Bill Payne, Jackie Greene, Bruce Hornsby, Ken Babbs and Les Kippel Remember Robert Hunter

March 19, 2020
Bill Payne, Jackie Greene, Bruce Hornsby, Ken Babbs and Les Kippel Remember Robert Hunter

photo by Jay Blakesberg

Robert Hunter’s words continue to offer solace and inspiration during trying times. As an addendum to our December tribute issue, we offer additional reflections on the life and legacy of the revered Grateful Dead lyricist and solo artist.

Bill Payne

There was no clap of thunder preceded by a flash of blinding light. My introduction to Robert Hunter in May of 2011 was simple and straightforward. It came from Little Feat’s manager, Cameron Sears, who asked if I would be interested in writing with him. I asked Cameron, who had worked with the Grateful Dead since 1987, if I could talk to Hunter first to see what he had in mind and give him my take. I was told that would probably not happen. My response was, “Well, if I can’t talk to him, then let’s forget it.” Hunter then sent me lyrics to work on. I composed the music and a melody, sang it, recorded it in the roughest form possible— apologizing that I wasn’t an engineer—emailed it back to him and waited to hear what he thought. He wrote back the following: “Yes!”

We were off and running on a writing excursion that would take us through 20 songs and 209 emails, despite having never met him or talked to him over the phone. And yet, I felt we got to know each other very well, perhaps even better than if we had gotten together. It was an honest relationship and an extraordinary one. Hunter did not suffer fools gladly, as they say. We were respectful of each other’s territory. We operated eye to eye, although I will fully admit to being on pins and needles when I would send him a track and then wait for his response. The beauty of the way we worked was in the freedom that it afforded both of us. We did offer suggestions as to how things should proceed within any given song, though. I told him, “I’m not sure I would say it in that way.” He would then, in a very short period of time, send me back another phrase that was not only better but exponentially better. He was always gracious about it. I took his suggestions in equal seriousness and stride. Nothing ever rang false with him. The road we traveled was wide open and scenic.

In reading his emails, I’m struck by how intimate they were, and how few words he needed to convey his message. We know from his lyrics that he was the consummate wordsmith, but his command of language extended to the digital, as well. Those emails had the full range of emotion. They were personable and real, not detached. Yes, I wanted to meet him just to shake his hand, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything by not being in his presence.

Robert Hunter opened his heart to me on several occasions but no more so than when I found my 4-year-old granddaughter was in the hospital in Europe. She recovered in fine fashion with no lasting effects. I had been in touch with Hunter about this, two grandparents discussing our families and the importance of our grandchildren. In a gesture I will never forget, he sent me lyrics that touched the core of my heart. He said to use them if appropriate. They were more than appropriate. When I sang the song to my son and granddaughter on the phone, the joy and happiness in her voice shook my soul.

Collaborative writing is often about balancing the things we are at once open about—what we are willing to share with others—against our vulnerabilities, our instinctual desire to be private, and the moods that uplift and shatter us in life.

Robert Hunter and I took that proverbial handshake to write those 20 songs. It was a privilege I will cherish forever. Peace to you Robert, and thank you.

Bill Payne is Little Feat’s founding keyboard player.

Jackie Greene

When I first met Phil, I didn’t know that much about the Grateful Dead. I knew some of the more popular songs, but had no idea how deep the catalog went. Phil gave me hundreds of hours of live recordings to check out and, more than the jamming and improvisation, the thing that struck me was how damn good the songs were. I can remember listening to five versions of “Loser” and thinking each one was better than the last. You can beat the hell out of it, every which way, and it still stands up.  

“Wharf Rat,” “Box of Rain,” “Sugaree,” “Jack Straw,” the list could go on and on. Robert Hunter’s words are at the soul of a legacy that will shine on and continue to connect the generations. There can be no greater purpose than that. These songs will be around forever.  

Jackie Greene first played with Phil Lesh in 2007 and has remained in the Grateful Dead’s orbit ever since. 

Bruce Hornsby

I consider myself extremely fortunate that, out of the blue, Robert Hunter reached out to me in 2008 and asked if I would be interested in writing songs with him. Our strictly email relationship over the next 10 years gave me a solid insight into his irreverent, humble, humorous personality. And, through our emails, I also had the great satisfaction of composing four songs with him. A fifth threatens to be revealed at some point. It’s a fairly odd and out, but quite comedic, lyric set to hip-hop-meets-Schoenberg dodecaphonic, atonal music—just what we’re all waiting for!

After sending him our live Bride of the Noisemakers record, which featured our song “Cyclone,” he responded in this way: “Dear Bruce—dug my hearing aids out of the drawer for the first time in a year, changed the batteries and listened to your new album. Hot stuff! Here’s wishing you great success.” Commenting on our less-than-serious cover photo, he then said, “As for the cover… people won’t soon forget it!”

A year or so later, I told him I was playing a couple of duo concerts with Weir in Oakland and asked him to “let me know if he was coming so I can be nervous.” He replied, “Relax—Oakland might as well be Mars! Writing is about all I do anymore.” He was so complimentary to me regarding the songs we wrote, which meant and will always mean so much. His writing showcased a full complement of literary skills and emotional content, from great beauty, wild references and story lines to irreverence, humor, compassion and soul.

The songs that Hunter wrote with various Grateful Dead members constitute, for deep Dead fans, the hymns of their lives. The depth of those songs, many of which sound so timeless, feel like they could have been written 100-150 years ago, ensuring their longevity as eternal, moving pieces of art for the ages. A good deal of his non-musical “prose” writing is also revelatory and often equally moving. A Deadhead friend of mine recently sent me a copy of a letter Hunter wrote to a bit of a naysayer. Hunter’s great title was “Fractures of Unfamiliarity and Circumvention in Pursuit of a Nice Time.” It’s well worth your time to find a copy; so erudite and biting but also kind, funny, eloquent, and passionate. Another perfect example would be his “Elegy for Jerry,” written for Garcia’s funeral at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere. I’ll close this with some of Hunter’s words from this piece, which seem very appropriate for this moment:

May she bear thee to thy rest,

The ancient bower of flowers,

Beyond the solitude of days,

The tyranny of hours—

The wreath of shining laurel lie,

Upon your shaggy head,

Bestowing power to play the lyre,

To legions of the dead,

If some part of that music,

Is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of Summer,

A snatch of golden theme.

Robert Hunter was one of the greatest lyricists in the history of the popular song, and his work will live on forever.

Bruce Hornsby performed with the Grateful Dead from 1990-1992. He continues to record and tour with his band The Noisemakers.

Ken Babbs

In the winter of 1968, I was roaming around Ohio in my bus, visiting relatives after spending the summer riding around with the Hog Farm—a long stint in the Truchas Peaks of New Mexico, apple picking in Wisconsin, then shying away when the Hog Farm went to Chicago to get beat up by the police at the Chicago National Democratic Convention.

With the first snow flurries in December, I headed back to California, bolstered by a loan from Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl for an engine repair. I landed in Larkspur, north of the Golden Gate Bridge at Robert and Maureen Hunter’s house, where Jerry and M.G. were also living. We slept in the bus parked outside, but ate, showered and hung out in the house. And we got to know the Hunters. M.G. was an old friend—Jerry too—from the Acid Test days. Robert spent time alone, writing. Jerry was gone most of the time, sometimes until late at night, playing somewhere.

He’d come in, break out his acoustic guitar and work on riffs. Robert would emerge from his lair and read and sing lyrics he’d written. Jerry would listen, play along a little, and, when they had something worked out, turn on the reel-to-reel tape recorder to play and sing the song. They’d listen to it, change a few things, then do that again and again until they had it right. Finally, a new song was born.

I caught a job as warehouseman at the Grateful Dead studio in Novato, further north. I would see Robert Hunter now and then; over time we had become good friends, and he never seemed to mind me calling him various nicknames: Bobert, Jobby, but for some reason, never Bob. As the years went on, we emailed back and forth, saw each other when he was in Eugene doing a gig or when I was in the Bay Area. His writing talents continued to grow, as a lyricist, poet and commentator, culminating in awards and commendations over the years, until I no longer called him by any corny nicknames but only, with respect, Robert Hunter.

Ken Babbs is an author and one of the original Merry Pranksters, who invited the Grateful Dead, then known as The Warlocks, to perform at the Acid Tests in 1965.

Les Kippel

Robert was a friend of Relix. I met Robert in the 1970s at some random Grateful Dead show in New York.

For some reason, we hit it off. The Relix staff could be found at all Robert Hunter shows in New York, and our West Coast staff had a presence at his events over there.

I believe it may have been 1978 when Robert Hunter and his band performed at My Fathers Place in Roslyn, N.Y.

He allowed us to record his shows and was even honored that we wanted to! He loved to talk to us—we featured Robert on the cover and wrote many articles about him and his music.

In 1981, Robert was just returning from living in England. While he was there, he recorded Jack O’ Rose on Dark Star Records.

He liked the record, but complained about how the studio was so “English cold” that he had a hard time keeping his fingers and guitar warm.

When he returned to the U.S., he stayed with us above the Relix office in Brooklyn, on East 37 Street by Kings Highway. Once he was scheduled to play a show in New York, he pulled out his record, looked at me and said, “Les, why don’t you start a record company and put out my records?”

So Relix Records was created. Robert was our godfather. The first, second and third recorded projects we worked on were Robert’s. Then, with his input, we signed Jorma Kaukonen, Hot Tuna, Kingfish and kept on going for 120 releases.

Robert was a gentle, humble man. Shy to the extreme, he was sometimes afraid to go out in front of a crowd, but he loved performing live. Of course, he also wrote over 70 songs for the Grateful Dead as well as for others.

He was an inspiration to Relix, the Relix family, and, of course, everyone who listens to his music.

Les Kippel launched Relix in 1974 and remained with the magazine through 2000.

This article originally appeared in the pages of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.