Robert Hunter, Rimbaud, and the Visionary Chain of Letters
“Ladyfinger dipped in moonlight
Writing ‘What for?’ across the morning sky
Sunlight splatters dawn with answers
Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye”
— Robert Hunter, “Saint Stephen”
I like used books and I cannot lie. Every once in a while I find something unexpected inside. (A million imaginary dollars to anyone who read that to the rhythm of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”)
One unexpected used-book surprise has me especially contemplative today, my friends. In fact, it’s got me downright stupefied.
Sentimentality, they say, is a psychic carbuncle (that’s a lie…no one’s ever said that). It’s been infecting me worse and worse as my consciousness hallucinates this linear “Life” journey through non-linear “Time” (see how I managed to avoid admitting that I’m getting older?).
The book that’s sparked my current infection of sentimentality is A Box of Rain, the collected lyrics of Robert Hunter. The unexpected note I found in this used American beauty (anybody catch that allusion…huh?…huh?) can be seen below-wise:
That note is in regards to the 1996 Further Festival, which went down just a few months after Jerry Garcia died. One can imagine the emotional air was potent at that show. Of course, one can imagine a lot of things.
I’m not sure how much of what I’m seeing in this note is actually there (that statement can be applied not only here but to any aspect of my life, really). But, whether real or imagined (and let’s not even get into defining the parameters of THOSE concepts), the subtext in this letter screams to me.
It seems loaded with so many unspoken things…I’m hesitant to even share it, and I wouldn’t do so if John’s and Susan’s last names were included (and if in some bizarre twist of fate John or Susan sees this and doesn’t like it just let me know and I will delete this story IMMEDIATELY).
As it is, I can’t even be sure these people are alive anymore. That’s the thing that’s sort of bugging me.
This note clear marks an emotionally significant moment in two people’s lives. Susan, struggling with her creativity…John presumably doing the same, or having some other challenge that caused the two to connect so deeply.
So, why was this book so unceremoniously thrown into the used book market? Did John pass away? Or did he decide this tender event wasn’t worth holding onto, after all? Did he similarly discard all the things that the Grateful Dead represent to Deadheads?
Did he decide creativity was a bunch of pretentious bullshit best left on the wayside?
Most importantly, would he have been right in doing so?
First: Who’s Robert Hunter?
Subjectively: The greatest lyricist in music history. Yes, I place him above Cohen, Morrison, Dylan, Waits, and everyone else. This is purely my opinion. I’m not a huge fan of the Grateful Dead’s music. I can take it or leave it, basically. I’m a huge fan specifically of Robert Hunter’s lyrics.
Objectively: Hunter is a musician best known for his work as lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He didn’t write the lyrics for every Dead song, but he did write them for the vast majority, and for all of the band’s most-loved.
Beyond all that, Hunter was an Artist in the visionary tradition. I say “was” despite him still making art because, from what I’ve gathered from interviews, Hunter wrote off the “visionary” aspect of his music decades ago.
When I say “visionary” here, I’m talking about a mystical tradition often traced back to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I mean “visionary” in the sense that Hunter believed he could use his art to get a peek behind the cosmic curtain…to get a sniff of God’s socks, as it were.
This is an idea unpopular in these secular times, but guys like Hunter believed there was something out there in the ether and they could grab a few wisps of it if they learned how to see through the pall of profane reality.
Hunter wasn’t the only artist of the ’60s to seek this “derangement of the senses” in order to attain the unknown. Jim Morrison’s visionary path was probably the most mythologized of the era.
There was Bob Dylan, too, though he became very reluctant to speak of it (or anything else for that matter) to the press. In a couple of his earliest interviews, he expressed a distinctly Gnostic worldview and a desire to capture Truths through his music.
This is heady stuff we’re talking about here (Deadheady, in fact). Most people today would probably say it’s “bullshit” stuff. Would Hunter agree? I like to think he wouldn’t. I like to think he simply decided that the price he had to pay was too great, and not that there was never anything there to begin with.
How the hell do I know, though?
What would Susan or John say about this?
The Formless Ambiance of Truth
Ssearchlights casting for faults in the clouds of delusion…”
— Robert Hunter, “Dark Star”
Neil Young’s not a fan of “Tell Me Why,” despite it being a beautiful song and one well-loved by fans. He doesn't like it because he doesn’t think it means anything.
In regards to the lines:
Is it hard to make
arrangements with yourself,
When you’re old enough to repay
but young enough to sell?
Young said that he doesn’t actually know what the hell it was ever supposed to mean, if anything. For that reason, he never played the song live very much.
The funny thing about it, though, is that many times that exact Young lyric struck me as being swollen with Truth. I venture to guess I’m not the only one who’s felt that way, either. I venture to guess, even, that Young himself felt that way when he wrote it, even if he changed his mind later.
What we’re talking about here is the metaphysical Truth of art and mysticism (which is always eventually diluted and codified into religion). It’s an irrational sort of truth (which of course begs all thinking people to question how anything irrational can be true…I know, guys; I get it).
Yet, for all its semantic slipperiness, the senseless Truth with a capital “T” is an impulse intrinsic to the human condition. Reduce love to a number and life to meat and bones as much as you want, but the siren cry of the miraculous continues to sing in our hearts.
It’s always been so.
“It’s a hand-me-down…the thoughts are broken…”
— Robert Hunter, “Ripple”
We return to the visions of these artists and mystics whenever we feel starved and tortured by materialism. We heal head and heart there.
We cure our cynicism with poetry. I’d be lying though if I said that such a simple justification for art’s value was enough, though.
Yes, friends, I still foolishly thirst for the reality of the mystical…for the other layer of reality beyond the pall of this one. Whatever it may be…angels, demons, binary code of a computer simulation…I thirst for it all the time, and normal life has never come close to quenching that thirst.
I consider all those who thirst the same to be members of my weird tribe. Robert Hunter, Susan and John…all the people met and unmet the same.
That’s why I feel a sense of kinship with the two strangers who wrote the note that found its way onto the Box of Rain my bookshelf.
For one fleeting day, many lifetimes ago, two souls in a world of indifferent machinery found each other in a music festival overseen by a ghost. They talked, they consoled, and they found kindred spirits who spoke about each other’s creativity as if it actually meant something.
Two souls who spoke about each other’s LIVES as if they actually meant something. Just imagine such a wild, miraculous thing…
Moments like that must be plucked from the continuum and pinned to the walls of the Museum. They deserve to be.
It’s just a box of rain…I don’t know who put it there…believe it if you need it…or leave it if you dare.
— Robert Hunter, “Box of Rain”
Every now and then I listen to some musician whine about how “war is terrible” or “modern people are selfish” and think yea, no shit war’s terrible and people selfish you pompous, self-righteous clown, but how about you get down in the weeds with us and look at these things honesty in all their impossible complexity.
Artists are idiots, is usually how I’ll finish off that thought.
But, then I’ll get a flash of the infinite again…in some idea for a story or some line heard in a song…in a Robert Hunter or Bob Dylan line…in Rene Daumal…and then I am reminded that the artist is the magician, not the magic, and the music fished from the ether is True even if the musician is not.
It’s something lost the moment we try to understand it in a rational sense — a direct encounter with the mystical.
It’s not enlightenment. No. I’d wager neither Hunter or Dylan or Rimbaud would have claimed to be enlightened. It’s just a glimpse behind the Cosmic curtain…a sniff of God’s socks…
…and yet, despite such little things, they are the threads that keep our souls sewn together.
What the hell is a “transitive nightfall of diamonds”? I don’t know. Neither did Robert Hunter. It sure sounds pretty, though. Just imagining it is like soothing a head wound in cool rain.
Wherever you are, John…Susan, in this world or in the next (or the next after the next), I hope you held on to the magic, or that at least you get a taste of it again.
I hope you kept valuing your creativity, Susan.
I hope you didn’t ditch the book because it stopped meaning something to you, John.
Most of all, I hope you didn’t get lost in all the indifferent machinery. Neither of you.