Robert Hunter on Grateful Dead’s Early Days, Wild Tours, ‘Sacred’ Songs
Fifty years ago this May, Robert Hunter popped into a pizza parlor in Menlo Park, California, to see his friend Jerry Garcia play in his new electric band, the Warlocks. “They were good, just dandy,” recalls Hunter, sitting in the living room of his San Rafael, California, home. “It was hard to believe Jerry in a rock & roll band, I’ve got to say. He was a folk musician. But then to become a rock & roll band, him and Bill and Weir and Pigpen—it was amusing. It just seemed unlikely, and it was also a time of odd band names.”
This July, the “core four” of the band that the Warlocks became, the Grateful Dead — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — will reunite for shows in Chicago to commemorate the Dead’s 50th anniversary, joined by Phish singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio. But if there were a core fifth surviving member, it would be Hunter, the Dead’s longtime primary lyricist. Garcia’s guitar, Lesh’s massive bass, and the dual Kreutzmann-Hart drums defined the sound of the Dead. But Hunter’s words — heard in “Uncle John’s Band,” “Ripple,” “Eyes of the World,” “Dire Wolf,” “Standing on the Moon,” “Touch of Grey,” “Dark Star,” “Box of Rain,” and so many other milestones in the Dead’s catalog — were the band’s poetic, story-telling soul, often matching the untamed, exploratory nature of the Dead themselves. “You’d see Hunter standing over in the corner,” recalls Hart of the time Hunter joined up with them. “He had this little dance he’d do. He had one foot off the ground and he’d be writing in his notebooks. He was communing with the music. And all of a sudden, we had songs.”
The songs Hunter wrote with Garcia (and, occasionally, Lesh and Weir) have lived on, covered by Willie Nelson, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, even Sublime. “Hunter tapped into his generation the same way Dylan did,” says Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, a longtime Dead fan. “People will look back and say, ‘That’s American culture represented in music.’ He captured the hippie freedom, the mentality of the little guy against the corporation. A lot of the songs are about gambling, card playing and riverboat guys who’ll cut your throat if you look the wrong way.” Perry Farrell, who covered “Ripple” with Jane’s Addiction, calls Hunter “a poet on the level of Kierkegaard,” and Scott Devendorf of the National says, “Hunter’s lyrics say the right things in a few words, like ‘dry your eyes on the wind.’ His lyrics tell a story, and he can turn a phrase in ways that aren’t obvious.” In what could seem like final validation, Hunter and Garcia will be inducted in June into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the respected industry institution whose previous inductees range from Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, and Woody Guthrie to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan.
For Hunter, the work has continued since Garcia’s death. He’s written songs with Costello, Bruce Hornsby, roots country savior Jim Lauderdale, and his former Dead band mates for their post-Garcia projects. Hunter is even one of the very rare lyricists Dylan has turned to for collaboration: The two co-wrote most of the songs on Dylan’s 2009 album Together Through Life. “He’s got a way with words and I do too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone at the time. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”
By his own admission, Hunter has long been an irascible character even in the world of the Dead, rarely doing interviews and maintaining a low public profile. “I was basically a maverick and a rebel’s rebel even amongst the Dead,” he says. “That’s how I grew up. Always the new kid in school. Everybody wants to challenge you all the time.” But three years ago, he came close to dying thanks to a spinal abscess and the discovery of bladder cancer. After recuperating, Hunter hit the road for short tours in 2013 and 2014, an experience that revitalized him and reconnected him with adoring Deadheads. Playing solo acoustic, his guitar approximating Garcia’s chords and his voice often revving up to booming sea-shanty power, Hunter was received rapturously by fans who hadn’t seen him onstage in roughly 10 years. “I didn’t expect that good of a welcome,” Hunter says now, “and it was a lot more fun than I would’ve thought.”
With that, Hunter, 73, feels the time has come to talk about the band that delighted, inspired and vexed over three decades. Over the course of two interview sessions at his home, Hunter, dressed in a denim shirt and slacks, settled into a plush chair in his living room and gave RS a rare peak into his work, life and relationship with Garcia and the Dead. In part one, he covers the Dead’s rise, sharing stories about the band’s chance formation, beloved tunes and wild tours; you can read part two here.
“I’m being pretty darn frank in this interview, aren’t I?” he says at one point with a grin. “The great ‘me’ pontificates on what the great band should have been doing according to my brilliant lights! You can quote that!”
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