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 had my "at the foot of the genius" moment at Duffy's in Minneapolis in what I believe was 1982. ('83?) That night I had a chance to see Hunter at that bar, and many of my friends opted for a Talking Heads show in an arena. It didn't hurt that a northern Minnesota band called Cats Under the Stars was opening the Hunter show--we'd become friends that year from shows at St. Cloud State University. I was up at the front for the Cats, and just stayed there when Hunter took the stage. I was never more than three feet away from him during his set. He played a lot of songs from the "Jack O'Roses" LP, an English import which no one else in my circle of friends had a copy of. It felt so personal--and gave me that illusion of complete ease and approachability (a feeling only matched when I met Vince Welnick and Peter Albin).
I imagine Hunter at work in an old-fashioned house, leaded glass windows, lace curtains and a Tiffany oil lamp. His songs come from a place of Americana which is universal, but always seated in the discovery of the uncharted. I think of him as the writer who reflects the American spirit, tying his epic ideas into literature steeped in the seafarers and the imagery of a rough and tumble game of chance. As a performer, it's the equivalent of the songs embodied--coming out in a natural, flowing fashion. Even in the parthenon of Dylan, Neil Young and Johnny Cash, Hunter stands out and perhaps outshines them. Happy 70th Mr. Hunter!! Too many great words in his canon--but here are a few to chew on:
"Storyteller makes no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice
His job is to shed light
And not to master."
I never did see the Talking Heads live, either...
Hope to see you back on the road in the not-so-distant future!
I'll stop posting for a while.
watch me space it watch me roll
watch me space yer face and shake my bones to the music play'n now Hey You
Crank that grateful dead
Crank that grateful dead
you know I crank it every day
I can't make a list, I have no stories to tell, but I can say that reading this brings tears to my eyes as I think about all the times I exchanged meaningful glances with various friends as we danced to Scarlet Begonias and Jerry sang "once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right," and during The Wheel when I would ALWAYS get chills during the second, more emphatic line BOUND TO COVER JUST A LITTLE MORE GROUND.
I can also say that as a young woman who had only vaguely heard of the Grateful Dead back in the early 70s, I was always intrigued by Box of Rain and Scarlet when I heard them on KSAN, because the lyrics seemed so intriguing and so different from other the other music of the day. At that time I had no idea that my world would be rocked by these and so many other songs just a few years later.
Oh, I am also remembering my first Ecstasy experience at the Greek in 1985, and after the show I was hanging out with my friend John, who recited Terrapin Station to me in its entirety. It was the first time I had really heard the song clearly and I was fascinated by the complexity of the song and the story it tells.
Happy Birthday Mr. Hunter!
Thank you so very much for all of the enlightenment you have allowed me.
Nothing left to do but SMILE SMILE SMILE!
mermaids on porpoises draw up the dawn
paradise waits on the crest of a wave her angels in flame
like a child she is pure she is not to blame
crippled but free I was blind all the time I was learning to see
time to dig out Aoxomoxoa and Blues for Allah.
I think I made this post years ago, but... Robert Hunter's blog in the years following Garcia's death was important to me, I felt like a real friend on the inside was reaching out to help us stay informed and look ahead, not to the past. I was traveling beyond the clutches of TV and radio when Garcia died, and so for a guy who was very devoted (5-15 shows/year '77-'95), this itself was initially frustrating, or so I thought. When I checked back in to our media-driven world, I wasn't so sorry to see the hype-circus that I had missed, but I was damned pleased and proud to see overwhelming realization that what made the Dead super special was the quality of the songs. Ultimately, for me, real personal closure on my Deadhead life came years later, sitting at Hunter's feet and hearing him play HIS OWN FABULOUS MATERIAL at Town Hall, and getting totally off on Phil's band (with Haynes and Herring) in New Haven. Robert Hunter is a rock, a true dark star.