Mickey Hart Remembers Robert Hunter
The Grateful Dead percussionist explores his rhythmic brotherhood with his band’s “Fifth Beatle.”
You joined the Grateful Dead around the same time Robert Hunter started writing regularly with Jerry Garcia. How did he change the band’s direction?
Hunter was in the possession of magic words, and I would always look forward to those magic words. He was a wordsmith extraordinaire—a dear friend and the voice of the Grateful Dead. He spun the stories, he told the tales, it was everything—the cosmology and the whole mythology behind the Grateful Dead. It was a good face for us as well because we loved his words. They were very challenging, and they told so much in one word.
For instance, if you were in a place that you could not describe, all of a sudden, a Hunter line might come to you and everything was explained perfectly. There is no other way you could explain such a strange situation except that his words were prophetic; that’s one way I would put it. He was always thinking, tinkering with time and space perception. His mind was constantly thinking about these images and he was great to work with. We worked in different ways. Sometimes I sent him the music or he came over to the house; or vice versa, he sent me the words and so forth. I wouldn’t say he could write with everybody because he was very challenging; he wouldn’t change any words, really. If he did, he didn’t like to do it. I called him up once late at night and said, “Hey, Hunter, I need a chorus for this one song,” and he just said, “I don’t write choruses.” [Laughs.] He was a fun guy; he was like a fifth Beatle.
Hunter is one of us. Without Hunter, I don’t know if there would even be a Grateful Dead. Besides the playing and the spirit and the community, it all comes down pretty much to how you traverse the songs, and that means musically and lyrically. How do you get from here to there and still honor the words and make them your own? Because when Jerry or Bob sang his words, I believed them. When I heard a line that made me exceptionally excited, I’d just lay into it a little bit more or just appreciate the moment. So as a performer, it was just delicious to have someone that was writing for the band. Can you imagine how incredible that is? He would stay there while we played. He’d be sitting down some place or pacing—he always paced—and it would come out. You could see when a song came out. He had a little dance that he did; it was a jig. He’d move back and forth—more than just a sway. I knew he was really into it when he did that one thing. So we wrote a lot together with all my solo records. He had a little house on the river and he’d go out there and write the songs, and I just waited by my computer for the next load because I was so anxious. We went back and forth quite a bit; he wrote a lot of songs for me and we wrote a lot of songs together. He was just a great guy, I loved him dearly and, the thing is, he didn’t tolerate fools at all.
You and Hunter were both interested in exploring the cosmos in your music. It seems you shared a special, rhythmic connection that was, at the same time, scientific and spiritual.
He was rhythmic. If you listen to his singing, you can see just how rhythmic it all was. In that way, we had a really great partnership because he was reacting to all the drums and all the rhythms; he was very keen on all of that. He really knew how his words should come off the tongue—how they should be sung and how they shouldn’t be sung. He did it his way, that’s for sure, and it was really a great way. It was a great honor just to know the guy all these years; I’ve known him since 1967—that’s a long time. He’s unique, something like that will never pass again. There’s the band and then there’s the time we lived in. It all seemed to come together in a beautiful matrix— the music, the words and the culture were all somehow in synergy. They all fed off each other—the words, the music, the people, the need for ritual and spiritual uplifting. His words were so deep; they weren’t so fanciful. They were meant to do a lot of things. They were very powerful, powerful words.
Hunter contributed to a number of tracks on RAMU, your most recent solo album. Were you collaborating toward the end of his life?
We have a lot of songs still in the bucket. I haven’t even thought about them in the last couple of weeks, but we wrote a lot.
He was kind of like a recluse; he really didn’t mix with people. Once Jerry and him stopped writing, he kind of withdrew; though he was always withdrawn—he never wanted anybody to know who he was. As a great writer, he didn’t have that problem—of being a star. He just knew how much we embraced the words by our reaction and the crowd’s reaction. He saw it so he was very confident. In his heart of hearts, he knew he was writing the best that could be written. He realized that he’d gotten to a place where he was fluid and things were passing through him. He didn’t know where a lot of the stuff came from, but you don’t have to. That was just like being plugged in to some visionary stream of consciousness. He talked about birth and death and freedom—all the things that embody the Grateful Dead as well. It was a perfect mix of a passionate band playing and his magic words.
Mickey Hart joined the Grateful Dead in 1967. He continues to perform the band’s music with Dead & Company, as well as with his numerous solo projects.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.