Tag Archives: Robert Hunter

Eternal Songs

What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

     Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died.  It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio.  You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.  

     His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines.  Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs.  And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby.  All stars in the world of rock and roll.  But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi.  Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.

     Hunter lived a long and eventful life.  He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family.  He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia.  He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music.  He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon.  In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers.  And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop.  In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’

     I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died.  I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life.  His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking.  He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way.  And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.

     And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu.  If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die.  Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’  It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words.  Here is that verse:  ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.

     I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago.  I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used?  The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.

     The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them:  “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them:  Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם –  it is your very life…”

     Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago.  And here we are today, having read them.  As we will next week, and the week after that.  Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light.  This darkness has got to give.

     Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –

“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,

We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;

Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”

     The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone.  Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter.  Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.

     One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple:  “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

     so may it always be – 

 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Grateful Dead, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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Filed under American Jewry, clergy, dogs, Grateful Dead, holidays, Jewish festivals, mindfulness, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

U.S. Blues

The Grateful Dead canon is filled with references to America, a land (in the Dead’s eyes) of on the one hand potential, possibility, and freedom, and on the other absurdity and utter hypocrisy. Think of the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter composition Jack Straw, with its cowboy anti-heroes, its flying eagles, its reference to the 4th of July and its copping of the phrase ‘sea to shining sea’ from America the Beautiful. In song after song Garcia and Weir sing of old time America, of the Great West and backroom card games, of cowboys on the dusty trail, of small town life and homemade whiskey, Tennessee Jed and ‘just like New York City.’ With parched throats and dusty boots the Dead came out of the West, fresh off the trail, seeking truth through experience, exploring the power of music to reveal the real, creating alternate community but connecting to something at the core of what our great country is about.

They knew in the end there was only so much they could do, but they never flinched. They were pranksters at their core and they could spot a con a mile a way. That may be why for so many years they intentionally maintained an apolitical stance, watching the issues and the elections come and go from the sidelines with bemused expressions. Even later when they started to touch on topics that might have been political they were big picture issues – the rain forest and the climate, the general human tendency to self destruct (Weir and Barlow’s Throwing Stones.) But to actually immerse in the game, to endorse a candidate, or take a position on a particular issue was anathema. Whether right or wrong, the Dead left that kind of thing to Springsteen or Bono or Kid Rock.

But they always watched, keeping the country and its doings in view, shaking their collective head at the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise. There was anger, too. Over the years Weir changed the lyrics in Throwing Stones: ‘Money green, its the only way – you can buy a whole God damned government today!’- always shouted with conviction and a ragged righteousness. In essence, in their own strange, bizarre, and beautiful way, they nobly filled the role of the artist, through their music granting us the flash of insight that reminds us of what it all should be about. Even politics.

The song US Blues captures it. Politics?! Uncle Sam?! The ultimate con-game, the largest and most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ll even encounter in your life. Beware of patriotism – it can muddle your mind! Watch out for politicians – they’ll try to ‘run your life, steal your wife!’ The song’s couplets are playful, even comical. But the title drives it home – US…BLUES! This is a tragedy of epic proportions. The blues is sadness personified, the lowest and worst situation you can imagine. A blues for the United States is almost a requiem, rock and roll style.

Sounds about right as a description for the political farce we are all so avidly watching unfold day by day. The ratings are through the roof! Can you imagine that? This is what we want to do with our time? Watch men in suits yell at each other, talk over each other, and insult each other with ever worsening vulgarities? Here is a better suggestion: read Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, SPQR. There are some eerie parallels in terms of rising and falling, of how great countries come into being, and of what brings about their demise.

At this point it really does have to play itself out. This great and uncontrollable wave, cresting and crashing, who knows where it might actually make shore? In that very last batch of Garcia/Hunter collaborations there was a sort of US Blues redux, entitled Liberty. Here its first verse: Saw a bird with a tear in its eye, walking to New Orleans, my oh my. Hey now bird wouldn’t you rather die, than walk this world when you are born to fly?

The bird, of course is America. The question is where is it going? And maybe even more importantly, how will it get there? Will it walk or fly?

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The Wheel

‘the Wheel is turning and you can’t slow it down, can’t let go and you can’t hold on, can’t go back and you can’t stand still, if the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will’

I’ve always loved this line from the Jerry Garcia – Robert Hunter song the Wheel, found on the eponymous Garcia solo album ‘Garcia’ released in 1972.  The song quickly found its way into the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, and the band performed it hundreds of times over the years, ultimately settling it into that post drums/space slot where it fit so well.  I’ve often wondered about the imagery of that ‘wheel.’  There is obviously something inexorable about it, turning and turning, independent of human influence or the quirky rhythms of human life.

A dream, from just the other night.  End of the fall holiday cycle, so that may have something to do with it.  I am walking along Riverside Dr., a road in the town I grew up in.  I need to get further down the road, but there is a bit of traffic, so I decide to walk – after all, it isn’t far.  A short ways into my journey the weather suddenly shifts.  The wind kicks up, a few flakes of snow begin to fall, and suddenly I am walking through a driving snow storm.  It gets harder and harder to make progress, and the dress shoes I am wearing begin to slip on the snow covered sidewalk.   I look up into a steel grey sky.

If you’ve ever owned a hamster, or even if you haven’t, you know the image of the small furry animal running in place on that wheel.  Whenever we are confronted with that image we probably wonder if we are just a larger, slightly more sophisticated, more complicated reproduction of that image.  Do we ever get any where?  And where are we going, anyway?  How easily the sidewalk can begin to slip beneath our feet!

The Mishnah understands this natural human feeling.  In Pirke Avot we find the following teaching:  You don’t have to complete the work, but at the same time you are not permitted to give up on the task.  In a sense that simple line captures so much of what it means to live a human life.  We fight our battles and face our challenges.  Sometimes we succeed, other times we fail.  But we try.  And try again.  In a small yet profound way, that trying is heroic.

Garcia and Hunter seem to have arrived at about the same place.  When the band was hot the climax to the song reverberated through the great halls, into our minds, into our very bones:  ‘Small wheel turn by the firing rod, big wheel turn by the grace of God, every time that wheel turns round, bound to cover just a little more ground.’

Just a little more ground.  I’ll take it.  Better than walking on a slippery side walk in a snowstorm with dress shoes on.

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