Words are powerful. Lots of people can flex their muscles to give their words a certain punch. But very few posses the talent and finesse to mold words into something beautiful. It takes an extraordinary talent to sculpt words together into something expressive, something deeply moving to “rock my soul.”
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter was was a once-in-a-generation wordsmith who mastered the art of weaving words into something beautiful. He passed away on Monday night at home at the age of 78.
Robert Hunter’s craft was putting words to music, most famously with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. His work as a bard was beloved by millions across generations, the man who put pen to paper on some of Grateful Dead’s most storied songs – a style distinctly the band’s own. His catalog includes timeless classics like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Ripple,” “Dark Star”, “Scarlet Begonias,” “Terrapin Station,” “Truckin'”, “Eyes of the World,” “Box Of Rain,” “Casey Jones”, “Althea”, “Franklin’s Tower”, “Friend Of The Devil”, and scores more.
These aren’t just songs of great rock ‘n roll; It’s a songbook of wild-eyed and post-modern Americana. Songs of love, loneliness, thrill, and mortality. Outlaw hymns of celebration, melancholy, and occasional sorrow – the full-spectrum of ephemeral emotions that captures the Grateful Dead’s whole thing, whether you love or hate their kind of musical licorice.
via the Rolling Stone obituary:
Born Robert Burns in California in 1941, Hunter met Garcia in 1961. Garcia asked Hunter to play in a jug band, but Hunter passed, instead seeing a future for himself as a writer. At Stanford, Hunter took part in early LSD experiments and dabbled in Scientology before leaving for the Southwest, where he battled drug issues. There, he sent several lyrics to the Dead in San Francisco before moving to the Bay Area to reunite with Garcia. When the band was working up an instrumental at a show north of San Francisco, Hunter listened and began writing lyrics to accompany the music; the result, “Dark Star,” was both a landmark for the band and also the official start of Hunter’s new role as the band’s lyricist in residence.
The role completely recast Hunter’s life goals. “What we were doing was almost sacred. The spirit of the times. … there was a time I felt this was the way the world would be going in a spiritual way, and we were an important part of that. I didn’t feel we were a pop music band. I wanted to write a whole different sort of music.”
He told RS that his favorite line was in “Ripple: “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”
What a powerful thing. Hunter’s lyrics are 20th century psalms; like acid-washed takes on Homer’s The Odyssey. Truisms like “Everything you gather is just one that you can lose” or “keep your day job until your night job pays” poke around at modern hearts and minds.
And sometimes, it didn’t have to be any deeper than the spirit of a good boogie that blasts off with a monster D-minor chord:
Few things can leave full-grown men sobbing puddles of tears in stadium parking lots like the final notes of “Brokedown Palace” reverberating into the quiet of a summer night.
A few musts, in memory of Robert Hunter:
- Once in awhile you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look it right
- One man gathers what another man spills
- Ain’t nobody messin’ with you but you
- Sometimes we live no particular way but our own
- There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night, and if you go, no one may follow, that path is for your steps alone.
- Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there
- Don’t lend your hand to raise no flag atop no ship of fools
- Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
- Inspiration, move me brightly.
- The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean
- If you get confused, listen to the music play
- Fare thee well, fare thee well, I love you more than words can tell / Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Fare thee well, Robert Hunter. Thanks for the words. Unlike our short time to be here, they’re immortal.