Friday, November 8, 2019

Portraits in Lightning - Robert Hunter, 1941 - 2019

For anyone who doesn’t know, Robert Hunter provided the lion’s share of lyrics for the Grateful Dead.  His association with guitarist, singer and band leader Jerry Garcia goes back further than the band, to the days when the two of them played in various bluegrass ensembles.  They’d gone their separate ways for a while when the Dead kicked off, playing electric blues, soul, folk and pop covers, along with a few tentative songs of their own.  He mailed them some lyrics, ‘St Stephen’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower’ amongst them and was subsequently invited to ‘join the band’ as an in-house lyricist.

In a fascinating essay which formed the introduction to ‘The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics’ collection, Hunter explored aspects of songwriting, both his own and others’.  His personal strength, he claimed, was ‘a good memory’ – a capacious absorption of folk, pop, blues and jazz lyrics from a range of eras.  ‘It’s small wonder,’ he concluded, ‘that my songs are often fraught with allusions’.  As indeed they were, from ‘the backwash of Fennario’ to ‘a jackbeat boogie with a two-stroke roll’, he spun and re-spun the language of song, luxuriating in its riches yet somehow creating something that was uniquely his own.  Small wonder too that he was the only person – as far as I know – that Bob Dylan ever called upon when he found himself short of lyrics.

His work crossed a broad range of styles.  There was the fanciful psychedelia of songs like ‘The Eleven’ (‘Now if the time of the boomerang / Tossed in the night of redeeming’) and ‘Dark Star’ (‘Glass hand dissolving / to ice-petal flowers / revolving’).  There were re-writes of folk song staples, characters like Delia DeLyon, Staggerlee, Betty and Dupree examined from angles that blended cosmic truth with an earthy wit.  There were close character studies: the down-and-out August West in ‘Wharf Rat’, or the fraught triangular relationship of Chet, Murphy and Roseanne in the lengthy song-suite ‘Amagamalin Street’ (one of his 1970s solo works).  Then there were songs of homespun yet elusively authoritative philosophy like ‘The Wheel’ (‘You can’t go back / and you can’t stand still / If the thunder don’t get you / then the lightning will’) and the sublime late Grateful Dead song ‘Days Between’ (‘the reckless are out wrecking / the timid plead their pleas / No one knows much more of this / than anyone can see’).  There were finely wrought and unexpected love songs such as ‘Believe It or Not’ (‘I’ll roll up my shirtsleeves / and make my best shot / to show how I love you / believe it or not’) or ‘Standing On the Moon’ – where you don’t realise it’s a love song ‘til you get to the last two lines.  There were ballads both mystical and magical, as in New Orleans fantasia ‘Reuben and Cerise’, and poignant, such as ‘Midnight Getaway’ in which the narrator listens as his lover slips out of bed and eventually drives off into the night, yet he does nothing to stop her.

My list is far from complete but long enough, I hope, to give a sense of how immersive and enriching were the worlds Hunter conjured with his words.  Throughout his working life, he resolutely refused to explain his songs.  ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that the lyrics themselves say all that wants saying’.  In the recent Grateful Dead documentary film ‘Long Strange Trip’ he is seen but briefly and at one point recites the entire lyric of ‘Dark Star’ then looks at the camera with a comment like: ‘So what’s not to understand?’  For a long time he resisted the printing of his lyrics, enjoying the way the mishearing of his words created new possibilities.  Interpretations, then, were for his listeners to engage in.  He invited, welcomed and enjoyed that sense of creative partnership he generated within them.  Though a songwriter first and foremost, his mindset (and a small body of published work) was firmly that of a poet.

As a solo artist and performer, he was – often by his own admission – erratic.  An online journal he kept for a number of years in the early 2000s has entries like: ‘A distinctly uneven performance yesterday with some quality highs and abysmal lows.’  What comes through, from both my memories of seeing him live in the 70s and from live recordings, is the passion in his singing.  ‘I’m frankly,’ he said, ‘not altogether responsible for what comes out of me when I’m up there.  I try to let the spirit move me when it will.  Though said force has often got better things to do than wiggle my tongue and fingers.’  At times his voice was warm and thoughtful, with just a touch of Johnny Cash in the tone.  At times he bellowed and ranted, as if the spirit was a demon driving him on.  In the seventies he worked with various bands (Comfort, Roadhog) and for a year or three in the eighties he hooked up with all-star West Coast band The Dinosaurs – some of whose shows (available on the Live Music Archive, downloaders) I find quite electrifying.  But I’ve also read interviews with musicians who, whilst still deeply fond of him, claim that he was a difficult man to perform with, prone to launching into unannounced songs and unexpected variations of tempo. 

His own solo records, spanning the 70s, 80s and 90s, were also somewhat variable in quality.  Spine tinglers at best, especially the early albums: ‘Tales of the Great Rum Runners’, ‘Tiger Rose’ and ‘Jack O’Roses’, tending at times towards bland arrangements on the later albums.  The 1984 double album: ‘Amagamalin Street’ stands separate from the rest, the realisation of one of Hunter’s longer works: a song cycle concerning the three characters mentioned above and featuring fine guitar contributions from both Quicksilver’s John Cipollina and the Airplane/Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen.  One for mostly quiet thoughtful listening, the lyrics all in Hunter’s more streetwise storytelling mode.  Another delight, and one of his better live performances can be found on the album ‘Box of Rain’.

Outside of music Hunter wrote and published poetry, two books of Rilke translations, at least a couple of unpublished novels, and a collection of 37 frequently surrealist short stories which he offered in batches to online subscribers in the early 2000s, before he quit keeping a presence on the internet.  I haven’t read all of them but of those I have a personal favourite is ‘To Sign a River’ in which a graffiti artist, nom de plume Rock Rooster, sets out to sign the Hudson River.  ‘He doesn’t want to sign it on the bank or any other stationary point like a prominent rock – but ineradicably in the great surging mist of the moving water itself.’  With the aid of a cross-cut saw and ‘what looks like half an iron lung’ he succeeds, carving into the river his tag.  ‘And there it remains to this very day, if you know where to look and the sky is the correct shade neither of gray nor of not gray.’  As in so many of his songs Hunter plays the conceptual game of Zen: impossible juxtapositions, mind-boggling contradictions – you can’t get your head round them, you have to reach out with some other part of your consciousness.  He also scripted one comic book, ‘Dog Moon’, published by DC Vertigo comics in 1996, in which he set himself the Oulipean task of using only monosyllabic words.  Artwork was by Timothy Truman, who has also illustrated a number of Grateful Dead lyrics.  It’s a long while since I read it.  Memory tells me that it was not entirely successful as comics go, but one day I hope to read it again and who knows what I may discover twenty three or more years later.

But it’s songwriting he’ll be remembered for, and after his close partnership with Jerry Garcia was severed by the guitarist’s death, he kept this up apace.  In my blogs on Phil Lesh (4-6-18), Mickey Hart, (18-6-18), Bill Kreutzmann (2-7-18) and Bob Weir (16-7-18) I covered his contributions to their post-1975 works, and if you add them up that’s an output that a lot of younger songwriters would envy – much of it profound and resonant, some of it rather under-used by his collaborators.  Not so singer/guitarist David Nelson, with whom he wrote songs for both the revived New Riders of the Purple Sage and Nelson’s own band, the majority of which have appeared on albums and remain in the performing repertoire to this day.  In the last of his journal entries that I know of (January 08), Hunter wrote: ‘Writing a new heap of songs for others lately and reckon I’ve found my second wind.  Who?  Wait and see.  It’s not good luck to say.  For a long time I couldn’t think what to write about, but then thought “Oh yeah.  Writing about something is what you do to pass time while you’re waiting for a real song to come.”  They land like eagles on your budgie perch.  You know them by the way the branch snaps.’

In fact these collaborations were well under way, most notably a partnership over some twelve years or more with country/bluegrass singer Jim Lauderdale.  His own career well established by the late 90s, Lauderdale approached Hunter for lyrics to songs he was writing for venerable country singers the Stanley Brothers.  ‘Because,’ he said ‘I knew how much Jerry Garcia had liked the Stanley brothers and also how deeply rooted Robert was in all sorts of bluegrass and country music’.  Hunter’s response was keen and from there the collaboration accelerated, beginning in full with ‘Headed for the Hills’ in 2004 and continuing through another five jointly written albums, the last of which appeared in 2013.  The majority of these were in the country/bluegrass styles with which Lauderdale is most closely associated, and his singing, whilst I’ve come to like it a great deal, may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  All of them have their delights, but the one I’d recommend to Gonzo readers is ‘Patchwork River’ (2010), a more rock-oriented album that features one-time Elvis guitarist James Burton on several cuts, and a consistently strong set of songs, headed by the powerful title track, a state of the nation song on a par with some of the best Grateful Dead material.  Sample verse: ‘Me and Joe Farmer walked down together / Talk about wealth and the worry it brings / Lack of satisfaction and other things / Vision is simple by moonlight, everything black and white / No colors to construe, just a range black and blue / Softer tones, fewer voices / Freedom from too many choices / New born moon, a silver sliver / Gleamin’ on the Patchwork River.’  As ever, lyrics that you can’t quite make sense of, but somehow you know just what they mean.

Elsewhere, Hunter was dipping into songwriting with a variety of performers.  Four songs with Little Feat on their 2012 album ‘Rooster Rag’; eight out of ten tracks on Phil & Friends keyboard player Rob Barraco’s ‘When We All Come Home’; one track with Los Lobos on their 2010 album ‘Tin Can Trust’, and one more with Bruce Hornsby in 2009.  He apparently also wrote one with Elvis Costello, but I’m not sure if it found release.  And there were more, including a few he sang a few times himself.

A backtrack, now, to an earlier album.  ‘Rio Lindo’ by a fairly obscure Californian band called Moonlight Rodeo. I don’t know much about this lot but I guess Hunter’s participation was down to a friendship with the band’s core members. His lyrics grace half its songs.  It’s an affable album of low-key Americana, on the whole.  Laid back – as folk used to say.  Like a lot of his work with Jim Lauderdale, Hunter’s words may sometimes seem off the cuff, a little slipshod here and there.  But then there are also a host of quotable couplets.  Even back in 02 or 03 when this album was made, he was – amongst other matters - contemplating his own mortality.  Something about being a poet, I reckon.  “I may go straight to heaven / When I kick this mortal shell./.Or I may lay low in Texas / What the hell.”

Looking back, as an ageing UK Deadhead, on the whole phenomenon as I experienced it, I find my attitude has been modified by what we face in the present.  Watching the ‘Long Strange Trip’ movie, for example, I started to think about the fossil fuel products that must have been consumed – by both band, road crew and fans - during an average Grateful Dead tour back in the day.  They presented themselves as, and in many ways were, an alternative way of looking at the world – but were nevertheless dependent on America’s economic wealth to do as they did.  They were compromised, as most of us are.  Part of Jerry Garcia’s downfall, I’ve read, was his awareness that he was seen as a guru/leader figure and yet he knew pretty well that he wasn’t.  That kind of thing can rip some people apart.

Robert Hunter was warier of the potential slips, able to step out like his fabled ‘Promontory Rider’ and gain a greater perspective.  Careful with his words, despite – as a performer – being prone to states of possession.  I hope his like will be seen again, in one form or another.  But it may take some time.  A lot more people than just myself will miss that sense that there are more songs to come from him.  All the same, we have more than enough to be going on with.  Thanks Robert.  It was a hell of a show.