Sunday, December 18, 2011

Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist; poet

Romance of the Rose

Robert Hunter was in San Francisco when I spoke to him over the phone from New York City in 1985. Hunter's body of work was already scriptural for those to whom the Grateful Dead was not a favorite band among many, but the only band. Let me just point out that this interview was conducted before Hunter collaborated with Dylan on two songs from Down in the Groove (1988) and on many of the songs from Dylan's Together Through Life (2009).

Your lyrics seem to be about things in nature. You don't write much about "modern" things.
Somebody wrote me a letter once, complaining that I'd used "styrofoam" in this thing. They said that (my) imagery tended to be timeless and that "styrofoam" was definitely in time. So, I say "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Yeh, I guess I do tend to get away from modern-type things. The way my creative intuition . . . or whatever you call it . . . it doesn't tend to hand me a lot of those images. I don't go searching for them, either. It's not a conscious exclusion. I remember talking with Allen Ginsberg about our mutual approaches to imagery. I said "you gotta pretty good way with words, but, ah, you got a lot of cockroaches running through your poems." And he said "'cockroach' is a beautiful word!" Well, I guess it's just a matter of taste. I would tend not to use the word "cockroach" in a poem, uhm, because I don't find it beautiful.

There are also seems to be an idea running through your work that, you know, this is a man's world.
I tried to balance that. I was conscious or had my attention brought to that fact several years ago. You know, I'm a guy writing for a band of guys. I tried to do things like "Loose Lucy" . . . the tough woman or something like that. It was a bit divisive and it just wasn't right for me. You've gotta do what sits right with you. When I sit down to write, I don't often know exactly what I'm going to write about. I'm just lucky if a good line comes out and if that's the line that came out, then I have to follow that one down and see where it goes. I might sit down thinking, "Well, gee, I don't write enough romantic songs." When I sit down to write one, I turn out a pile of garbage and the next thing, I got my trains, roses, crows, and card games and stuff. I'm very consciously trying not to use that imagery anymore. I'm looking around for other things. I just finished up recording a piece, coming out in September, which has got twenty-one pages of lyrics. I'm narrating it. I play all the instrumental parts on it. I'm experimenting with all different . . . medieval imagery with a bit more philosophic content, which only a long piece can allow you to examine . . . very carefully.

The press likes to call you and the Dead "quintessentially American," but I hear alot of the British Isles in your work.
Well, I'm a Highland bagpipe player and I know the Scottish literature. I know the Child Ballads. My stuff is very very influenced by British folk tradition, no two ways about it.

I read somewhere that Ireland is such a fanciful island because it was untouched by Lucifer after he fell.
Yeh, I was just reading about the Deluge. I just started reading Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. He's got a beautiful prologue about the Deluge and, uh . . . Well, I don't have anything much to say about it. I just recommend reading that.

When did you start writing with the Dead?
Oh, gosh, I think the first song I ever wrote with Garcia was when we were eighteen or nineteen, respectively (1959-60). That was when we were a folk duet and nothing ever came of the song. It wasn't until five or six years later that we began seriously writing tunes. Once the Grateful Dead was established and there was a need for tunes and the whole singer-songwriter thing started to happen . . .

Do you ever find yourself writing about things that are second-hand? Like taking an idea from a book and not your experience?
I can't really write that way. I'm a heavy reader. I finished Proust last year--congratulate me--and, ah, what comes out of my heavy reading is more of a commitment to literature than anything else. As the years go by, I consider myself more and more to be a serious writer outside of the pop idiom or even the song idiom. I just finished a 70-page dramatic poem called "The Temptation of Faust," which I'm very pleased with . . . which is part lyric and part my verse. The more excellent reading that I do, the more I find that my own writing tends to a higher standard as opposed to getting something in particular. I was just reading something about the troubles in Poland. What I got out of that was, uhm, the Polish intellectual's idea of "as if." Let's proceed as if this is a free country. Let's proceed as if there's an audience for serious thought-out writing. I'm fairly sure there isn't, but I don't dare believe it. In a way, that's what the Dead have done. Pretend that there's an audience for music with some sort of integrity . . . and, somehow, acting as if . . . it seems, lately, to have become a reality.

Do any of your characters ever meet their other self? Like in Conrad's Secret Sharer?
I think "Dire Wolf" is an example of that. The dire wolf is the shadow of the man in the song who is dead at this point. It's a song by a ghost. I could think for a while and probably come up with a few more examples.

Your last solo album was Amagamalin Street . . .
Here's the interesting thing: I do believe the album is a failure. I don't think I interpreted some of the songs right. I think the songs are pretty good. My voice gives me a lot of trouble.

I've heard you sing Terrapin and it sounded good. Rough, as opposed to the lush arrangement on the album.
Oh, I wanted to cut through that. Nobody liked that arrangement. Keith Olsen, the producer (of Terrapin Station, 1977), took the tapes, went off to London, had the London Symphony Orchestra fill up the part he wrote for it, and said "here's your album, folks!" No one was very pleased with that. I wanted to cut through it.

Lyrically, it was excellent. "Lady with a Fan" . . .
That definitely harkens back to the British roots.

Do you have an idea for a tune when you write?
Always. Jerry prefers that I don't come up with my own melodies. I'll give him a lyric, then I'll put some more lyrics to his melody and record it myself. I find the less I influence him (musically), the better.  I do not take any credit for the music.

What do you think of the adulation? The Dead Heads?
It becomes sort of eerie after twenty years. I'm never comfortable with it. I don't mind reading it, but first hand, I feel like sort of a fraud (because) . . . (unintelligible) . . . is not as high as they think it is. I do my best, but, the adulation is a little out of line.

Wasn't St. Stephen the first Christian martyr?
He was shot with arrows . . . at the stake . . . yeh, I think he was the first Christian martyr. That's not who I'm writing about, though. That song came to me. Sometimes, they do, I have to admit it. Sometimes, they just come to me and I get 'em down. Especially back in the old days. Let me just say that it was after the fact that I found out who St. Stephen was. I liked the sound of it: "St. Stephen with a rose . . ."

"Eyes of the World" is a great song.
"Eyes of the World" was quite mystical and, I think, a very right song for the late 60s and early 70s. Looking back on it now, it's kind of dated . . .

I don't think so.
Well, it's a song about compassion, as I understand it. Being able to see things from someone else's point of view. It's always a right message, but, uhm, it can be overdone. It can be made corny. Of course, there are eternal verities. You can't avoid those too much if you want to say anything.


  1. That's great stuff, thanks very much. Is there more to this by chance?
    How did you get the chance to interview him in the first place?