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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uponscrutiny's picture
Offline
Joined: Jan 18 2010
It's all too......

Precious.
All too personal.
All good things.
All good times.
All of my friends.
All the years combined.
Thats all Folks!!!
Happy Birthday Mr. Hunter.
(eep-opp-ork-ah-ah!)

shwack's picture
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Joined: Apr 12 2008
Robert the Hunter

Hey Man,
I have completely enjoyed the 7 Walkers project with Hunter lyrics and music by Papa Mali(Malcomb Welbourne-Louisiana native)These recordings featuring Billy K.on percussion,clearly state Hunter's affinity for the city of New Orleans and all that the culture there can inspire.Always liked Rubin and Cherise with its Carnival flavor,what a story!
As for Dead related material, I'm with you blairj on "Eyes" and "UJB" particularly.The Hunter/Garcia
collaboration on Workingman's as well as Garcia's first solo recordings,to me, are the pinnacle
works from this duo.Such an amazing songbook for sure!
I suppose one should not leave out Terrapin Station. Okay,I see now how this can go on and on and on...Blairj thanks for providing this space

shwack

gratefaldean's picture
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Joined: Jun 22 2007
If there's an big injustice

In the songwriting world, it's that Hunter/Garcia are not members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I know that they were nominated a couple of years ago, didn't make the cut. But with inductees like Jon Bon Jovi, Phil Collins (but no Peter Gabriel? Please!), Barry Manilow, and Diane Warren, it's hard to justify omitting such actual WORTHY songwriters like Robert and Jerry. See

http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/era

for a full listing and choose your own "Huh? Such-and-such is there and Hunter/Garcia are not?" nominees.

Happy birthday, Mr. Hunter. You've been inspiring me for most of my life, and that inspiration ain't never gonna end until I do...

Underthevolcano's picture
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Joined: Feb 6 2008
Happy Birthday Hunter!

I can't make a list. I love all of them. I am continually puzzling over some of them like "Row Jimmy Row" and trying to parse the sense of meaning in them. My ideas about them change as I get older. It's like Joyce's Ulysses you gotta go back and reread it every 10 years or so. Like you Blair these songs have been an inspiration and a soundtrack to life for me and my family. I named my son Hunter. Jerry wrote the perfect musical accompaniment to them as well. As Deadheads we are especially lucky to have such a tremendous body of work to enjoy, experience , laugh or grin over, dance about, puzzle over, inspire over and appreciate. "now lets go run and see"

frankparry's picture
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Joined: Jun 7 2007
Lists

If we're making lists, I'd say that there really is only one list with one song title that I could honestly include to the exclusion of all the dozens of others which I love (almost) as much ... Scarlet Begonias. You mentioned "In the strangest of places" line, Blair, and that just pops out all the time for me. It tells me that you can get enlightenment, fulfillment and just sheer bliss from just about anywhere and often on places you'd never expect!

But really, there are two lines which also sum up for me the essence of Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead:
"The sky was yellow and the sun was blue" - different, "weird" ways of seeing and experiencing.
"Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand .. everybody's playing in the Heart of Gold Band" - togetherness, peace, empathy, everyone in the band!

I could pick out lines in many songs, but Scarlet Begonias is one I always come back to. As always, the Grateful Dead found a way of picking a melody to fit the lyrics (although it wasn't always that way round!) which was lilting, joyous, dreamy, perfectly suited to the theme and the mood.

Happy birthday Robert ... and thanks Blair for sharing your thoughts.

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