Dec 28, 2012

September 1974: Hunter Letter (Excerpt)

This is an excerpt from a Robert Hunter letter that appeared in Crawdaddy.

September 23, 1974

You ask which comes first: the lyrics or the music, in general. Usually, I sit down with a guitar and write a song. Sometimes I write to changes provided to me, which is the hardest way to do the number. Or, I play a song I've written to a friend, and it is dismantled and put together in a new and often more pleasing fashion. [ . . . ]
The Grateful Dead have never required melodies from me (coals to Newcastle) and consequently I have a great stock of "Orphan Tunes" in my head which I used to write my lyrics to. My tune writing does not approach the richness and subtlety of Jerry's so I've never felt overlooked and misunderstood in that area - it was simply not required of me. I've worked some with Weir and think his compositional sense is just amazing, though he does little of it; it takes him a long, long time to fashion one of his tunes. The only song I've written with Phil ("Box of Rain") remains one of my favorites. Keith's head is awash with melody and I look forward to many more good nights of carving out tunes with him and listening to Donna interpret them for us. The actual act of writing a good song with someone I like being around is the closest thing I know to the way things ought to be. It's strange to write tunes with a drummer, but Billy and I were working away at it in Munich last week and he turned me on to some rhythmical possibilities I'd not considered on a song which I've been hammering out called "The Last Flash of Rock and Roll."

The idea of the Grateful Dead "breaking up" - I really don't see how that would come about. After ten years of touring, we've decided to cut that way down. A gig here and there - a solstice or an equinox, perhaps. The physical strain of touring is pretty grueling and we've been on the road for a long, long time. At least a six month's vacation to just cool out and survey what we've been up to. Building and carting that sound system around is, in my head, akin to building a pyramid. It's the world's greatest hi-fi system, and there's no one who would deny that. Recording and practices will go on as usual, but leaving space for personal diversified musical projects.

The Dead is the logical extension of a meeting of energies which you all know more or less about already. If, as you propose, it had not happened, it would have happened anyway. I mean, there was no way that thing wasn't going to happen. My energies were turned to songwriting before there was an "official" G.D., as was everyone else's involved in their own peculiar way. If it hadn't been this Grateful Dead, it would have been another, and if not that one, another yet. Sensible? I suppose not, but just so, nevertheless, I don't mean to get mystical on you, or nothing like that, but there was a question asked in the early '60s which demanded an answer, and those who demanded to answer naturally came together and recognized one another. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that we would accomplish what we've accomplished, and it seems too foredrawn that there has never been any need to rush it, promote it or pluck it before it was ripe.

(From "Robert Hunter, Dark Star," Crawdaddy, January 1975. The whole letter is reprinted in Dodd/Spaulding's book The Grateful Dead Reader.)

1 comment:

  1. The whole letter is thoughtfully dense, and is mostly about Hunter himself & his ideas. Since it's available in a book, here I chose just a section where he writes specifically about working with the Dead.

    The paragraph on songwriting is the most interesting to me - there were a variety of ways for a Dead song to be born, and he covers the various possibilities.
    When Hunter wrote a 'finished' song on guitar, sometimes Garcia might use Hunter's initial melodic ideas for the Dead version, but not that often - as Hunter says, the Dead "never required melodies from me."
    From the 1991 Hunter/Garcia interview -
    Hunter: "I always wrote my own melodies, but after a few years Jerry got to the point where he said, 'Will you stop giving me melodies, because they just confuse me and I can't get them out of my head.'"
    Garcia: "That's true. A lot of times his melodies would be so catchy: 'God I can't hear this any way except with his melody!' Sometimes they were perfect, though, and I didn't fool with them - like Must Have Been the Roses is one. That's totally Hunter's melody."
    Hunter: "Actually, you stuck a minor chord in there which makes it ever so much more powerful."

    Other songs, he just provided lyrics without a tune & Garcia did the rest. (I think Ripple was one of those.)
    Some songs, he provided a musical setting & Garcia changed it - as he writes here, "I play a song I've written to a friend, and it is dismantled and put together in a new and often more pleasing fashion."
    For instance, Black Peter in 1969: "I wrote this as a brisk piece like Kershaw's 'Louisiana Man.' Garcia took it seriously, though, dressing it in subtle changes and a mournful tempo. The bridge verse was written after the restructuring of the piece, and reflects the additional depth of possibility provided for the song by his treatment."
    Other songs, "I write to changes provided to me": the music came from the band & Hunter wrote the lyrics afterward - like Uncle John's Band or Box of Rain, where they gave him a tape of the instrumental, and he wrote the words to that.

    Someone should write a little history of Hunter's song collaborations with Garcia - detailing how the various songs came together (when known), comparing them to Hunter's 'original' versions (when available), & compiling the descriptions of the process they gave in interviews over the years.
    Hunter's collaborations with other members of the Dead were, in contrast, usually sporadic and short-lived (though he emphasizes them here).