Robert Hunter was a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, at least as important as anyone else to the group’s musical legacy. A master lyricist, Hunter wrote the words to virtually every Jerry Garcia song, including most of the band’s best-loved songs: “Uncle John’s Band,” ”China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” “Wharf Rat,” “Dire Wolf” and “Truckin’” to name a few.
Many of Hunter’s finest songs tell novelistic tales in just a few pages worth of verse. His work has always been lyrically ambitious, deeply poetic and simultaneously redolent of both fantasy worlds and toes-in-the-mud Americana. It’s impossible to imagine the Grateful Dead without Hunter. His lyrics have largely had to speak for themselves, as he has given precious few interviews over the years. This interview was conducted in July, 2014 and is excerpted from a much longer conversation with Hunter in Reckoning: Conversations With the Grateful Dead, a new Amazon Kindle Singles Ebook.
Did Jerry write any songs before he started adapting yours? Did he ever write lyrics?
No. He wrote a verse for “The Other One” — the “you know he had to die” verse — but that’s about it. I believe Jerry would have been capable of it had he chosen to open his heart and soul to people through words as well as through guitar. Jerry was so brilliant that anything that he tackled, he could have done well.
As the band became what they became and Jerry became an icon, your words became the public’s vision of his vision. When people quoted him, they quoted you.
That’s a pretty unusual situation. Did you ever talk about that?
No, we didn’t really. The last time I ever spoke to Jerry, he called me on the phone about a week or two before he died. We were getting a writing session together. Looking back, the conversation was rather strange on his part. He started complimenting me, which is something he had never done before. He said, “Your words never stuck in my throat.” And I thought, “What? This is coming from Jerry?” Because we took each other 100 percent for granted. It just wasn’t how we spoke to one another and boy…
It’s like he was saying good-bye.
He definitely was, because talking like that was just not Jerry’s nature. Generally, I’d give him a new batch of songs and he’d say, “Oh crap, Hunter!” [Laughs] He’d be angry because it meant he had to work. He said in an interview once that he’d rather sit and toss cards into a hat than write a song.
You mention writing sessions, but I thought that he generally worked from your written word. How did the collaboration work?
Most of the time, it was lyrics first. I would give certain songs to him. About once a year, I would also put songs into a file called “Can You Dig This?” — the better of the lyrics that I’d come up with. I’d put it in there for any of the guys in the band that wanted to write to pick through. Jerry would take most of those, and [Bob] Weir would pick a couple out. Basically I would provide that and once in a while, Jerry would offer a written tune to me.
Can you think of any examples where Jerry wrote the melody first and you added lyrics?
Yeah, “Foolish Heart” came about like that. And the band pretty much wrote the music for “Uncle John’s Band” together first. I would often work with the band while they were developing something — “Ramble On Rose” was one of those. I’d get a verse for them to add as they were working it out, and then write more. In that context, I would actually work with the band, which happened quite a bit for the first couple of years.
You would actually sit in the rehearsal room writing lyrics as they came up with music?
Yes, that’s right. Or I would hear Jerry just jamming on something nice — a lot of that stuff would just evaporate if someone didn’t grab it. Like one time he was sitting at a piano playing a simple four-chord structure that I thought was really a sweet thing. I turned on the tape recorder and captured it. Later I told him that I’d been working on that structure and I had something for it, and he said, “Oh, that’s not complete. That was just an idea.” So I said, “Well, take these lyrics and try it out” — and that was “So Many Roads.” Sometimes you had to sneak up on Jerry to get a tune out of him.
Why did you stop writing with Bob Weir?
There wasn’t a good close inter-relationship. It’s not Weir’s fault and I don’t think it’s my fault either. It just didn’t quite work. From my perspective, he wasn’t easy to work with. We’d write something and then he would want to rewrite it or add lines, which I didn’t care for. Jerry never did that. He liked what I gave him, and he did it.
Bob and I both tried hard but he didn’t really care so much for hard, elaborate images that I used in songs. He wanted the songs to say something simpler. He voiced that. I said, “That’s what everybody writes. My own style is what I write.”
There are some songs that Weir and I did that worked darn well: “Playing in the Band,” for instance. But we would sometimes work really, really hard only to have what we did disappear, which was frustrating. Like I remember working for days on a song, and then he didn’t like it and called his friend Barlow in. Barlow wrote the words for “Cassidy,” which is a beautiful and classic song, so I had no problem with him at all, but… I think he found it easier to work with Barlow, and with my blessing that’s what he did.
Alan Paul is the author of the Ebook Reckoning: Conversations With the Grateful Dead and the Top Ten New York Times bestseller One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.