It has taken me some little time to get my (dead)head round the death of Robert Hunter, at the age of 78. Many Deadheads paid minimal or no attention to the lyrics of even the greatest songs in the canon. But I did. And the Dead did.
When the Dead was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Hunter – who had never performed on-stage with them – was there, as a fully-fledged member of the band. And if there was occasionally a divergence in the visions of Hunter and Garcia – “For Christ’s sake, we’re a dance band. You might at least write something with a beat!” Garcia told him after perusing another bunch of lyrics – it is Hunter’s work, in for example Ripple, Dark Star, Saint Stephen, Terrapin which define the Dead, the latter being imho, a masterful version of Cavafy’s Ithaca.
When Jerry died in 1995, Hunter wrote what encyclopaedist Michael Gray called ‘a super-competent’ elegy:
Without your melody and taste
to lend an attitude of grace
a lyric is an orphan thing,
a hive with neither honey’s taste
nor power to truly sting.
But there is a case to be made for the true elegy being his collaboration with Bob on Together Through Life.
It’s a meditation on mortality and immortality, on the end of America. Beyond here lies nothing; life is hard; it’s all good.
How much is Bob’s and how much is Hunter’s? I don’t know, not for sure. But I do know that a stanza such as this must surely come individually and collectively from the relationship that both Bob and Hunter had with Jerry:
Ever since the day
The day you went away
I felt that emptiness so wide
I don't know what's wrong or right
I just know I need strength to fight
Strength to fight that world outside
Yeh, I know. They are not the best lines either of them wrote. But the sincerity and simplicity and authenticity is enough.
Both are clever wordsmiths. Both are masters of their craft. Both write a different kind of song.
But sometimes you don’t have to be a smart-arse for the sake of it.
Today from the everysmith vaults: Terrapin Station from March 1990.