Lyricist Robert Hunter On Finding Words for the Grateful Dead – Wall Street Journal July 18th 2014


Lyricist Robert Hunter On Finding Words for the Grateful Dead

Robert Hunter was a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, a master lyricist who wrote the words to virtually every Jerry Garcia song. Their collaboration produced “Uncle John’s Band,” ”China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones” and dozens of other songs.

Since Garcia’s 1995 death, Hunter was worked with Bob Dylan, country artist Jim Lauderdale, Warren Haynes, Little Feat and many others. Last year he returned to the stage as a solo performer after a decade-long hiatus that saw him write an unpublished novel.

“After a brush with death, I realized that was not the best way to spend my remaining ears,” Hunter says from his California home. “I started playing guitar again and it reinvigorated me.”

Hunter will be on the East Coast for four dates at New York’s City Winery – July 21, 22, 23 and August 2. In between, he will be at the Newport Folk Festival and in Long Island and Wilkes Barre, PA. You can see his tour schedule here.

This is an edited conversation.

How did your working relationship with Jerry Garcia begin?

HUNTER: We started a folk duet called Bob and Jerry and wrote our first song when we were 18 and 19. I stayed with him through bluegrass, but the next phase was jug band, and I couldn’t make a sound out of the jug he handed me. I kept writing songs to perform at parties to impress the ladies, including “Alligator,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “St. Stephen’s,” then I moved to New Mexico. When the Dead formed, I sent Jerry some lyrics, and he called and asked me to come back and be their lyricist. They were working on “Dark Star” when I arrived, I wrote the lyrics on the spot and never really left.

Did you ever wish to perform with the band?

HUNTER: It was my choice. I was doing background vocals for “China Cat Sunflower” during the [1969] Aoxomoxa sessions, and Phil [Lesh] looked at me and said “Can you ever sing the same line twice the same way?” and I said, “I don’t think I can.”

So I bowed out and continued to offer my perspective on which takes were good and the like. And I named all the albums except for Mars Hotel. A lot of them I pulled out of the air. Like Jerry said, “This is beginning to sound like a bit of workingman’s dead instead of the psychedelic.” I said, “There’s your title.”

You created a worldview and personality that became, publicly, Jerry’s.

HUNTER: It all happened effortlessly. He called me a week or two before he died and started complimenting me, which is something he never did. He said, “Your words never stuck in my throat.” I thought, “Jerry? Are you ok?” – because we took each other utterly for granted for decades. He definitely was saying good-bye and it was the last time we ever spoke.

Did your collaborations start with music or words?

HUNTER: It was usually lyrics first. I would put the better lyrics into a file called “Can You Dig This?’ for any of the guys that wanted to write. Every once in a while Jerry would offer a tune to me, and the band pretty much wrote the music for “Uncle John’s Band” first. In the first few years, I also would often be in the rehearsal room as the band developed an idea. For instance, I was writing verses for “Ramble On Rose” as they worked it out. Sometimes you had to sneak up on Jerry because he was overflowing with ideas. I would hear him playing beautiful things on the guitar or piano that would just evaporate, tape them, and make them songs. He’d be shocked when I played it back to him.

I wrote the words for “Touch of Grey” for a planned solo album that was dragging along. My version was much slower and Jerry asked if I minded him recasting it for the Grateful Dead. I And all of a sudden we had a hit single and I had enough money to buy a house.

That song changed everything for the band.

HUNTER: We were just about done. The Grateful Dead was virtually broke and there wasn’t enough money coming into the enterprise to cover expenses. I’m actually glad the success didn’t happen earlier because to my way of thinking everything went wonky after that. The old days were gone. There was suddenly huge money, which simply attracts huge problems. But it did put the band into a pretty superior position. We were the top grossing band for some years. Or should I say, “they were?”

I think you can say we.

HUNTER: Thank you.


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RAIN MAN – The visionary wordsmith Robert Hunter takes to the stage – New Yorker


RAIN MAN – The visionary wordsmith Robert Hunter takes to the stage

By John Donohue

For a certain generation of high-school students, the knowing way to quote the Grateful Dead in one’s yearbook was not by naming the band. Rather, it was by attributing a line to its likely source—Robert Hunter, the group’s first principal lyricist. Hunter is now seventy-three, and two years ago he almost died. “I got really, really sick, with a spinal infection that put me in a hospital for a couple of months, and it was touch and go,” he said recently. “I had my guitar with me, and as soon as I got well enough to play there was nothing else to do in that hospital. The nurses would come in and request songs.”

One sunny afternoon in London, in 1970, Hunter wrote the words to three magical Grateful Dead songs, “To Lay Me Down,” “Ripple,” and “Brokedown Palace.” He is a lyricist with few equals, and, together with Jerry Garcia, he conjured up the majority of the Dead’s original songs. Their collaboration continued until Garcia’s death, in 1995. Along the way, Hunter recorded a few solo albums, performed sporadically, translated Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” and published his own poetry. Mostly, though, he stayed home, to be with his family and to write for many artists, including Bob Dylan. “When I got out of the hospital, it was one of those classic things—you’re looking death in the eye, and it changes you. I thought, I ought to go back on the road.” He booked a short tour, his first in a decade, which brought him to New York last fall. The shows went so well that Hunter, who lives in San Rafael, California, and hates to travel, is returning for more gigs on the East Coast this summer. “It’s natural for me,” he said. “I’m going to keep it up for as long as my health allows it.”

Hunter knows his audience. “I’ll put in a little bit of my own stuff,” he said. “But they don’t really come to hear me do new songs.” Instead, he sticks with classics from the Dead. “My two honeys are ‘Sugaree’ and ‘Ripple.’ I always do those. I’m going to break out ‘Attics of My Life,’ which I’ve never performed before, as far as I can remember.” He plans on including “Touch of Grey,” as well as, possibly, “Casey Jones” and “West LA Fadeaway,” but he said that, for the most part, he likes to keep the set list a surprise.

His newfound pleasure onstage creates a challenge. Performing, he said, “kind of knocks me off my writer’s game.” The distinction between the two activities is complicated. “It’s probably like the difference between eating watermelon and playing basketball,” he said. “It’s like ‘China Cat Sunflower’ ”—the early and imaginative Dead song. “You know what it means, or you don’t.” Hunter is at City Winery July 21-23 and Aug. 2.

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