Robert Hunter, the man behind many of the Grateful Dead's most enduring lyrics, is the first to admit he doesn't race toward the spotlight. "There are things I have to do, like get a good picture, and I don't take a good picture," he says from his home in San Rafael, California. "I don't know if it's because I'm ugly or the camera doesn't like me."
But on a recent morning, the generally low-key and reclusive Hunter, now 72, was in the mood to talk. For most of the Dead's existence, Hunter was the group's literary soul, penning the words to Dead standards from "Dark Star," "China Cat Sunflower" and "St. Stephen" to "Box of Rain," "Ripple," "Scarlet Begonias," and "Touch of Grey." In the years since his longtime friend Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, Hunter has continued working with a range of collaborators; his credits have popped up on albums by Bob Dylan (Together Through Life) and alt-country singer Jim Lauderdale (Patchwork River), and he's also written songs with Dead offshoots Furthur, the Mickey Hart Band, Bill Kreutzmann's recent band 7 Walkers and David Nelson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
What Hunter hasn't done in a decade is perform his own songs onstage, and he'll be doing just that beginning Thursday, on an eight-show East Coast tour that wraps up at New York's Town Hall on October 10th. Hunter is so eager to perform that he agreed to do something very rare – talk about it with the press. "I said to myself, ‘Why do you keep shooting yourself in the foot?'" he said with a chuckle before giving Rolling Stone an exclusive interview about his current doings.
You haven't gone on tour in a decade. Why now?
When I was in my sixties, it seemed like a good time to retire, and I didn't have a financial reason. But I've got medical bills to pay, so I'm a working man again [laughs]. Last year I managed to have a nice hospitalization that should have been fatal. I had a spinal abscess. It was a honey. They had me on morphine for about a month. I had never had the distinction of being involved with that [drug] before. It was the strangest world. I couldn't tell delusions from reality. I was calling my mom in the middle of the night saying they were going to execute me.
Did any new lyrics emerge from that experience?
I did do a little writing afterwards. A couple of tunes on Mickey's album were written around that.
One of those songs, "The Sermon," talks about mortality and catching up with old friends in the next life.
That's a good example of where my head was at that point. It was an experience, and I'm glad it happened only because they also discovered I had bladder cancer at the same time and took that out. If I hadn't had the spinal abscess, they never would have found that until it was too late.
Do you have health care?
Oh, it's there, and it wasn't terrible without insurance. But there's a lot I have to pay. I better make more money than one's able to make in publishing these days to take care of it. It got me thinking I'd better get on the road. So I booked a short tour to see if I could do it. And I'm really loving getting back to the guitar and music. My memory's not all that it was before this hospital thing. I've really been in the salt mines, relearning my arrangements and trying to remember my lyrics. And I think I've got it now. It's given me a direction in life that I lost in my last decade: I've realized that I do have an audience and I should be playing for them. There's a lot of guys my age going out now. I went to see Rodriguez when he played San Francisco. He was one of the guys who made me say, "Why the hell am I not out there too?" Boy, did I enjoy his show.
What made you lose that direction?
Best I can think of it, it wasn't my time to be going out. I had a daughter that I wanted to be around to raise. And inertia. It was easy not to go out on the road and fight airports and all that jazz. If these eight gigs go well, I'll immediately book a large spring tour. I'm nervous about going on the road. I wake up every morning and say, "What have you done to yourself? It's irrevocable." The only way to get out of it is pick up my guitar and start practicing.
Are you using a band this time?
No, I'm just me taking my guitar out and doing my old format. I'll play about 16 to 18 songs. I've been working over the last couple of months on about 40 songs, trying a couple of new ones. The usual suspects are mostly there – "Tiger Rose," "Deal," all that stuff.
How about "Friend of the Devil," for instance?
Yeah. I thought the kids would like that. I wonder if there will be kids this time. I went to a Moody Blues concert a few years ago. It was strange being in an audience that was pretty much as old as I was. The other thing that will be interesting is I haven't played since camera phones have come out. I suspect there will be a lot of camera phones pointing at me, and that will be a new sensation. I absolutely am going to take it in stride. It's a different world than it was a decade ago. I don't know how the audience will receive me. I don't know how I'll receive them.
There are kids who see Furthur, though.
Furthur is a less specialized audience. They do a loud rock & roll show, and I have just my guitar up there.
Which of your old lyrics were particularly hard to re-memorize?
I've got 'em all now. I decided not to do the "Terrapin Station" suite this time out. Not because I can't remember it. It just takes such a huge chunk of the show, and you have to leave other things out. I'll bring that out for the spring tour. But I like to do it for – I don't know what to call 'em – the crowd, the guys, the people, the audience?
You've collaborated with Dylan several times since the Eighties, mostly recently on "Duquesne Whistle." How did that song come about?
There's almost no story on things like that. Dylan gave me that tune and said, "Can you write something to go with it?" I wrote something to it and he took it. He's the only guy I work with who I give the liberty to change things. After all, he is who he is. And something came out, a combination of what we do. I don't know if it's better or worse. I'm not able to judge that sort of thing. We set it up in person, and sometimes we do it on the phone and continue by email. Anyway you can do it in this day and age.
Any favorites of the Dylan songs?
I've always liked "Silvio." It's the funniest thing. I had a notebook full of songs sitting at Front Street, where the Dead rehearsed. And I had to go into court for a couple of days, so missed some of those days. When I came back, Dylan had been through my notebook and took "Silvio" and set it [to music]. What are you gonna say? "No"? [Laughs] I liked it fine. I've been working up what I call a killer arrangement of "Silvio." For a three-chord song, it's very complex to play. But I think I've got a way of handling it that makes it really stand out in the show.
Did another Dylan collaboration from that era, "The Ugliest Girl in the World," come from that same notebook?
I'm trying to think. I guess so. I think that was in that book, too. That song tends to disappear from memory, along with [the Dead's] "Keep Your Day Job" and "What's Become of the Baby." [Laughs] Songs the world could've done without.
Have you written any new songs with Dylan?
I sent him something a couple of weeks ago, and he said he rather liked it. But I shouldn't talk about it – that's his business.
Are you thinking of including "Touch of Grey" in your show?
I think I might just do that. I have to admit, I've been working on it for a while. I'm also going to do [Townes Van Zandt's] "Pancho and Lefty." I always like to throw in a cover. I used to do "Shelter from the Storm," but that's too much for my memory. I've really been into Townes Van Zandt lately. That man was a hell of a songwriter, one of the true originals. The actual set list will happen on the day I do the show. I've got about 40 songs to draw from.
It's in the Dead tradition to switch it up night to night.
I think it's that. They'd bust me if I did the same show every night. And rightly so. There are certain traditions they still keep up.
About three years ago, you sent some lyrics to Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, who turned them into new songs for their band Furthur.
I don't know if they did any of those things or not. I don't know.
Actually, they did play them live, but just for a short period.
I don't understand that. I never did hear the songs. I did enjoy writing them.
"Muli Guli" sounded like a cool From the Mars Hotel outtake.
I'd forgotten all about that. I wrote so much, and my memory is not getting better year by year. Mostly what I've been dong the last 10 years is writing for anybody who wanted me to write for 'em. Jim Lauderdale's in the studio right now doing an album of just him and guitar, songs he wrote with my lyrics. Some of them sound pretty cool. With Jim's voice, you'd better write country-western. Elvis Costello and I wrote a [still-unreleased] song called "Tomorrow Blues."
Have you seen Furthur yet?
No. For no reason other than I'm supremely lazy and don't like to go to shows I'm not performing at. I'm always glad that people are still out there performing the stuff, and the closer they are to the origination, the better. There will be a time when there aren't any of the originators left. I just don't get around much anymore. I've only seen three shows in the last five or six years – the New Riders, Rodriguez and the Mickey Hart Band. I'm not good at being lionized, and when I'm in Grateful Dead-type situations, that happens. I hope less so than it used to be, but who knows? Maybe more so. There's a general aura that one has for being deeply involved in the Dead, and it's a bit mythological for people. They don't see you. You don't have a chance to get to know somebody. But I've found a trick. The first person who talks to you backstage, give them your attention and really talk with that person. And for the rest of the evening, that whole layer of phoniness disappears. Just take the first person who talks to you.
In the middle of the last decade, you were also working on a novel. Where does that stand?
When I collapsed with my illness, I was halfway through a novel called The Blue Dog. It's just Hunter brain craziness. I had written another one before that, The Green Bear, that I tried to sell with no success. I tend to write things and don't go the next step and try to get it published. I don't want to do book signings and stuff. They can knock you about as much as anything. I can get a swelled head from it, and then I become impossible to myself and others.
Have you considered writing a memoir?
I started one about 25 or 30 years back. And no, I didn't finish it. I wrote down what impressed me up to joining the Dead. But not beyond it. The songs tell enough of that experience. I've looked at it once or twice in the intervening years. And I'm glad I wrote that down because there's no way I would remember all that.
So you don't want to spill Dead stories?
Zero interest in doing that. Let it belong to the mythic ages. The details only chip away at the edges.
What do you think Jerry would have made of all the bickering among the surviving members of the Dead since his death?
I basically don't think he'd give a fuck. Jerry didn't give a fuck. [Pause] I shouldn't leave that right there with a period. What other people did was their own damn business. As to whether they would do anything suspiciously against his code of ethics, I don't know. That was in flux.
Who are you closest with in the band these days?
Mickey. He's the one I do the most work with.
What were your thoughts when Bob Weir collapsed onstage earlier this year?
That other stuff aside, when something happens to one of the guys – these are my friends. My friend Bobby was going through some serious stuff. But he's out on the other side of that now.
How bittersweet is it to play songs you wrote with Garcia?
The bittersweeter, the better. It's hard not to sing "Brokedown Palace" and not think of Jerry. Even when I rehearse, one can only hear him saying, "No, not that chord – play a major seventh!"
Last month was the 18th anniversary of his death. Do you acknowledge that day each year?
I don't have any anniversary ties to it. I just sincerely miss the guy. And he was an important part of my life. I'm so lucky to have had an collaborator of such great musical abilities. I can never forget Jerry as long as I'm doing those songs, I'll tell you that.
This story is an expanded version of an interview for the October 10th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.