Poetry Friday: 'Dark Star Crashes', Remembering Robert Hunter

Oct 11, 2019

A chance meeting almost 60 years ago between two struggling artist-musicians led to one of the strongest songwriting relationships in music history. Jerry Garcia - lead singer for the Grateful Dead - and poet Robert Hunter wrote songs together for decades. With Hunter, the band created some of their most enduring songs, including Dark Star, Box of Rain and Bird Song. Robert Hunter died last month at the age of 78. In this week’s Poetry Friday segment, KNAU listener and Grateful Dead historian Tony Abrams reads from one of Hunter’s many anthologies of poetry and lyrics.  

Poet and lyricist Robert Hunter, long-time songwriter for the Grateful Dead, 1941-2019
Credit Getty Images


TA: Hello. My name is Tony Abrams. I moved to Flagstaff in 1995 about three weeks after Jerry Garcia died.

The words of Robert Hunter were the face of the Grateful Dead. They considered him a band member, a non-performing band member. In fact, inducted into the Rock & Roll Music Hall of Fame and also the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

This is a book called Box of Rain, by Robert Hunter, lyrics from 1965 to 1993. The song Dark Star is pretty quintessential to the Grateful Dead.

Dark star crashes (note a)

Pouring its light into ashes

Reason tatters

The forces tear loose from the axis

Searchlight casting

For faults in the clouds of delusionShall we go, you and I, while we can?

Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds

Poet and Lyricist Robert Hunter (R) with Jerry Garcia, front man for the Grateful Dead, circa 1961. Pictured here with one of their bands, The Hart Valley Drifters.
Credit Getty Images

Mirror shatters

In formless reflections of matter

Glass hand dissolving

To ice petal flowers revolving

Lady in velvet

Recedes in the nights of goodbye

Shall we go, you and I, while we can

Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?

Spinning a set the stars do

Which the tattered tales of axis roll

About the wax and wind

Of never set to motion in the unbecoming.

Round about the reason hardly matters

Nor the whys through which the stars

Were set in spin.

Poet and lyricist Robert Hunter (L) and Jerry Garcia, front man for the Grateful Dead, 1993. The two wrote songs together for more than 30 years before Garcia's death in 1995.

TA: You sing along to words. You don’t sing along to melodies and harmonies. It’s the words that really, I think, touch us deeply.

Every member of the Grateful Dead and people around them – people like Bruce Hornsby, Bob Dylan, member of Los Lobos – they all sought Robert Hunter to help capture thoughts that were in their heads that, maybe they had a premise or an idea, and they couldn’t put it on paper. Sometimes he wrote lyrics and sent it to them and they put it to music. Other times they had music and sent it to him, and he said, ‘I have words to match that.’

I’m going to read a quick lyric that was written for Janis Joplin upon her passing. It’s a song called Bird Song.

All I know is something like a bird within her sang,

All I know she sang a little while and then flew on,

Tell me all that you know, I'll show you snow and rain.

If you hear that same sweet song again, will you know why?

Anyone who sings a tune so sweet is passin' by,

Laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night.

Don't cry now, don't you cry, don't you cry anymore.

Sleep in the stars, don't you cry, dry your eyes on the wind.

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu.