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

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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

 

For Remembering Mary

Another day is cocked and ready to fly
Yesterday another somebody died
but this somebody knew me when I was young
She saw you come into this world
and held your father’s hand to help him cross the street
when he was a child
Those were the days before

The sky, appropriately somber, greets another desperate dawn
where soldiers fight the same old fight
and those who know better lie to our face

Soon I will put my head down again
and watch the sidewalk slip past
but I will take this slice of time
for remembering Mary
before beginning the days after

 

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Memorial – Ruth Detjen

I recently went to a memorial service for the mother of a friend.

You can tell a lot about a person by the things people say about them when they’re not around, and by the memories of the people who love her.

They talked about strawberry shortcake and Volkswagens; falling trees and fireworks; telephone calls and Pretty in Pink. But what they were really talking about was love.

You can also tell a lot about a person by the memories and thoughts she shares through her art.

Ruth’s family offered her paintings to the gathering, an invitation to take a piece of her home with us.

The colors and mood of this one grabbed my attention:

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Ruth was also a poet, and we went home with a book of her poems, written over all the decades of her adult life. Here are four of the ones that found a place in my memory:

Secrets

There are no secrets.

They are plainly seen

in the pain and sadness

of a woman’s eyes.

Old Cup

The gossamer veins in the porcelain cup

Reveal a pattern,

like the crinkled folds in a love letter

impulsively crumpled, then rescued, smoothed.

The cup comforts my hand, warming, loving –

its healing roundness a balm of

honey mint and tea.

If this cup was carelessly dropped,

Shattering into fragments like falling stars,

if this should happen,

Falling, shattering, scattering china amidst

dust and crumbs on the floor –

I would sweep it all up, then carefully select

Just one piece – the largest, smoothest curve

of pure white china –

and place it gently on the window sill

in the warm pristine morning light.

Ladies of the Day Room 1956

tired of searching for a wandering,

feisty old person singing

Christmas Carols to herself and

muttering in German, they put her away.

They took me to see her in the

state hospital.

I saw patients being

led through the halls with staring

opaque glass eyes and silly smiles.

A beaming round faced colored woman

padded over to us on swollen feet and ankles

spilling out of her green institutional

slippers

told me in her lilting voice about the fish

she caught last night, cooked it

at it and it was so good,

smacked her lips, praised the Lord

laughing showing a

gold tooth.

And she was led away, humming to herself.

My grandmother – think, boney – paper-skinned

complexion as white as her hair,

fire barely flickering in her pale blue eyes

looked blankly at us.

she was hell on wheels, once.

Agitated, she asked “where’s Mama?

there’s something I have to ask her

when are we getting off this train?”

Grandma gripped my had so tightly,

I thought it would break.

Lost Dream

Waking with a delicate thread of a dream

just at the fringes of memory –

I should have grabbed a pencil, jotted down

the elusive thoughts and tied them

to paper before they slipped away.

the longing sensation lingers in my consciousness

somewhere under the busy-ness

of the day.

If only the thoughts had a name –

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Ruth Detjen and her daughter Amy

The Queen of Soul

“At the Grammys in 1998, the legendary soul singer stepped in – at the last minute – for Pavarotti, who had been due to sing his trademark piece, Nessun Dorma. So obviously she went ahead and performed that aria.
Nessun Dorma is one of the most impressive of tenor arias – with an astronomically high top B at the climax of the aria.
It’s also an operatic tenor role. Aretha Franklin is, clearly, neither an opera singer, nor a tenor.
But that did not stop her performing the aria at the Grammys in 1998. Well, it would have been a shame to send the choir home. 
This might be the most Aretha Franklin thing that has ever happened. 
Here she is performing the piece a few years later, at an event in Philadelphia in 2015. Just **listen** to how she ad libs on that top B.”

Marie Jeannotte Enger – Rest In Peace

People die
Of course
We all will
But the loss of some people is harder to take than others.
To a child, the world is filled with a confusing array of people – those who are like us are called kids, and those who are not like us are called adults. Then there are people like my Aunt Marie who are both. She was an adult – firm, strong, indomitable – but she was also one of us kids – kind-hearted, curious, and fun-loving. A sense of humor is a hard thing to quantify but Aunt Marie had one of the most impressive I’ve known. She was able to poke fun at others without being mean-spirited and able to poke fun at herself without damage to her dignity.
Love is another thing that is hard to quantify but when you feel it you know what it is.
I was talking with a friend tonight about love and how hard it is to capture such feelings in words. The conclusion we reached is that the all the people we love will be alive as long as we are alive to carry their memory. 
Until we meet again, dear woman, you will be alive in my heart.
 

L-R: Aunt Marie, Uncle Henry, Mom

This picture was taken at my wedding, 28 years ago this week.

The Maximum Cat

 

When a cat knows he’s done, he stops eating. It’s not just that he refuses food, he’s forgotten what food is. Muscle memory leads him back to the bowl at meal time but even if you put the food in his mouth he won’t swallow.

As mammals, we share some things in common with cats: live birth, lactation, and a beating heart, to name a few. As animals, we all share mortality. 

My cat max stopped eating three days ago. His heart stopped beating today.






Life is full of beautiful moments and flowing sources of inspiration. It is also full of inescapable pain and death. Cats sense things that we cannot. They anticipated hurricanes and earthquakes long before humans had satellites and Richter scales. They hear notes at pitches beyond our perception. They know when they can’t trust someone. They know when they’re dying.

There are momentous events going on in this world that tower in significance over a dead cat, or a dead human. Unless the death takes someone you love. Then there is nothing more important. A unique variation of love exists between ‘pet’ and ‘owner.’

We named our roman-nosed tuxedo Max because he was the maximum cat.