Robert Hunter 1941-2019: Ten Lyrical Gems From The Brilliant Mind & Author

As we mourn the recent unexpected passing of Robert Hunter at 78, one of the greatest lyrical minds of all time, hundreds of words and passages from the poet come to mind. His vast imagination gifted listeners with dirges, murder ballads, down and outers, howling animals and more thematic lead characters than any band – period. As Bob Weir tweeted on 9/24, “I’m gonna count my blessings, Robert Hunter and his imagination are gonna be up at the top of that list. I think I can speak for a lot of people In saying that. And then there’s the added blessing that he left us with plenty to go forward with.”

Glide is keen to look back at some of Hunter’s more memorable lyrical passages from Hunter on the less obvious side of “what a long strange trip its been..”

“Days Between” –  One of the final Garcia/Hunter compositions to be performed by the Grateful Dead, this somber ballad was written by the pair while on vacation in Hawaii during the winter of 1993.

 “There were days
And there were days
And there were days I know
When all we ever wanted
Was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
We told them where to go
Walked halfway around the world
On promise of the glow
Walked upon a mountain top
Walked barefoot in the snow
Gave the best we had to give
How much we’ll never know we’ll never know”

 

“Ship Of Fools”  As relevant now as it was during its 1974 debut, this song has often been interpreted as a not-so-subtle political allegory.

“The bottles stand as empty, as they were filled before.
Time there was and plenty, but from that cup no more.
Though I could not caution all, I still might warn a few:
Don’t lend your hand to raise no flag atop no ship of fools.”

 

“Stella Blue” – Written at New York City’s “Chelsea Hotel” – the same location Bob Dylan penned “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” – Garcia discussed how the song came about during a 1988 interview with Guitar Player magazine: “When Hunter gave me the lyrics, I sat on ’em and sat on ’em. Then when we were in Germany, I sat down with an acoustic guitar one morning, and the song just fell together. It was so effortless writing it that I don’t feel as though I wrote it.”

“It all rolls into one
And nothing comes for free
There’s nothing you can hold
For very long
And when you hear that song
Come crying like the wind
It seems like all this life
Was just a dream
Stella Blue”

 

“Crazy Fingers” – Debuted in 1975, this Garcia/Hunter reggae-tinged groove didn’t become a regular part of the Dead’s rotation until the mid-eighties. According to Hunter, from his book A Box of Rain, “‘Crazy Fingers’ is a collection of haiku-style verses, mostly seventeen syllables, some more successful than others, with no connecting link other than the similarity of mood.”

Life may be sweeter for this, I don’t know,
See how it feels in the end.
May lady lullaby sing plainly for you soft, strong, sweet and true.
Cloud hands reaching from a rainbow tapping at the window, touch your hair
So swift and bright strange figures of light float in air.

 

“Cats Under The Stars” – In addition to disseminating some valuable life lessons, Mr. Hunter was not afraid to occasionally sprinkle in some hints of subtle sarcasm, and this line is no exception.

“Time is a stripper, doin’ it just for you.”

 

“Lady With A Fan” – Arguably Hunter’s crowning achievement, this epic saga was loosely based around Basil May’s 1930’s recording of “Lady of Carlisle”.

“Let my inspiration flow, in token rhyme suggesting rhythm
That will not forsake me, till my tale is told and done “

 

“Attics Of My Life” -This melancholic yet inspirational ballad from 1970’s American Beauty was resurrected in 1989 after a seventeen-year performance gap. Hunter discussed the lyrics in a 1996 email correspondence with a fan: “if I could say it in prose I wouldn’t need to write the song. Poetry is evocative – it’s meant to communicate to deeper levels and approach the levels of non-verbal experience. I guess the best I could say is that “you flew to me” is an affirmation of the concept of grace – No, this is not a song about being stoned. It’s a song about the soul.”

“I have spent my life
Seeking all that’s still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play
You played to me”

 

“Black Muddy River” – This gospel-infused number, from the 1987 hit album In The Dark, touches on everything from the Old Testament to Irish poet W. B. Yeats. As Hunter told David Gans in a 1988 interview, “‘Black Muddy River’ was just an examination of what it’s like to be forty-five years old. It’s just a good look into the deep dark well, and the heart resonances in that area. And a statement of individual freedom, that no matter what happens, I have this black muddy river to walk by.”

“When it seems like the night will last forever,
And there’s nothing left to do but count the years.
When the strings of my heart begin to sever,
And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears.”

 

“Comes A Time” Originally recorded for Jerry Garcia’s third solo album Reflections, this song evokes several common themes often found throughout Hunter’s lyrics: blindness vs. sight, dreams, empty cups, light vs dark etc.

“Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says “don’t you see?”
Gotta make it somehow
On the dreams you still believe”

 

“Mission In The Rain” – This Garcia/Hunter gem was a Jerry Garcia Band staple since it’s 1975 debut, but was only performed by the Dead a handful of times the following year. When asked about the song’s origins in an interview with Relix magazine, Hunter explained:  “I used to live over in the Mission when I was just starting to write for the Dead full time. I wasn’t living at 710, I was living over on 17th & Mission, and that was very much a portrait of that time: looking backward at ten years.”

“Ten years ago I walked this street
my dreams were riding tall
Tonight I would be thankful
Lord, for any dream at all

Some folks would be happy
just to have one dream come true
but everything you gather
is just more that you can lose”

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One Response

  1. Great choices, “Days Between{“, the most underrated Dead tune…He has so many amazing lyrics, “Greatest Story Ever Told”, “Box of Rain”, Brown-Eyed Women”, “Loser”…could go on and on…RIP Hunter.

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