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Remembering Grateful Dead Lyricist Robert Hunter

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 12:12 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for many Grateful Dead songs, died Monday. He was 78. We've dipped into our archives so we could play back my interview with him. Hunter wrote lyrics to songs Dead fans know by heart like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLE JOHN'S BAND")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Well, the first days are the hardest days. Don't you worry anymore because when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door. Think this through with me. Let me know your mind. Whoa. What I want to know is, are you kind?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINA CAT SUNFLOWER")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Look for a while at the China cat sunflower proud walking jingle in the midnight sun. Copperdome bodhi drip a silver kimono like a crazy quilt stargown through a dream night wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIEND OF THE DEVIL")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) I lit up from Reno. I was trailed by 20 hounds, didn't get to sleep that night till the morning came around. Set out running, but I'll take my time. A friend of the devil is a friend of mine. If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight. I ran into the devil, babe, he loaned me 20 bills...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY WIND")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) I been balling a shiny, black, steel jackhammer, been chipping up rocks for the great highway. I'll live five years if I take my time, balling that jack and drinking my wine. I been chipping them rocks from dawn until doom while my rider hide my bottle in the other room. Doctor say better stop balling that jack. If I live five years, I'm going to bust my back, yes I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUCKIN'")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Trucking. Like the do-dah man once told me, you've got to play your hand. Sometimes your cards ain't worth a dime if you don't lay them down. Sometimes the light's all shining on me. Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.

GROSS: Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia met when they were teenagers and played folk music together. After Garcia formed the Grateful Dead in the mid-'60s, Hunter started writing most of the lyrics for Garcia's songs. In the mid-'60s, the Grateful Dead were the house band for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, parties in which people were tripping out on LSD, parties that helped bring acid into the counterculture.

Hunter's first experience with LSD and other psychedelics was when he was given them as part of a Stanford research project that he did not know was funded by the CIA, which was looking for a mind control drug. The CIA's mind control program was the subject of an interview we did just a few weeks ago on FRESH AIR. My interview with Robert Hunter was recorded in 1988, seven years before the death of Jerry Garcia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: When you're writing a song with Garcia - and he's writing the music, you're writing the lyrics. Let me ask that age-old question of, which comes first?

ROBERT HUNTER: Well, what's happening right now is Jerry's coming over to the house every day. We're getting some songs together for a new album. And I give him some starter ideas, and he looks at those. And we just batter it back and forth and back and forth. The songs for Grateful Dead are true collaboration for the most part.

There are times when I've handed him lyrics and he's set, then other times when he's handed me accomplished changes and I've put words to those. But when it works best is when we actually get our heads together and battle it back and forth until there's something that we mutually agree on.

GROSS: When you were traveling with the band and the people who were onstage would get so much attention, would you ever feel a little left out (laughter) as the lyricist who wasn't on the stage basking in all the glory?

HUNTER: Oh, you bet I did. Oh, oh, it was misery...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HUNTER: ...All those jerks up there getting all that glory and all the girls and everything like that and just miserable. All I had was my spiral notebook. Yeah, boy - well, I'll get even.

GROSS: (Laughter) Can you confirm this for me? I read somewhere that you were one of the participants in the Stanford University program of government experimentation with LSD in the early 1960s.

HUNTER: Yeah. They paid me $140 to take - first, LSD, second, psilocybin, I think, third, mescaline, and then the fourth week, all three of them together...

GROSS: No kidding (laughter).

HUNTER: ...Which was a joy in one way. But they also came and took five cc of blood every two hours. And when you're hoined (ph) out on acid - here comes Dracula again.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gosh. What did they tell you about LSD before they gave it to you the first time?

HUNTER: Nothing. They didn't want me to know a thing about it. And I lied to them. I told them that I knew nothing about it, and I had read "Doors Of Perception," in fact.

GROSS: Oh, and that's why you wanted to be in the program probably.

HUNTER: Yeah. And they called it - the word at the time was psychotomimetic drugs, miming psychosis. And they wanted to find out if it increased your ability to be hypnotized and to take suggestions. And I don't know what they found out from that. I was sitting there, and they were trying to run these little hypnotic things on me, I remember. And all of a sudden, tears began running out of my eyes. And the psychologist said, well, what's happening here? And I said, well, it's kind of hard to describe, but I'm out in the fifth dimension somewhere. And I'm a great, jade green Buddha. And there's a pool growing out of my lap. And it's just - and the water of the pool is running out of my eyes. I'm not really crying.

I think they began twigging that they were onto something a little bit more than a simple heightening of suggestibility here.

GROSS: Do you think that tripping a lot changed the kind of lyrics that you were writing?

HUNTER: Oh, it had to.

GROSS: Yeah.

HUNTER: It had to. I mean, it was - I was tripping around in mystic space and making the mystic connections, which I think were right for the time. I look back on that stuff with a great deal of affection. And I know where it comes from. I think people do as part and parcel of that generation. Don't write like that anymore, but I don't take the drug anymore.

GROSS: I figure if I had a nickel for everyone who got really high and listened to your lyrics and tried to figure out the more elliptical imagery, I'd really be a wealthy woman. What are some of the crazier interpretations you've gotten of some of your song lyrics?

HUNTER: Oh, heavens. Well, there was a time - it may still be so - when people would swear that I was writing about them. And if something is personal enough, there's a certain line where it becomes universal. It's - you never know which ones will and which ones won't. You know, I've written things which are so personal nobody could ever have the slightest idea, like, you know, look at - look for a while at the China Cat Sunflower proud walking jingle in the midnight sun. Now that gets into kind of Joycean word salad. And some people strangely enough know just what I mean by it. But don't - I couldn't explain that.

GROSS: Can I ask you about a song - another song, "Uncle John's Band?"

HUNTER: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: One of the lines is when life looks like Easy Street, there's danger at your door.

HUNTER: Oh, God, is that true.

GROSS: Can I ask you - have you ever thought - were you thinking of something specific when you wrote that?

HUNTER: I was thinking about the - sort of the hippie, self-congratulatory thing that we'd really conquered all this. You know, here, we've got - we've ended the Vietnam War. We've done this, the other thing. And then, you know, things looking rosy. No, no, it's - liberty, the price is eternal vigilance.

GROSS: My interview with Robert Hunter was recorded in 1988. He died Monday at the age of 78. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a book about one of the most famous poems of the 20th century, written as World War II was beginning. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP YOUR HANDS AND SAY YEAH SONG, "OVER AND OVER AGAIN (LOST AND FOUND)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.