Robert Hunter: Words to Live By
As primary lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter has affected more people more profoundly than any American rock songwriter other than Bob Dylan. But he doesn't much care to comment on the notion that this makes him the most important and influential tunesmith of the past 25 years."If true, it would seem operationally beneficial not to dwell on it," he said in a recent, gently mocking e- mail. "I'd get so hung up on my own overblown sense of self-importance I'd probably get the worst case of writer's block in a quarter-century!"Hunter can't deny (and might not even try) that his words have so powerfully entered the collective psyche of a generation that some have become cliches; every headline writer in America has played on "what a long strange trip it's been" from 1970's "Truckin'."The Grateful Dead played for more people (around 20 million) than any band in history. Some came to laugh their past, and dance the night, away; some came for the sonic fractals of music as space. But it was the words -- mostly Hunter's -- that put it all in context."WITHOUT LOVE DAY to day, insanity's king," Hunter wrote. "Without love in the dream, it will never come true."Some of his songs made a simple suggestion: "If you get confused, listen to the music play." Others urged the outrageous: "Dare to leap where the angels fear to tread." Some portrayed a blithesome resignation: "Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile." Some had words of warning: "You can't close the door when the wall's caved in." Others had words of hope:"Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings."Before they were who they became, they were who they were -- Hunter and Jerry Garcia, two teenagers living in Palo Alto in about 1960, a little too young to be serious beatniks, in a time a bit too soon for hippies. Their music was jug band, bluegrass and folk. Then Hunter went through the CIA's LSD experiments in the early 1960s, and nothing would ever be the same again. Stoked by the Acid Tests of 1965-66, where the nascent Dead "performed" and which Hunter attended, their words and music bloomed with an intensity and complexity as yet unheard. The Hunter/Garcia writing relationship really took root in May 1967, when Hunter mailed in the lyrics of two classics and a quirky oddity ("St. Stephen," "China Cat Sunflower" and "Alligator") from New Mexico. By that Summer of Love, Hunter was a member of the band; in 1994, he'd share in the Dead's induction in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.Until Garcia's death in 1995, the two old folkies crafted a new American musical sensibility. Like Lennon and McCartney whistling snatches of tunes across their Liverpool piano bench, Garcia and Hunter collaborated at a level that was almost telepathic.In early years, when they actually lived in the same house, Hunter would be upstairs typing and Garcia -- "a combination of Mel Blanc, Orpheus and Frankenstein" -- downstairs arranging. "By the time I handed him the lyric," Hunter says, "the tune was done."Writing with Garcia, Hunter later reflected, "was like dropping pennies off the Brooklyn Bridge -- different from dropping them into a fishpond, if you know what I mean."But Hunter also did breathtaking work on his own -- particularly on one glorious spring day in London in 1970, when he wrote three of his most gorgeous songs ("Ripple," "Brokedown Palace" and "To Lay Me Down") in a two-hour stretch. "When you're on, you're on," he's said.AS A SONGWRITER, Hunter has what he describes as the ability to translate people's scat or write nonsense to meet a band demand. "Once I've got the scan, seeing where the rhymes and accents are going to fall, it's a fairly simple matter to translate it into English," he explains. "And leave some of it untranslated, too. It's interesting that way."Untranslations like this, which makes Lewis Carroll seem linear:"Look for a while at the China Cat Sunflower proud-walking jingle in the midnight sun Copper-domed bodhi drip a silver komono like a crazy-quilt star gown through a dream night wind"In a time of acid assassins and Merry Pranksters, there were plenty of victims (innocent and otherwise) in the San Francisco 1960s; one night, too much of a good thing would prove more than enough for Hunter. He suffered an accidentally massive dosing of about 250,000 micrograms of LSD backstage at a show, and it scrambled up his mind."It took me a full two years after that to get back to where I felt creative or could feel any joy in life, or much of anything else," he later reflected. "I seriously considered what the wisdom of this drug-taking had been."So in the early 1970s, this former ROTC trumpeter discovered a more organic means of blowing his mind: "I'd practice trumpet all the time -- blow my brains half-out until I got psychedelic, and then I'd go write," he laughs. He gave that up too, for fear of a stroke. But his lyrics were still of the trip, mysterious scenes of discovery:"While the firelight's aglow strange shadows in the flames will grow till things we've never seen will seem familiar"And of the epiphany:"I ain't often right but I've never been wrong It seldom turns out the way it does in the song Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right"WHEN YOUR BAND is the Grateful Dead, formerly the Warlocks, and the primary iconography is skeletons, lightning bolts and roses, a certain basic question arises. "People sometimes write and wonder which side I'm on -- God or the devil's," Hunter said in a 1992 interview. "And I get nasty letters from Fundamentalists. I don't know what to make of it. I'm a secularist, obviously. I'm not exactly a pantheist, but I wouldn't stop one on the street and start an argument." Some focus on the lyric "friend of the Devil is a friend of mine." Others think a different lyric is more revealing:"Small wheel turn by the fire and rod Big wheel turn by the grace of God Every time that wheel turn 'round Bound to cover just a little more ground""I write a lot about the soul," Hunter notes, balancing the basic psychedelic dualism -- universal interconnectedness through the subjugation of the individual ego vs. essential personal responsibility. The soul can be steadfast:"If a man among you Got no sin upon his hand Let him cast a stone at me For playing in the band"Or on an eternal quest:"I have spent my life Seeking all that's still unsung Bent my ear to hear the tune And closed my eyes to see"The soul must account for itself:"One of these days and it won't be long Going down in the valley and sing my song I will sing it loud, sing it strong Let the echo decide if I was right or wrong"Before ultimately finding peace:"Fare you well, fare you well I love you more than words can tell Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul"BEYOND THE ROCK lyrics, Hunter has created a vast and impressive body of literary work: translations, poetry and epic song-cycles, novels, screenplays. His translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies" sounds a lot like Hunter: "The storm of eternity roars; all voices drown in its thunder." The collected works are available on Hunter's extensive Web site, accessible through www.deadnet.com (the Dead's new cyber community, where Hunter is the webmaster). You can also read Hunter's candid and compelling daily journal, where he successfully rolls away the dewdrop of "mystery which customarily surrounds a performer."The richness in Hunter's lyrics come from the richness of his sources; not just the standards (the Bible, Shakespeare), but W.S. Gilbert, Hank Williams, Mother Goose, early American folk and beyond. Drawing from Homer's invocation of the Muse in The Odyssey, Hunter declaims:"Let my inspiration flow in token rhymes suggesting rhythm that will not forsake me till my tale is told and done"T.S. Eliot wrote of the evening "spread out against the sky." A few psychedelics later, that became:"Shall we go, you and I while we can? Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds"Even staid instructors of English lit could appreciate this modern staging of Hamlet:"You may be a clown in the burying ground or just another pretty face You may be the fate of Ophelia sleeping and perchance to dream -- honest to the point of recklessness self-centered to the extreme"The complexity of Hunter's concepts come from the depths of his philosophical musings. He can discuss -- knowledgeably -- such seriously heavy dudes as Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Sartre. And he aptly adapts both Pascal:"but the heart has its seasons its evenings and songs of its own"And Ecclesiastes:"There are times when you can beckon There are times when you must call You can take a lot of reckoning But you can't take it all There are times when I can help you out And times that you must fall There are times when you must live in doubt And I can't help at all"HIS CYBER-ACCESSIBILITY notwithstanding, Hunter is not always particularly approachable on a personal level. Some still recall with discomfort his caustic attitude during an appearance at the old Merlyn's in the early 1980s. "My reputation for being reclusive is not entirely unearned," he says. "My words have reached many, yet I rarely leave my house."Acknowledging a sometimes "testy" relationship with Garcia, and never completely comfortable with his connection to the ever-expanding Grateful Dead juggernaut -- he's been simultaneously amazed, amused, resentful, jealous, frightened and appreciative -- Hunter went years without performing publicly. But since Garcia's death, he's taken up the gauntlet, setting out on short tours on his own, dropping in for a few dates of the mega Furthur Festival.At his first festival date, in July at Alpine Valley, Hunter got off to a rocky start before settling in to a strong set that was warmly received. Last week, he pronounced himself "good and ready" for another go.It's hard work for a 56-year-old to carry a two-hour show all by himself, and Hunter's journals explore in detail the physical and psychic pressures he has to address: "The rigors of public performance are only justified if I truly enjoy taking the energy generated in the presence of a live audience and making it into music." And he asks: "Dare I admit that some of my better performances have been an honest projection of how negative I've felt about the act of performing itself?"So two requests from the Storyteller. First, no howling or wolf calls during the moments of quiet intensity. Second, if you are sincerely moved by a number, applaud the soundman; that would make you "a pretty hip audience."THE OLDIES STATIONS proclaim they're playing the "soundtrack of your life." For Deadheads, Hunter wrote the soundtrack of our minds. He's written of every emotion and experience, every pain and pleasure, all hopes and fears, each love and hate with pinpoint precision and overwhelming power."I have some little cracked pane into a little part of the subconscious," he's said. "There are things that I can bring out of the subconscious that not many people can. I have a feeling for the psychic waves, the psychological problems that people are going through, and it's those kinds of problems that I want to address."That's one reason he largely left the overt protest songs to others, preferring to "help provide thoughtful music for the times as an adjunct to activism. Something sympathetic but circumspect." But he may be breaking that mold; among his lyrics on the new self-titled release by the great Bay area band Zero is a pointed attack on drug wars and mandatory minimum sentencing, "Possession," given a strong performance by the band at its exciting Club Tavern appearance last week.But for the most part, Hunter concentrates on either the personal or the cosmic. "I've often had people tell me that I've been writing about them in an uncanny fashion," he said in a 1992 interview. "In fact, I've had people come up to me in a restaurant and tell me to stop writing about their lives, and get nasty about it!"But who he was really writing to, it turns out, was himself: "A lot of my stuff is a big dialogue with myself over the years," he said in 1988, "the wise part of me talking to the unwise part of me and trying to straighten myself out."Hunter has said that his songs "record my personal strategies of engaging, or trying to disengage the beast." The beast has bitten him big-time in the past decade, as friends and industry colleagues died; but most intense were the deaths of his teenage son in 1987 (just as the Dead was going into hyperdrive with "Touch of Grey") and of his father 10 years later.It's either ironic or fitting, but the pain of death has been a profound stimulus to some of Hunter's greatest, most uplifting work -- most notably when he wrote "Box of Rain" for bassist Phil Lesh's dying father. "What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?" he asked. "A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through."A few weeks ago, Hunter reflected on what it's all supposed to mean. "My essential goal has not varied since I began my life's work," he wrote. "I have an abiding faith that good songs are the most needed items on earth."Or as he wrote half a lifetime ago:"Let there be songs to fill the air."