Blair’s Golden Road Blog — Celebrating Robert Hunter's 70th Birthday!
by Blair Jackson
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…”?
'bound to cover just a little more ground ... I coached X-country at the school where I teach and the school was turning 75. We created T-shirts that on their backs sported the slogan, "75 years so far ... 'bound to cover just a little more ground". "Tis a good line!
" Steal Your Jazz "
There are a lot of Hunter lyrics that touch me deeply, and it's often the ones that I have the least idea what they mean. That is, a particular line may seem rather nonsensical, but it evokes something in our common consciousness - perhaps it's a reference to Shakespeare or scripture or American history or almost forgotten folk and gospel songs - and I don't know why it evokes what it evokes because I only catch the reference on a subliminal level, if at all. But the important thing is not what the lyric "means" or what it refers to, as fun as it is to tease all of that out. The important thing is how it makes you feel. And Hunter, like Dylan, is a master at writing words with deep emotional content which may or may not make "sense" in a logical way.
Happy birthday, Robert! And thank you for enhancing my life!
Steve Premo -- Santa Cruz, California
"If there's ever an answer, it's more love"
- Tim O'Brien
Uncle Robert - you bear an uncanny resemblance to my mother's side of the family. Please,
do deliver us your memoirs - I and we would return to them again and again. My daughters would be able to learn a lot from them.
I'm listening to 6/23/74 and, when ya think about it, your hand was invloved in all but a very few of these tunes. Cool thing just happened - when I opened up DeadBase to make sure, I opened it to that page and then again because I thought I had seen that it mentioned you were 33. Yep.
" Steal Your Jazz "
I am just so grateful that in '69/'70 I was imprinted with the ethos promoted in Hunter's lyrics. I have tried to live my life in that light, and raise my kids with those values. Thanks, Bob. You've helped raise the conciousness of many, many souls.
Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Cockburn, and a handful of others...
They're all wonderful, gifted, poignant. Still, I can't think of anyone I have been affected by more than Robert Hunter.
I've been listening and absorbing your thoughts and feelings since 1969 or 70. From a simple line like, "what I want to know is, are you kind?", to a sad observation like, "You told me goodbye; how was I to know you didn't mean goodbye, you meant please don't let me go?", to a breathtaking ballad like, "Attics of my Life". And on and on and on....
I can't imagine my life without these words and their jewel-like musical settings. I am so much richer for having heard.
So, Happy Birthday, and Thanks for everything.
Robert Hunter, you inspired and inspirational master of word and feeling, you live in my head, and those of so many heads, and your influence never stops lifting spirits. Thank you for sharing your life's work, thank you for your beautiful talent and soul, thank you for the soundtrack to our lives. May you continue to enjoy life for many, many more years.
Also, thanks to Blair Jackson for helping us all stay tuned.
Happy summer, all! Hope to see you boogieing in the open air some time soon.
Why am I just figuring out on my 60th birthday that I share a birthday with the great Robert Hunter, who I have idolized since high school? I can't think of anyone I would rather share a birthday with. Happy Birthday to Robert (and to me).
Like Blair I have to say that Robert Hunter is the song writer that inspired and influenced me the most. His lyrics mean so much to me, they are so heart felt. Some provide comfort in times of trouble, and others the precious gift of laughter, or just a smile. I 've been listening every day for 39 years now, and they have enriched my life. I met Mr. Hunter briefly at My Father's Place on Long Island in 1978, he was playing with Comfort. I just sort of patted him on the back and thanked him for all the great songs. I hope you have a great day Bob, and again, thank you.
I doubt you'll read all these comments, but I hope you do. You've had such a huge and lasting impact on so many people.
I was lucky enough to attend one of your book readings at Black Oak books (in Berkeley) back in the early 90s (Box of Rain was newly out in hardcover) and I can remember just about every single moment of it. I still have that signed copy on my bookshelf for quick reference.
My wife and I named our son Hunter, largely in your honor.
In college I spent a lot of time on stories, poetry and song. I learned about the power of myths and shared narrative by studying Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith, but I didn't really internalize understand how powerful shared lyric narrative was was until I took Dan Langton's class (at SFSU) who taught us poetry he'd learned from native cultures he'd been lucky enough to live with. What I heard in those poems were stories that resonate with our intrinsic knowledge of the universe, and they echoed the beautiful songs you wrote. These are the songs that rattle through my head each morning, that come back to me like long lost friends, and that score moments of joy and sorrow. They are sacred to me in every way.
I can't thank you enough for what you've done for my life, for the positive impact you've had through these songs.
Would I hold it near, as it were my own? You bet!
Leavin texas, fourth day of july,
Sun so hot, the clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky.
Catch the detroit lightnin out of sante fe,
The great northern out of cheyenne, from sea to shining sea.
To me this is Americana at its best. The only thing was my father used to work for Great Northern and he told me that it only ran north - south.
Me and my buddies used to have contests to see who could guess the opening song. I always hoped for jack Straw, because it set the night. One of the best versions I ever heard was at the 15th Anniversary show in Folsom Field in Boulder.
I once seen Hunter, the Riders and JGB at the old Commack Arena on Long Island. Hunter opened, then the Riders and then Jerry. At about midnight, Jerry took a break and they started all over agin. What a show.