Eyes of the World: An interview with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter
In Celebration of Hunter’s 78th Birthday today. My 2015 (?) interview. An edited version ran on WSJ.com as part of a preview for Hunter’s City Winery shows.
Robert Hunter was a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, as important as anyone else to the group’s musical legacy. A master lyricist, Hunter wrote the words to virtually every Jerry Garcia song, including most of the band’s best-loved songs, including “Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band,” ”China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,”“Wharf Rat,” and “Dire Wolf.”
Many of Hunter’s finest songs tell novelistic tales in just a few pages worth of verse. His work has always been lyrically ambitious, deeply poetic and simultaneously redolent of both fantasy worlds and toes-in-the-mud Americana. It’s impossible to imagine the Grateful Dead without him.
How did your very unique working relationship with Jerry Garcia begin and when did you realize his words and your music went together so beautifully?
That was when we were 18 and 19 respectively; he was a year younger than I. We started a folk duet called Bob and Jerry. We were doing our folk thing and moved into old-timey music and bluegrass. I kind of dropped out when it moved on to the next phase, jug bands. He handed me a jug and said, “You want to play this?” and I couldn’t get a tone out of it. I got into writing lyrics just to perform myself. I had written “Alligator,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “St. Stephen,” and I was playing them at parties, so I had something to impress the ladies with.
Then I moved to New Mexico and it occurred to me to send the lyrics to those songs to Jerry because the Dead had formed. And he wrote back and said, “Why don’t you come back to California and be our lyricist?” So I hitchhiked back to San Francisco and met up with them in Rio Nido. They were working on “Dark Star” and I wrote the lyrics to it right then. It just started working immediately. Everyone was glad to have a lyricist at work because they weren’t doing much writing themselves.
Did those original songs you wrote and were performing have any resemblance to the versions we know, or did Jerry write new songs with the same lyrics?
Once Jerry got his hands on something, it morphed , and he’s ever such a better composer than I – and I’m not bad. I’ve put out some records and I’d say some of my songs stand up, but they aren’t at the same level, really, because Jerry is an excellent composer.
Did Jerry ever write lyrics?
No. He wrote a verse for “The Other One” – the “you know he had to die” verse – but that’s about it. I believe Jerry would have been capable of it had he chosen to open his heart and soul to people through words as well as through guitar. Jerry was so brilliant that anything that he tackled, he could have done well.
As the band became what they became and Jerry became an icon, your words became the public’s vision of his vision. When people quoted him, they quoted you, which is pretty unusual. Did you ever talk about that?
No, we didn’t really. The last time I ever spoke to Jerry, he called me about a week or two before he died. We were getting a writing session together. Looking back, the conversation was rather strange on his part. He started complimenting me, which is something he had never done before. He said, “Your words never stuck in my throat.” And I thought, “What? This is coming from Jerry?” Because we took each other 100 percent for granted. It just wasn’t how we spoke to one another and boy…
It’s like he was saying good-bye.
He definitely was, because talking like that was just not Jerry’s nature. Generally, I’d give him a new batch of songs and he’d say, “Oh crap, Hunter!” [laughs] He’d be angry because it meant he had to work. He said in an interview once that he’d rather sit and toss cards into a hat than write a song.
How did the collaboration generally work? Music first? Lyrics first? Sitting together and hashing out a song?
Most of the time, it was lyrics first. I would give certain songs to him. About once a year, I would also put songs into a file called “Can You Dig This?” – the better of the lyrics that I’d come up with. I’d put it in there for any of the guys in the band that wanted to write to pick through. Jerry would take most of those, and Weir would pick a couple out. Once in a while, Jerry would offer a written tune to me.
Can you think of any examples where Jerry wrote the melody first and you added lyrics?
“Foolish Heart” came about like that. And the band pretty much wrote the music for “Uncle John’s Band” together first. I would often work with the band while they were developing something – “Ramble On Rose” was one of those. I’d get a verse for them to add as they were working it out, and then write more. In that context, I would actually work with the band, which happened quite a bit for the first couple of years.
Or I would hear Jerry just jamming on something nice – a lot of that stuff would just evaporate if someone didn’t grab it. Like one time he was sitting at a piano playing a simple four-chord structure that I thought was really a sweet thing. I turned on the tape recorder and captured it. Later I told him that I’d been working on that structure and I had something for it, and he said, “Oh, that’s not complete. That was just an idea.” So I said, “Well, take these lyrics and try it out” – and that was “So Many Roads.” Sometimes you had to sneak up on Jerry to get a tune out of him.
Was the process similar on more complicated instrumental songs like “Terrapin Station,” where fitting lyrics to music just seems more complicated?
Well, there’s a little story behind that. It was a stormy day out at my house at China Camp, which is on the San Pablo Bay [in Marin County]. There was a great storm outside and I was feeling really energized by looking at it outside the windows. I was just sitting at typewriter and I put a piece of paper in and typed “Terrapin Station.”
Then I thought, “Okay, what is this about? Oh, appeal to the muse.” And then: “Let my inspiration flow in token lines suggesting rhythm that will not forsake me until my tale is told and done.” That is an invitation to the muse.
Then I sat back and this stuff just poured out in one sitting and it just so happened that Jerry was driving to San Francisco that day and came up with the appropriate melody for it. He came in to see me at China Camp the next day and I handed him the lyrics, and he said, “Oh, I’ve got the music.” And he did!
That’s one of those fairly mythological things that happen once in a while. [laughs] There it was. Yes, “Terrapin Station” was magic. I didn’t care for our recording of it because the producer took it into the studio in England by himself and threw all kinds of lush strings on it. I’ve never been able to listen to that without gritting my teeth, but I love the song – and the first time they played it, Bill Graham was standing next to me on the side of the stage and he looked at me and asked, “You write that?” I said, “Yeah.” And he nodded and went, “Pretty good.” [laughs] Coming from Bill Graham, that was incredibly high praise.
Why did you stop writing with Bob Weir?
There wasn’t a good close inter-relationship. It’s not Weir’s fault and I don’t think it’s my fault either. It just didn’t quite work. From my perspective, he wasn’t easy to work with. We’d write something and then he would want to rewrite it or add lines, which I didn’t care for. Jerry never did that. He liked what I gave him, and he did it.
Bob and I both tried hard but he didn’t really care so much for hard, elaborate images that I used in songs. He wanted the songs to say something simpler. He voiced that. I said, “That’s what everybody writes. My own style is what I write.”
There are some songs that Weir and I did that worked darn well: “Playing in the Band,” for instance. But we would sometimes work really, really hard only to have what we did disappear, which was frustrating. Like I remember working for days on a song, and then he didn’t like it and called his friend Barlow in. Barlow wrote the words for “Cassidy,” which is a beautiful and classic song, so I had no problem with him at all, but… I think he found it easier to work with Barlow, and with my blessing that’s what he did.
How could Jerry be so unhealthy and yet be such a road warrior, out on the road with multiple bands? Where did he get that energy and drive?
He just loved to play guitar, in the same way I love to write. Jerry would have played guitar regardless. He didn’t have to be the famous Jerry Garcia to do it. He could have continued to be unknown forever and he would have loved playing that guitar. He loved to do that as much as he hated to write a song, so I was a natural collaborator. [laughs]
Did you ever wish to be a performer with the band?
I had my choice. I had my go at that and it didn’t work for me. We were doing Aoxomoxoa, and I was doing background vocals and stuff like that. We were recording “China Cat Sunflower” and they were doing numerous takes, and Phil looked at me and said, “Can you ever sing the same line the same way?” Which is necessary when you’re recording; there’s an art to doing it. And I said, “You know, I don’t think I can.” [laughs] I just bowed out. What I did instead was sit and listen as the recordings were going down and give my opinion on which takes were good and the sequence of songs and stuff like that. And I named most of the albums.
Did you consider yourself a member of the Grateful Dead?
Yeah. I was a member right up until the time came that I was making enough money in royalties that I was making more than some of the members of the band, so I quit. I went off salary, not realizing I was also going off medical insurance and whatever other benefits there were at the time. I was actually a bit of an idiot to do that. I decided to just live off my royalties rather than drawing a salary from the Dead. That was the equivalent of quitting, really. That wasn’t my intention but I didn’t want to create rancor in the band by making more money than the drummers. Suddenly after all these years the songwriting royalties were becoming very meaningful – and that generally causes an eruption of songwriters in a band. [laughs]
And the song that made that happen, of course, was “Touch Of Grey, “ which you had written years earlier.
I wrote it for a solo album I was working on and had for about six years before the Grateful Dead recorded it. My version, which I had worked out with Jerry and John Khan, was much slower. They were going to help me make an album and “Touch of Grey” was one of the songs, but it didn’t go anywhere. We never even finished the take. Eventually, Jerry said, “You know that song of yours, ‘Touch of Grey’? Would you mind if I reset it for the Dead?” and I said, “No, not at all. Go ahead. I love the lyrics for it.” I did perform my version for a couple of years, but it was a knockout when Jerry was done with it. Before that, I thought it was very appealing, but not a knockout.
And it changed everything.
It renovated the Grateful Dead. We were just about done. The band was just about broke and there wasn’t enough money coming into the enterprise. All of a sudden, here came “Touch of Grey.” I must say that I’m glad it didn’t happen earlier because to my way of thinking, everything went wonky after that. I can’t get very specific other than to say the old days were suddenly gone. There was huge money on the scene and huge money attracts certain types of characters. It simply will; that’s no reflection on anyone. It became a huge problem, and writing songs suddenly became a big money proposition. Even though nothing else ever did what “Touch of Grey” did, that put them back into a pretty superior position. We were the top traveling band in the world for several years… or should I say ‘they?’
I think you can say we.
Ok. Thank you.