Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has dusted off his guitar, practiced five hours a day and polished a repertoire for his first live-performance tour in nearly a decade.
Hunter’s way with words has earned him a place in the American idiom. “What a long strange trip it’s been,” from the 1970 Grateful Dead hit “Truckin’,” has become a widely used description of life’s serendipities.
It has also earned him enduring songwriting partnerships with Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan and others. Although best known as a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, he occasionally takes the stage, mostly as a soloist.
“When you get onstage, then you really see if you’ve got it or not,” Hunter said in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing even remotely like it, especially being a soloist. All of the arrows are pointing in towards you and out towards the audience.”
Hunter, 72, will start a solo U.S. tour Sept. 26 in Huntington, N.Y., after recovering from a spinal infection, with a larger tour possible in the spring. A drying up of royalties as free music flourishes on the Internet, reflections on his illness and a desire to perform contributed to the decision to hit the road.
“Has publishing gone belly-up? It certainly has,” he said in an interview. “But I wouldn’t be doing it if the pleasure of doing it weren’t foremost.”
In the interview, Hunter talked about the upcoming tour, his post-Dead collaborations, his experiences in secret CIA testing of psychedelic drugs, and his last conversation with Garcia before the Grateful Dead frontman died in 1995.
“He said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that your songs never stuck in my throat,’ which makes me wonder if he knew he was just about ready to take the long walk. He didn’t voice things that way. He wasn’t Mr. Compliments or anything like that.”
The songs in the shows, which will be in mid-size theaters, will include Grateful Dead tunes Hunter wrote with Garcia over nearly three decades and some later work. Among the more than 100 songs they penned together are “Touch of Grey,” “Ripple” and “Casey Jones.”
Speaking of his audience, he said: “I know what they come for, what they’re paying for, and they will get it. Plenty of Hunter-Garcia tunes, which do weather well.”
Hunter has been practicing for three months to rebuild his extensive repertoire. “I feel like I got all the guitar playing I ever had back, plus a good deal more. Of course it doesn’t stack up to a real guitar player like Jerry or anything like that, but it’s good for me,” he said.
Since Garcia’s death, Hunter has collaborated extensively with Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale. He has also worked a few times with Dylan, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Los Lobos and others.
His lyrics, long characterized by a folksy mysticism, now tend to carry more of Nashville’s country flavor, he said.
He is guarded about Dylan. “I think he is a mysterious force majeure. We all have a Bob Dylan in our heads somewhere. He managed to be that guy. It can’t be easy, you know,” he said.
“The fact that he worked with me is almost typical of the absolutely unforeseeable stuff the guy decides to do. 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.”
Hunter’s lyrics provided a psychedelic aura that aided the Grateful Dead rise to fame. But years before the band’s music helped fuel writer Ken Kesey’s LSD “Acid Test” parties in the 1960s, Hunter and Kesey were subjects in the CIA’s MKUltra program to test psychedelic drugs as mind-control agents.
He said he did not learn until much later that the CIA ran the program, which was made public in 1975.
“I couldn’t figure out why they were paying me to take these psychedelics. What they wanted to do was to check if I was more hypnotizable when I was on them,” he said. “It was hard to pay attention to what the hell they were talking about, much less be hypnotized.”
When the experiment ended, Hunter said, it was a hard experience to relate to.
“It was the first time I had had any of this stuff, and the drugs in themselves were rather spectacular. Nobody had had my experiences, and it was at least two years before those drugs started getting out on the street. It was like a secret club of one.”