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…”?
cool picture...so many wild lyrics
I also need to give a shout out to this fine work. I love this book. I think another thing I like about Hunter's lyrics is the history lessons/nods to the past I get from thinking about them. What pop/rock songs now can actually make you think like that? None that I know of...
I think my favorite thing about Hunter's lyrics is that he often leaves the lyrics open to interpretation. Like in Terrapin, "you decide if he was wise" and "his job is to shed light". Thanks, RH for shedding light for all these years.
(I would have liked to have seen the GD have a few more years to play The Days Between. I think this song was/could have been a monster rivaling Morning Dew for late 2nd set Jerry!)
So many memories to so many of Hunter's lyrics. The first one that comes to mind is when I was living in Thailand and the mountains around my house were burned by the villagers to renew the soil. My wife and I were out on our deck watching these huge flames work their way down the mountain. I believe we were listening to Hamilton, 3-22-90. We could feel the heat from the fires and were dancing through the Scarlet when that great Fire just ripped. Some of my Thai neighbors were walking by, saw us and just smiled, even doing a few classical dance moves themselves.
Robert Hunter has definitely written the soundtrack to so much of my life. Nothing but appreciation to him.
Was late 60s and early 70's For some wonderful reason, family & friends I believe, Bob would wonder on up to the U of W for the Ides of March, he'd play and talk the evening away while a couple hundred of us would listen to the words of a great great poet & song writer, my life has never been the same. What a long wonderful trip it is!! Thank you from the bottom of my soul, Happy Birthday Bob!
There is absolutely no doubt about the brilliance of the main Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Even more outstanding was the karmic connection with Jerry Garcia that produced the thing we love. I'm ever so Grateful I'll even forgive the interview where he strongly intimated Jerry was lazy about writing music for the lyrics he brought him.
I thought the Dead (Jerry) would have done well to create tunes for even more of his work, an example being Promontory Rider.
I enjoyed the only performance I ever saw by him at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, but it was at that show I also saw the darker side of him -- ranting drunken insults (undeserved) at the crowd. If he just took Jerry's example in later years and just played without talking he would have been even more enjoyable.
But we all have our own foibles and in most countries it is proper to fete those elders who make it to 70, 75, or even 82.
So Happy Birthday Robert Hunter!
~ Promontory rider
Territory Ranger ~
Had Hunter written the lyrics for Orpheus, the the weeping Hades would have granted unconditional surrender of his soul, Orpheus would not have lost faith in his self and
Eurydice and he would have walked the world of mortals together again.
Admin issues had prevented me form commenting before, but the memories and reflections of ALL the great lyrics from the Hunter oeuvre cited in these posts moved me enough to get the login sorted out after all these years... (another testament to the power of Hunter's lyrics...)
So many great songs have been quoted, from Brokedown to Touch of Darkness, so I would just add, in my Belated Birthday greeting, two of the many reminiscences I have from seeing Robert Hunter perform over the years...
The first takes me back to the Summer of '83, an outdoor JGB show at Caldwell College in Caldwell, NJ. A beautiful day, and Hunter warmed up, and proceeded to play Roseanne (the whole first side of Amagamalin Street) in its entirety... this was some 20 plus minutes of poetry, or part of a novel in verse. At the end of his set, he gave such a warm and heartfelt introduction to Jerry and I will always remember it.
Didn't they fall?
Hearts, flowers and all, didn't they fall?>>
A second memory comes from March 2003 at the Town Hall theatre, NYC. This was literally on the eve of the Iraq war, and he knew it and we in the audience knew it (at least some of us). It was a sparsely attended but brilliant show, masterpiece after masterpiece flying off the stage, together with a lotta love going back and forth. Standing on the Moon, the opener was dripping with emotion and meaning given the context... the same with the New Speedway Boogie, presaging the darkeness (that gotta give). And Stephen, and the Eleven, and the China Cat etc. etc. etc. I continue to marvel that RH was in NYC that night, and that he was living in the moment with us... it made the next days weeks and months of that era that much more tolerable.
So thanks for all of that Robert Hunter, and for so much more you that you have shared through those magical songs. We are still listening!
Hi all. Just want to say thanks etc. to all the posters above; when I first saw the link for the R Hunter Birthday announcement..& all the ruminations of his songs and moments and how they make us feel...I just dove right in & left my comment. 'Then' I started to read the post. But anyway..yea real good stuff.
But what I wanted to say (really wanted to say)...One song I hav'nt seen mentioned here is...
'Crazy Fingers' ! : ) At least so far in what I've read with the 'Heads comments above. 'gotta confess I've only gotten 1/2 way thru (there are so many! )
But yea Crazy Fingers.
To me, aside from the lyrics of the song...I just love the chord changes. I guess this is more a homage to Jerry rather than Robert..but at least you could say that Jerry responded in kind with something with finesse (I know..this sounds like an insult possibly..but CF really is a Jem. Excellent song to hear live).
Other songs I love (or really dig) the chord changes to: High Time, China Doll..and of course Stella Blue.
Right now, at this moment..my Hunter faves are 'Cruel White Water'..'Touch of Darkness'..'Slack String Quartet'..'Keys to the Rain'..'Promontory Rider'...
... Myself I'm a very fortunite DeadHead Cat..to have been baptised (so to speak) in getting to hear Solo Hunter playing shows around 1982-84. All in the NYC/Long Island area, where I grew up. Age-wise I was'nt even 17 yet when I first heard Acoustic Robert Hunter play 2 nights of a 3 night gig at the Other End in Greenwich Village NY..I think June(!) of '82. With a little dash of the 'lectric KoolAid in blotter form on the first night..Hunter was just mesmerizing. When he plays you can be rapt with attention; or at least, you should. Vivid, colorful lyrics. At the Other End, he was very much the Troubadour; very confident & with an Aire of 'Oh are you folks gonna get it!' He more threw the songs at 'cha rather than try to draw you in (if that makes any sense?). Not with any attitude; it was just like 'Yep. You folks are checking out the guy who penned them all'. This kindof describes..yet misses describing what Bob is/was like. Just very deep-in-the-wood Grateful Dead. I think this kindof describes Hunter: he has a touch of Neil Cassidy about him. A 'lets get this party started..even tho the odds are 10-1! 10-1?? yawn..!' You know what I mean? But enough defining.
Just distinctive songs. Maybe with a kindof ethos of 'Does Art Imitate Life? No..Art Imitates No One/Nothing' ( yea, I know I'm probably sounding a bit pretentious..But I'm sorry I can't help it! hehe
....I'll wrap up. And Hunter..he has matured. By this I mean the 'very' good album 'Together Thru Life' by Bob Dylan. Perhaps you can say this is Hunter at his..I don't know his minimalist? But its a good record. Imagery may not exactly be bloomin like a red rose..but it fits. Its a record to be proud of.
....and thats..my riffin' about Robert H.
Happy Birthday Bob!
'N there ain't nothin' wrong with the way she moves! 'ol Scarlet Begonias & a touchOfTheBlues! ' hehe : ))