Hunter Gathering: Celebrate the life and art of Robert Hunter in Woodstock

The isolation and examination of Robert Hunter’s contribution to the Grateful Dead is long overdue, as is his appreciation as a prolific and seminal rock poet. (Mike Dubois)

T. S. Eliot’s long poem “The Wasteland” is of course the centerpiece of Modernist poetry, a shot still heard ’round the world. It is dedicated with deference to his friend, the fellow American expat poet Ezra Pound, whom Eliot calls il miglior fabbro: the greater maker. Pound may not have possessed a poetic gift equal to Eliot’s (that is arguable), but his ever-shrewd sense of the moment in art made the “The Wasteland” what it was and what it would became. He is said to have excised as many as 500 lines from Eliot’s manuscript. It was Pound who gave the work its fractured, disjunctive and elusive texture, the definitive texture of Modernism. Thanks?

Similarly, editor and fiction-writer Gordon Lish is now rightly understood to be the virtual creator of Raymond Carver, the pathologically concise and low-affect father of Minimalist fiction whose clipped, clinically lean style ruled the literary landscape of the ’80s, when I was studying creative writing. This story has a more tragic dimension, as recently released short-story manuscripts reveal Carver to be the exact opposite of the figure that Lish fashioned. In letters to his wife, the great poet Tess Gallagher, Carver confessed that Lish’s ruthless postmodern reductions of his considerably more expressive drafts agonized him, but he went with it because it served him well materially.


For your consideration, I add to this list the fruitful relationship of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and his career-long collaborator and friend, the Dead’s non-member lyricist Robert Hunter, who passed away in September. Jerry didn’t write lyrics himself, but he was a super-smart, verbally engaged cat who knew what he wanted to sound like and who knew how to compose tight, classic tunes, later to be exploded by jam exploration. Hunter’s parallel career as a performer of his own versions of the Dead’s repertoire suggests that Jerry was the blade: Pound to Hunter’s Eliot, Lish to his Carver.

Hunter supplied reams and reams of narrative verses – psychedelic, yes, but also rooted in the same weird old American myth that Dylan, the Band and Tom Waits have mined so effectively. Garcia, however, slashed those narratives to evocative ribbons, leaving a feeling of narrativity and imagery without much in the way of whole-cloth stories that you could ever hope to paraphrase. It is a magical, beautiful and Modernist effect, and no doubt it sprung from a tacit understanding between the two. And it was true throughout the era that if you wanted to hear all 37 verses of “Wharf Rat,” you had to go to a Robert Hunter show.

The isolation and examination of Robert Hunter’s contribution to the Grateful Dead is long overdue, as is his appreciation as a prolific and seminal rock poet. On Sunday, December 15, Colony in Woodstock presents the cleverly titled “Hunter Gathering: A Celebration of the Life and Art of Robert Hunter.” The program will begin at 7:30 p.m. with a swirl of bagpipes, a drum invocation, eulogies, stories, poetry, solo and duet musical performances and will culminate with a full-on Grateful Dead-inspired dance party. Performers and speakers include, well, a lot of people: guitarist extraordinaire Steve Kimock, Avinash, Rhoney Stanley, Michael Densmore, Gerrit Graham, Nicole Quinn, Sarah Fimm, Timothy Hill, Joel Bluestein, Joel Harrison, Doug Yoel, Denise Parent, Kyle Esposito, Doug Marcus, Peter Dougan, Jeremy Baum, Bob Resnick, Don LaSala, Johnny Stevens, Richmond Johnston, Mike Dubois, Ken Schneidman, Martin Mills, Erin Cadigan, Alan Trist and more. And get this: Admission is free – kind of like the Dead’s radical approach to bootlegging.

We will probably look back on 2016 to 2017 as the years in which the cultic quarantine of the Grateful Dead finally ended for good, and for the good. The band’s legacy shed its love/hate binary and was free to rejoin the grand culture buffet as “just another” long-running classic rock band that you are free to like a little or a lot, if you please, without giving your goddamned soul to it. The band’s reputation and cultural associations were so polarizing, it had kept many ordinary people from even liking songs like “Brokedown Palace.” Who in their right mind wouldn’t like “Brokedown Palace”? That’s how bad it had gotten.

For decades, the Dead’s bottomless catalogue of great songs in multiple streams –Bakersfield, electric ragtime, world fusion, psych-punk and that rarest bird, a truly American take on prog-rock – had been a no-fly zone for all but the most thick-skinned of hipsters. Those selfsame hipsters could revere Dylan, Neil or the Band without smudge, but for reasons not entirely musical, the Dead were denied their obvious place in that hip tradition and were instead stamped as the apotheosis of stoned hippie indulgence.

The Deadheads alone forced your hand: a monomaniacal cult of zealots feverishly cataloguing live shows and taking over cities with a druggy and privileged trustafarian hedonism, dancing in certain very specific ways to music that, for all of its purported out-on-a-limb extemporaneity, could sound pretty samey and lethargic from a distance, especially in those fatigued years – the ’80s – when their live popularity peaked and the deified Garcia, a guy who genuinely loved talking to people, could not leave the hotel. Imagine waking up with very serious health issues at 45 to find that you were functionally Elvis.

Certain sanguine hipsters (Elvis Costello comes to mind) were always unashamed and vocal in their affection for the Dead, but they were so rare in that sphere that I can hardly name another. So, what precipitated the change? Martin Scorsese’s illuminating six-episode 2017 documentary signaled that the culture at large was ready to drop its extramusical contempt for the Dead’s cultic singularity and to regard them as what they were: a great band in their way, a far-out mythic narrative in a straight line of descent from the Beats and a treasure chest of cool songs haunted by the fractured American mythos of Robert Hunter’s lyrics.

But for me, a more telling and much-less-publicized sea change arrived the year before: 2016’s Day of the Dead, a massive 59-track tribute record released as the 25th compilation benefiting the Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. The homage itself was unsurprising; again, the Dead have hundreds of irresistibly great classicist songs that can be easily extracted from the band’s distinctive way of playing them, so they made an ideal topic for this kind of play. What was shocking – and what would have been all-but-impossible in the decades before – was who was paying the tribute.

Day of the Dead was forged (locally, in fact) under the artistic direction of Brooklyn producer (and former New Paltz resident) Josh Kaufman and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band the National, who, along with Arcade Fire, are one of the few arena-grade bands that the Indie Decade produced. The tracks came, by and large, from their people: the hip people of the borough and its satellite scenes, from the War on Drugs and from Kurt Vile, from Jenny Lewis, Cass McCombs, the Walkmen, Real Estate. The record featured no fewer than three scintillating contributions from the who-knew Deadhead Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. His daring choice of the Garcia solo record epic “Ruben and Cherise” (a quintessential Hunter love story) is one of the record’s highest highs.

It is certainly cool that so many of the hip artists of the aughts were enthused by the project and undeterred by jam contamination (which is real), but therein also lies the friction. The Dead already had a vital, commercially humming downstream legacy, you know. Yes, it is all the bands you hate, from Phish to moe. to String Cheese Incident, but they did huge numbers at the gate and operated squarely in the Dead’s tradition of unscripted improvisation and fancentric soundboard bootleg values. These Balkanized jam states inherited the Dead scene seamlessly after Jerry died, and the party, if anything, only got bigger in the ‘90s. And in the post-Jerry years, Bob and Phil’s touring projects raided that scene for replacement players, such as keyboardist Rob Barraco from the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra and bassist Oteil Burbage and guitarist Jimmy Herring from jam-scene stalwarts Aquarium Rescue Unit.

Day of the Dead was not completely free of association with the jam scene. Weir himself, of course, appears on the record, performing a savage and spot-on live rendition of the psych-rock masterpiece “St. Stephen” with Wilco: Tweedy as delightfully unsteady-of-voice as vintage Jerry, and clearly loving it. ‘80s- era Dead celebrity keyboardist Bruce Hornsby delivers a stunning Modernist take on the late Garcia/Hunter heartbreaker “Black Muddy River,” and there are a few other artists represented with jam-world cred: My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, for example, and drummer Joe Russo.

Still, the record, and the current Dead reappraisal now underway, expose an interesting and culturally difficult dimension of the rescue and repair of reputations, a story in which the Grateful Dead are essentially airlifted – like the Chili Peppers off the tarmac at Woodstock ’99 – out of the sprawling mess they made with their own hands. Who owns what? Can we agree to share the Grateful Dead? Even more improbably optimistic, can this reappreciation of their achievement broaden everyone’s purview and perhaps reduce some of the critical belittlement and cruel vitriol reserved, seemingly, for jam-rock alone? I have my doubts. 

Hunter Gathering: A Celebration of the Life and Art of Robert Hunter, Sunday, December 15, doors open at 6:30 p.m., show begins at 7:30 p.m., Colony, 22 Rock City Road, Woodstock;