Robert Hunter, lyricist and Jerry Garcia’s writing partner for more than 30 years, died Monday. He was 78.
Aside from Bob Dylan, Hunter was the greatest lyricist of the rock era. A poet and a genius, he created a subterranean hyper-literate world that made his role in the Grateful Dead as important as that of any of the guys on stage.
Comparisons to Dylan? Calling a rock lyric writer a poet? Before you jump to call those comments over-the-top, consider the following: Dylan has recorded Hunter’s tunes and in 1993 Hunter translated Ranier Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies: The Sonnets to Orpheus.” (As an aside, the song Reuben and Cerise is a retelling of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Heady stuff indeed.)
Garcia once wondered at Hunter’s genius (they met as teens) by stating it would be hard to sing a song that didn’t have an emotional resonance and Hunter tunes always delivered in such a manner. He also artfully said that he could always defer to Hunter as to whether a song carried good advice or not. Lyrically, the only rule governing the partnership of equals was that anything overtly political was off limits.
Although the Grateful Dead will always be viewed to some extent as a symbol of the 1960s optimism, there was always a darkness to balance that light. Particularly in ballad mode, Garcia could be the deliverer of very dark news.
Hunter’s world was one of characters such as Jack Straw, August West, Casey Jones and Deliliah Jones and sleepy alligators living in locales both fictional and real. Black muddy rivers, Shakedown Streets, Terrapin Stations seemed as logical as the American cities Hunter name-dropped with a cartographer’s precision.
To a large extent, the Deadheads — the most loyal and rabid fans in rock history — invented their subculture and language through Hunter’s lyrics.
A lot has been made of Robert Hunter being reclusive. I’m not sure that’s the right term. I think he wanted the songs to stand on their own with no distraction. Most of all, he didn’t want to explain them.
Below is a random list of some gems that sprang to mind upon hearing of his death. I purposely left out the songs (“Touch of Grey,” “Truckin’” and “Casey Jones”) that everyone knows. He published his lyrics from 1965-1990 in the book “A Box of Rain.” As you will see below, they stand as poetry quite well on their own. But they are that much sweeter with the symphonic of the Dead to buoy them.
In his elegy to Garcia, which he miraculously wrote in a day in August, 1995, he pondered: “Now that the singer is gone, where shall I go for the song?” We will probably never see a songwriter like Hunter again, he sprung from the Beat Generation after all. Luckily, his songs are being played on stages now more than ever. I’m confident that as long as live rock and roll thrives, these songs will be performed with the respect and celebration they deserve.
Celebrate the American Poet In His Own Words:
“You may be Saturday’s child, all alone, moving with a tinge of grace/You may be a clown in the burying ground/ or just another pretty face./You may meet the fate on Ophelia, sleeping and perchance to dream/Honest to the point of recklessness, self-centered in the extreme.” — Althea
“When it seems like the night will last forever/And there’s nothing left to do but count the years/When the strings of my heart start to sever/And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears
I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And dream me a dream of my own” — Black Muddy River
“See here how everything/Lead up to this day/And it’s just like any other day/That’s ever been/Sun going up and then/The sun going down/Shine through my window/And my friends they come around” — Black Peter
“Look into any eyes/You find by you; you can see clear to another day/Maybe been seen before/Through other eyes on other days while going home/What do you want me to do/To do for you to see you through?/It’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago” — Box of Rain
“Nineteen twenty when he stepped to the bar/Drank to the dregs of the whiskey jar/Nineteen thirty when the wall caved in/He made his way selling red-eyed gin/Delilah Jones was the mother of twins/Two times over and the rest were sins/Raised eight boys, only I turned bad/Didn’t get the lickings that the other ones had” — Brown-Eyed Women
“A wind held by the collar/Yes, a cloud held by the breeze/You can walk on coals of fire/But sometimes you must freeze/There are times when you offend me/And I do the same to you/If we can’t or won’t forget it/I guess we could be through”– Built to Last
“There were days, and there were days/And there were days between/Polished like a golden bowl/The finest ever seen/Hearts of Summer held in trust/Still tender young and green/Left on shelves collecting dust/Not knowing what they mean/Valentines of flesh and blood/As soft as velveteen/Hoping love would not forsake/The days that lie between”– Days Between
“When I awoke, the dire wolf, six hundred pounds of sin/Was grinning at my window, all I said was “Come on in”/The wolf came in, I got my cards, we sat down for a game/I cut my deck to the queen of spades but the cards were all the same
In the back-wash of Fennario, the black and bloody mire/The dire wolf collects his due while the boys sing round the fire” — Dire Wolf
“Sometimes we live no particular way but our own/And sometimes we visit your country and live in your home/Sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone/Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own” — Eyes of the World
“Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride/Hot as a pistol but cool inside/Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile/Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” — He’s Gone
“Ten years the waves rolled the ships home from the sea/Thinking well how it may blow in all good company/If I tell another what your own lips told to me/Let me lay ‘neath the roses and my eyes no longer see” — It Must Have Been the Roses
“All the things I planned to do, I only did half way/Tomorrow will be Sunday, born of rainy Saturday/There’s some satisfaction in the San Francisco rain/No matter what comes down, the mission always looks the same” — Mission in the Rain
“Now I don’t know but I was told/In the heat of the sun a man died of cold/Do we keep on coming or stand and wait/With the sun so dark and the hour so late?/You can’t overlook the lack Jack/Of any other highway to ride/It’s got no signs or dividing lines/And very few rules to guide” — New Speedway Boogie
“When Reuben played on his painted mandolin/The breeze would stop and listen in/Before going its way again” — Reuben and Cerise
“There is a road, no simple highway/Between the dawn and the dark of night/And if you go, no one may follow/That path is for your steps alone” — Ripple
“Well 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” — Scarlet Begonias
“Thought I heard a jug band playin’’If you don’t… who else will?’/From over on the far side of the hill/All I know the sun don’t shine/And the rain refused to fall/And you don’t seem to hear me when I call/Wind inside and the wind outside/Tangled in the window blind/Tell me why you treat me so unkind/Down where the sun don’t shine/Lonely and I call your name/No place left to go, ain’t that a shame?
So many roads I tell you
New York to San Francisco
So many roads I know
All I want is one to take me home” — So Many Roads
“Standing on the moon, where talk is cheap and vision true/Standing on the moon, but I would rather be with you/Somewhere in San Francisco on a back porch in July/Just looking up to heaven at this crescent in the sky/In the sky/Standing on the moon with nothing left to do/A lovely view of heaven but I’d rather be with you/A lovely view of heaven but I’d rather be with you/Be with you” — Standing on the Moon
“Counting stars by candlelight/Some are dim but one is bright/The spiral light on Venus/Rising first and shining best/Oh, from the north-west corner/Of a brand new crescent moon\/Where crickets and cicadas sing/A rare and different tune/Terrapin Station” – Terrapin Station
“See that girl barefooting along/Whistling and singing, she’s a-carrying on/Got laughing in her eyes/Dancing in her feet/She’s a neon diamond/She can live on the street” — The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”
“Red and white, blue suede shoesI’m Uncle Sam, how do you do/Gimme five, still alive/Ain’t no luck, I learned to duck/Check my pulse, it don’t change/Stay seventy two, come shine or rain/Wave the flag, pop the bag/Rock the boat, skin the goat/Wave that flag, wave it wide and high/Summertime done come and gone, my oh my” — US Blues
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