I was talking to a friend about how I'd been listening to Bob Dylan's
'Together Through Life ever since it came out and how I quite like
the bluesy touch that most of the tracks have, including my
favourite, Shake Shake Mama. It had lyrics that were simple yet the
song could have complex meanings, I told him. "Who do you think wrote
that song?" my friend asked.
"Why? Dylan, of course," I said. "You're wrong," he snapped. "Just
check the liner notes." I did. Only to find, to my utter surprise,
that lyrics for nine out of the 10 songs on Together Through Life
have been written by none other than Robert Hunter.
If you happen to be a Deadhead, you'll instantly know who Hunter is.
A longtime collaborator of the late Jerry Garcia, Hunter was
acknowledged as a non-playing member of the Grateful Dead and when
the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994,
Hunter was included too.
I don't know the exact number of the Dead's songs that Hunter wrote
the lyrics to. A friend, a geeky Deadhead, told me it's 76 but I don't know.
Anyway, that's not the point. The fact is Hunter wrote the lyrics to
all but one of the songs on Dylan's new album.
The only one for which Dylan alone is credited is 'This Dream of You'.
You can call me biased but that's the one song on the album that I
don't really care for. The rest are good.
They grow on you as does the 68-year-old Dylan's growling voice. The
voiceyes, yes, I know many people don't think Dylan has a singing
voiceis miraculously better than on 'Modern Times' (2006) or 'Love
and Theft' (2001), albums that I seriously wonder why Dylan made. On
Together, besides the better vocals, I would think Hunter's lyrics
make all the difference. I can hear members of the
Dylan-is-the-greatest-poet fan club growling at me.
Hunter's career has been an interesting one. Around the same age as
Dylan, Hunter (along with Ken Kesey who wrote 'One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest') volunteered in the early 1960s for a CIA sponsored
lab test where they administered LSD and other psychedelic drugs to
volunteers who were paid to narrate their experiences. That
government-aided introduction to drugs had a huge influence on some
of these volunteers and Hunter wasn't an exception. Dead-lore
suggests that the very first lyrics he wrote for the band were when
he was tripping on LSD!
It's easy to look at Hunter as merely a 'Grateful Dead' lyricist; and
as a non-playing member of the band. But Hunter had a solo career of
his own. Besides being a bonafide poet and author (check out his
translations of Rainer Maria Rilke or collection of poetry like Glass
Lunch and Night Cadre), Hunter has at least 10 solo music albums to
his credit. I have an old copy of Tales of the Great Rum Runners that
has classic songs like Keys to the Rain and a non-Grateful Dead
version of his 'It Must Have Been The Roses'. It's a collectible.
Just as I was coming to terms with the fact that Hunter wrote the
lyrics to most of Dylan's new songs, I read that he had indeed
collaborated with Dylan beforeon a couple of songs, including
Silvio, on a late-1980s album called Down In The Groove.
Then, on a podcast called Four Hundred Twenty, I heard an interview
with David Nelson, guitarist and singer of the 1970s' band, 'New
Riders of The Purple Sage'. Nelson, who along with pedal steel
guitarist Buddy Cage, has resurrected the 'New Riders', talked about
a brand new album that they had released, Where I Come From. And let
on that Hunter wrote most of the songs on that album.
While that made me go get that album (it's good, though watered down
from the hip, psychedelic country music that the 'New Riders played
in the 1970s), I also learnt that Hunter didn't even meet the Riders
for the album. He merely sent emails with lyricseach mail had one
songand then, after he was done, the last mail merely said: "It's
your turn." Nice.