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Mind of the Magus: The Mystical Poetry of Robert Hunter

Eighty, long years have passed since the waning crescent moon of June 23rd, 1941. In the town of Arroyo Grande, California, in the warm summer wind, a gracious being was born. One that would rewrite the scope of perception, tap into the great divinity of nature’s language, and gift the world with an entryway into the unknown. Happy birthday, dear Robert Hunter.

A man, no different than you and I, Hunter lived to experience the ever-flowing mystery of existence. His backstory isn’t particularly interesting, but are any of ours? Life starts somewhere.

Suffering from abandonment, Hunter grew up in foster homes, eventually reuniting with his mother and taking his stepfather’s surname. He found refuge in reading, writing, and he even played trumpet in a band called The Crescents. He went on to attend school at the University of Connecticut, however only for a year, returning home to San Francisco at 19 years old.

By then, his ex-girlfriend had a new man on her arm whom he was introduced to – you may have guessed, it was none other than the legendary guitarist himself, teenage Jerry Garcia. They began performing together as a duo called “Bob and Jerry,” playing folk songs in 1960s Palo Alto. Hunter also played the mandolin in various local bands, but his primary focus was writing.

Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in the Hart Valley Drifters

Here was the very first spark of the wand.

In 1962, Hunter volunteered to partake in a series of chemical experiments performed at Stanford University. These happened to be the notorious trials of MKULTRA sponsored by the CIA, in which he was paid to take measured doses of psychedelic drugs (such as lysergic acid, psilocybin, and mescaline). Briefly involved with Scientology, Hunter soon left California and headed down to New Mexico where he wrote about his experiences and hallucinations on psycho-active substances.

He sent a few song lyrics back to his good friend Jerry (what would be the premises of “China Cat Sunflower”, “St. Stephen”, and “Alligator”), who began working on instrumentals with his recently-formed band, The Grateful Dead. In 1965, Robert Hunter was invited by the band to be their lyricist in residence, an offer which thousands of us are so ecstatic that he accepted.

The Grateful Dead pose on Haight-Ashbury in the 60s.
Left to right, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Robert Hunter brought spirit to The Grateful Dead through his language, his passion, and his ability to channel the unconscious mind into music. I am by no means a Dead historian, but his story is worth telling and reflecting upon. Few lyricists have been so connected to the hardly-mundane secrets of the universe. Even fewer are able to speak of the divine with such clarity.

He knew something about death, about life, that we all couldn’t possibly comprehend. His lips spoke for the agenda of angels and he had a loving relationship with the infinite.

For me, The Grateful Dead has always been about embracing who you really are, freely and without restriction. Through Robert Hunter’s work, we get a glimpse of the spiritual path; thoughts on the world from an enlightened perspective. We learn that by getting to know the universe, we in turn gain a sense of self and a deeper love for everything that is.

Photo of Robert Hunter, Wilkes-Barre, PA 2014
Dave Scherbenco/The Citizens’ Voice, via Associated Press

The following are some of the dearest sentences and verses written by Robert Hunter, every single one having its own relevance and magical quality to it. I chose each carefully, in hopes to showcase his loving, caring, and brilliant mind through his carefully-curated words.

At first, I was going to go in depth about each excerpt, but I honestly believe that letting the work speak for itself would be much more beneficial. There are religious references, odes to artists of the past, and plenty secrets that might slip over your head. It makes it all the more fun, doesn’t it?

Robert would’ve wanted you to come up with your own interpretations, your own meanings; in hopes that you’ll find yourself within these words… and I promise that you will.

Long live one of the greatest poets of all time.  

‘One Thing To Try’

If you're in a hurry, and really got to go
If you're in a hurry, might have to find out slow
That it's one thing to try and another to fly
You get there quicker just a step at a time
It's one thing to bark, another to bite
The show ain't over till you pack up at night
Don't ever let it get the best of you
Plan what you can, and let the rest shine through
Just so many angles you can possibly see
Figure on those, let the other ones be

Don't be out collecting more than you need
Got a lot of things growing but keep watching those seeds

Got to share in December what you planted in May
If the harvest is empty, find some other good way

‘Eyes of the World’

Sometimes we live no particular way but our own
And sometimes we visit your country and live in your home
Sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone
Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own

Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world
The heart has it's beaches, it's homeland and thoughts of it's own
Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings
But the heart has it's seasons, it's evenings and songs of it's own

‘Terrapin Station’

Inspiration, move me brightly
Light the song with sense and color
Hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
Faced with mysteries dark and vast
Statements just seem vain at last

Some rise
Some fall
Some climb
to get to terrapin

Counting stars by candlelight
all are dim but one is bright
The spiral light of Venus
rising first and shining best
On, from the northwest corner
of a brand new crescent moon
While crickets and cicadas sing
a rare and different tune
Terrapin station

‘Fractures of Unfamiliarity & Circumvention in Pursuit of a Nice Time’: Essay

(The following was written in response to a music critic's essay that sited Hunter's songs as "nonsense". In the essay, Robert breaks down the Grateful Dead track, "Franklin's Tower" and gives proper explanation for the lyrics.)
Well, now that you know what I meant by it,
it's no great shakes is it? Mystery gone,
the magician's trick told, the gluttony
for "meaning" temporarily satisfied,
one can now take issue with my intent
and avoid the song itself, substituting
the assignable significance for the music.

‘On The Experience of Psychedelics’: Quote

(After participating in the Stanford psychedelic trials, Hunter apparently wrote a prolonged encounter of the incidents. The following is a popular quote taken from this piece.)
"Sit back picture yourself swooping up a shell of purple with foam crests of crystal drops soft nigh they fall unto the sea of morning creep-very-softly mist ... and then sort of cascade tinkley-bell like (must I take you by the hand, every so slowly type) and then conglomerate suddenly into a peal of silver vibrant uncomprehendingly, blood singingly, joyously resounding bells... By my faith if this be insanity, then for the love of God permit me to remain insane."

‘Rain in a Courtyard’: Poem Excerpt

(The following is an excerpt from a poem included in one of Robert Hunter's few published books. 'Rain in a Courtyard was written later in his life, as part of the 1993 collection 'Sentintel'.)
the gods of
this world offer
rainbows
as recompense 
for sloppy skies
 
they also silence
whom they love,
knowing how
there's no
percentage in it;
how none of 
it's worth
breaking a heart for.
 
Not that 
this was
always so.
 
In the tree
a half pecked
persimmon,
     in the
courtyard
 rain.

‘Stella Blue’

It all rolls into one
And nothing comes for free
There's nothing you can hold
For very long
And when you hear that song
Come crying like the wind
It seems like all this life
Was just a dream
Stella Blue

‘Ripple’

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full, may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

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