's and composed songs that have been performed by a number of artists. But Phill Lombardo wrote in to remind me that they were actually more than "moderately famous." "I grew up near Los Angeles in the early 1970's," he wrote. "At that time, you couldn't listen to the radio for more than 10 minutes without hearing one of their songs."

Listen to "Buy For Me the Rain" here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tnmV0Wh760

"Buy For Me the Rain" was written by Steve Noonan (along with Greg Copeland), who was a contemporary of Jackson Browne. Noonan would record a more earnest version of his song a year later. You can compare versions by listening here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMgLx_2FSuQ

An anonymous writer told me that Steve Noonan wrote the music and Greg Copeland did the lyrics. According to him/her, Greg released an album of his own called Revenge Will Come in 1982, and another titled Diana and James in 2008. Steve released his second album Bringin' It Back Home in 2008.

Now...go out and enjoy the rain.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

2 comments:

  1. Like you, Kevin, this is the only NGDB song that does it for me. Oh, I have a few others on my iTunes but I only ever seem to play Buy For Me the Rain. When I saw the Best of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a number of years back, it was the American version that at the time did not have BFMTR on it. So I went to Amazon and bought the European version that did include it. For me, there is no Best of Nitty Gritty that doesn't include BFMTR. Many, many years ago when I was a kid in Southern California, Nitty Gritty played what was billed as the Teen Fair at the Hollywood Palladium, just as Buy For Me the Rain was on the local radio, a minor SoCal semi-hit. Love was there, along with West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and a few other SoCal favorites. But the one burned into my mind the most is Nitty Gritty on stage playing Buy For Me the Rain.

    Thanks for writing this, Kevin, it was nice to read someone else's recollection of this much too forgotten gem.

    Best regards,

    Ron Lindeboom
    creativecow.net

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  2. Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland attended Sunny Hills High School in Orange County, CA (Fullerton) along with Jackson Browne. They were a couple of years older than Jackson. Noonan still performs and calls Fullerton his homebase.

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