Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter talks about creating songs and performing, remembers Garcia, Dylan, Joplin, and reflects on being a test subject for CIA experiments with psychedelic drugs. This is a full transcript of the interview for Reuters, held Aug. 22, 2013. A link to Reuters story is here: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSBRE98F07720130916
A - Randall. That’s an unusual name, I like it, from ‘Randall My Son,’ which is where Dylan got the melody for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” So that’s: ‘Where are you going Randall my son? Where have you been my handsome young one?”
Q – I’ve never made that connection before
A - When I saw the name, that’s the first thing I thought of was the tune.
Q- An old English folksong, right?
A – Yeah, so (singing): “Where have you gone Randall my son, where have you gone, my pretty young one. I’ve been to dadada dadada dadada” -- that’s where the ‘hard-rain’s gonna fall’ verses come in on Bob’s song.
Q – I’ll take that as a serenade, thank you.
Q – So you’re going on tour. It seems like you go about once every 7-10 years or so. One of the times I saw you was at Hershey Park. I remember you walking off stage playing the last refrains of Ripple, which is a very personal song to me.
A - That song always does it for me. It does it for the audience too. It’s hard to top what works for both the performer and the audience
Q – How did this tour come about?
A – I asked myself the question, “If not now, when?” and then I called my agent.
Q - Was it easy to put together
A – Yeah it wasn’t too much of a problem. And it’s good and short. Because I had been ill. So I’m trying it out with a short tour, and if I come out the other end feeling good and strong then I’m going to book a real tour for spring.
A – Are you feeling better?
Q - I believe so. And as I say if at the end of that tour if I feel like doing more then I will consider that I’ve recovered. So I’m being very cautious,
Q – May I ask what you were ill with?
A – I had a spinal infection. It did lay me low. I’ll say that. I was in the hospital for a couple of months with it, and it was quite an experience. It made me think about things in a different way, and I think that’s another reason for getting back on the road.
As I said, if not now when? With the idea that you just have a certain little bit of life to live, do I now just want to live it basking in the California sunshine, which I’m doing at the moment by the way, walking around in my bare feet on the bricks, or do you want to get out there, and do what deep down you know you’re supposed to do, which is to get out and play some shows?
So I’m doing it, and hoping to do more.
Q – The venues you booked are pretty good. It looks like there is still pretty strong demand for your performance.
A – To my amazement. I had every reason to think that I had disappeared off the map entirely, and the response has been, what’s the old word? Gratifying. Yes.
Q - You mentioned you’ve been working on your guitar playing. How so? Are you working on new techniques and styles, or just dusting off your strings?
A - If you call playing about five hours a day dusting off your strings, then that’s what I’m doing. I had a lot of repertoire to catch up on. It’s just been lying in abeyance for a long, long time.
So it’s taken about three months of very, very determined practice, which is from the point where I decided to do the tour in the first place, and then I’m doing what I have to do to get that repertoire back together. It’s a large repertoire and some of stuff just slips out of memory
Right now, just the last couple days. I’ve felt capable of going out and giving a full show. It’s taken that long to work it back together. I’m concentrating on guitar. And always feeling that I could be a lot better than I’ve been if I really, really practiced. I decided, well ok, “why don’t you just really, really practice,” which I’m doing.
I’ve got my calluses back and I’m raring to go, and see if I’m fooling myself or if I can fool the audience too
Q – How much have you played before you started getting ready for this tour. Is it something you do recreationally with friends, or sitting around the house?
A – Not anywhere near as much as I should. As far as musicianship was going, I had been playing a trombone and didgeridoo and letting the guitar gather dust.
Yeah, I’m practicing a lot and I feel like I’ve got all the guitar playing I ever had back, plus. Plus a good deal more. I’m feeling saucy about that. Of course it doesn’t stack up to a real guitar player like Jerry or anything like that, but it’s good for me.
Q – Have you discovered new things about your playing?
A – Yeah. But the generality doesn’t exactly apply so much as particulars, like
working on a song like “Sugaree.” There’s dozens of little spots in it to move things around, put little connecting links and stuff in that. It generally means to play the songs hundreds of times while you work out these details. But that comes later along in the practice schedule. The first couple of months were just about getting the repertoire remembered and back in my head again. After that you start doing the piecemeal work.
Q – I’m interested in this issue of whether it takes 10,000 hours to make a skilled practitioner.
A – That raises the old questions about whether its innate talent or it is just concentration and effort. I would not be able to answer that question. It is a salient question.
Q – How important to your expression is live performance?
A - There’s nothing like it. Whatever one is working on in rehearsal and practice is bumped up several notches when you get on stage. Then you really see what you’ve got. I can get a bit nervous about it, having not been on the road for so long. However, I find that once I get on stage and start doing the first song, all that drops away and I’m back, kind of like same-time same-station, back in Performanceville.
There’s nothing even remotely like it, especially being a soloist where all the arrows are pointing in towards you and out towards the audience. There’s nothing like it, and I have missed it.
Q – It’s said that it’s hard to make money recording, and live performance is where the business is.? Is that part of it or is it secondary?
A – Has publishing gone belly-up? It certainly has. I would be lying to say that that is not a factor in getting me back working again. But once that is considered and assumed, one moves on and you care more about the show than the reason that is driving you to do it. At this point, I wouldn’t be doing it if the pleasure of doing it weren’t foremost.
Q – What are people likely to see in the setlists? Have you added new stuff?
A – I’m just going to have to sort of generalize about that. There will be a certain amount of new stuff. Audiences have a low tolerance for new songs. I kind of know what that tolerance is. I know what they come for, and they’re paying their money to hear, and they will get it. Plenty of Hunter-Garcia tunes, which do weather well.
Jerry told me the last time I talked to him, over the phone; he said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that your songs never stuck in my throat.’ Wow. Which makes me wonder if he knew he was about ready to take the long walk. Because that was not typical of him, to say something like that.
He didn’t voice things that way. He wasn’t Mr. Compliments or anything like that. And like me, we tend to look for what’s wrong in something rather than what’s right. We assume the right part and look at the wrong parts in order to correct it so that everything’s all right. Now that was a mouthful.”
Q – Since Jerry passed, you’ve written with a lot of other people – Dylan, Los Lobos, New Riders of the Purple Sage. How do those different collaborations affect your songwriting and what stands out as particularly rewarding?
A – Most of the stuff, I’ve been with Jim Lauderdale. He is Nashville, and without necessarily intending it, I think that my lyrics tend to be a bit more Nashville.
I’m not one to really know what I’m going to write in advance. With Jim I hear a set of changes and some melody, and the first thing that it says to me I write down. And then I continue writing. And I may go back and change it then at the beginning. But generally not; the “first thought, best thought” idea has its virtues.
A – And I worked with (David) Nelson. He and I wrote the lion’s share of the last couple of New Riders’ records. I really like Nelson’s compositional skills. We all learned about music together way back when. It’s just so familiar. Jerry and Nelson and I had any number of bands before the Grateful Dead. It’s just comfortable. He knows what I like and I know what he likes, and the same is true with Jerry. We all just knew. We all learned the same songs at the same time and admired the same things about them.
Q - What about Bob Dylan?
A - A lot of people ask that question – “What about Bob Dylan?” I think he is a mysterious force majeure in this world and anything I would say about him would either be too far off to the side or under-expression. What are you going to say? We all have a Bob Dylan in our heads somewhere. He managed to be that guy. It can’t be easy, you know, it can’t be easy.”
Q – What did you think of the video of the Duquesne Whistle? Did you see that scenario at all in your head when you wrote it?
A – I didn’t see the video. I can’t help you. That’s the easy way of getting past answering Dylan questions: don’t look at the video.
It’s not to me to criticize or anything else. The guy does what he does and always has. The fact that he worked with me is almost typical of the absolutely unforeseeable stuff the guy decides to do. True original. He just called up one day and said, how about it? And he gave me a bunch of titles he wanted to work with and we just got to work.
Q – So you worked from titles?
A – Yeah, I’ve often thought if you can get the right title your song is 50 percent written.
Q – I feel that way about headlines.
A. There you go. Boy there’s some bad headline writing. I get so furious at Huff Post. I will not be tricked into looking at something because I cannot understand the headline. I finally decided not to do that anymore -- not to let them trick me. Something or other is “shocking,” and what is “shocking” is the “shocking” taste of vanilla ice cream if you really put your attention on it. Oh ok.
Q – You haven’t done a lot of covers. I saw a reference to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
A – Ha. That was a gas. I was doing that and “Born to Run” in the same set for a while just to blow a few minds
Q – Did it work?
A – I’m never sure. I can’t remember the reaction. I stopped doing it, let’s just say that.
Q – Do you anticipate performing covers in the current tour?
A - I’m thinking of doing a Townes Van Zandt number, but I don’t want to say which one. Just cause I love it. He’s just an excellent songwriter who has not received the attention that he should have. If you like it, I think he’s one of the guys that you should do
And I did some Phil Ochs stuff. I did Crucifixion once, which is a heck of a memorizing feat.
Q – So in choosing the covers you do, the craft of songwriting is important?
A – Oh yes, Van Zandt, I think he was the hottest thing in Texas in the years that counted. But nothing much got out except the Outlaws and stuff, but down behind it, there was Townes.
Q – What’s your ideal setting for a show?
A – In my rider I had a good carpet, a couch if possible, a couple of tables and chairs and stuff and some lamps, to give the feeling of a living room. An idea that I nicked from The Band, which always struck me a great idea. Make the stage into a living room rather than some smorgasbord of smoke and mirrors. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Did you catch that Nine Inch Nails thing on video, from San Francisco? They did the most phenomenal live show imaginable. It’s come so far since the Grateful Dead did a certain amount of pioneering in doing live-broadcast over the Net. It’s come so far.
Q – But you like that living room stage?
A - For me it’s perfect. I’m not going to insist that people put a couch on the stage for me. To me that’s cruelty. That’s almost like having only red M&Ms.
Q – What about the size of the hall?
A – These halls are just about my ideal size. I’m not sure I’d want anything much larger, and smaller is not going to fit my audience. It’s just about right what I’m getting here. My agent asked me what it was that I wanted, I said theaters. I’m most comfortable in that situation.
Q – Have you seen “One Night With Janis Joplin?” The set is kind of like you described; it kind of looked like the cover of “Pearl.”
A – One of my favorite memories is, I was having breakfast with Janis on the Trans-Canadian train trip, and we were having a little bit of Southern Comfort for breakfast. She told me about this great new song that she had heard and was doing, and she sang. “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” right in my ear. Ahhhh, man. I hate to one-up anybody, but this is a memory worth remembering.
Yeah, Janis. She lived right down the block from us. She had that old psychedelic Porsche parked out of her house in Madrone Canyon in Larkspur. She was a neighbor.
Q – You have also written a lot of poetry. What is the difference between writing poetry and writing lyrics? Do you set out to write or a poem or a song, or do you decide that later, once the words appear?
A – I went through a period of a couple of years when I was very specifically not writing songs. To get out of whatever places I might have been stuck. I just decided I didn’t want to perform songs anymore and so my road tours were poetry readings for a year or two. I didn’t draw all that well, but one didn’t expect it.
I did it until I’d had my fill of it. And I think that came about by understanding on a very deep level that they really wished I’d brought my guitar and would sing Ripple or something like that. They wanted to hear me sing; they didn’t want to hear me spout poetry.
Ok. The task of a performer is not simply to express himself. It is to entertain the audience that paid good money to see him and to give them what they came fore. Not 100 percent, but I don’t want people going away dissatisfied.
Q – So you don’t perform just for self-expression. There is the entertainment element too?
A – Hopefully the two mesh.
Q – As a writer, what’s your concept of language, how do you perceive it?
A – That’s too big a subject to generalize. I was interested in the language poets for a while, and entirely into language. I began understanding that I wanted stuff maybe a bit more heart-based. Although I have the greatest respect for the language poets,
I didn’t feel I could be one of them.
I don’t know what to say about language. Language! How about (gibberish). Without language, that’s all we could say.
Q – How do you develop characters?
A – I don’t. I don’t. They appear. In the act of writing a song all of a sudden a character like Pearly Blue pops up. Ok. I don’t stop it. But I don’t plan in advance what I’m writing. I let the song write itself as best I can. Then I go over and brush it up a little bit. But essentially, if the song isn’t essentially written the first time through, there isn’t anything to work on.
Q - Once a character appears, do you know what to do with it? Does their nature then dictate the rest of the song, or help flesh it out?
A - Which song?
Q - Well, Cosmic Charley
A – I don’t know that there is a Cosmic Charley so much as it’s just a collection of sounds, and attitudes and stuff. I don’t see Cosmic Charley as an actual character. Calico Khalia is in the same song, as a collection of sounds.
If it gets through to an audience it gets through to them for the same mysterious reasons it occurred to me to not stop writing those names down when I was writing them down. They were just there. I’m not a guy who ever plans in advance.
A lot of songwriters don’t plan in advance what they’re going to write. They just start writing. That the impulse And when you’re done you either go that’s well done or you crumple it up and throw it away and do something else.
Q – You’ve spoken of times when songs emerged in from a single fragment, or in London when you wrote "Brokedown Palace," "Ripple" and "To Lay Me Down" in a single day.
A – I wrote those all on a beautiful, golden afternoon. I had some very nice writing paper. And that was my first time in England and it was all magic happening. Everybody went away and left me alone and I just cranked out some songs. I felt good about it.
Q - How have you evolved as a musician and songwriter post GD?
A - I don’t know that evolution is a part of it. The more you practice on something the better you are going to get. I don’t know if that’s what you’d call evolving so much as just learning your craft.
Q - I’ve been fascinated by the CIA’s MKUltra program at Stanford that you and Ken Kesey participated in, where test subjects were given psychedelic drugs.
A – I didn’t know the test was MKUltra until maybe a dozen years ago when something I read said that that thing that we were in at Stanford was MKUltra. Um --.what!?.
Q- What did you think when you learned that?
A - It put in perspective why they were doing it. I couldn’t figure out why they were paying me good money to take these psychedelics. At first they gave me, LSD, then the next week I think it was mescaline, the next week it was psilosybin, and the fourth week it was all three at once. It was very, very good quality drugs.
They don’t want to hear about anything -- what they wanted to do was check if I was more hypnotizable when I was on them than I was when I wasn’t on them. I didn’t find that to be the case. I didn’t find myself being hypnotized – you know you’re going to fall over and stuff like that. They didn’t do that.
It was even hard to pay attention to what they were talking about, mnuch less being hypnotized.
They would draw blood every couple of hours, which is most unpleaseant when you’re on LSD.
Q – I assume it was a clinical setting.
A - Oh yes, It was in a little room with a fluorescent light, which I had turned off because flourescents are no good on psychedelics. It’s just too harsh.
Nobody came in except that a janitor once came in and I remember he said “Uhhh, how do you feel? Is like you was drunk?” I said “no, not exactly.”
I tried to leave once and stopped. I thought it would be awful nice to get outside for a spell and they stopped me there, let me know there was not going out.
It wasn’t the best condition to take the stuff under, but on the other hand it was the first time I had any of this stiff and the drugs in themselves were rather spectacular.
Q – So even in that setting you could appreciate them?
A – Oh heaven’s sake, yes. But I was like a stranger when I got back after all this. Nobody else – Kesey did, but I wasn’t hanging with Kesey at that time so I didn’t have him to talk to -- nobody had had my experiences. And it was years, at least two years before those drugs started getting out on the street and other people were seeing what it was. It was like a secret club of one.
Q – Did you ever think the CIA might responsible for the 1960s.?
A. - Who, Hoffman?
Q - Well, not Hoffman but at least the Bay Area scene, the Grateful Dead.
A – I think that it was a drug whose time had come. If there had been no Grateful Dead it would have been somebody else. As simple as that -- the stuff existed, and it was a time when you could not get a job, very much like it is today, back in the 60s. I looked for work. I couldn’t find it. I wasn’t on the street, homeless out of some choice that this is the way I wanted to be -- there wasn’t much else you could do, except live off the fruit trees in Palo Alto, you know.
Q – Actually the question was more, how much did the experiments you participated in, which you later learned were run by the CIA -- how much they might have contributed to the creativity of the Grateful Dead, Kesey’s movement, and the whole Bay Area countercultural psychedelic scene.
A - That’s like asking how does having been born human address the way you see things? I don’t know. I don’t mean that it’s a silly question. I think the answer is, “who can say?”
Q - Can you think of 2-3 big influential; moments in your development as a mucician and as a songwriter, things you can look back at and say this helped make me what I am today?
A - I started writing songs back with my first band when I was about 16, in high school. I had a band called The Crescents. I wrote several songs then which I also performed. We would perform on weekends for groups of kids, and weddings and stuff. I think I’ve always been a songwriter, whether I’ve been writing it or not, always making up little songs in my head.
I played trumpet, and I had an electric guitar, a bass clarinet, and drums. This was before The Beatles decided there was only one way to have a band and that’s three guitars and drums.”
A – Could you hear that rooster? I got a rooster there. We gave one of ‘em away the other day. When I’d come out in the morning, I usually come out right after dawn to begin practicing guitar -- I like to do it outside -- and both roosters would welcome me. They’d crow together when I’d come out. Now we only have one rooster.
(Rooster crows again)
There, you heard him. We’re not supposed to have ‘em but the neighbors like ‘em too. It’s nice to hear a cock-a-doodle-do in the morning.
Q – Some of your words and phrases have entered the English language. Obviously “long strange trip” has become widely used. How does it feel to have made those kind of contributions.
A – Great! Great! They never attribute it to me, but, it feels great nevertheless.