Down the Road
By Marty Martinez with Toni Brown
Robert Hunter is a chronic wordsmith.† Long popularized as the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Hunter and his longtime collaborator, Jerry Garcia, consolidated the sometimes lengthy lyrics into pieces that could be put to music.† Garcia would often add his own imprint as well.
††††††††††† The Grateful Dead, and especially Garcia, served as the perfect mouthpiece for Hunterís words.† Songs flavored with unique timings and skewered phrasings were delivered with inspiration and emotion.
††††††††††† In addition to the numerous songs that he has penned, Hunter has written volumes of poetry and prose.† He debuted as a published poet with his translation of the Duino Elegies (Hulogosi, 1987), which was indeed a daring undertaking.† A series of books followedóNight Cadre (Viking Penguin, 1991), Idiots Delight (Hanuman Press, 1992), Infinity Minus Eleven (Spike 3, 1993), his translation of Rilkeís The Sonnets to Orpheus (Hulogosi, 1993) and Sentinel (Penguin Poets, 1993).† His epic poem, Dog Moon, illustrated by Timothy Truman, was published as a graphic novel (DC/Vertigo, 1996).† But perhaps his most critical collection in the eyes of his biggest fans, Deadheads, is Box Of Rain, Collected Lyrics of Robert Hunter (Viking Penguin, 1993).† This chronological collection contains not only his lyrical work with the Dead, but much of his solo performance material as well.† His latest offering is Glass Lunch, published by Penguin.
††††††††††† ďAll writing is evasive,Ē Hunter quotes in ďHigh Water Mark,Ē one of the pieces that appears in Glass Lunch.† Evasive?† Yes.† But also thought-provoking and engaging.† With witty and occasionally sardonic, stark observance, Hunter wraps his words around the reader in a mesmerizing web.† Uncovering their meaning is a uniquely individual process as Hunterís inspiration draws from a myriad of sources.
††††††††††† Hunter recently completed a solo tour, his first in seven years.† The successful run was greeted with sold-out performances nationally.† For many fans, this was their first opportunity to see Hunter perform live.
††††††††††† With a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, he delivered songs that weíve long cherished.† Hunterís rendition of ďCandymanĒ was soul wrenching, as were ďRippleĒ and ďDays Between.Ē† Clearly, it had been too long since audiences heard songs that only Hunter performs, such as ďTalking Money Tree,Ē ďPromontory Rider,Ē ďTiger Rose,Ē and the delightful a cappella ďBoys in the Barroom.Ē† Many concert-goers agreed that ďTerrapin StationĒ could have appeared more frequently throughout the tour.† Notwithstanding the complex nature of the suite, Hunter seemed to deliver it as the spirit moved him.† (See concert reviews this issueóed.)
††††††††††† A week before hitting the road, Hunter spoke about his anticipation and preparation for the tour.
You donít go out on the road a lot, and one might even say you have an aversion towards touring.
Hunter:† Iím trying to get over this aversion to touring because it seems kind of counter productive, and with the amount of practicing time in getting my chops back together, I donít really want to limit it to one tour.
††††††††††† It really is a mental set and along with doing rehearsals, Iím working on my attitude.† Iíve decided if Iím gonna do this, Iím gonna like it.† Iím gonna make myself like it.† Iím a writer.† I get into these introversion spaces.† I donít want people coming at me.† I want to write my poems and my songs, and this is something I think I could just step out of.† Iím getting really excited about going out.† Iíve spent seven years getting fat, out of shape, going blind typing in my net page, and all of the sudden it just seemed like, ďWait a minute.† Five more years of this and youíre gonna just have to shovel me up and put me in a bag.Ē† So, I want to go out, do this and Iím gonna love it or bust.
Itís been seven years since weíve seen you out on the road.† Your body of work is just fantastic.† Itís a pleasure to have you coming back to New York, to a great venue like Town Hall.
Hunter:† Town Hall is incredible.† I think the last time I played it was í84 or í85, and I remember I tried out a new song to open called ďTouch of Darkness.Ē† I had Sunny Terry and Brownie McGhee on the bill, too.† It was a really fine night.† And that room is like a big acoustic guitar.† You put something out, it does what you want it to do.
You recently published something, courtesy of Penguin, called Glass Lunch.† From what I understand, itís a book of poetry.
Hunter:† Thatís right, poetry.† Itís got some hyper-erotic prose pieces in it, which are very uncharacteristic of me.† My feeling is I donít like to put anything out in the public that doesnít scare me to release, which is true of my net page. If I donít feel a bit of nerves before releasing my weekly journal on the net, Iím not giving the juice.† Itís basically poetry and stuff that Iíve been writing in and amongst my songs since 1992, my latest collection.† I donít know what to say of it.† Each page is a different trip, one way or another.
When we last spoke about a year or so ago, you were writing prose and all.† Now, you seem to be pouring a lot of energy onto the net.† How has that balanced with your songwriting and poetry?† Is it just a continuing process, or do you sit down to work, and say, ďOkay, today Iím going to work on my prose,Ē or do you just let the muse come through?
Hunter:† Oh, basically thatís it.† The journal is an interesting thing, and itís become a bit of a habit.† I have to, in a way, not realize how many people are reading it or it could give me writerís block.† So I tend to do it when Iím really relaxed, generally at night before going to bed.† Songs happen when theyíre motivated.† I donít sit down anymore the way I used to and just write songs all the time.† I kind of need a target for them.† I think last time we spoke, I was talking about writing with Zero, and they helped motivate me to do it, and I assume that going out and touring on my own will motivate me to do a bunch of new material.
Give us some background on your upcoming tour.
Hunter:† Iím going out by myself, and Iím doing a full evening.† Iíll do about a half hour warm-up set, take 20 minutes off and then hit it with about another hour-and-ten, hour-and-a-quarter.† Thatís the context.† I donít want a warm-up band because then theyíre warmed up, and I go on cold.† So I like to warm up for myself and just have my audience for the evening and do whatever I can with them.
With so much material to work with, what can we expect to hear?
Hunter:† Nobody will have any cause to complain at any of my shows with the amount of Grateful Dead material I serve up because this is the best work that Iíve been involved with, and I go out there to play the best work that Iíve been involved with, and I go out there to play the best repertoire I can, more than I do to showcase new material.† Thereíll be some new material and a lot of my standard stuff that Iíve done over the years.† I think that, hopefully, the difference this time [will be that] Iíve been working with my own soundman and really developing the sound of the whole thing itself.† And Iím gonna be a lot more relaxed with the voice and guitar than I was when I was going out simply taking pot luck wherever I went with the soundmen, because my show is not that easy to mix, and anybody thatís seen me knows that itís mighty peculiar.
Are there people that you like to work with or want to work with again, or are you just biding your time and waiting to see what happens out there?
Hunter:† No, not biding time.† Getting this show together and then the touring is a full use of my time.† Itís right now to where I have to cram anything else in.† After I get done in New York, Iím gonna do a benefit for dead.net in San Francisco.† I started fantasizing the other day about what Iíd like to do, and I called my agent up.† Thatís one good thing about doing solosóyou can move fast, and Iím booking a little Seattle, Canada, then over to England, Germany, France, and Ireland tour for me in June.
††††††††††† I was gonna wait till I took to the road this time before starting to book anything else, but Iíve got enough faith in the fact that getting in a really positive mental set about it, just saying, ďYes, this is what I want to do,Ē not having reservations about it, [which] leads to the next step.† [I thought]† ďOkay, well if you really believe that, then why are you holding back on just going ahead and booking another tour?Ē† I couldnít answer that question, so I called my agent and started booking.† You can catch me in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, thinking about Belfast, definitely Dublin, and for some reason, I want to do the industrial areas of EnglandóManchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and up to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The rumor mill is rampant, and the main question is, will you be a part of the Furthur Festival tour this summer?
Hunter:† Iím not going to do Furthur this summer.† Iíve got several reasons.† One of which is that I want to pursue this line of development, choosing my own theaters and developing this show for the next year, and then Iím not saying I might not duck in and out of a show or two when I get back from Europe.† But another problem is outdoor gigs in the spring and summer for me.† Allergy problems.† And right at this point, I donít want to be too involved in a package tour playing for an aggregate audience that hasnít specifically come to see me.† This year, I want to work on the show.† Next year, I canít say what Iíll do.† I reckon I probably will do Furthur next year.† I am a big Furthur booster, and I think itís gonna be a hell of a show this year from what Iím hearing.
What guitars will you be taking on the road with you?
Hunter:† My Guild, that I took out the last time, doesnít have the sound I want.† It has wonderful action.† The Washburn I was thinking of taking out has wonderful sound, the actionís a bit high and not really resetable, so I went shopping for guitars.† I just picked out a new Taylor.† (Hunter opted to use his Guild for the touróed.)
††††††††††† Iím practicing twice as much as I was before.† By the way, this is not gonna be like an acoustic sound in front of a microphone.† With my soundman, weíre working up a whole battery of various sounds for the guitar.† Some are gonna sound pretty strange coming out of this instrument, you know, like different settings through all kinds of onboard gear to keep the show interesting.† I just canít wait.† Iím champing at the bit.† Iíve got less than week now, and itís getting to the point where Iím getting bored with practice, bored with rehearsal.† I want to get out on-stage and do this.
What was the decision that pushed you to the point that you wanted to go back out on the road?
Hunter:† It wasnít a decision this time.† It was a strange circumstance.† We were going to have a Rex benefit to get Rex back on its feet, and the act that was going to do it had to cancel and this was devastating.† Bob Weir popped up and said, ďIíll do it.Ē† And I thought, ďwhat a mensch.† If Weir will do it, I feel kind of silly not offering myself,Ē even though I hadnít really worked on a guitar very much lately.† And so I said, ďif Weirís gonna do it, Iíll do it too.Ē† And then I started working up some material, only to find out that this show, which was going to be at the Fillmore, had already been canceled when the person who was gonna headline it said he couldnít make it.† I found that I was very disappointed, and I was a bit shocked to see how disappointed I was.† And by this, I realized that I wanted to perform more than I was admitting to myself, so I just kept it up.† Iíd started working up material and I just kept working it up, and after a couple of weeks, I was pretty sure there was no point when I decided I didnít want to do it.† So I called my agent and said, ďbook me.Ē
What do you miss most about Dead shows?
Hunter:† There was a strange sense of eternity that would happen at moments during a Grateful Dead show, as though this had always been happening and always would be happening.† And when I would have that feeling, I would realize that this might be true in some spiritual sense, but here on a more mundane level, it wasnít exactly true.† There was this strange tugging and pulling when Iíd have this, but it was an experience that I had very often of partaking in some sort of eternal dance.† If Iím not mistaken, this would very well describe what other people miss most of all.
††††††††††† Hunter no longer reserves his words for his songs and poetry as he routinely makes his voice heard over cyberspace.† His ongoing journal shares an intimate glimpse into his life and spirit.† He is honest in this forum, spilling his thoughts as if talking with a close friend.† Of special interest is Hunterís daily ongoing road journal, which he logged onto every day from the tour.† He described his days, complete with photos and detailed descriptions of everything from the hotelís coffee to sound check and sound problems, to his perceptions of the audiences and venues.† For his fans, it was the next best thing to being there.
††††††††††† Robert Hunter has given us many inspirational words to live by.† In a modest way, by including us in his life, we are privy to who this mystical lyricist/wordsmith really is. He has touched people the world over, but ironically, the very thing that has made him ďfamousĒóhis affiliation with the Grateful Deadóis also what keeps him within the alternative realm.
You will find Robert Hunterís journal on the World Wide Web at www.dead.net.[ Close Window ]