Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter on Jerry’s Final Days: ‘We Were Brothers’
In part one of Rolling Stone‘s exclusive interview with Robert Hunter, the legendary (and fairly reclusive) Grateful Dead lyricist looked back on his early years with the band: meeting Jerry Garcia, signing on as the primary in-house poet and writing epic Dead songs from “Dark Star” through “Truckin’.” In this second and last part, Hunter, speaking at his home in Marin County, talks candidly about the rougher waters that followed. As becomes clear in the conversation, few in the Dead world were as affected by Garcia’s addiction issues as Hunter. Yet despite the troubles, the two still managed to write songs that have endured, from “Touch of Grey” and “Standing on the Moon” to “So Many Roads” and “Days Between.”
You had a legendary songwriting binge in London in 1970.
[Nods] “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace” and “To Lay Me Down.” Everybody went away and left me alone for the afternoon with a bottle of Retsina and a beautiful London day. I’d never been in London before so it was all new to me. They had this beautiful parchment paper in the room — a stick of it that just called out for things be written on it. And that stuff just poured out…. One thing Jerry wouldn’t do is go back over and redo parts of songs. I’d written that extra verse for “Friend of the Devil” and he said, “Why the hell don’t you give me these things before I record them?” And also the same with “Rubin and Cherise.” I had some ending Orpheus and Eurydice stuff in there to complete the story. He liked it but said, “I’ve already recorded it and can’t go back and do it again.”
Did you write lyrics in Jerry’s voice sometimes, things he couldn’t express or articulate?
That was never requested of me. But more from many nights of raving all night the way people do in their early twenties, he knew me real well and I knew him real well, and I remember his girlfriend at that time, she said it was hard to tell where he ended and I started up. We were brothers in that sense. I loved that band until I didn’t give a damn about ’em, I’ll say that. I really just thought they were the cat’s whiskers.
When did you stop thinking that?
I made that statement, and I should be able to justify it. It’s when cocaine took over the band, everybody talking through their hat, all the time, continuously. I had gotten done with my speed trips before I joined the band. I had no interest in coking or anything else — I had been there and hurt myself. And it just kept coming in and in — cocaine! What I did at that point [the mid-Seventies] was move to England. I spent a lot of time going back and forth and a lot of time living there. Not that I was tired of the band or the guys in the band. The whole surrounding scene was… heavy. So I did what I should’ve done, I got out. And then we moved back [to the States] because the money had run out.
People have often interpreted “Ship of Fools” as your comment on the Dead scene around that time, 1974.
I debate myself about that one. I could certainly make a case for it, and I could also say that it was a bit more universal. I’m open to questions about interpretation, but I generally skate around my answers because I don’t want to put those songs in a box. “New Speedway Boogie” is about Altamont, you know: “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack.” Jack was [writer] Ralph J. Gleason, and why are you laying all this blame on us? It was badly conceived to move that thing from Golden Gate Park. We were going to do the show for free there, and then suddenly after the Rolling Stones were involved, San Francisco said no, so we went to Altamont. Had to do it. Now is it our fault or is it the San Francisco city council’s fault that that went down? Who’s to say, you know, so in time we may understand. That’s what the song says, and in time we may not understand.