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…”?
twining shafts of lavender they're crawling to the sun
wonder who water all the children of the garden when they sigh about the barren lack of rain and droop so hungry 'neath the sky
Happy Birthday, Robert Hunter!
Although I love each and every Hunter song, the one that stands out for me is "Ripple" because it helped me get through the death of my Dad back in 2000.
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Of everyone in the Dead scene's storied history, I'd most like to see Hunter write a memior. I've enjoyed most of the other books written by "insiders", but it seems Hunter has perhaps the most unique perspective of them all, having been friends with Jerry from the early days when they lived on the edge, surviving on the margins to create music. His creativity hasn't waned at all. The new songs he wrote with Jim Lauderdale (CD just out), the songs he's written for 7 Walkers and Furthur are testament to that. And his last collaborations with Jerry towards the end of the Dead were example that the creativity between them lasted until the end. Happy 70th Hunter, and thanks for a whole canon of songs that have stood the test of time and continue to beguile, amaze, amuse and entertain.
they melt into a dream
a broken angel sings from a guitar
must be getting early, clocks are running late
oh well a touch of grey, kind of suits you anyway
RH, you are the man.
RU surprised H/G aren't in the songwriters HoF? H/G haven't sold 20 million copies of pop candy like bon jovi. They've merely made the world a better place and many people happy.
"Shot through the heart, and you're to blame. U give luv a bad name." duh.......
now go listen to 11/2/79.
My favorite Robert Hunter memory is the first time I saw him perform live. It was March 1984 at Adams nightclub in Washington DC. Adams was a small club and it seemed we were seated nearly at Robert's feet. I found the performance just thrilling and rate it as one of my all time favorite concert memories. I saw him several times after that in larger venues and it was never quite the same. I also collected a dozen or so of his concert tapes, and none seemed to capture the magic of that night (one exception- Kutztown, PA?-see below).
A few memories about that night. I remember we were sitting in line out in front waiting for the doors to open, when along comes Robert, guitar case in hand. He had to rap on the door to get in! We all recognized him, of course. One of us said "they probably think you're just another deadhead". His first words on stage were "Is this the place?" I remember he also remarked he had spent some time walking around Georgetown, and had been recently listening to Bach's Musical Offering - "the most Bach for your Bach dollar!" He performed mostly songs from "Jack of Roses" and the upcoming "Amagamalin Street"- and of course some chestnuts The Eleven , St Stephen, etc. For a while I had a horrible amateur tape that was pretty unlistenable, but verified my memory of a truly inspired performance. The Amagamalin Street material was wonderful, performed in a pure folk like vein- totally unlike the album, which I found disappointing by comparison -( too electric and too many musicians)
My picks for favorite, underrated Hunter:
(1) Eagle Mall Suite. (I used to have a complete recording, Kutztown PA? 80-82, I think?)- my favorite live Hunter...
(2) Keys to the Rain
(3)Pieces of Eight
A Hearty thanks for Everything Mr. Hunter!
As for me, simply stated, HUNTER IS THE LAST OF THE BEATS. May source continue to bless U Robert!!! keep on Truckin
This one is always magical for me. Some 25 odd years ago while living in CA. (Montara) my 1st trip into the big city of SF got a little lost on the BART. Ended up coming up in the Mision District and low and behold it was raining. Was told sometime later that it wasn't the rainy season............."Come again...?".......
not sure i want to explain the feeling of his words
an impressionistic deja vu
time bends and expands, captured in a moment and disappears
i feel them. i know i FEEL them.
ambiguity is only right. anything more would see them retract and die.
and i don't want that.
capture is captivity.
and no one wants that.
thank you Robert C. Hunter.
for what, i'm still trying to work out.
but thank you.
"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread it's roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write."
- Rainer Maria Rilke.
Happy birthday rh.