I’m an old Deadhead. Not an obsessive, completist, following-the-band kind of Deadhead, but one who was spellbound by their second album, “Anthem of the Sun”, back in 1968, bought most of the studio albums from then until Jerry’s death in 1995, and who saw the band live half a dozen times between 1972 and 1990. Just an average kind of Deadhead. Someone who can play “Dark Star” from start to finish in his head. And someone who thinks that the most important member of the band was Robert Hunter.
Back in the 80s I bought cassette tape copies of several of Hunter’s solo albums, and played them over and over again. Hunter’s voice is pretty uneven, and the arrangements range from magic to banal. But the words are pure gold. Poetry. Not metaphorically, but literally. One of the more obscure albums was “The Flight of the Maria Helena”, a 37 minute poem recounting a phantasmagorical seven day journey aboard a vast raft, recited to a plangent musical accompaniment. At some point in the 1990s Hunter published a book containing most of his poems and song lyrics, called “A Box of Rain”.
After Jerry Garcia’s death led to the end of the (real) Grateful Dead, I drifted away from their music, and that of Robert Hunter. I don’t know what happened to my old cassette tapes, but as I started to replace tapes with CDs I didn’t include any of the Robert Hunter releases. I kept the book, though, and a few years ago I re-read it. The poems and the songs flooded back, and I resolved to find copies.
It was hard. Hunter’s CDs had all been discontinued, and they weren’t available from any of the download sources. The few unsold copies were commanding fairly high prices, and they still are, although they’ve come down a bit. ($25-70 is typical, but a new Box of Rain will set you back $146.) Eventually I came across an MP3 of “Flight of the Maria Helena”, as I blogged here. But that was it.
And then a few days ago I noticed that a few CDs of “Rock Columbia” were available for as little as $6.98. I immediately ordered one, and it arrived yesterday. This morning I slipped it into the CD changer in my car, and as I drove off to work I hit PLAY.
I sang along with every song, word perfect, from my apartment in Palo Alto to the Yahoo! offices in Sunnyvale. That took half of the disc (“side one” of the old cassette!). This evening, I sang along with the second half of the album. The rollicking “End of the Road”, the challenging “Aim at the Heart”, the haunting “Who Baby Who”, and the expansive title track. Yes, Hunter’s voice was as weak as I remembered it, but that was supremely unimportant. The songs were wonderful, the poetry extraordinary.
This evening I sat down to write this blog piece, but after a couple of paragraphs I broke off and spent a couple of minutes searching the web to see if I could repeat my good fortune. I visited the various Hunter-related web sites, many of which are stale and broken. I looked at the online catalogs for the companies that once produced his CDs – Rykodisc, Relix, and others – but they had forgotten him. I started writing again, went to check something on Robert Hunter’s Wikipedia page, and I saw a line that I hadn’t noticed before:
In 2010 Robert co-wrote Patchwork River with Jim Lauderdale. The Album was released on the Thirty Tigers Label.
I checked the Thirty Tigers website. No mention of Jim Lauderdale or the album. Surely some mistake. But before I returned to my blog, I decided to check Amazon.com for Patchwork River. Bingo! I listened to a couple of samples. The sound was a little more country than is usually my taste, and the voice will take a bit of getting used to – but the words, all the words, are pure Robert Hunter. And so I downloaded the album, put the headphones back on, fired up iTunes, and finished this blog piece. Which I have now done.