It’s Just a Box of Rain
“Let my inspiration flow, in token rhyme suggesting rhythm, that will not forsake me until my tale is told and done.”
Thus begins “Terrapin Station,” the greatest song ever written about storytelling and creativity. It appears that Robert Hunter’s tale is told and done, because he passed away on Tuesday. As I’ve grown as a fiction writer, nobody has come close to influencing me as much as Hunter. He’s a personal hero of mine, someone so brilliant that I don’t feel remotely qualified to comment on his life. But try I must.
Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead’s primary lyricist, was more than just one of the all-time great songwriters. In this blogger’s humble opinion, he’s one of the 20th century’s best writers. Full stop. He was a poet whose mind was as literary as it was musical, and contributed as much to the group’s success as Jerry Garcia. For a band that’s obsessed with storytelling, he created a universe of mythology to which countless fans have devoted their lives. As I gradually drifted from a Grateful Dead hater to a fan who cites them as a defining influence in my life, his words were what bridged the gap.
A struggling Bay Area poet in the 60s, he started mailing poems to some friends who had just started a band, and the rest was history. Hunter first gained prominence for immortalizing the psychedelic movement, using words to describe the indescribable. Early songs like “Dark Star” and “China Cat Sunflower” are full of life and almost incomprehensible, dripping with spacey playfulness. But much like his lifelong friend Bob Dylan (sensing a pattern here?), he quickly pivoted to the past. While everyone else was looking towards tomorrow, he wrote about yesterday, mining Americana imagery for a coterie of stock characters that he brought to life. Songs like “Friend of the Devil” and “Dire Wolf” followed the outlaws and woodsmen of a weird old America that never quite existed, but was instantly recognizable in our minds. And once he fused his psychedelic worldview with his Americana sensibilities, he really started cooking with gas. “Ripple,” “Box of Rain,” and “Brokedown Palace,” are still considered some of the best songs ever written in part because they contain a spirituality that is uniquely American. His philosophy told everyone who was lost or broken that yeah, this world is incredibly strange, but love will see you through.
Robert Hunter’s true genius was the way he looked at life’s unanswerable questions, and saw the lack of answers as a source of beauty. To him, the Earth was “just a box of rain,” and he didn’t know who put it there. His best advice was “if I knew the way, I would take you home.” And his stories were always unfinished, the audience left to decide if the soldier was wise. He was certain that life has a greater meaning, but he wasn’t particularly interested in finding it. He looked around and saw a world overflowing with beautiful mystery, and seemed to think that learning all the answers would spoil the fun. History tends to reward the writers who take it upon themselves to solve life’s puzzles. Or worse, those who declare life meaningless because we don’t know everything. But Robert Hunter was hitting at something bigger. He wrote lines like “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.” To him, mystery was a feature, not a bug.
Above all else, Robert Hunter was a storyteller. In “Terrapin Station,” arguably his greatest work, he stressed the importance of his profession in no uncertain terms. “The storyteller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice. His job is to shed light, and not to master.” If that was Hunter’s true goal, then he failed miserably. His voice is an indispensable one in American music, one that created worlds inside our minds that felt like they both predated and would outlive us. For the countless fans who sing his songs and the writers who try to emulate him (I count myself in both categories), all that’s left to do is quote Robert Hunter’s words back to him. “Fare you well, fare you well. I loved you more than words can tell. Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.”
Grieving student and blogger