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…”?
I think it was '92 when Jerry was very sick and our hugely anticipated Country Faire Trip highlighted by the Grateful Dead had to be cancelled. Hunter stepped in to soothe us in several venues around Eugene, with Anne Waldman and Kesey and others. Thanks Robert for this and for all the poetry through four decades going on five. You have added meaning to my life.
"You who choose to lead must follow ... if I knew the way I would take you home" I always think is so potent for politicians especially, and maybe churchmen?
you mean everything in this world to me robert, so be really good to yourself, your needed!!! I Love You.
however, "Please don't dominate the rap, Jack, if you've got nothing new to say" has always held a special place in my heart. Speaking of which, "I will not forgive you, if you will not take the chance" has frequently provided a needed push at critical moments. Happy Birthday Mr. Hunter and thank you.
Where I grew up, nobody I knew ever uttered the name Grateful Dead, much less had an album to share. Hippies were anathema. Let me put it to you this way, the Dead played one event in my town, on February 6, 1979, when I would’ve been about 17. There is no tape of this show; it does not exist in the vault. (I have since acquired a poster evidencing, apparently, the occurrence; it’s not dated, but tickets were $8.00.) I assume the co-eds from Oral Roberts University did not spike attendance at the fairgrounds Pavilion.
Blessed be me, having a Deadhead California cousin who insisted that I meet him for my first show, in Las Vegas, 1991; by then I’d left Tulsa and moved to Reno. No kidding. Them twenty hounds don’t so much trail me now as live right here under the roof. Metaphorically, of course. Sort of. At any rate, I was home there -- and at the next twenty-five or so shows I got to between then and then.
1. Definitely Sugaree is up there with all time favorites. I absolutely love the line:
"Well shake it up now Sugaree, I'll meet you at the jubilee
And if that jubilee don't come maybe I'll meet you on the run"
2. To Lay Me Down: "To tell sweet lies, one last time and say good night"
3. It Must Have Been the Roses:
"I don't know, it must have been the roses,
The roses or the ribbons in her long brown hair.
I don't know, maybe it was the roses,
All I know I could not leave her there.
My first show was 12/31/80. It's not that I'd never heard of the band; I'd owned the first album since my college days and "Sugaree" had grabbed me by the DNA from the first note when it was a single, but life happened. So there I was taking in the whole scene and being fairly agog, but the CLICK, like you say, was Jerry's voice floating above the crowd (which was surging and singing along lustily) "If I knew the way I would take you home."
Something's going on here, says I. Haven't been the same since.
I came late, real late, to the whole wide, wild, remarkable world of the Grateful Dead. The lyric that utterly charmed me first was, “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” Damn, I thought, that’s about the sweetest sentiment I think I’ve ever heard sung. Now that I know all of the lyrics, as I sit here and type next to about a dozen books on all things Dead -- by Blair (two), Lesh, Brightman, Editors of Rolling Stone, McNally, Gans, Reich/Wenner, Dodd/Spaulding, among others (even Scully) -- I keep coming back to:
Midnight on a carousel ride
Reaching for the gold ring down inside
Never could reach
It just slips away but I try
Thanks, Robert. A lot.
I am an unashamed Robert Hunter junky. I've seen him dozens of times since the mid-70's EVERY time he came east - the Other End (or Bitter End), the Stanhope House, the Fast Lane, the Bottom Line, Town Hall, the Community Theatre, the Beacon Theatre, the Capitol Theatre, the Lone Star Cafe, the Keswick Theatre, you get the picture. I was that guy always asking for "Cruel White Water" at the shows. He even admonished me at a show at the Other End saying "I'm Robert Hunter and I don't do requests". I've taken my kids to a few shows. For the last few years I've had to clamor for any Scrap of Hunter I could find - Jim Lauderdale's albums, Mickey's last album, Dylan's Together Through Life - since I've acquired everything he's released (albums, books, etc.). My prized possession is a signed Promontory Rider picture disc. I look forward to any collaborative release.
Top 10? Boys In The Barroom, Days Between, Reuben & Cerise, The Wheel, Keys To The Rain, Cruel White Water, Terrapin Station (complete version fron Jack O' Roses), Amagamalin Street, Fire On The Mountain, Promontory Rider, shit....I ran out. Next 5? Wharf Rat, Comes A Time, It Must Have Been The Roses, Tiger Rose, Over the Hills
Now my plea - "Say, Mr. Matches, that's a pretty nice tune, I wonder if you'd play that tune again" - Please, Mr. Hunter, embark on one more (last) tour for one more (last) fix. I know from your joural writings, long since abandoned :- ( that health has been a major consideration in you not venturing out on the road. And you've obvoiusly been keeping very active writing (where's Doppelganger?), but please, please, please give it one more go. I'll certainly be there, asking for one more "Cruel White Water".
Best part of Hunter's lyrics are the way they seemed so familiar the first time I heard them.
As if this was the way to listen to the world, seeing through the music.
Happy Birthday, and hope to see you (again) soon.
It's always amazed me that Robert's lyrics reflect 70 years of life's experiences, and he was writing these words while in his 20's. I can't list my favorites; there are so many. The man's gift for words is truly unmatched. I work as an RN at a nursing home. When an elderly or hospice patient is close to their transition, I always hold their hand and whisper to them "May the four winds blow you safely home." It comforts me as much as it does them. Robert's lyrics cover all the emotions of life. Thank you so much for the enlightenment. And happy birthday!