Letter from Robert Hunter To Jerry Garcia after his death
it’s been a year since you shuffled off the mortal coil and a lot has happened. It might surprise you to know you made every front page in the world. The press is still having fun, mostly over lawsuits challenging your somewhat …umm… patchwork Last Will and Testament. Annabelle didn’t get the EC horror comic collection, which I think would piss you off as much as anything. Nor could Dough Irwin accept the legacy of the guitars he built for you because the tax-assessment on them, icon-enriched as they are, is more than he can afford short of selling them off. The upside of the craziness is: your image is selling briskly enough that your estate should manage something to keep various wolves from various familial doors, even after the lawyers are paid. How it’s to be divided will probably fall in the hands of the judge. An expert on celebrity wills said in the news that yours was a blueprint on how not to make a will.
The band decided to call it quits. I think it’s a move that had to be made. You weren’t exactly a sideman. But nothing’s for certain. Some need at least the pretense of retirement after all these years. Can they sustain it? We’ll see.
I’m writing this from England, by the way. Much clarity of perspective to be had from stepping out of the scene for a couple of months. What isn’t so clear is my own role, but it’s really no more problematic than it has been for the last decade. As long as I get words on paper and can lead myself to believe it’s not bullshit, I’m roughly content. I’m not exactly Mr. Business.
I decided to get a personal archive together to stick on that stagnating computer site we had. Really started pouring the mustard on. I’m writing, for crying out loud, my diary on it! Besides running my ego full tilt (what’s new?) I’m trying to give folks some skinny on what’s going down. I don’t mean I’m busting the usual suspects left and right, but am giving a somewhat less than cautious overview and soapboxing more than a little. They appointed me webmaster, and I hope they don’t regret it.
There are those in the entourage who quietly believe we’re washed up without you. Even should time and circumstance prove it to be so, we need to believe otherwise long enough to get some self sustaining operations going, or we’ll never know for sure. It’s matter of self respect. Maybe it’s a long shot, but this whole fucking trip was a longshot from the start, so what else is new?
Your funeral service was one hell of a scene. Maureen and I took Barbara and Sara in and sat with them. MG waited over at our place. Manasha and Keelan were also absent. None by choice. Everybody from the band said some words and Steve, especially, did you proud, speaking with great love and candor. Annabelle got up and said you were a genius, a great guy, a wonderful friend, and a shitty father – which shocked part of the contingent and amused the rest. After awhile the minister said that that was enough talking, but I called out, from the back of the church, “Wait, I’ve got something!” and charged up the aisle and read this piece I wrote for you, my voice and hands shaking like a leaf. Man, it was weird looking over and seeing you dead!
A slew of books have come out about you and more to follow. Perspective is lacking. It’s way too soon. You’d be amazed at the number of people with whom you’ve had a nodding acquaintance who are suddenly experts on your psychology and motivations. Your music still speaks louder than all the BS: who you were, not the messes you got yourself into. Only a very great star is afforded that much inspection and that much forgiveness.
There was so much confusion on who should be allowed to attend the scattering of your ashes that they sat around for four months. It was way too weird for this cowboy who was neither invited nor desirous of going. I said good-bye with my poem at the funeral service. It was cathartic and I didn’t need an anti-climax.
A surreal sidelight: Weir went to India and scattered a handful of your ashes in the Ganges as a token of your worldwide stature. He took a lot of flak from the fans for it, which must have hurt. A bunch of them decided to scapegoat him, presumably needing someplace to misdirect their anger over the loss of you. In retrospect, I think Weir was hardest hit of the old crowd by your death. I take these things in my stride, though I admit to a rough patch here and there. But Bob took it right on the chin. Shock was written all over his face for a long time, for any with eyes to see.
Some of the guys have got bands together and are doing a tour. The fans complain it’s not the same without you, and of course it isn’t, but a reasonable number show up and have a pretty good time. The insane crush of the latter day GD shows is gone and that’s all for the best. From the show I saw, and reports on the rest, the crowd is discovering that the sense of community is still present, matured through mutual grief over losing you. This will evolve in more joyous directions over time, but no one’s looking to fill your shoes. No one has the presumption.
Been remembering some of the key talks we had in the old days, trying to suss what kind of a tiger we were riding, where it was going, and how to direct it, if possible. Driving to the city once, you admitted you didn’t have a clue what to do beyond composing and playing the best you could. I agreed – put the weight on the music, stay out of politics, and everything else should follow. I trusted your musical sense and you were good enough to trust my words. Trust was the whole enchilada, looking back.
Walking down Madrone Canyon in Larkspur in 1969, you said some pretty mindblowing stuff, how we were creating a universe and I was responsible for the verbal half of it. I said maybe, but it was your way with music and a guitar that was pulling it off. You said “That’s for now. This is your time in the shadow, but it won’t always be that way. I’m not going to live a long time, it’s not in the cards. Then it’ll be your turn.” I may be alive and kicking, but no pencil pusher is going to inherit the stratosphere that so gladly opened to you. Recalling your statement, though, often helped keep me oriented as my own star murked below the horizon while you streaked across the sky of our generation like a goddamned comet!
Though my will to achieve great things is moderated by seeing what comes of them, I’ve assigned myself the task of trying to honor the original vision. I’m not answerable to anybody but my conscience, which, if less than spotless, doesn’t keep me awake at night. Maybe it’s best, personally speaking, that the power to make contracts and deal the remains of what was built through the decades rests in other hands. I wave the flag and rock the boat from time to time, since I believe much depends on it, but will accept the outcome with equanimity.
Just thought it should be said that I no longer hold your years of self inflicted decline against you. I did for awhile, felt ripped off, but have come to understand that you were troubled and compromised by your position in the public eye far beyond anyone’s powers to deal with. Star shit. Who can you really trust? Is it you or your image they love? No one can understand those dilemmas in depth except those who have no choice but to live them. You whistled up the whirlwind and it blew you away. Your substance of choice made you more malleable to forces you would have brushed off with a characteristic sneer in earlier days. Well, you know it to be so. Let those who pick your bones note that it was not always so.
So here I am, writing a letter to a dead man, because it’s hard to find a context to say things like this other than to imagine I have your ear, which of course I don’t. Only to say that what you were is more startlingly apparent in your absence than ever it was in the last decade. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the hospital through the days of your first coma. Not being related, I wasn’t allowed into the intensive care unit to see you until you came to and requested to see me. And there you were – more open and vulnerable than I’d ever seen you. You grasped my hand and began telling me your visions, the crazy densely packed phantasmagoria way beyond any acid trip, the demons and mechanical monsters that taunted and derided, telling you endless bad jokes and making horrible puns of everything – and then you asked, point blank, “Have I gone insane?” I said “No, you’ve been very sick. You’ve been in a coma for days, right at death’s door. They’re only hallucinations, they’ll go away. You survived.” “Thanks,” you said. “I needed to hear that.”
Your biographers aren’t pleased that I don’t talk to them, but how am I to say stuff like this to an interviewer with an agenda? I sometimes report things that occur to me about you in my journal, as the moment releases it, in my own way, in my own time, and they can take what they want of that.
Obviously, faith in the underlying vision which spawned the Grateful Dead might be hard to muster for those who weren’t part of the all night rap sessions circa 1960-61 … sessions that picked up the next morning at Kepler’s bookstore then headed over to the Stanford cellar or St. Mike’s to continue over coffee and guitars. There were no hippies in those days and the beats had bellied up. There was only us vs. 50’s consciousness. There no jobs to be had if we wanted them. Just folk music and tremendous dreams. Yeah, we dreamed our way here. I trust it. So did you. Not so long ago we wrote a song about all that, and you sang it like a prayer. The Days Between. Last song we ever wrote.
Context is lost, even now. The sixties were a long time ago and getting longer. A cartoon version of our times satisfies public perception. Our continuity is misunderstood as some sort of strange persistence of an outmoded style. Beads, bell bottoms and peace signs. But no amount of pop cynicism can erase the suspicion, in the minds of the present generation, that something was going on once that was better than what’s going on now. And I sense that they’re digging for “what it is” and only need the proper catalyst to find it for themselves. Your guitar is like a compass needle pointing the strange way there. I’m wandering far afield from the intention of this letter, a year’s report, but this year wasn’t made up only of events following your death in some roughly chronological manner. It reached down to the roots of everything, shook the earth off, and inspected them. The only constant is the fact that you remain silent. Various dances are done around that fact.
Don’t misconstrue me, I don’t waste much time in grief. Insofar as you were able, you were an exponent of a dream in the continual act of being defined into a reality. You had a massive personality and talent to present it to the world. That dream is the crux of the matter, and somehow concerns beauty, consciousness and community. We were, and are, worthy insofar as we serve it. When that dream is dead, there’ll be time enough for true and endless grief.
John Kahn died in May, same day Leary did. Linda called 911 and they came over and searched the house, found a tiny bit of coke and carted her off to jail in shock. If the devil himself isn’t active in this world, there’s sure something every bit as mean: institutional righteousness without an iota of fellow feeling. But, as I figure, that’s the very reason the dream is so important – it’s whatever is the diametric opposite of that. Human kindness.
Trust me that I don’t walk around saying “this was what Jerry would have wanted” to drive my points home. What you wanted is a secret known but to yourself. You said ‘yes’ to what sounded like a good idea at the time, ‘no’ to what sounded like a bad one. I see more of what leadership is about, in the absence of it. It’s an instinct for good ideas. An aversion to bad ones. Compromise on indifferent ones. Power is another matter. Power is not leadership but coercion. People follow leaders because they want to.
I know you were often sick and tired of the conflicting demands made on you by contentious forces you invited into your life and couldn’t as easily dismiss. You once said to me, in 1960, “just say yes to everybody and do what you damn well want.” Maybe, but when every ‘yes’ becomes an IOU payable in full, who’s coffer is big enough to pay up? “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke!” would be a characteristic reply. Unfortunately, you’re not around to explain what was a joke and what wasn’t. It all boils down to signed pieces of paper with no punch lines appended.
I know what I’m saying in this letter can be taken a hundred ways. As always, I just say what occurs to me to say and can’t say what doesn’t. Could I write a book about you? No. Didn’t know you well enough. Let those who knew you even less write them. You were canny enough to keep your own self to yourself and let your fingers do the talking. Speaking of ‘personal matters’ was never your shtick.
Our friendship was testy. I challenged you rather more than you liked, having a caustic tongue. In later years you preferred the company of those capable of keeping it light and non-judgmental. I think it must always be that way with prominent and powerfully gifted persons. I don’t say that, for the most part, your inner circle weren’t good and true. They’d have laid down their lives for you. I’d have had to think about it. I mean, a star is a star is a star. There’s no reality check. If the truth were known, you were too well loved for your own good, but that smacks of psychologizing and I drop the subject forthwith
All our songs are acquiring new meanings. I don’t deny writing with an eye to the future at times, but our mutual folk, blues and country background gave us a mutual liking for songs that dealt with sorrow and the dark issues of life. Neither of us gave a fuck for candy coated shit, psychedelic or otherwise. I never even thought of us as a “pop band.” You had to say to me one day, after I’d handed over the Eagle Mall suite, “Look, Hunter – we’re a goddamn dance band, for Christ’s sake! At least write something with a beat!” Okay. I handed over Truckin’ next. How was I to know? I thought we were silver and gold; something new on this Earth. But the next time I tried to slip you the heavy stuff, you actually went for it. Seems like you’d had the vision of the music about the same time I had the vision of the words, independently. Terrapin. Shame about the record, but the concert piece, the first night it was played, took me about as close as I ever expect to get to feeling certain we were doing what we were put here to do. One of my few regrets is that you never wanted to finish it, though you approved of the final version I eked out many years later. You said, apologetically, “I love it, but I’ll never get the time to do it justice.” I realized that was true. Time was the one thing you never had in the last decade and a half. Supporting the Grateful Dead plus your own trip took all there was of that. The rest was crashing time. Besides, as you once said, “I’d rather toss cards in a hat than compose.” But man, when you finally got down on it, you sure knew how.
The pressure of making regular records was a creative spur for a long time, but poor sales put the economic weight on live concerts where new material wasn’t really required, so my role in the group waned. A difficult time for me, being at my absolute peak and all. I had to go on the road myself to make a living. It was good for me. I developed a sense of self direction that didn’t depend on the Dead at all. This served well for the songs we were still to write together. You sure weren’t interested in flooding the market. You knew one decent song was worth a dozen cobbled together pieces of shit, saved only by arrangement. I guess we have a few of those too, but the percentage is respect ably low. Pop songs come and go, blossom and wither, but we scored a piece of Americana, my friend. Sooner or later, they’ll notice what we did doesn’t die the way we do. I’ve always believed that and so did you. Once in awhile we’d even call each other “Mister” and exchange congratulations. Other people are starting to record those songs now, and they stand on their own.
For some reason it seems worthwhile to maintain the Grateful Dead structures: Rex, the website, GDP, the deadhead office, the studio … even with the band out of commission. I don’t know if this is some sort of denial that the game is finished, or if the intuitive impulse is a sound one. I feel it’s better to have it than not, just in case, because once it’s gone there’s no bringing it back. The forces will disperse and settle elsewhere. A business that can’t support itself is, of course, no business at all, just a locus of dissension, so the reality factor will rule. Diminished as we are without you, there is still some of the quick, bright spirit around. I mean, you wouldn’t have thrown in your lot with a bunch of belly floppers, would you?
Let me see – is there anything I’ve missed? Plenty, but this seems like a pretty fat report. You’ve been gone a year now and the boat is still afloat. Can we make it another year? What forms will it assume? It’s all kind of exciting. They say a thousand years are only a twinkle in God’s eye. Is that so?
Missing you in a longtime way.