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Rolling Stone 

David Browne 

23-29 minutes 

March 9, 2015 2:33PM ET 

Robert Hunter on Grateful Dead’s Early Days, Wild 
Tours, ‘Sacred’ Songs 

In an exclusive interview, the band’s lyricist opens 
up on how they came together, made their most 
beloved records and got turned onto LSD 

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the band's rise, sharing stories about the group's chance 

formation, beloved tunes and wild tours 
Jake Stangel for Rolling Stone 

Fifty years ago this May, Robert Hunter popped into a pizza parlor 

in Menlo Park, California, to see his friend Jerry Garcia play in his 

new electric band, the Warlocks. “They were good, just dandy,” 
recalls Hunter, sitting in the living room of his San Rafael, 
California, home. “It was hard to believe Jerry in a rock & roll band, 
I’ve got to say. He was a folk musician. But then to become a rock 
& roll band, him and Bill and Weir and Pigoen—it was amusing. It 
just seemed unlikely, and it was also a time of odd band names.” 

This July, the “core four” of the band that the Warlocks became, 
the Grateful Dead — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and 
Mickey Hart — will reunite for shows in Chicago to commemorate 

the Dead’s 50th anniversary, joined by Phish singer-guitarist Trey 

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Anastasio. But if there were a core fifth surviving member, it would 
be Hunter, the Dead’s longtime primary lyricist. Garcia’s guitar, 
Lesh’s massive bass, and the dual Kreutzmann-Hart drums 
defined the sound of the Dead. But Hunter’s words — heard in 
“Uncle John’s Band,” “Ripple,” “Eyes of the World,” “Dire Wolf,” 
“Standing on the Moon,” “Touch of Grey,” “Dark Star,” “Box of 
Rain,” and so many other milestones in the Dead’s catalog — were 
the band’s poetic, story-telling soul, often matching the untamed, 
exploratory nature of the Dead themselves. “You'd see Hunter 
standing over in the corner,” recalls Hart of the time Hunter joined 
up with them. “He had this little dance he’d do. He had one foot off 
the ground and he’d be writing in his notebooks. He was 
communing with the music. And all of a sudden, we had songs.” 

The songs Hunter wrote with Garcia (and, occasionally, Lesh and 
Weir) have lived on, covered by Willie Nelson, Patti Smith, Tom 
Petty, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, even Sublime. “Hunter tapped into 
his generation the same way Dylan did,” says Mike Campbell of the 
Heartbreakers, a longtime Dead fan. “People will look back and 
say, ‘That’s American culture represented in music.’ He captured 
the hippie freedom, the mentality of the little guy against the 
corporation. A lot of the songs are about gambling, card playing 
and riverboat guys who'll cut your throat if you look the wrong way.” 
Perry Farrell, who covered “Ripple” with Jane’s Addiction, calls 
Hunter “a poet on the level of Kierkegaard,” and Scott Devendorf of 
the National says, “Hunter’s lyrics say the right things in a few 
words, like ‘dry your eyes on the wind.’ His lyrics tell a story, and he 
can turn a phrase in ways that aren't obvious.” In what could seem 
like final validation, Hunter and Garcia will be inducted in June into 
the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the respected industry institution 

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whose previous inductees range from Stephen Foster, Irving 
Berlin, and Woody Guthrie to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and 
Bob Dylan. 

For Hunter, the work has continued since Garcia's death. He’s 
written songs with Costello, Bruce Hornsby, roots country savior 
Jim Lauderdale, and his former Dead band mates for their post- 
Garcia projects. Hunter is even one of the very rare lyricists Dylan 
has turned to for collaboration: The two co-wrote most of the songs 
on Dylan’s 2009 album Together Through Life. “He’s got a way with 
words and | do too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone at the time. “We both 

write a different type of song than what passes today for 

By his own admission, Hunter has long been an irascible character 
even in the world of the Dead, rarely doing interviews and 
maintaining a low public profile. “| was basically a maverick and a 
rebel’s rebel even amongst the Dead,” he says. “That’s how | grew 
up. Always the new kid in school. Everybody wants to challenge 
you all the time.” But three years ago, he came close to dying 
thanks to a spinal abscess and the discovery of bladder cancer. 
After recuperating, Hunter hit the road for short tours in 2013 and 
2014, an experience that revitalized him and reconnected him with 
adoring Deadheads. Playing solo acoustic, his guitar 
approximating Garcia’s chords and his voice often revving up to 
booming sea-shanty power, Hunter was received rapturously by 
fans who hadn't seen him onstage in roughly 10 years. “I didn’t 
expect that good of a welcome,” Hunter says now, “and it was a lot 
more fun than | would’ve thought.” 

With that, Hunter, 73, feels the time has come to talk about the 
band that delighted, inspired and vexed over three decades. Over 

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the course of two interview sessions at his home, Hunter, dressed 
in a denim shirt and slacks, settled into a plush chair in his living 
room and gave RS a rare peak into his work, life and relationship 
with Garcia and the Dead. In part one, he covers the Dead’s 

rise, sharing stories about the band’s chance formation, beloved 
tunes and wild tours; you can read part two here. 

“I’m being pretty darn frank in this interview, aren't |?” he says at 
one point with a grin. “The great ‘me’ pontificates on what the great 
band should have been doing according to my brilliant lights! You 
can quote that!” 

Let’s start at the beginning: Legend has it that you met Garcia 
in Palo Alto on 1961 at a local production of Damn Yankees. 
He was 18 and | was 19, and we had somewhat similar 
experiences in a certain sort of way—he lost his father to death 
and | lost my father to a divorce. Before | moved off to Connecticut 

in the 12! grade, | was dating Diane Huntsburger. She was doing 
lights for the show, and Jerry was her boyfriend and he was there 
that night. She remained a good friend, so she said to go to Damn 
Yankees and introduced me to Jerry and | say, “Hey, how’s it 
going.” He didn’t seem very enthusiastic—as if all he wanted was to 
meet some of his girlfriend’s old boyfriends [/aughs]. 

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Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina, Grateful 
Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and Grateful Dead singer Donna 
Godchaux pose backstage at the Old Waldorf club 1980 in San 
Francisco, California. Photo credit: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty 

But the next time | met him was at St. Michael’s Alley, a 
coffeehouse, just a couple nights later, | think. | went in to see if 
there was any kind of crowd to hang out with. | didn’t really know 
anybody in town at this point. [Garcia and his friends] said, “Hey, 
you got a car?” And | said, “Uh, yeah,” and they said, “Would you 
like to go see Animal Farm tomorrow? It’s supposed to be in 
Berkeley or something,” and | said yeah, sure. The next day they're 
banging on my door, him and Alan Trist. We didn't see Animal 
Farm, but somehow we managed to drive in my old car, which | got 
for $50, a 1940 Chrysler. | didn’t know what we did do! We might 
have had enough gas to get there. We were all broke! 

How did you complement each other from the beginning when 
you met? 

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A couple of nights after | met Jerry, we went over to this party. 
There was one guitar there and | start playing it, which is what | 
usually would do, and Jerry asked if he could have the guitar. And 
never gave it back [/aughs] We got another guitar somehow or 
another to do the gigs with. We had guitar and folk music in 
common. I'd been in the folk music club at the University of 
Connecticut, so | had my folk music and guitar playing, and Jerry, 
same, same, so we hit it off. To me, Jerry just had a really 
interesting mind, you know; he was just phenomenal, fun to talk to. 
All day long, he'd just sit there with this action [picks up guitar and 
plays fingerpicking folk figure]. He never stopped playing guitar. 

What was the first song you wrote — was it “Black Cat”? 
That’s right! I'll sing it to you. [Grabs his guitar] | don’t think it’s ever 
been sung: “Tell you a story about my old man’s cat/Cat whose 
hide was uncommonly black...” [Sings entire song with a huge 
grin\ Jerry and | didn’t have anything else to do and we just wrote 
the song, and neither of us ever thought about it again. Our first 
group was Bob and Jerry, and our first gig was at Stanford. We got 
$5 for both of us. We kept it for a couple of days until we needed 
cigarettes, and then that was that. 

You also played in early bluegrass groups with Jerry. 

[Nods] And then | didn’t get into the Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug 
Champions [the pre-Dead jug band], although | was offered. Jerry 
came over and said, “Would you like to play jug in the band?” But | 
couldn't get a tone out of it. | suppose if | had accepted that jug, | 
would’ve changed the whole trajectory. That wasn’t my direction of 
travel. | think writing for the Dead was the best thing | could’ve 
done. In fact | remember at a certain point thinking, “What was | 
thinking about being a novelist? This is where it’s at.” 

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And legend has it you were the first in the gang to try LSD, 
thanks to a testing program at a VA hospital. 

| used to do psychology experiments — you could get $10 or $15 
for doing them, and this was one of them, only this paid better. | 
had a romping good time. They wanted to find out was whether it 
increased my ability to be hypnotized. Just a couple of years back | 
found out it was military or the CIA or something, that they were 
trying to find its value as a weapon. For me they would’ve found 
out absolutely nothing. | told Jerry, but there was no way to get 
ahold of any of this stuff; it wasn’t on the streets yet or anything. It 
wasn't until I'd say a good two years later when Jerry took it and he 
and Sarah [Ruppenthal, Garcia’s first wife] came over to my house. 
They were on acid and said, “What do we do now?” | said, “Go 
home, put on a Ravi Shankar record, just listen to the music.” It 
worked. That was good advice, no? 

“Jerry and | used to watch Porter Wagoner’s show. Then we’d 
atch Sesame Sireet. It was mind-boggling.” 

At one point in the mid ’60s, you also reportedly looked into a 
new organization called Scientology. 

For a short time. This was a brand new thing at the time. This 
fellow came down and was telling us fantastic things, like you get 
could get out of your body. All of that sounded great. But let’s just 
say Scientology and | were not a very good match. | was pretty 
independent minded. Jerry came to one of the meetings. And he 
truly didn’t care for it. We did these confronting drills and stared 
into each other's eyes for long periods of time and tried not to think 
without trying and not blink. [Chuckles] | gave it the good old 
college try but then moved into other forms of spiritual endeavors 
and yoga. | was a seeker at the time and this was one of the 

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places | sought and it wasn’t a good fit. In the end the Grateful 

Dead fit. | thought there was a possible holy perspective to the 
Grateful Dead, that what we were doing was almost sacred. 

What do you mean by sacred? 

The spirit of the times. It was happening in the Ashbury district at 
the time, although it didn’t last very long before everybody just 
descended on Haight Street. But there was a time | felt this was 
the way the world would be going in a spiritual way, and we were 
an important part of that. | didn’t feel we were a pop music band. | 
wanted to write a whole different sort of music. Jerry and | had 
differences on that. He would say, “Goddamn it, man, we’re a 
dance band! Stop doing stuff like ‘Eagle Mall!” He was right: the 
Dead were a psychedelic dance band. Jerry had written “boogie” 
on his pedal steel guitar, so he wouldn’t forget to boogie. 

Were you there during that famous night in 1965 at Phil’s 
when they found the name “Grateful Dead”? 

No, no! | would’ve talked ‘em out of it. Definitely. It was outrageous 
is what it was, one of those things when you're sittin’ around 
stoned that sounds like an incredibly good idea. However, time has 
its way with things, and now it seems like one of the finest choices 

Let’s talk about how you became the Dead’s primary lyricist in 

| got pretty deeply into speed and meth and came close to messin’ 
myself up. The scene | was in, | had to get out of that scene 
entirely, because as long as it was around | would be tempted, so | 
went off to New Mexico. And while | was there | had been writing 
some songs, mosily before | left Palo Alto. | had written “St. 
Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower,” and | sent those — and 

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“Alligator” — off to Jerry, and he uncharacteristically wrote back 
[laughs]. He said they were going to use the songs and why didn’t | 
come out and be their lyricist? Which | did. 

And there’s the famous story of you listening to the band 
rehearse and coming up with some of “Dark Star” as they 

Right, because they were rehearsing it right away. They were 
playing and | wrote down a verse for it and it worked. Then a 
couple of weeks later, | was sitting in the Panhandle [in San 
Francisco] and writing out a second verse, and this guy came up 
and said, “Hey, you want a hit?” | don’t remember if | took it or not, 
but | said, “I’m writing the second verse for the song called ‘Dark 
Star’ for the Grateful Dead — remember that.” | had a prescience 
about the whole thing at that point. Once | started believing in that 
band, | thought, we’re going to go the distance. 

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Robert Hunter poses at the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal studio, Club 
Front, in November 1977 in San Rafael, California. Photo credit: Ed 
Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images 

Did you often write when you were high? 

Sometimes you got high and sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes 
you took speed and sometimes you smoked pot. | actually wrote 
one song drunk, “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” [Chuckles] And God 
knows how | wrote “China Cat Sunflower.” | was working on that for 
months, adding verses and drafting this, that and the other thing. | 
find that writing on pot, | throw an amazing amount of stuff away 
that looked groovy to me while I’m stoned and doesn't look groovy 
afterwards. If | want to be productive it’s best to be straight. Now, a 
cup of coffee is going to get me going, and that’s about it. 

How would you write songs with Garcia? 

Jerry didn’t like sitting down by himself and writing songs. He said, 
“| would rather toss cards in a hat than write songs,” and this was 
very true. There were situations where he would come over and 
have melodies and we’d see what we could get out of that. More 
often | would give him a stack of songs and he'd say, “Oh, God, 
Hunter! Not again!” He'd throw away what he didn’t like. I'd like to 
have some of the stuff he tossed out! | don’t know where it went. | 
wrote once about “cue balls made of Styrofoam” — that line from 
“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” Jerry took objection to 
the word Styrofoam. He said, “This is so uncharacteristic of your 
work, to put something as time dated” — or whatever that word 

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would be — “as Styrofoam into it.” I've never sung that song 
without regretting | put that line in. Jerry also didn't like songs that 
had political themes to them, and in retrospect | think this was 
wise, because a lot of the stuff with political themes from those 
days sounds pretty callow these days. 

What would surprise us to learn about you and Jerry hanging 
out in the old days? 

Jerry and | used to watch Porter Wagoner’s show. Then afterwards 
we'd watch Sesame Street, which had just come on. It was mind- 
boggling. There was nothing ever like that on television before. 

What do you recall of that legendary 40-minute instrumental 
tape the Dead gave you that became “Uncle John’s Band’? 
Oh, it wasn’t that long. But yeah, it was the music for it, and | had it 
on tape and played it over and over. | think | started out with 
“Goddamn, Uncle John’s mad,” and like that, which turned into 
“Uncle John’s band.” But it was my feeling about what the Dead 
was and could be. It was very much a song for us and about us, in 
the most hopeful sense. 

How about “Ripple”? 

We were in Canada on that train trip [the Festival Express, 1970] 
and one morning the train stopped and Jerry was sitting out on the 
tracks not too far off, in the sunrise, setting “Ripple” to music. 
That’s a good memory. That was one of the happy times, going on 
that train trip. Janis [Joplin] was the queen of that trip. One of my 
greatest memories is having breakfast with her on the train. She 
was having Southern Comfort and scotch, and she asked me if | 
heard that song by Kristofferson, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” 
and she sang it in my ear. Can you imagine? 

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“Truckin’” also was completed on the road with the Dead, 
wasn’t it? 

Yeah, | think it was in Florida, and | had been writing it for some 
time. | think | finished it there — it was not a song | just dashed off. 
And then | gave it to them. They were all sitting around the 
swimming pool, the guitars there, and they did a good job on it. | 
wrote all the lyric. “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me” — | 
think that’s Phil. It took me a couple of months to write and it 

maybe took ’em about half an hour to put it together. 

Did you know Phil’s dad was seriously ill when you wrote the 
lyrics for “Box of Rain’? 

Yeah, a song for Phil’s dad. It wasn’t about dying in particular; it’s 
about being alive. | wrote “Playing in the Band” to the sound of the 
pump on Mickey’s ranch. We put chords on that rhythm. The 
rhythm was provided by nature. “Fire on the Mountain” was right 
around the same time, also at Mickey’s ranch. There was a fire on 
the mountain and it looked like it was going to endanger the ranch. 
So what did | do about it? | sat there and wrote a song about it 
while the smoke was pouring out. A good starting point. 

When it comes to working with the band, do you have a 
favorite era? 

Well, | think the most fun was down in L.A. doing Anthem of the 
Sun, which was way back in the beginning for me — just hangin’ 
around being great friends and all that kind of stuff. Weir's famous 
quote to the producer, Dave Hassinger, at that time: “We're looking 
for the sound of thick air!” [Laughs] | was there when that was said. 

How about a favorite lyric or line you wrote? 
“Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the 
hands of men” [from “Ripple”]. That’s pretty much my favorite line | 

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ever wrote, that’s ever popped into my head. And | believe it, you 

To prepare for your recent tours, you’ve said you listened 
back to Dead albums again. What was that like for you? 

Some of the versions sound better almost than | can believe, and 
Jerry’s guitar playing and his knowledge of the modes and stuff is 
overwhelming. And sometimes, somebody in the band is just 
singing flat [/aughs]! Which, as a lyricist, tends to ruin a song for 
me. Sometimes it’s phenomenal, though. “Casey Jones” didn’t start 
out as a song, it just suddenly popped into my mind: “driving that 
train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones, you better watch your speed.” 
| just wrote that down and | went on to whatever else | was doing, 
and some time later | came across it and thought, “That’s the germ 
of a pretty good song.” The remixes on some of those albums 
sound so brilliant you can’t believe it, you know. They sound like 
what they should’ve sounded like back then. 


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