Robert Hunter: Not Playing in the Band

Music Features Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter: Not Playing in the Band

When the Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, the individuals honored included 11 musicians who had performed on stage as members of the group and one person who’d never done so. That was Robert Hunter, the group’s off-stage lyricist, someone deemed so essential to the band’s achievement that he became the first non-performer inducted with a band into the Hall. So far, he’s still the only one.

There’s a reason for that. Very few people have held his job—writing lots of songs for a rock ’n’ roll band without joining them on stage—and no one has done it as well. Hunter’s words were the perfect complement for Jerry Garcia’s music, because they pulled off the same balancing act: remaining rooted in American traditions while at the same time imagining an alternate America for the near future. Take away either half of that balancing act, and the Dead’s songs are a lot less interesting. Take away Hunter’s lyrics and replace them with, say, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, and the songs are also a lot less substantial.

Hunter, who died Monday night at home after recent years of spinal problems and surgery, didn’t write all of the Dead’s lyrics, but he wrote the bulk of them, including the words to such staples of the band’s live set as “Casey Jones,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Bertha,” “Brown-Eyed Woman,” “He’s Gone,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Box of Rain,” “Cumberland Blues,” “Jack Straw” and “Sugar Magnolia.” The latter two songs were co-written with Bob Weir, but most of Hunter’s collaborations were with Garcia.

The two had met as teenagers in Palo Alto in 1961 and even formed a short-lived folk-music duo called Bob and Jerry. It soon became obvious that Garcia was a better singer and a much better musician and eager to get better at both, while Hunter’s heart was in writing, not playing. The duo bit the dust, but the friendship endured. And when Hunter sent his old pal some poems called “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “Alligator” from New Mexico, Garcia told him to come back to the Bay Area and help write songs for his new band.

They weren’t a songwriting team like John Lennon & Paul McCartney, who both contributed words and music. Hunter & Garcia were more like Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller or Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, who practiced a sharp division of labor between lyrics and melodies. Sometimes Hunter would hand the guitarist stacks of paper with rhyming verses that Garcia would sort through till he found something he liked.

Other times Hunter would sit in on the Dead’s rehearsals and jot down lines in response to the vamps that came out of their jamming. “Goddamn, Uncle John’s mad,” he wrote during one practice session. No, that wasn’t right, he decided. How about, “Come hear Uncle John’s band.” Where could the band be heard? “Down by the riverside.” Why should you listen? Because we’ve “got some things to talk about here beside the rising tide.” That song, “Uncle John’s Band,” put the Grateful Dead’s artistic vision into words. It was as much the band’s theme song as “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees” was for another group.

Garcia’s lovely guitar tune pulled the listener in with a sing-along that recalled a rural church choir “down by the river” before the guitar solo spun off like a crop-duster plane doing loops over that creek. But Hunter’s lyrics brought the musical story into focus. He started out sounding like a town elder who warns, “When life looks like Easy Street, there’s danger at your door.” But he wound up sounding like the local shaman shambling in from a nearby cave to say, “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.”

That song depicts a welcoming, supportive community, but Hunter was just as capable of describing a loner pursued by ex-lovers, the sheriff and the devil. That’s the story of “Friend of the Devil,” set to the tumbling music of Garcia in his bluegrass mode. The song’s narrator heads out from Reno, Nevada, and ends up hiding in the Utah hills, learning too late that you can accept help from the devil, but it always comes with strings attached. It was this ability to capture both the happy-go-lucky and angst-haunted sides of American life that gave Hunter’s writing its breadth and depth.

“Uncle John’s Band” first appeared on 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, and “Friend of the Devil” debuted later the same year on American Beauty. This one-two punch provided the Dead’s two best studio albums, which were followed in turn by the band’s two best live albums, 1971’s Grateful Dead and 1972’s Europe ’72. Also emerging in 1972 was the best solo album from the group, Garcia, which featured such classic Garcia-Hunter co-writes as “Deal,” “Loser” and “Sugaree.”

This was the group’s most song-oriented period, when Hunter’s contributions were most crucial. Garcia and Weir were writing their catchiest tunes, and Hunter was completing them with stories evoking America’s most honorable past and its most inviting future. In the succeeding decades, when the group’s priority shifted from songwriting to live performance, the songs from this three-year period provided the most useful platform for the musicians’ expansive improvisations.

This was the lesson that went unlearned by most of the jam bands that sprung up in the wake of the Dead’s demise: the better the song, the better the jam. Acts such as Phish, Dave Matthews, Dave Nelson, Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Karl Denson, My Morning Jacket, moe., String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic contained some gifted musicians, but they didn’t have the songs. They didn’t have the hooks; they didn’t have the stories; they didn’t have a Hunter of their own.

When the next Grateful Dead studio album, Wake of the Flood, was released in 1974, however, the tempos on songs such as “Row Jimmy” and “Stella Blue” had slowed to a sluggish crawl, an ongoing trend made worse by Garcia’s growing cocaine and heroin problems. He was never less than an astonishing guitarist on stage, but the rhythms dragged and there was no longer a vehicle for the bouncy meters and lively wordplay of Hunter’s lyrics.

Even when you read the lyrics to “Truckin’,” for example, on the page, you can sense the rhythmic pulse of the language: “Busted—down on Bourbon Street, set up—like a bowling pin, knocked down—it gets to wearing thin, they just won’t let you be.” The pleasure of Hunter’s language was as much in the sound of the words as in their meaning. When that syncopated pulse diminished in the music, it left Hunter with fewer opportunities.

Garcia cleaned up and rebloomed in the late-’80s for the Dead’s highest charting album, 1987’s In the Dark, and some terrific live shows, including a tour with Bob Dylan that was much better than the resulting live album would suggest. But keyboardist Brent Mydland died from a drug overdose in 1990, and a despairing Garcia returned to his old problems. He entered rehab in 1995, but it was too late, and he died that August. And aside from a handful of 2015 reunion shows, the Grateful Dead was history too.

But Hunter wasn’t wholly dependent on the Dead for work. He’d already co-written with Dylan, including two songs on 1988’s Down in the Groove, and would go on to co-write nine of the 10 on 2009’s Together Through Life. After Garcia’s death, Hunter co-wrote songs with Elvis Costello, Bruce Hornsby, the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, Los Lobos’s Cesar Rosas and Little Feat’s Bill Payne. Hunter co-wrote a bunch of songs for five different Jim Lauderdale albums between 2010 and 2013.

One reason Hunter was so successful as a lyricist was his interest in all kinds of language. He didn’t just listen to American roots music—he often credited the British operetta team of Gilbert & Sullivan as an inspiration—and he didn’t learn only from songs. Hunter translated and published two volumes by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and wrote several volumes of his own poetry. He took word-working seriously wherever he found it.

Hunter also released 13 of his own solo albums and often toured smaller venues with his acoustic guitar. He was never much of a singer or a player, however, and both the albums and the shows reinforced Garcia’s decision to break up their duo in 1961.

But his writing for better singers and better musicians than himself left one of the more admirable songwriting legacies of the 20th century. Perhaps he didn’t belong in the top tier of the century’s lyricists (Bob Dylan, Lorenz Hart, Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Johnson, Cole Porter, Joni Mitchell, Ray Davies and so on), but he belongs in the tier just below.

Hunter more or less invented the job of the non-performing lyricist in a rock ’n’ roll band—and no one did it better. His death reminds us just how valuable that under-utilized role can be. When Garcia decided that those who were good at instruments should write the music and those who were good at language should write the words, he was demonstrating how to lift the quality of a musical enterprise. More bands would be wise to follow his example.

One of Hunter’s most memorable songs for the Dead was “Playing in the Band,” co-written with Weir and Hart. “If a man among you,” he wrote, “got no sin upon his hand, let him cast a stone at me for playing in the band.” Weir had to sing those words, because Hunter didn’t actually play in the band. But the band would not have been the same without him.

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