Amidst the reverberating cheering throng of “Know our love will not fade away”, the greatest Rock n Roll band of all time concluded their 50th anniversary bash with this past weekend’s Fare Thee Well tour. It was an openly joyous occasion attended by 70,000 dedicated Deadheads, new fans, celebrities, and musicians all brimming with excitement to join the band one more time, to celebrate a group whose art will persist long after its members are all playing on the harp unstrung.
Jerry was not the only band member absent from the band’s final hurrah (though noticeably there in spirit). Also not seen onstage, though that is always his M.O., was the band’s longtime lyricist and the soul to much of their catalog, Robert Hunter. Hunter’s relationship with the band, and Jerry Garcia in particular, is unique in popular music, “the member of the band that doesn’t come out on stage with us” as Jerry put it. When the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 Hunter was included, the only non-performing member to ever receive such an honor. He is the author to most of their greatest material and one of the most integral components to the Americana, new yet familiar, folk-infused rock that comprises the Grateful Dead identity. And the most devoted Deadhead may not recognize a picture of him if they saw him. So how is it that he became the most vital and unofficial member of the greatest Rock band of all time?
Hunter and Jerry Garcia met in 1961, both burgeoning musicians lacking direction in the San Francisco-Palo Alto scene. They played in various bluegrass groups (Bob and Jerry, the Tub Thumpers, etc.) with little success before the formation of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions in 1964, of which Hunter was not destined to be a part:
“And then I didn’t get into the Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, although I was offered. Jerry came over and said, ‘Would you like to play jug in the band?’ But I couldn’t get a tone out of it. I suppose if I had accepted that jug, I would’ve changed the whole trajectory. That wasn’t my direction of travel. I think writing for the Dead was the best thing I could’ve done.”
(Rolling Stone interview, 3/9/15)
By the time 1967 had rolled around Hunter found himself in New Mexico, an artist and spiritual explorer, eagerly chasing the life of a novelist and poet. He famously mailed a set of lyrics for three songs back to the band in California (what would become “China Cat Sunflower”, “The Eleven”, and “Alligator”) who then invited him to accompany them at a gig in northern San Francisco. He composed a verse for one of their biggest hits, “Dark Star” as they rehearsed, joining that weekend as “lyricist in residence” and never leaving. Hunter’s style resonated deeply with the band’s audience and with its lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Fascinated by tradition and derivation across a variety of musical genres, particularly folk, Jerry found a kindred vibe in Hunter’s lyrical explorations which interweaved folk, fable, and fairy tale with concepts of jazz, bluegrass, soul, and good ole fashioned Rock n Roll. As one writer put it,
“…there seems to be a strange interplay between familiarity and newness, and it is at this edge of the well-known and the innovative that the Grateful Dead draw energy.”
Hunter’s lyrics seek a certain elusive allusion, his references never painfully obvious but woven as thread in the fabric. In “Franklin’s Tower” (which we’ll come back to in a moment), he ever so subtly references the E.E. Cummings poem “All in Green Went My Love Riding” with the “four lean hounds” line, and allows the poetic inference to carry its own weight. While crafted with vibrant, palpable imagery, his lyrics contain an airy degree of abstraction that contributes to the universality of the band’s impact. Yes, “Truckin’” is about a band on the road, with its urges, movements, and shenanigans, but it is also about all of us on the road of life and the need to “just keep truckin’ on”. “U.S. Blues” is a collaged character creation, full of pointed imagery, somehow perfectly inspirational to a patriotic “freak” counterculture. “Shake the hand that shook the hand / Of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan” contains three (potentially obscure) references and yet is perfectly tuned to who the Uncle Sam character is (who I will always picture as the animated skeleton in The Grateful Dead Movie). Others like “China Cat Sunflower”, certainly LSD-influenced and abstract in its kaleidoscopic imagery, are fan favorites, speaking to the power of what they evoke and an impact beyond the lyrical surface level. Some will go far enough to mistake their own confusion for a lack of meaning or artistic value within the sometimes enigmatic lyrics. Though influenced and especially embracing of the psychedelic experience, Hunter and the Dead’s songs are not simply “drug music” and it is in such a dismissal that some may miss the music’s timelessness.
A few years ago I came across an essay response at the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics that Hunter posted, begrudgingly explicating “Franklin’s Tower”. The original poster had given an in-depth analysis of the Dead’s music in the field of communication known as Semiotics. Though his essay was largely insightful and even complimentary, he took issue with seeking meaning in the song’s lyrics, which he seemed to find esoteric:
“…’Franklin’s Tower’ is evocative yet of undeterminable meaning. The above-mentioned catchphrase-line (‘If you get confused just listen to the music play’) is almost hidden within the song and has to be read out of context to prompt the joyful response it usually gets.”
This criticism apparently struck a chord with the song’s author as his response was an English professor’s dream, eloquent and elaborate, addressing both the songs references and underlying meaning as well as the process of finding meaning within songs/art as a whole. It is a rare insight into a brilliant artist’s creative mind and I encourage you all to check it out here. As a rule Hunter prefers to avoid such explanations:
“I’d really prefer not to get into tearing apart the symbology of my songs and I’ll tell you why: symbols are evocative and if there was a more definite way to say things, you’d say them that way. A symbol by its very nature, can pull in many, many shades of meaning, depending on the emotional tone with which you engage the piece…
(‘Conversations with the Dead‘, David Gans)
I [write this lyric analysis] reluctantly because I feel that a straightforward statement of my original intent robs the listener of personal associations and replaces them with my own. I may know where they come from, but I don’t know where they’ve been…”
No stranger to the stage, Hunter has not spent the entirety of the last fifty years in the shadows, striking out on his own with a series of solo releases beginning in 1974 with ‘Tales of the Great Rum Runners’ and in 1983 he started a record label with the founder of Relix magazine (Relix Records). But it is his work as wordsmith for the Grateful Dead that is his legacy. The Dead are self-referential in more than a few places – “Uncle John’s Band” and the band in “The Music Never Stopped” are both the GD, right? But in certain places Hunter touches on something golden in painting a picture of himself and/or Jerry. In “Ripple” Hunter crafts an image of a writer/artist looking ahead to when he’s gone, a beautiful and prophetic portrait that brings Jerry’s smiling face into the minds of most fans. Of course, “If my words dig glow with the gold of sunshine” truly refers to the words’ writer, Hunter himself. In the first section of “Terrapin Station” Hunter tells the tale of a storyteller sitting around a fire while characters and images emerge to him from the flames. I find parallels to this in the Phish song “Walls of the Cave” and even more strongly to Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” where the storyteller is a vessel rather than the diviner. “The story teller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice / His job is to shed light and not to master,” says Hunter before making further pleas to his inspiration in the suite’s second section. Putting aside a discussion of the song’s more over-arching metaphor of the universal journey to and through Terrapin, the tale of the story teller is perhaps his most self-referential piece in the band’s catalog, at once captured with the firey furnace of artistic creation while finding a serenity in the knowledge of his legacy.
The symbiotic relationship between Hunter and the band, and specifically between him and Garcia is unlike any other I know of. Many other musicians have long-standing relationships with song and lyric writers but there is no other Robert Hunter, the seamless other half to the band’s musical whole, laced together like Velcro. The only other person that I can think of that falls in the same category as Hunter is Bernie Taupin for Elton John, the author to the majority of Elton’s catalog. Coincidentally enough, Elton and the Grateful Dead were both inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame the same year, 1994, and during Elton’s induction he called Bernie to the stage, giving the award to him saying “there would be no Elton John without him”. Robert Plant and Roger Waters each share a similar role of chief lyricist in their bands but as active, performing members the dynamic is different. Hunter remains unique, both essential to and removed from the band that is his legacy. Often I have found myself contemplating that relationship, how it is that such a reciprocal pairing can find each other and create so much classic material. Then I realized I was overlooking my own beloved genre where such a relationship is actually more common. Eric B and Rakim, KRS-One and Scott La Rock, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek – in Hip Hop the dynamic of the individual creation of a lyricist brought together and fused with the music of another party is the norm. The creative process is largely reversed, mind you, with the musical half (the producer) bringing complete or near-complete beats to the lyricist who is the performer of the pair. But even in regards to a genre where it is the creative norm, the longevity and depth of Hunter’s contributions stand alone. In Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead he found the perfect outlet to bring his tales to life, a relationship destined by the universe, forged in the heart of sun, and brought to fruition in 1960’s California.
It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.