November 19, 2005
Grateful Dead lyricist Hunter shares his philosophy
By Jim Bessman
NEW YORK (Billboard) - "Grateful Dead lyrics can contain
the world," editor/expositor David Dodd writes in his
introduction to the newly published "The Complete Annotated
Grateful Dead Lyrics." For the most part, this world was
created by longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
The elusive collaborator further graces fans with the
480-page tome's erudite forward. It is a discourse on the
philosophy of songwriting in which Hunter expounds upon his
assertion that a song is a "series of tones enhanced by
metaphor" that "coalesces into a visage in the act of
Hunter offers such useful -- if unexpected -- songwriting
tips as "deadlines are for dummies" and "remember, you're an
artist and it's your proud tradition to be difficult."
Songwriting, he writes, is "above all else and beyond all
else, a language of direct emotion"; hence he did not allow his
lyrics to be printed with Dead recordings initially, preferring
listeners to mistake the words to their own liking.
"I never foresaw the day when someone would jimmy those
words apart and do an encyclopedic search of their meanings,"
he told Billboard in a rare interview. "Maybe it's my age, but
a lot of those (annotations) seemed obvious to me -- but it
occurs to me now that they might not be evident to succeeding
Indeed, he pointed to a line in Dead classic "Truckin"':
"She lost her sparkle, you know she isn't the same/Living on
reds, vitamin C and cocaine."
"What suggested that was a (1950s) Pepsodent commercial,"
Hunter said. "I thought a few people would pick up on it, but,
of course, no one did."
Hunter's chief writing partner, of course, was Jerry
Garcia. "I wish he'd hung around a bit more," Hunter said of
his late friend, recalling one of their last collaborations,
"I wanted to write something completely different," he
said, "so I wrote down random numbers to correspond with each
line (such that) the first would have three syllables, the next
five, then eight -- or whatever. Then I took that format and
wrote the words, and then wrote another verse to match. So I
chose to obey a different numerical law than the usual type of
rock song structure, and it came out as one of the strongest
songs I'd ever written."
Garcia's death in 1995 curtailed their collaborative
experimentation, but Hunter has since worked with country
artist Jim Lauderdale on his 2004 album, "Headed for the
Hills." Now, however, his attention is on fiction.
"I enjoyed writing the intro to 'Lyrics' so much that I
started a novel," he said.
"Doppelganger," about an autistic hero dispatched to save a
parallel world, is now in the hands of publishers.