The 10 best Robert Hunter songs for the Grateful Dead
Robert Hunter, who died on Sept. 23 at age 78, matched words to Jerry Garcia’s melodies and served as the public conscience for the Grateful Dead, whom he joined as a non-performing member in 1969.
Hunter composed his first Dead lyrics about a year earlier for “Dark Star,” the group’s cosmic cornerstone, and he eventually published more than 600 songs, including collaborations with Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby and Jim Lauderdale. But it’s Hunter’s poetic, prophetic and elegiacal Grateful Dead compositions that have served as ever-renewing hymnal for the band’s legions of enthusiasts for the past half-century. Here’s 10 of his best, in chronological order — but there are plenty more where they came from.
“Black Peter” (1970)
Written on the road with the Dead during an intensely fertile period, this haunting first-person account of one man’s calm evening demise appeared amid the sepia-toned Americana of “Workingman’s Dead.” Drummer Mickey Hart recalls the Dead reining in their psychedelic extravagance on this album to “support the texts, Hunter’s Holy Grail.” Death must have seemed more merciful to the young songwriter back then. “Black Peter” lacks the unsparing bleakness Hunter would later ruminate on in songs like “Black Muddy River.” Key lyric: “See here how everything / Lead up to this day / And it’s just like any other day / That’s ever been.”
Dappled with David Grisman’s sunny mandolin, “Ripple” came together during the Festival Express tour of summer 1970 and served as centerpiece of “American Beauty,” the second album of cosmic Americana the Dead delivered that year. “Ripple” is a song about writing a song, and it includes references to birth and death and the path leading from the former to the latter. Key lyric: “Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of man,” which Hunter characterized to Rolling Stone in 2015 as “pretty much my favorite line I ever wrote,” adding: “And I believe it, you know?”
“Attics of My Life” (1970)
A fine example of the Dead’s angelic harmonizing on “American Beauty,” “Attics of My Life” is a psychedelic love song in much the same sense that Rumi and other Sufi poets address the divine through images of the beloved. Or as Hunter once informed an inquisitive listener, “No, this is not a song about being stoned. It’s a song about the soul” that also contains “an affirmation of the concept of grace.” Key lyric: “When the secrets all are told / And the petals all unfold / When there was no dream of mine / You dreamed of me.”
“Wharf Rat” (1971)
Hunter could also be a formalist, as the mantra-like doublings, repetitions and recursion in this touchingly seedy slice of Bay Area noir from the Dead’s second great live album, “Grateful Dead” (a.k.a. “Skull and Roses”) demonstrate. Key lyric: “My name is August West / And I love my Pearly Baker best, more than my wine / More than my wine / More than my maker, though he’s no friend of mine.”
“Brown-Eyed Women” (1972)
As with “He’s Gone,” “Ramble On Rose,” “Tennessee Jed” and others, the Dead never recorded “Brown-Eyed Women” in the studio but relegated it instead to the superb live album “Europe ’72.” Hunter reportedly hoped these tracks would complete a trilogy begun with “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” but no dice. In these songs, however, Hunter and Garcia one-upped the Band with transcendent Depression-era visions. Key lyric: “Daddy made whiskey and he made it well / Cost two dollars and it burned like hell.”
“Stella Blue” (1973)
Garcia’s finest ballad, composed by Hunter in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, is perhaps the writing team’s headiest contender for Great American Songbook status. Key lyric: “When all the cards are down / There’s nothing left to see / There’s just the pavement left / And broken dreams.” Who couldn’t imagine Sinatra singing the hell out of those lines?
“Scarlet Begonias” (1974)
Hunter wrote this second-set Dead masterpiece while living in London. Set adrift on a lilting Caribbean rhythm, “Scarlet Begonias” tells the story of a possible one-night stand near Grosvenor Square and is replete with Hunter’s trademarked gambling references, psychedelic imagery (“the sky was yellow and the sun was blue”) and cosmic wisdom: “Once in a while you get shown the light/ In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
“Franklin’s Tower” (1975)
One writer’s poetry is another listener’s nonsense, and, having been accused of writing the latter, Hunter responded with a line-by-line explication of this anthemic “Blues for Allah” track. Images of parenthood and allusions to the Liberty Bell and Philadelphia Congress are held together with a timeless refrain (“roll away the dew”) derived from a popular sea chanty. Key lyric: “Some come to laugh their past away / Some come to make it just one more day / Whichever way your pleasure tends / If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind.”
“Terrapin Station” (1977)
The words and music to the mythic side-long suite that opens “Terrapin Station” were composed simultaneously, albeit unknowingly, by Garcia and Hunter one dark and stormy Bay Area night. The Muse is invoked and English balladry accessed. The result was “about as close as I ever expected to get to feeling certain that we were doing what we were put here to do,” Hunter later said. Key lyric: “While the fire lights aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow / Till things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.”
“Days Between” (1993)
Performed in the Dead’s latter days but never taken into a studio, the gorgeous, ghostly “Days Between” has been deemed the band’s last great song by some fansplainers. Nostalgic and subtly self-referential, “Days Between” throws moral shade on the world’s passage from an idealized Summer of Love to the dark days of the early ‘90s. With Garcia an increasingly unreliable collaborator, Hunter was possibly hoping that this song, along with others such as “Standing on the Moon” and “Foolish Heart,” would get his attention. Key lyric: “Hearts of Summer held in trust / Still tender young and green / Left on shelves collecting dust / Not knowing what they mean.”
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