Grateful Dead

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…”?

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St Peters, MO
United States
38° 46' 42.51" N, 90° 36' 19.0116" W
Joined: Sep 8 2007
Believe it or not

N'other good one.

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Locations

St Peters, MO
United States
38° 46' 42.51" N, 90° 36' 19.0116" W
Joined: Sep 8 2007
Help on the way

Help and Franklins are pretty nice tunes!

unkle sam's picture
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United States
Joined: Oct 3 2008
Mr. Hunter

Firstly, thanks Blair for this blog, I got to say it's the first thing I come to now on this site and it's always great to get your insites on all things dead.
What can you say, Robert Hunter is the Shakespere of the 20th Century. What a great lyricists, songwriter, master of the english language and an all around good guy. There are too many songs and lyrics that he has written that make all things clear to me, he is a genius.

Deadnet central and his journal was awesome, I would sit and read it for hours, regret that he no longer gives us his daily dose of stories and words to live by.

I'm sure i was just another face when we met in 03 at the Dylan/Dead show in Tampa, you came out after your set and stood next to us during Dylan's few songs with the dead (Friend of the Devil was great), you had on that leather tour jacket with the embroidery. Then, as quick as you appeared, you departed backstage. That was a great set you played that night and I felt very fortunate to have attended that show.
One man gathers what another man spills
without love in the dream it will never come true
living on reds, vitamin C and Cocaine
what a long strange trip it's been
All words that we all live by.
Thanks Robert, live long and many happy returns.

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Beach Blvd Surf City USA
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
United States
33° 40' 26.5764" N, 117° 59' 19.266" W
Joined: Jun 6 2007
What's Become Of The Baby

Have to agree with you Blair, this is one song that never got it's due, (until last year at Calveras), so I think it is appropriate to post the lyrics even tho anyone can look them up
What's Become Of The Baby by Robert Hunter from Aomoxomoa

Waves of violet go crashing and laughing
Rainbow winged singing birds fly round the sun
Sunbells rain down in a liquid profusion
Mermaids on porpoises draw up the dawn

What's become of the baby
This cold December morning

Songbirds frozen in their flight
Drifting to the earth
Remnants of forgotten dreaming
Calling; answer comes there none
Go to sleep you child
Dream of never ending always

Panes of crystal
Eyes sparkle like waterfalls
Lighting the polished ice caverns of Khan
But where in the looking-glass fields of illusion
Wandered the child who was perfect as dawn

What's become of the baby
This cold December morning
What's become of the baby
This cold December morning

Racing, rhythms of the sun
All the world revolves
Captured in the eye of Odin
Allah, pray where are you now
All Mohammed's men blinded by the sparkling waters

Sheherezade gathering stories to tell
From primal gold fantasy petals that fall
But where is the child
Who played with the sun chimes
And chased the cloud sheep
To the regions of rhyme

Stranded
Stranded cries the south wind
Lost in the regions of lead
Shackled by chains of illusion
Delusions of living and dead

The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue
People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.

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Happy Birthday, Robert Hunter

Statements just seem vain at last...gratitude and blessings.

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Blair's List

I hired a gospel singer to do Attics of My Life at my wedding. My wife, who was not a Deadhead (although the loved them, particularly Jerry, the two times she would see them) and didn't completely understand why it was so important to me but was thrilled when she heard it in Riverside Church's chapel.
She passed away, too young at age 43. I am so glad that I made the call and that the young singer, who worked occasionally at the Cotton Club, did it so well. I remain thrilled when I hear it on the radio Furthur do the song, especially as beautifully as they did it at Radio City, It's a stunning, beautiful song that works equally well and memorable in life (wedding) and in memoriam, and it belongs with the best of American lyrics. Bravo, Robert Hunter, and thank you.

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Blair's List

I hired a gospel singer to do Attics of My Life at my wedding. My wife, who was not a Deadhead (although the loved them, particularly Jerry, the two times she would see them) and didn't completely understand why it was so important to me but was thrilled when she heard it in Riverside Church's chapel.
She passed away, too young at age 43. I am so glad that I made the call and that the young singer, who worked occasionally at the Cotton Club, did it so well. I remain thrilled when I hear it on the radio Furthur do the song, especially as beautifully as they did it at Radio City, It's a stunning, beautiful song that works equally well and memorable in life (wedding) and in memoriam, and it belongs with the best of American lyrics. Bravo, Robert Hunter, and thank you.

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Joined: Jun 25 2011
Happy Birthday (belated)

Hey Robert C.,
Just 30 more to go. Enjoy every minute.

You went out and found the song even after the singer was gone. Jerry smiles still. Hope to see you again someday, somewhere. Bring your big white guitar, we'll have some fun again.

Thank you for the key to your room, Boise 2004, Hartford 11/22/2002, that night long ago in the Albany Egg, and all the wonderful words from nine mile skid on a ten mile ride to goes to show you don't ever know. All we ever wanted was to learn and love and grow. Sometimes it seems like all this life was just a dream.

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Joined: Nov 21 2010
we love u in brazil

luca blue turned 2 yesterday happy super birthday to both u guys---
one love
JAH BLESS FOREVER AND EVER

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robert hunter bday

23 has always been my #.. my beatiful blue light son named luca blue was born on june 23 also . what a small universe

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