Jerry Garcia was born 72 years ago this week. Garcia brought millions of people together—people who are now married, or best friends or co-workers, and he introduced even more people to a life of beauty and music. In order to “Keep on Shinin’,” (as Jerry would have us do) let’s take a few moments to explore one important aspect of Grateful Dead culture—the genius of lyricist Robert Hunter.
Steve Silberman is a brilliant writer and a well known Deadhead. In 1992, when Grateful Dead’s legendary lyricist, Robert Hunter, started producing volumes of poetry, Silberman interviewed Hunter for Poetry Flash.
Here is one small piece of their dialogue:
SILBERMAN: The song “Box of Rain” began as a rough vocal outline from Phil [Dead bassist Lesh]. How does that process work?
HUNTER: Scat singing: “Dum-dum dum, da-da-da-da, bump-dum-dum-dum-dum, dee-dee-dee.” I’m able to translate peoples’ scat. I hear English in it, almost as though I write down what I hear underneath that. I hear the intention. It’s a talent like the Rubik’s Cube, or something like that, and it comes easily to me. Which might be why I like Language poetry. I can tell from the rhythms, or lack of rhythms, from the disjunctures and the end stoppages, what they’re avoiding saying– the meaning that they would like to not be stating there, comes rushing through to me. I understand dogs. I can talk to babies.
A cat dictated “China Cat Sunflower” to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just write it down; I guess it’s plagiarism. I’ve credited the cat, right? [laughing]
Clearly, the cat on Hunter’s tummy had quite the vocabulary. “I rang a silent bell beneath a shower of pearls in the eagle wing palace of the Queen Chinee.”
The interview with Hunter is heady matter. I read and write poetry, yet much of the conversation is beyond me. Which is fine, I like stretching to pull goods from the top shelf. Here’s what I found up there, tucked neatly away in Hunter’s memory.
About 25 years ago I was visiting a girlfriend in the City, and there was this little orange book in her bookcase that I pulled out. It was On Out, by Lew Welch, and I thought, “How long has this been going on?”
Naturally, the slender volume so key to Hunter’s development as a poet is now out of print. Which leads me to wonder why any book of merit would be hard to find today. The notion of being “out of print” is itself an anachronism. We can unearth these volumes and make them available in digital formats.