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…”?
Yes, I also have Robert Hunter's words interwoven into my life.
Sang Uncle John's Band to rock my daughter to sleep 20 years ago.
Saw Hunter the first time at Harry Hopes in Cary Illinois maybe late 70s.
I recently filled in for our vacationing Minister and used "Attics of My Life" and "The Wheel" during the service.
Thank you Robert
Happy Birthday and many more.
And a Happy Birthday Mr. Hunter..
Box of Rain just showcases Hunter at best!
6/9/90 Cassidy: I traveled to another realm.
Gave one of kids Cassidy as a middle name because of this.
Not Hunter lyrics, but an incredible simulation.
Child of countless trees, child of boundless seas
What you are, and what you're meant to be
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Every time. Even when I'm the one singing it...it there's a single line that "defines" the Grateful Dead experience for me, this is the one.
Paisley mentioned Cassidy. Lyrically that is every bit on par with a Hunter song, but was actually written by John Perry Barlow. One night I had a vivid dream of the Dead playing Cassidy. The next morning I awoke to the news of the ValuJet Flight 592 crash in the Everglades on 5/11/96. The lyrics seemed uncanny.
"Quick beats in an icy heart.
Catch-colt draws a coffin cart.
There he goes now, here she starts:
Hear her cry.
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly.
Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."
JPB wrote a wonderful essay on the history of this song. You can read it at:
We are blessed to be around when Bob and the Boys were sending good sounds into the universe and into the deep heart where the spirit,body and the ineffable connect.
Impossible to parse into lists but we all will try. We are a listmaking tribe.
I'm fond of It MUST have been the Roses.
Don't know why.
Stopped asking a looooong time ago.
One pane of glass in the window
No one is complaining though,
come in and shut the door
Faded is the crimson from the
ribbons that she wore
and it's strange how no one
comes round anymore.
Got two reasons why I cry
away each lonely night
First one's named sweet Anne Marie
and she's my heart's delight
Second one is prison, baby
the sheriff's on my trail
If he catches up with me
I'll spend my life in jail
There was a sweet Ann Marie from San Mateo with a baby blue 1956 Buick convertible and she was my hearts delight- lived at Kesey's house in LaHonda.
And the sheriiff Was on my trail.
Happy B-Day Mr. Hunter!
One of my fondest memories was paying the usher at Town Hall 4 bucks to let me and my buddy in to see the added second show of a Bromberg/Hunter double bill. A promise of not getting in anyone's way sealed the deal and we were able to feast on some more grooves well into the midnight hour.
Thanks for the great writing w/ Jim Lauderdale - perhaps a little touring together?
Peace, Love and Grooviness,
Here's another 10 for you, Blair, in no particular order: Bird Song, Friend Of The Devil, Cassidy, Wharf Rat, Truckin', Attics of My Life, Doin' That Rag, St. Stephen, China Doll , and Eyes Of The World . It just makes your point, this guy is the voice of the band; all of his tunes verbally defined the ethos of the Grateful Dead and in doing so created the vocabulary for our mutually shared experience.
So here's to you Bob, the most important member of the Grateful Dead to never step onstage. May your seventieth year be your happiest year and may each day feel as light and warm as the morning sun and as long and cool as the evening breeze.
....all the years combine....
Better late than never, I suppose.
First of all; Happy Birthday Robert! I hope you are having the time of your life in all of your pursuits and are enjoying good health.
As far as what your lyrics mean to me... I've told you face to face that I consider your songs to be my religion. I can't separate any of my experiences in that regard from one another any more than I can tell you which of my children I love most. I treasure all of my memories seeing and meeting you and hope for the day we meet again, wherever and whenever that may be.
All that said... the time I saw you play Gaston Hall in Georgetown (11 -14 -1980; my girlfriend bought me the ticket for my birthday ironically) changed my life. Whenever I listen to any version of "Reuben and Cherise", I'm back in that pew watching you in awe, in a time and place where I'm young again and all the world is still in front of me and there is no pain or fear... just an all encompassing love. I'm not sure what you've been paid for how you've made a living but I can only hope that accounts for something, at the very least. It sure made my world worth being part of...
(and thanks to Blair & dead.net for the blog)