The words really didn’t matter to the Grateful Dead. But initially, they did, and then they didn’t. For the first two years of their existence, the Dead traded lyrical duties unenthusiastically. None of the members could seem to get a proper grip on writing lyrics, so the group stuck mostly to covers while trying to find their footing. It wouldn’t be until an old friend of Jerry Garcia’s got back into contact with him that the Dead’s lyrics took on a psychedelic new dimension.
Robert Hunter was a refugee of the Palo Alto folk scene, the same one that Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan often ran in. Hunter and Garcia were close friends, and when Hunter went on a self-discovery journey that doubled as a drug spiral, Garcia kept in contact while his own life was taking a psychedelic turn. During one of their written correspondences, Hunter presented some poems that Garcia thought would make good song lyrics.
The Dead had their first in-house lyricist. Even though he never appeared on stage with the band, Hunter was integrated into the Grateful Dead family and eventually rose to the status of an equal band member. His lyrics soon became pervasive in the band’s canon, particularly on the albums Aoxomoxoa, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty. Hunter would work with all of the band’s singers, but soon, his lyrical partnership would become monogamous with Garcia.
The other singers found their own songwriting partners: Weir had John Perry Barlow, while Phil Lesh had Bobby Petersen. With a whole fleet of poets and writers among their outer reaches, the Dead could be profound, whimsical, or completely obtuse if they wanted to be. Each writer in the band had a different voice and cadence, and it all added up to the mandala that was the Grateful Dead.
Here are ten of the most astounding lyrical observations from within the songs of the Grateful Dead.
The 10 best Grateful Dead lyrics:
10. “Fare thee well now / Let your life proceed by its own design / Nothing to tell now
/ Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine” – ‘Cassidy’
We don’t have to play up the suspense: this list is going to be mostly Robert Hunter. But because the Grateful Dead were one of the true extended families of rock and roll, the band had another full-time, non-performing lyricist in their ranks. John Perry Barlow was a boarding school friend of Bob Weir’s, and when Hunter decided to end his writing relationship with Weir, Barlow was in the perfect place to step in.
The pair soon assembled their own songbook – ‘Black Throated Wind’, ‘Let It Grow’, ‘Estimated Prophet’, ‘The Music Never Stopped’, and ‘Throwing Stones’ all became classics of their own. Barlow could even occasionally match Hunter in terms of beauty and simplicity, like the passing of a torch onto a new life in the lines of ‘Cassidy’.
9. “What is the secret of this tie that binds? / Two souls in communion, both body and mind” – ‘The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)’
Here’s the knock against one Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan – the man wasn’t really a songwriter. More known for his blues and R&B covers, McKernan struggled to adapt to the more psychedelic style that the Dead adopted in the late 1960s. His songbook is small and gets much smaller if you only count the tracks with his name in the songwriting credits. But the truth was that Pigpen was an incredibly important part of the evolving Grateful Dead experience, all the way up to his final concerts with the band in 1972.
Pigpen actually led the charge in early songwriting for the band with tracks like ‘Tastebud’ and added lyrics to tracks like ‘Alligator’. But the time the 1970s came around, Pigpen was his own songwriter, working solo on songs like ‘Operator’. One of the true gems that perfectly showed Pigpen’s progressions as a lyricist was ‘The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)’, a track that only saw 13 performances before Pigpen’s death in 1973.
8. “All I know is something like a bird within her sang / All I know she sang a little while and then flew on” – ‘Bird Song’
Death was a sector that always hung around the Dead. From their fate-tempting name to their casual approach to self-destructive lifestyle choices, the Dead seemed to court plenty of death in the 30 years that they were in existence. The Grateful Dead family expanded far and wide, but one of the downsides was that plenty of close friends and allies passed away during the band’s history.
Janis Joplin forged a close relationship with the Dead, briefly becoming an item with Pigpen and appearing on stage with the band on a number of occasions. Joplin’s death shook Hunter enough for him to pen a tribute in her honour, recasting the blues legend as a songbird who can’t stay. Death would never leave the Dead, so they got pretty comfortable writing about it.
7. “The bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began / There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land” – ‘The Other One’
Bob Weir had little chance as a lyricist. Whenever his macrobiotic diet wasn’t wreaking havoc with his lucidity, his dyslexia doomed his reading and writing skills. But Weir’s creativity and interest in translating the psychedelic experience into words got the better of him while the Dead were rubbing elbows with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
There was no Robert Hunter (or John Perry Barlow, for that matter) in 1967, so it was up to Weir to make it happen himself. In the process, he inadvertently created a lasting metaphor for falling in love with the Grateful Dead and paid homage to legendary troubadour Neal Cassady. Arriving fully formed just after Cassady’s death, ‘The Other One’ is one of the most important pieces of Grateful Dead mythology.
6. “Maybe you’re tired and broken / Your tongue is twisted with words half spoken / And thoughts unclear” – ‘Box of Rain’
Robert Hunter was simply working on another level in 1970. From translating his terrible acid trip into a haunting meditation on death with ‘Black Peter’ to spinning his own classic folk tales in ‘Dire Wolf’ and ‘Friend of the Devil’, Hunter was as “in the zone” as any lyricist had ever been. Hell, during this period, he was working so fast that he managed to knock off three all-time classics in a single day (more on that later).
Hunter was rarely in show-off mode. Between his whimsical psychedelia (‘China Cat Sunflower’) and precise storytelling (‘Cumberland Blues’, ‘Brown Eyed Women’), Hunter always seemed to favour innovation or simplicity. But every once in a while, Hunter would get flashy and prove that his way with words was equal parts rhythm, meaning, and interpretation. ‘Box of Rain’ is all of that and more, complete with a touching and tender acceptance of life’s eternal cycle.
5. “Since it cost a lot to win and even more to lose / You and me bound to spend some time wondering what to choose” – ‘Deal’
The gambling metaphors that populated Robert Hunter’s lyrics were an extension of his interests. Rum runners, con artists, street people, and degenerates were all welcome in Hunter’s romanticisations. The idea that an entire life can come down to one good hand or one rotten deal is paramount to the Dead experience, whether it was through an unexpected hit record or a tragic death along the way.
Hunter lays it out plain: the smart choice isn’t always the obvious choice. While the price for losing is often grave, winning comes with its own price as well. Whatever cost you’re willing to pay, some people just want to see the cards flip. They just want to see that deal go down.
4. “Lately it occurs to me / What a long strange trip it’s been” – ‘Truckin’
Robert Hunter’s most famous lyric probably isn’t his very best, but when it comes to translating outside of the Dead world, no single line is more important. You’ll see it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, official merchandise, and shameless compilation albums. If anything about the Grateful Dead has endured in pop culture, it’s Hunter’s understated recollection of time gone by.
And yet, the phrase “what a long strange trip it’s been” might not even belong to the Dead anymore. It was used in retrospectives for Rolling Stones, astronomical studies, and an endless amount of yearbook quotes. Any kind of journey can now benefit from one of Robert Hunter’s simplest maxims. Overuse, stealing, and cliche is the highest form of flattery for any writer, after all.
3. “Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes / Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis” – ‘Dark Star’
While Weir managed to get the entry point of the psychedelic experience right on ‘The Other One’, it was up to Hunter to dissect what an ideal acid trip sounds like in words. There could be nothing direct about the description: it had to unfurl in different meanings that pass by each other throughout the open plane of consciousness. It had to be deep, man. In full sci-fi mode, Hunter perfectly translated how it felt to leave the normal world behind on ‘Dark Star’.
In a somewhat ironic twist, ‘Dark Star’ would soon become more famous for its non-lyrical content, with the Dead looking for that same exploration of the cosmos and the cranium in their musical jams that Hunter was trying to find in his lyrics. When put together, it makes for a wild adventure that changes meaning and form every time it gets played. Like any good Rorschach test, ‘Dark Star’ can mean whatever you want it to mean.
2. “Once in a while you get shown in the light / In the strangest of places if you look at it right” – ‘Scarlet Begonias’
Trying to describe the Grateful Dead is a tricky task. There are the obvious entry points: the music, specifically the spontaneous jams that put the Dead on the cutting edge of rock music. There’s Jerry Garcia himself, now a near-mythical figure synonymous with a lost period of time. There are the Deadheads themselves who continue to buy into the alternative lifestyle that the Dead promoted and keep the band’s magic aura alive.
If there’s one thing that Deadheads love to try and do, it’s finding a lyric that expresses why the Grateful Dead is so special. They got on the bus thanks to ‘The Other One’. They got their faces stolen thanks to ‘He’s Gone’. They turned on their lovelights. But if there’s one way to describe how it feels to truly “get” the Grateful Dead, it’s probably the most iconic line from ‘Scarlet Begonias’.
1. “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” – ‘Ripple’
Most Grateful Dead songs don’t have a notable original story. Hunter was especially aghast at peeling back the curtain, preferring for each song to make up its own meaning in the listeners’ heads. But some stories are just too good to keep to yourself. When Hunter spent one day with a scroll of paper and a bottle of retsina wine, the results were three of the best songs he had ever written: ‘Brokedown Palace’, ‘To Lay Me Down’, and ‘Ripple’.
That latter is a song that drips with magic and beauty. It’s almost impossible to single out one section as being the most insightful, and Hunter himself pointed to “Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men” as a personal favourite. But in terms of capturing the very essence of individuality and freedom, including the parts that must be left behind, Hunter was never more poetic or profound than in the song’s fourth verse.