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…”?
Coming here is like coming home after being away for far too long and finding out that the vibe is just as sweet as I remembered. I walked down the aisle on my Dad's arm in 1977 to Ripple as played by two of my dear friends on guitar and mandolin. My favorite cat was named Ripple, and if anyone asked if she was named for the "wine", I'd say, "what wine?". Many guessed right away which always lead to a discussion of what concerts we'd seen. Thanks for taking me back, Blair! Happy Birthday Robert!
For me, it was this little place in Memphis called the New Daisy Theatre, I can't remember how may years ago. Robert hung around with us after he was done playing, making certain to shake every hand that wanted shook. It's special to me because he autographed my new Crusader Rabbit Stealth Band hat. Happy Birthday, Hunter, you're the best.
Once I stood at the stage in, I believe it was '96 at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, and we were waiting for the encore. I imagined Robert leaning over and saying to me, "You there, What would you like to hear? And I said, " Ripple." and as if I had said it out loud, those beautiful chords began. In 1994, I sat, with my beloved, and my midwife and my friends all around, and as we waited for the urge to push, we sang, a cappella, again, "Ripple" and brought my Skye into this world.
Thank You Mr Hunter for sharing your vision and your talent and your heart with us. My life has been enriched by you.
During a trip to Spain in 1974, after 28 hours on the Spanish Railway, walking off the train in Barcelona Station and suddenly hearing "Friend of the Devil" on Spanish National Radio being played overhead in the station plaza.. at the time Spanish National Radio rarely played American music, and what were the odds that the moment my pal and I got off this VERY delayed train (it's true - The Trains In Spain Stay Mainly In The Station..), we would immediately hear American music, and the Dead, no less..
"And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find what price, you have to pay to get out of going through all of these things twice.." Bob Dylan, 1966, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with Those Memphis Blues Again"
My wife and I were at this show, It was Feb,5 1980 I know this because we have the original concert poster.I remember being there and it being a fun and intense evening but that's about all we can remember.Man,I wish I could get my hands on a copy of that show!! Oh well thanks anyway Robert for the good time.
I'm sitting here wondering how can I give back to you a little of what you have shared with us all for so long. I've had your wonderful words in my head for 5 decades, and those words will no doubt survive both of us.
I get sad thinking of those who are no longer with us and I know you do too, and that life is full of pain as well as joy. I am telling you that when those moments come when you feel the acuteness of loss, that there is also so very much love that people wish to send you.
Perhaps that helps a little ... I hope so, my brother ... and a little is not bad.
there is a Buddhist saying, that creating compassion is like planting a tree, and the fruit is what comes back to you.
Look at all the fruit Robert!
Happy Birthday and thank you for a real good time!
From the "Heads" at Mauka Woodwerks, Makers of Eco wood toys & artistic products.
Robert, I hope you read all these comments, your spiritual guidance has been a beacon to us through the years, 'His job is to shed light, and not to master.'
So many different thoughts. You share your birthday with my mother, 85 today.
I have learnt to play many of the songs you wrote with Jerry, and learning the intricate spirals and ellipses of your words has been as much fun as Jer's masterful chord sequences. I allude to numerous fragments in a book I have written and am currently trying to get published, 'Waking The Monkey' http://cosmicclaire.blogspot.com/2011/06/waking-monkey.html I hope you don't mind, there is so much wisdom in your words.
I can't decide between Ripple and Stella Blue... both lucid gems. About Stella ~ I have long thought this to be a reference to Heartbreak Hotel, perhaps Elvis's greatest song. Those references to a hotel and every 'lonely street', the C7 chord is even right for that... A coincidence? I think you are too well versed in song to have done this by accident...
Finally ~ Jack O'Roses ~ A masterpiece and I am blessed to have a copy, love the cover, love the words, love the performance, all those bits which are different from the Dead versions, the new songs, 'Money Tree' marvellous! Side two saw me through a catastrophic meltdown that I was going through at the time when I first heard it, an inner journey of mystical and gnostic proportions.... and the final lines could be about the journey we have all had with the Good Old Grateful Dead...
'To give it its due, it's where I met you, and you were my reason to stay, around, in a Prodigal Town'.
to find so many Eagle Mall fans here... Brick by brick!
Eagle Mall. There's just nothing to equal it.
70? I was sorta hoping for another tour, so I might see him perform again but sheet -- at 70, I wouldn't want to be on tour, living out of hotel rooms. But if he did, I'd be there -- and trying to coax him into doing "Eagle Mall" as a duet ("Look -- I even brought a guitar & a lyric sheet! All you have to do is sing the lead!")
"It's always a nice day for a blessing"