This is a photo by New Zealander photographer Peter Peryer, who died last year. It was one of his first, and is called Hunua, from the Mars Hotel collection. If you could enlarge the photo a bit you will see that the graffiti on the old building is Mars Hotel. Peryer took the photograph on a very cheap camera called a Diana, before he became more famous.
Whereas this is the cover of the 1974 LP by the Grateful Dead, known as Mars Hotel (or Ugly Rumours from the Mars Hotel). The cover art was by Stanley Mouse, one of the legendary poster artists based in San Francisco, that added the visual dimension to the psychedelic sixties, and especially to the San Francisco bands. The Grateful Dead’s key lyricist, Robert Hunter, died this week aged 78, 24 years after his writing partner, Jerry Garcia.
So are the two images linked? The first is of a derelict building in a rural area of the North Island in New Zealand, that happens to have the words Mars Hotel painted on. There were certainly hip music fans in New Zealand in the 1970s, even if the Grateful Dead’s long strange tripping never included a tour in the southern hemisphere.
Anyway, that is enough of a connection for me to write a little tribute to lyricist, Robert Hunter, as a kind of distant Deadhead. The Grateful Dead had a lot of artistic connections, obviously the artwork, and the link to Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, and so to the writing of Jack Kerouac and the Beats. But Robert Hunter was his own smaller scale genius, and I wanted to emphasise his link to English writing, and to the folk tradition, an interest he shared with Jerry Garcia before the psychedelic experience took them on the Grateful Dead’s legendary bus.
My first listening experience of the Dead came when I happened to find a cassette, in the 1980s, with both the 1970 classics, Working Man’s Dead on one side, and American Beauty on the other. I wasn’t really expecting the country rock genre though, all I had read about was the so-called acid rock stuff. But I nonetheless loved this cassette. In 1987 the Dead had released their most successful studio LP, In the Dark, but I had not heard that, and never much liked it later on. But the country rock stuff was great, and it was that which led me into the more familiar bands in the genre, the Byrds and Flying Burritos Brothers.
But in 1987 I had quit an admin job in a finance corporation, after the sharemarket crash of that year, when I had lost most of my savings. I took a trip down in the South Island, and stayed in Blenheim, where I did some seasonal work in an orchard, then in a vineyard on some stoney ground next to the Wairau river. Every day I would drive to the vineyard, greet the owner’s Irish Setter dog, put on my cowboy hat, take my hammer, and attend to the vines. I was relatively hopeless at it, but the older guys tolerated me. After a hot day we had our hammer throwing competition and went back home. I had a cabin at a camping ground and, after some dinner, lay back with my Sony Walkman and put on the Grateful Dead, first Working Man’s Dead, then American Beauty, when I would fall asleep during ‘Attics of my Life’. But all of those songs were great, I don’t need to praise each of them, they just seemed to fit the idea of a grafting seasonal worker.
One time I went to a pub in Blenheim, which was a bit of an eye opener. They had a rough and ready band, and at the official closing time the outsiders were expected to leave, while the locals carried on drinking. I met an American guy there, who was also at the camping ground, who said he had seen the Dead at a concert with Bob Dylan, and the whole thing had been 5 hours long. Far out man, it all seemed to fit into place.
When I went back to Wellington it was not so easy to find more Grateful Dead LPs. The only ones were re-releases of the mid 1970s period when they had their own record label, but that was after their classic Warner Brothers period. But I purchased the Steal ya Face live LP, which had the elegaic song ‘Stella Blue’, one of Garcia’s best arrangements. And I bought Mars Hotel, Wake of the Flood, and Blues for Allah on cassette initially. But you had to love the skeletons going round on the album labels.
So just a bit more on the Mars Hotel LP. I actually liked the two songs by Phil Lesh, the bass player, ‘Unbroken Chain’ and ‘Pride of Cucamonga’. These were the last of his songs with another lyricist, and after that it was mostly Hunter/Garcia songs, with others by Bob Weir and John Barlow. But as I write this I want to mention Hunter’s great lyrics for the opener to side two, ‘Scarlet Begonias’. Who else would write a song title with begonias in it, Hunter’s usual flower icon being the rose. But he starts off, ‘as I was walking round Grosvenor Square’. This was obviously one of his songs that he wrote while living in London, in his most fertile period. I always liked the line: “As I picked up my matches and was closing the door/ I had one of those flashes, I’d been there before.”
The usual thing here is to say that we will never see his like again, and in combination with the genius Jerry Garcia, and his unique playing, especially on the pedal steel guitar in country-rock mode. But Robert Hunter was the lyricist, that was what he did, so in a way what he wrote defines the music, cosmic American soul or something. Not necessarily the most original, but certainly the most empathetic. Just listen to ‘Box of Rain’, written with Phil Lesh, the first song on American Beauty, and go there with him.