It’s been a hectic, emotional year for former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and the band’s longtime lyricist Robert Hunter. After coming to grips with Jerry Garcia’s death last summer, the two collaborated on Hart’s recently released second solo album for Rykodisc, Mystery Box. Then, Hart and Bob Weir performed with their mutual side projects as part of this summer’s Furthur Festival (the tour is named for the ’60s hippie bus made famous by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters). Hart also composed the drum-oriented score for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Mystery Box blends the tribal percussion of Hart’s previous solo album, Planet Drum, with Hunter’s words and a new pop sensibility provided by a U.K. vocal group, the Mint Juleps.
So what’s so mysterious about the Mystery Box?
Mickey Hart: The musical mystery is: How do you marry tuned percussion and voice? On a metaphorical level, everything that’s really important — like the clouds, the sky and the earth — is a giant mystery. Bob came up with the title. It started as Tribal Space, an extension of Planet Drum.
Was it always intended to sound more like a pop album than your previous solo projects?
Mickey Hart: Oh, yes. I wanted songs, and I wanted it to be percussion-based dance music — popular music Garcia used to always say, “Keep it simple, make it big.” That rang in my ears.
How did you hook up with the Mint Juleps?
Mickey Hart: Jerry put me on to them. Once Hunter gave me the words, I realized that we had songs here, but I’m not really a singer. So I told Garcia I wanted someone world [music] influenced, and he told me about Spike Lee’s PBS documentary, Do It a Cappella. I got the video, and there they were, a fully developed group from London’s East End. The Juleps had never heard of the Grateful Dead. They didn’t know anything about our songs or scene. They were like foreigners on another planet.
Bob, the lyrics to one song, “The Next Step” — “Depend on the wind of distant drums/We’ll know the next step when it comes” — sound like a message to the Deadheads in the wake of Garcia’s death and the end of the Grateful Dead. Did you intend it as such?
Robert Hunter: Yes. It’s a message. [Long silence.]
Mickey Hart: It was a message to me. It’s the only thing you can possibly do under the circumstances, really. You have to get on with life and see what you’ve got, then build on it and go forward — new horizons and all that stuff.
When do you miss Garcia the most?
Mickey Hart: I still feel him riding shotgun with me sometimes. I don’t mourn him on a minute-by-minute basis or anything, but every once in a while, in weird little moments, he whispers something in my ear. I hear his goofy laugh.
Robert Hunter: The night after Garcia died, I was lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, and all of a sudden I heard his voice right in my ear, saying [pretends to toke and hold it], “Want some?” It was very real.
Bob, your Web site, the Robert Hunter Personal Archive [http://grateful.dead.net/], is one of the better things on the Net. I was astonished to see the first scribbled lyrics to “Ripple,” not to mention your revealing personal diary.
Robert Hunter: I’ve got a tiger by the tail — or else I’m on a speeding train that might crash and burn. It’s hard on the eyes, I’ll tell you that. I don’t know if people ought to be spending 18 hours a day at it like I’ve been doing.
It seems the perfect medium for your continuing role as debriefer to the Grateful Dead community at large.
Robert Hunter: It’s a weird mixture of sheer egotism and public service. I don’t want anyone to mistake where I’m coming from. My self-interest is involved in perpetuating Grateful Dead Productions, whatever form it takes, because this is a living vehicle that also includes my life’s work.
You’re helping Mickey publish some of his journals, too?
Robert Hunter: I’m only publishing the parts he should never have dared write down in the first place. [Laughs demonically] Mickey says exactly what he thinks. Some of it doesn’t reflect well on people, but like they used to say, “Lay it down dirty and play it back clean.”
What’s your take on former Grateful Dead band manager Rock Scully’s book, Living With the Dead?
Robert Hunter: What he sees is mostly his own reflection. Other than that, what’s to say? It’s a hilarious book. But parts of me wish he hadn’t written that particular one.
Mickey Hart: It’s parasitic and a real betrayal of confidence. It was the most stupid, opportunistic and poorly timed book I’ve ever known of. Scully had a great opportunity and an insider’s viewpoint, but he blew it. If he considers the book an accurate representation of what happened, I can only assume he’s not well.
In fact, Mickey, Scully outs you as a one-time heroin addict. Did that hurt?
Mickey Hart: Not really. What I did when I was young never hurt anybody else. It was fun, it was painful, and I’m not ashamed of anything.
What are the odds that the five remaining Grateful Dead members will perform together again?
Mickey Hart: There’s always a chance as long as we’re alive. We’re all really great friends, and I love them dearly. We’re truly a family, even though we don’t call or see each other as much as we used to. We’ve bonded over the years, you understand. Something serious has happened here.
Does the Grateful Dead story have an arc for the two of you, a rise and a fall?
Robert Hunter: Each of us, I believe, views the Grateful Dead in terms of his own life. It may have been more tangential to my life because I didn’t have to go on the road. It happened more in and around me, while Mickey was thrown dead center into it.
Mickey Hart: The Grateful Dead band is one thing; the Grateful Dead feeling and what it stood for is another. Its legacy is really in the people who were touched by it, who will be touched by it, and whatever they imagine between Bob’s words and the feeling we gave them through the experience and the groove. I know what it is to me, and I see it as a great gift.
What about the Deadheads?
Robert Hunter: Perhaps people don’t come into their true maturity until a parent dies. And in a way, I think, until Jerry died the Deadheads as a class…premature isn’t the right word.
Mickey Hart: They’ve grown up. I would think they would take the feeling and mutate it into a positive life experience. People who are really into the Grateful Dead have their own Grateful Dead. If you ask 50 people what the Grateful Dead is, you’ll get 50 different answers. It’s like asking what God is. That’s what the Grateful Dead was always about — at least that’s what I always thought it was about — besides all the obvious stuff about a rock & roll band standing onstage. It showed you the other dimensions of existence, of thought.
Do you think events like this summer’s Furthur Festival will keep the Deadhead experience alive?
Robert Hunter: If the Deadheads are there, the Dead’s there as far as I’m concerned.
Mickey Hart: They are the Grateful Dead now. I feel confident they will perpetuate the experience somehow. Where else in America can you do this sort of thing without getting your head broken open? It’s a safe environment in which to bring people together. And when it’s gone, the world won’t be a better place.