OK, we made a big deal about Phil turning 70 last year, and Bob Dylan got an endless (but very interesting) Rolling Stone cover story for turning 70 a few weeks ago. But now it’s time to give some serious props to Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, whose 70th birthday is June 23.
It’s hard to know where to begin in honoring this man who has had more of an impact on me than any other songwriter or poet; in fact, no one else even comes close. His words have been part of the fabric of my life for more than 40 years, and I continue to draw new inspiration from them daily in myriad ways, consciously and unconsciously. You know how it goes: “Once in a while you get shown the light….” When my nearly grown children were babies, I sang them “Brokedown Palace” and “Bird Song” (complete with “doo-doo’d” middle guitar jam!) to rock them to sleep. At a memorial service for my close friend Jon a few weeks ago, my daughter and his teenage children sang “Uncle John’s Band” in front of 200 people, and the event was laced together with recordings of “Attics of My Life,” “The Wheel,” “Brokedown Palace” and a sing-along “Ripple.” These are the songs of my people.
Back in February 1988, I interviewed Hunter for The Golden Road, and I articulated a few thoughts about his writing in the introduction to the interview that I’d like to share here, as they are as apt now as they were 23 years ago:
At this point, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter probably needs no introduction to most of you. Chances are his work is an indelible part of your consciousness. He literally (pun only semi-intended) writes words to live by: How many among our Dead Head ranks can say we have not been profoundly affected by this gentle sage? Who has not been uplifted by his stirring optimism, empathized with his characters’ soul-searching, confusion and wanderlust? If the Grateful Dead’s music is the soundtrack of our lives, then Hunter’s words are the touchstones. They are points of reference along the way that seem to explain to us what is happening, where we’ve been, and even help us chart a course for where we might go next.
My personal experience with Hunter’s lyrics has been that he has created a vast sea of swirling images, ideas and connections of which I have a vague surface understanding. Then, as if I’ve gotten a hearty whack of the Zen master’s stick (because I asked another stupid question), I get flashes of true understanding when I least expect it, and the lyric that once seemed dense and inaccessible suddenly becomes crystal clear. These bits and pieces then start falling together—sort of like a slow-motion film of an explosion, only in reverse, where the shards and fragments move from chaos to cohesion. There are Hunter lyrics I’ve heard, memorized and sung along to thousands of times that are still completely baffling to me, but in general, living with these songs has been a process of seeing meaning constantly, if slowly, unfolding before me. Surely this is art’s greatest function.
It’s easy to take Hunter’s work for granted, because at this point is feels so familiar, so comfortable, so emotionally right, that it’s taken on some of the mystical glow of Ancient Wisdom—as if it’s always been there to discover and we’ve just stumbled upon it. But take a moment and think about the incredible range of this man’s work: The nearly Taoist simplicity of “Ripple” and “Attics of My Life”; the fractured psychedelia of “China Cat Sunflower” and “The Eleven”; the playful metaphors of “Deal” and “Run for the Roses”; the colorful portraits of working stiffs in “Cumberland Blues” and “Easy Wind”; the dreamy disconnectedness of “Row Jimmy”; mythological journeys through the psyche by way of “Terrapin Station” and “Franklin’s Tower”; straightforward declarations of love like “To Lay Me Down” and “If I Had the World to Give”; the cartoonish whimsy of “Tennessee Jed” and “When Push Comes to Shove”; the world-weary existentialism of “Stella Blue” and “Black Muddy River”; and the steadfast stoicism of “Playing in the Band” and “The Wheel.” There are hundreds of songs in the Hunter canon, most of them wildly different from each other, but all of them shoot points of light into humanity’s mirror to give us fleeting glances of our inner selves.
That was written years before the last bursts of writing he did with Jerry, which produced such beautiful and evocative pieces as “Standing on the Moon,” “So Many Roads,” “Lazy River Road” and “Days Between.” And since Jerry’s been gone, Hunter has continued to write poetic, provocative, gritty, playful and heavy lyrics for many fine artists—that will be the subject of next week’s blog.
We also owe Hunter an eternal debt for shepherding Deadnet Central in its early days and allowing it to become the fascinating/illuminating/maddening clearing house of Dead Head opinions/rants/nonsense that it has been since Jerry’s passing. His online “journal” in the late ’90s (sort of a proto-blog) helped many of us through the grieving process, and I will always be grateful for the clarity and openness of his writing during that time.
In the weeks since I first determined I’d be celebrating Hunter’s 70th with a blog post (or two), I’ve thought a lot about the songs he’s written that have most affected me through the years. So I made a list of 10 favorites (How audacious! How dumb!) that get me every time (not listed—about 50 others that I love as much in other ways!) Here they are, in no particular order:
“Terrapin Station,” “Comes a Time,” “Uncle John’ Band,” “Mission in the Rain” “The Wheel,” “Ripple,” “Attics of My Life,” “Crazy Fingers,” “Stella Blue,” “Standing on the Moon.”
Yikes, I’m already having regrets about omissions! "Box of Rain," damn it! But without question, each of those holds a special place in my heart and my personal cosmos.
I also came up with this list of five I think may be underrated by most Dead Heads: “What’s Become of the Baby” (at least the lyrics!), “High Time,” “Valerie,” “Rubin and Cherise,” “Lazy River Road.”
Stop me before I list again!
Now I’d love to hear what you have to say about Hunter’s lyrics. Which songs speak to you most? Any cool experiences with the lyrics you’d like to relay— “that time I was in Nepal and I heard ‘Eyes of the World’ coming out of mud hut in this tiny village…”?
That would be a helluva memoir, especially since Hunter has kept journals at different times (including that fascinating early '60s pre-Dead period) and also seems to have a pretty good memory. I seem to recall him telling me a number of years ago that he didn't feel like he could write a memoir because he'd want to be honest and forthright in it but he didn't want to possibly hurt (or violate the privacy of) friends who were alive--ever the gentlemen! I hope not misrepresenting what he said; and perhaps he's changed his mind... I'm for ALL the memoirs to come out!
BTW, someone mentioned 'Keys to the the Rain" above--that was definitely my favorite track on Tales of the Great Rum Runners when it came out... I recall what a big deal it was that HUNTER HIMSELF had an album out! Then when he actually started turning up in public... I think I first saw him playing with Rodney Albin and a couple of others (Comfort, perhaps?) at some place on Market Street in SF... or was it that place on Haight St.? Can picture it but not where it was... Anyway, that was exciting, too...