Lyricist Robert Hunter On Finding Words for the Grateful Dead
Robert Hunter was a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, a master lyricist who wrote the words to virtually every Jerry Garcia song. Their collaboration produced “Uncle John’s Band,” ”China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones” and dozens of other songs.
Since Garcia’s 1995 death, Hunter was worked with Bob Dylan, country artist Jim Lauderdale, Warren Haynes, Little Feat and many others. Last year he returned to the stage as a solo performer after a decade-long hiatus that saw him write an unpublished novel.
“After a brush with death, I realized that was not the best way to spend my remaining ears,” Hunter says from his California home. “I started playing guitar again and it reinvigorated me.”
Hunter will be on the East Coast for four dates at New York’s City Winery – July 21, 22, 23 and August 2. In between, he will be at the Newport Folk Festival and in Long Island and Wilkes Barre, PA. You can see his tour schedule here.
This is an edited conversation.
How did your working relationship with Jerry Garcia begin?
HUNTER: We started a folk duet called Bob and Jerry and wrote our first song when we were 18 and 19. I stayed with him through bluegrass, but the next phase was jug band, and I couldn’t make a sound out of the jug he handed me. I kept writing songs to perform at parties to impress the ladies, including “Alligator,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “St. Stephen’s,” then I moved to New Mexico. When the Dead formed, I sent Jerry some lyrics, and he called and asked me to come back and be their lyricist. They were working on “Dark Star” when I arrived, I wrote the lyrics on the spot and never really left.
Did you ever wish to perform with the band?
HUNTER: It was my choice. I was doing background vocals for “China Cat Sunflower” during the  Aoxomoxa sessions, and Phil [Lesh] looked at me and said “Can you ever sing the same line twice the same way?” and I said, “I don’t think I can.”
So I bowed out and continued to offer my perspective on which takes were good and the like. And I named all the albums except for Mars Hotel. A lot of them I pulled out of the air. Like Jerry said, “This is beginning to sound like a bit of workingman’s dead instead of the psychedelic.” I said, “There’s your title.”
You created a worldview and personality that became, publicly, Jerry’s.
HUNTER: It all happened effortlessly. He called me a week or two before he died and started complimenting me, which is something he never did. He said, “Your words never stuck in my throat.” I thought, “Jerry? Are you ok?” – because we took each other utterly for granted for decades. He definitely was saying good-bye and it was the last time we ever spoke.
Did your collaborations start with music or words?
HUNTER: It was usually lyrics first. I would put the better lyrics into a file called “Can You Dig This?’ for any of the guys that wanted to write. Every once in a while Jerry would offer a tune to me, and the band pretty much wrote the music for “Uncle John’s Band” first. In the first few years, I also would often be in the rehearsal room as the band developed an idea. For instance, I was writing verses for “Ramble On Rose” as they worked it out. Sometimes you had to sneak up on Jerry because he was overflowing with ideas. I would hear him playing beautiful things on the guitar or piano that would just evaporate, tape them, and make them songs. He’d be shocked when I played it back to him.
I wrote the words for “Touch of Grey” for a planned solo album that was dragging along. My version was much slower and Jerry asked if I minded him recasting it for the Grateful Dead. I And all of a sudden we had a hit single and I had enough money to buy a house.
That song changed everything for the band.
HUNTER: We were just about done. The Grateful Dead was virtually broke and there wasn’t enough money coming into the enterprise to cover expenses. I’m actually glad the success didn’t happen earlier because to my way of thinking everything went wonky after that. The old days were gone. There was suddenly huge money, which simply attracts huge problems. But it did put the band into a pretty superior position. We were the top grossing band for some years. Or should I say, “they were?”
I think you can say we.
HUNTER: Thank you.
Link to article: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/07/18/lyricist-robert-hunter-on-finding-words-for-the-grateful-dead/
RAIN MAN – The visionary wordsmith Robert Hunter takes to the stage
By John Donohue
For a certain generation of high-school students, the knowing way to quote the Grateful Dead in one’s yearbook was not by naming the band. Rather, it was by attributing a line to its likely source—Robert Hunter, the group’s first principal lyricist. Hunter is now seventy-three, and two years ago he almost died. “I got really, really sick, with a spinal infection that put me in a hospital for a couple of months, and it was touch and go,” he said recently. “I had my guitar with me, and as soon as I got well enough to play there was nothing else to do in that hospital. The nurses would come in and request songs.”
One sunny afternoon in London, in 1970, Hunter wrote the words to three magical Grateful Dead songs, “To Lay Me Down,” “Ripple,” and “Brokedown Palace.” He is a lyricist with few equals, and, together with Jerry Garcia, he conjured up the majority of the Dead’s original songs. Their collaboration continued until Garcia’s death, in 1995. Along the way, Hunter recorded a few solo albums, performed sporadically, translated Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” and published his own poetry. Mostly, though, he stayed home, to be with his family and to write for many artists, including Bob Dylan. “When I got out of the hospital, it was one of those classic things—you’re looking death in the eye, and it changes you. I thought, I ought to go back on the road.” He booked a short tour, his first in a decade, which brought him to New York last fall. The shows went so well that Hunter, who lives in San Rafael, California, and hates to travel, is returning for more gigs on the East Coast this summer. “It’s natural for me,” he said. “I’m going to keep it up for as long as my health allows it.”
Hunter knows his audience. “I’ll put in a little bit of my own stuff,” he said. “But they don’t really come to hear me do new songs.” Instead, he sticks with classics from the Dead. “My two honeys are ‘Sugaree’ and ‘Ripple.’ I always do those. I’m going to break out ‘Attics of My Life,’ which I’ve never performed before, as far as I can remember.” He plans on including “Touch of Grey,” as well as, possibly, “Casey Jones” and “West LA Fadeaway,” but he said that, for the most part, he likes to keep the set list a surprise.
His newfound pleasure onstage creates a challenge. Performing, he said, “kind of knocks me off my writer’s game.” The distinction between the two activities is complicated. “It’s probably like the difference between eating watermelon and playing basketball,” he said. “It’s like ‘China Cat Sunflower’ ”—the early and imaginative Dead song. “You know what it means, or you don’t.” Hunter is at City Winery July 21-23 and Aug. 2.
Link to article: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/reviews/2014/07/21/140721goli_GOAT_nightlife_donohue
Life in Chicago requires a heavy coat (literally!) of resilience and perseverance during our brutally cold winters, but by the time summer rolls around, we’re eager to spend every possible moment outside in the sun- and the opportunities to do so are endless! Nightly free concerts in the park are a crowd favorite during the summer months, attracting thousands of Chicagoans and tourists of every demographic, including us here at City Winery Chicago, and this year we’ve partnered up with Grant Park Music Festival in Millennium Park as the official Impresario Society Wine Sponsor!
As the Impresario Society Wine Sponsor, we are present at every pre-concert reception during the season on the Impresario Terrace and we pour a selection of our wines for members to enjoy before the show begins. Not only have we been able to speak with Impresario members and board members about our wines, music, and food, but we’ve become more immersed in the classical music culture as our involvement with the Festival has progressed, which is something we’re especially excited about as we continue to broaden the musical variety in our concert hall. In fact, last week we had Time for Three perform, and this weekend, we have WFMT presents Thirsty Ear Festival.
If you haven’t checked out the Grant Park Music Festival, preserving classical music for nearly 80 years, we highly recommend doing so! Check out the 2014 season schedule here. Bring a blanket, a few snacks, a City Winery growler to-go of wine (all concerts are BYOB), and some friends and enjoy the show.
“I like to have fun when I play and I like comedy- but it’s not a conscious thing. I’m basically a pretty shy person and I don’t dance or get into fights. But there are all these things inside me that get out when I perform. It’s like a real world when I play, where I can do all the things I can’t do in real life.”
Bill Frisell to the Village Voice, Bill’s Bio from his website; www.billfrisell.com
At first landing, Bill and the band seemed a little dazed, ethereal, even-
or maybe it was just the after effects of extra hot weather & bad traffic. True pros, they got busy with our engineer placing the equipment that would soon deliver that crazy wall of complete, gorgeous sound that held the night’s lucky listeners enthralled for a straight 90 minute set.
We met Tony and Greg first- that’s bass and pedal steel- a couple of friendly, unassuming guys trading jokes and casually carting gear from our breezy back patio to the quiet, waiting stage. We ran into Kenny the drummer and Bill – guitar plus aforementioned shy, non-dancing, non-fighting leader of the Guitar in the Space Age ensemble. When they met up and sound check began, it was instantly apparent that the City Winery concert space was joining up with some wild masters of sound and musical magic was forthcoming.
If you were with us, congratulations! The show went so far beyond the superlative “great show” – right? Everyone was literally spellbound; ear to the ground captivated as the guys dove and wound through their super cool, familiar and ‘out-there’ renditions of 50’s and 60’s standards. It was Guitar in the Space Age, with expertly interwoven tunes hitting home with each return of a chorus. Any child of the time could hum and sing along – and they did!
Walking off stage after an unexpected encore, the band seemed a little dazed, ethereal, even- or maybe it was just the after effect of a stunningly conceived project played with love and joy to a totally receptive audience. Another successful show!
July has arrived! Summer is in full swing and everyone is looking to get out and venture around Chicago! Between concerts, food, and wine events, there’s sure to be something at City Winery Chicago to attract everyone during the upcoming month!
We have some great americana/country performances this month! Country icon Ralph Stanley is coming for a night and Western-Swing-Roots band Asleep at the Wheel (who just turned 40, by the way!) is here for two performances on 7/20!
In addition to the talented country acts here in July, we’ll also see some interesting performances that are definitely worth checking out. Between the Cambodian psychadelic rock band Dengue Fever, the New Orleans brass band Dirty Bourbon River Show with the gypsy jazz Fishtank Ensemble, or WFMT’s Thirsty Ear Festival, exposing us to young composers emphasizing a contemporary spin on classical music, we’re sure to expose you to unique and satisfying sounds and performances!
See our full July music line up below:
7/7- Time for Three
7/8- She’s Crafty- Beastie Boys Beer Pairing with Metropolitan Brewing
7/9- Yarn w/ Carolina Story
7/10- Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks
7/11- Dr. Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys w/ Town Mountain
7/12- Thirsty Ear Festival
7/12- Dengue Fever
7/13- Heartless Bastards
7/15- Dirty Bourbon River Show & Fishtank Ensemble
7/17 & 7/18- Marc Cohn
7/20- Asleep At The Wheel (Two shows)
7/27 & 7/28- The Bangles
7/31- Jill Sobule
All tickets can be purchased at the City Winery Chicago Website
Food & Wine
Aside from the exciting musical acts passing through City Winery this month, there are several food, wine, and other drink events.
On July 15, Chalk Hill winemaker Lisa Bishop Forbes is here to host the Chalk Hill Wine Dinner, an intimate evening of delicious wines paired with three courses designed by our chef- Yum!
We don’t only do wine pairings at City Winery! As a matter of fact, we have two beer pairing events here in July! On July 12 the all-female Beastie Boys tribute group She’s Crafty is pairing up with Metropolitan Brewing, a Chicago-founded microbrewery. Sit back and enjoy some beer with the show! Toward the end of the month, on July 24, Forbidden Root brewer BJ Pichman is hosting the Forbidden Root Beer Dinner, pairing botanical beers with courses created by our chef as well. Come and thrill you palette at this unique pairing!
All of our Food & Wine events can be found in our calendar.
by Kristina Fischer, Beverage Director
By Amanda Tallman, Box Office Manager
6:30pm Inside the concert hall, the room is already almost full with guests arriving early to take advantage of full food and beverage service right at their tables, socializing before the show starts.
7:30pm From outside the green room, the pinging of guitar strings, laughter, and the clinking of glasses (perhaps some of our City Winery vintages?) as the ladies enjoy pre-show fun, playing their songs and covers; a private jam session before they go on stage.
7:59pm Experiencing a live concert here at City Winery at the Napa Opera House… The venue is like no other. The vaulted 30 foot ceilings. The acoustics. The stage. The golden velvet curtains with the slightest hint of a sinking evening sun peeking through. You know guests have come to see an artist they love, about whom they are passionate. This ‘guest love’ colors the venue as well, spilling over onto tables and chairs, making it’s way into the whole space… it’s a powerful vibe. Everything and everyone comes even more alive on show nights.
8:00pm Right on time, to the tune of The Beatles’ ‘She’s Right on Time,’ with house lights lowered to near utter darkness, three ladies take the stage, their silhouettes just visible, but unmistakable. The house lights raise, the crowd breaks out in whoops and clapping, and… for the next 75 minutes straight: The Bangles rocked our worlds. Included in the full lineup, a beautiful cover of ‘Shades of Winter,’ a rockin’ ‘Manic Monday,’ and a stunning performance of ‘Eternal Flame.’
9:20pm The crowd sings along to ‘Walk Like an Egyptian,’ one last encore… and… the time of the evening has been spent, the show is over.
9:30pm Guests linger at their tables, enjoying post show drinks and conversation, or make their way to the merchandise table to get autographed pictures, t-shirts, and CDs …or head downstairs to the Concierge to purchase tickets for the next amazing show.
…a peek at a great night in a heady line up of almost daily shows. You’ll have to come see, smell, taste, touch, and hear it for yourself. We’ll be waiting for you, with the music, here at City Winery at the Napa Valley Opera House.