By Ron Lancia

Vista Cruising Volume XII: The Garcia-Hunter Process

In the summer of 1981 my dad took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it very much appealed to me that when Han Solo wasn’t piloting the Millennium Falcon, he was moonlighting as an archeology professor searching for ancient artifacts. To be sure, I was wholly unaware of the Grateful Dead at that time, let alone the fact that they liked to pal around with filmmaker George Lucas at the recording studio on his Skywalker Ranch. I don’t think I ever had a Dr. Jones moment of my own—i.e. uncovering a sacred relic —until very recently, while doing research for an article in Wall of News Issue #7. While poring over every bit of minutiae I could find about Miles Davis opening for the Dead at the Fillmore West, my research led me to A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by the band’s historian and publicist, author and PhD Dennis McNally, whose impact on our scene cannot be overstated.

My attempt to cite a quote from A Long Strange Trip in which Garcia credits Miles for teaching him the concept of “open playing” led me to McNally’s ending Notes and Bibliography. I had never seen such a detailed and meticulous accounting of source material from an author or anything close to it, and the experience was tantamount to a crash course in both writing and research from McNally. Specifically, he referenced an obscure October 1989 interview with the band upon the release of the album Built to Last conducted by the Zimmerman brothers in a San Francisco radio publication called The Gavin Report. After capturing the Miles quote from Garcia, I noticed the conversation turned to the songwriting processes of Jerry and Robert Hunter, and it was at that moment that I fancied myself as Indiana Jones in the temple swapping a bag of sand for the sacred idol.

To briefly give context, I have been endlessly fascinated by the Hunter/Garcia dynamic since I read Blair Jackson’s Goin’ Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion and his 1988 conversations with Garcia and Hunter as well as his 1991 sit-down with the songwriting duo. Interestingly, these were conducted around the same time as the Gavin Report relic I discovered by way of McNally, so much attention is paid to the album Built to Last, and the imparting of lyrical wisdom in songs like “Foolish Heart” to which Jerry questioned: “Can you really tell somebody something about life with any kind of integrity?” Hunter apparently responded: “Sure you can! It’s okay! This is good advice!” And Jerry seemed to be copacetic with this arrangement, revealing that even in the earliest days of his collaboration with Hunter that he “always thought he was pretty wise [and] that’s the reason I got together with him in the first place.” Well played, Jer.

However, I was interested in learning about the writing process itself, and aside from the two songs that came together synchronously with Jerry having the music and Hunter having the lyric—”Terrapin” and “Wharf Rat”—Hunter provided a pretty clear explanation to Jackson: ”I’ll throw him a phrase and he’ll say, ‘Wrong accent,’ so I throw him another one…and we do that until we have a dummy lyric that will work. Then, once we have an agreed upon model, I can get cracking on it and hone it.” For the record, that makes perfect sense to me, and basically confirmed how I had always imagined it, but perhaps in a case of “It’s not your business how it’s done,” there was another wrinkle to their methodology that Hunter omitted.

And, here dear reader, is where I do my best Indiana Jones impersonation, and reveal what I hope is a face-melter in terms of providing insight into that missing wrinkle, excavated from that forgotten Gavin Report interview by the Zimmerman brothers on the Built to Last album that Dennis McNally had originally unearthed. I leave for you here unadulterated and for your enjoyment:

Jerry Garcia: “’Foolish Heart’ started when I went over to his house one night. I had some ideas that I played on the guitar for him. It was a feel that I couldn’t explain. He…recorded what I was doing. I scat along-la la la la. Then he thinks about it for a while, coming up with some ‘tries’ at it. In the case of ‘Foolish Heart,’ it started off as a fragment. I evolved the melody and a rhyme scheme where I wanted this line to rhyme with this line and so on. It’s like inventing a form. And Hunter is enough of a craftsman to tell me at what point I should stress certain lines. Musically, I’ll have everything but content.”

And here is the line that feels like a most sacred relic:

Jerry Garcia: “Then I’ll tell [Hunter], I want a vowel here. I want consonants here.”

Give the Zimmerman brothers credit, as they recognized immediately that vowels and consonants were “pretty damn specific,” but Garcia explained: “It’s about singability. When we first started writing together, we wrote songs you couldn’t sing. There was no place to breathe. And we had notes held on a consonant, which you can’t do. After a while, you realize that these songs can’t be performed. It’s humanly impossible. So those are things you learn as you go along. That’s the craft of songwriting.”

We gather in Ventura next month for Skull & Roses in part to celebrate the musical partnership of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, and the songs that they so meticulously crafted. While the Grateful Dead paradigm is often associated with free form improvisation, in these descriptions of the songwriting process by Hunter and Garcia we can see the level of precision and detail that was required to produce a canon of work that continues to sustain our movement and our community.

Ron Lancia is a school teacher in the San Diego area—as a matter of fact, he was Schoolteacher of the Year recently—and he knows stuff. He’ll be one of WON’s regular contributors.