Robert Hunter 1941-2019

Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true love
All the birds that were singing
have flown, except you alone

robert-hunter-blakesberg-1200x632
Photo by Jay Blakesberg

I am not qualified to call myself a Deadhead in the same way that I am not qualified to call myself a Christian. To be a Christian you need to believe in the divinity of Christ, and to be a Deadhead your favorite band needs to be the Grateful Dead. Still, I am a great admirer of both entities and in part due to the same thing: their words. Jesus wrote The Lord’s Prayer and The Sermon on the Mount, stone cold classics in any book. Many, if not most, of the greatest lyrics of the Grateful Dead were written by Robert Hunter.

In the early days of rock music when artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly did something that set them apart from most popular music of their time. They played and sang songs that they also wrote. For the next few decades most of rock’s lyricists were also musicians and/or singers. Robert Hunter, along with a few notable contemporaries like Eddie Holland and Bernie Taupin, left his mark on music history through words alone.

On the Dead’s third album, Aoxomoxoa, there are listings for The Band, The Supporting Musicians, and The Crew. Under the last heading is the line “The Words – Robert Hunter.” By their sixth album, American Beauty, seven names are listed as The Dead – the six musicians in the band and “Robert Hunter – songwriter.”

The inspiration behind songwriting is as close to divinity as anything I have experienced. As it was for Hunter, who remembers one sacred afternoon holed up in a hotel room with a bottle of booze and his muse this way:

Once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘To Lay Me Down,’ and ‘Ripple,’ all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper.

In the swirling events of this season from the global (climate disasters) to the national (impeachment) to the local (Yankee playoffs) to the personal (some heavy shit), it is easy to lose track of the radar blip that was the news of Robert Hunter’s death. Lyricists of his caliber are so rare that those of us who love this music will be doing ourselves a favor if we block out the rest of the distractions in our life for a few minutes and meditate on the work of this man’s life.

Fare you well, my honey,
fare you well my only true one.
All the birds that were singing
are flown, except you alone.
Going to leave this brokedown palace,
On my hand and knees, i will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside,
In my time, in my time I will roll, roll roll
In a bed, in a bed,
by the waterside I will lay my head.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
River going to take me
sing me sweet and sleepy
sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Going to plant a weeping willow
On the bank’s green edge it will grow, grow, grow
It’s a far gone lullaby, sung many years ago
Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come since i first left home
Going home, going home, by the riverside i will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul

 

Pigpen

Every great band has at least one genius, whether or not they want to admit it. The best bands have surplus genius, it reveals itself in its own time, in curious moments, to the surprise and delight of both its perpetrators and audience.

The Grateful Dead had Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzman when they started out. They also had Mickey Hart, Donna and Keith Godchaux, Tom Constanten and Brent Mydland, as well as lyric geniuses Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow. And they had Pigpen.

 

Pigpen is the one on the left

Ron McKernan was the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead in their early days and an inspiration that still burns in the performances of its surviving members.

Pigpen dropped out of school when he was 16 and started hanging out in clubs where he met Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir with whom he formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Pigpen pushed them to go electric and with the addition of Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzman on drums they became the Warlocks and then the Grateful Dead.

There was a fire in Pigpen that burned through the band and the San Francisco music scene. He played keyboard and harmonica and sang the shit out of any song he lent his lungs to.

With Janis

According to his friend, the DJ Dusty Street, “he drank himself to death. Toward the end, he was real skinny — real skinny, man his arms were skinnier than mine. He was down to about 126 pounds, and in his prime he was 180. He drank junk — Ripple and Thunderbird, even Thunderbird mixed with raspberry Kool-Aid. And even after he was making some money, the highest-grade lush he ever drank was Bourbon Deluxe. He was never quite sober, even when he woke up in the morning; he’d wake up drunk.To make it worse, he used to drink and not eat. We all were telling him not to drink, for years. Then he got sick, and he couldn’t drink any more.”

His landlady found him on the floor next to his bed, dead from the hemorrhaging of blood vessels around his liver. He was 27 years old. He would have turned 72 yesterday.

Here he is the year before he died performing “Mr. Charlie,” a song he wrote with Robert Hunter:

 

I take a little powder, take a little salt,
Put it in my shotgun, I go walking out
Jubba jubba, wolly bully,
Looking high, looking low,
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Mister Charlie told me so.

I won’t even take your life, won’t even take a limb,
Just unload my shotgun, take a little skin
Jubba jubba, wolly bully,

Looking high, looking low,
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Mister Charlie told me so

Well you take my silver dollar, take those silver dimes,
Fix it up together in some alligator wine

I can hear the drums, voodoo all night long,
Mister Charlie tells me I can’t do nothing wrong
Jubba jubba, wolly bully,
Looking high, looking low,
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Mister Charlie told me so

Now Mister Charlie told me, won’t you like to know,
Give you little warning before I let you go
Jubba jubba, wolly bully,

looking high, looking low,
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Mister Charlie told me so
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Mister Charlie told me
Mister Charlie told me so

The Summer of Love Experience: Music

 This is the fifth in a six-part series on The Summer of Love, inspired by The Summer of Love Experience exhibit at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco.

                                                                     

Chuck Berry set off a time bomb in 1957 that took a decade to fully detonate. In the intervening years, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs brought the social consciousness of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to a new generation; Motown and Stax artists blew gaping holes through music’s boundaries; and The Beatles and Beach Boys filled the world with strange, wondrous new sounds.


It’s hard to hear the phrase “The Summer of Love” without thinking about music. More than just a pivotal year in music, 1967 marked the awakening of a new dimension in music that is still being explored. The only completely original form of music created after that season, hip-hop, uses looping and sampling technology that can be traced back to psychedelic sonic experimentation.

On June 18, 1967 Jimi Hendrix kicked off the Summer of Love down the coast from San Francisco in Monterey, along with some of San Francisco’s greatest talent – Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and The Grateful Dead, all of whom either had or would release their debut albums within the year. Other artists who released their first albums within a year on either side of the summer of love include James Taylor, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, Sly & The Family Stone, The Doors, Traffic, Os Mutantes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, and David Bowie. The sounds on those albums were not incremental steps forward – they were staggering leaps. They moved ahead at the speed of sound. You could hear the foundations of popular music creaking. 

On June 1, 1967 The Beatles released their groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Three nights later Jimi Hendrix opened his show with the title track.

Guitars squealed in frightening, painful, uncontrollable, ecstatic, inescapable new ways. Manipulation of sound was as important as any other part of the performance. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin sang with a ferocity that their foremothers had not.

It’s hard to believe that music once had such impact. A new song from The Temptations or Rolling Stones sent ripples across the globe as a generation experienced immediate mass communication in a way that hadn’t been possible before. This music belonged to a new global community, especially to the generation making the transition from adolescent to adult.  

Music reverberates deepest with people having their first taste of love. Not all songs are love songs but when you’re falling in love for the first time they all sound that way. When all-encompassing love evolves from fantasy to reality it feels like nothing can stop it. It feels like there ain’t no mountain high enough. It makes you feel like a natural woman. It feels like all you need is love.

NEXT UP: CONSCIOUSNESS

Workingman

Garcia/Hunter

So I got a job.

I’m officially moving back from the takers column to the makers. I’m going back to being a Workingman.

45 years ago this month the Grateful Dead went into the Pacific High recording studio in San Francisco and recorded 8 songs that they released under the title Workingman’s Dead. Every song on it was written by Jerry Garcia and/or Robert Hunter.

Hunter/Garcia

Garcia/Hunter rank with Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, and John/Taupin as one of the great songwriting teams of rock music. It was announced last week that they will join those others in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It’s an overdue honor for the team who contributed Uncle John’s Band, Casey Jones, High Time, and Dire Wolf to Workingman’s Dead. Before the year was out they’d add Sugar Magnolia, Friend of the Devil, Truckin’ and Ripple (among others) to their songwriting output for 1970.

It’s hard to pick a song to represent their songwriting talents, but you could do a lot worse than the brilliant Uncle John’s Band.

Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,
Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

It’s a buck dancer’s choice my friend; better take my advice.
You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.
Will you come with me? won’t you come with me?
Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?

Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?
Their wall are built of cannonballs, their motto is “don’t tread on me”.

Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.

It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;
I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,
Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.
Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come on along, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.