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(Credit: Alamy)

The poem Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter wrote in tribute to Jerry Garcia


There was a chemistry that permeated every corner of the grateful Dead. No, not that one. While LSD may have been the drug of choice for the wild and wonderful San Francisco band, the truth is that they really vibed off one another more than any narcotic. The band had a cherishable connection with one another and their set of appreciative audiences known colloquially as Deadheads. On stage, the group would provide enough energy to charge each other up and send a bolt of classic rock into the abyss. But there was one connection that was perhaps stronger than the rest.

Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter represented the creative nucleus of the band. While Garcia, the band’s freewheeling guitarist, often operated as chief music maker for the group, Hunter was the band’s ultimate wordsmith. Crafting lyrics for some of Garcia’s most beloved tunes, the duo operated in tandem and delivered synchronicity that would elevate the jam band into something otherworldly. When Garcia passed away in 1995, Hunter paid tribute to the icon by writing a poignant poem, ‘Elegy for Jerry’.

In the annals of rock, he is a figure of unmatched pedigree. Founding member of the psychedelic motley crew Grateful Dead, Garcia’s 30-year stint in the band, from its inception in 1965 to its disbandment in 1995 (coinciding with his death), helped Garcia make a lasting impact on music and pop culture.

His role as bandleader of the Grateful Dead was just one of many musical endeavours he undertook in his prolific lifetime. Alongside longtime friend Merl Saunders, he founded the Saunders-Garcia Band in 1971. He also fronted the Jerry Garcia Band, Old and In the Way, the Garcia/Grisman and Garcia/Kahn acoustic duos, Legion of Mary and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

A defining feature of Garcia’s musicianship was long, sustained improvisations on stage with the Grateful Dead. Informed by the infamous ‘Acid Tests’ and typical of his stature as the godfather of the hippies, he believed that improvisation took the stress away from his playing. It allowed him to enact brilliant spur of the moment riffs that he would never have dreamt of attempting in a rigid, structured setting. “My own preferences are for improvisation, for making it up as I go along,” he once commented. “The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that’s difficult for me”.

Hunter, Garcia’s longtime friend, captured the enigmatic artistry of the guitarist within his beautiful elegy poem. A year later, Hunter would pen a letter to his friend, where he offered his view on the year without him: The band decided to call it quits. I think it’s a move that had to be made. You weren’t exactly a sideman. But nothing’s for certain. Some need at least the pretence of retirement after all these years. Can they sustain it? We’ll see.”

Of course, the Dead have managed to continue on through various guises. However, nobody could argue they will ever be the same. Instead, they operate bereft of their leading man, Jerry Garcia. Below, read Robert Hunter’s beautiful poetic elegy for his friend, Jerry.

‘Elegy for Jerry’

Jerry, my friend,
you’ve done it again,
even in your silence
the familiar pressure
comes to bear, demanding
I pull words from the air
with only this morning
and part of the afternoon
to compose an ode worthy
of one so particular
about every turn of phrase,
demanding it hit home
in a thousand ways
before making it his own,
and this I can’t do alone.
Now that the singer is gone,
where shall I go for the song?

Without your melody and taste
to lend an attitude of grace
a lyric is an orphan thing,
a hive with neither honey’s taste
nor power to truly sting.

What choice have I but to dare and
call your muse who thought to rest
out of the thin blue air
that out of the field of shared time,
a line or two might chance to shine —

As ever when we called,
in hope if not in words,
the muse descends.

How should she desert us now?
Scars of battle on her brow,
bedraggled feathers on her wings,
and yet she sings, she sings!

May she bear thee to thy rest,
the ancient bower of flowers
beyond the solitude of days,
the tyranny of hours–
the wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legions of the dead

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.

I feel your silent laughter
at sentiments so bold
that dare to step across the line
to tell what must be told,
so I’ll just say I love you,
which I never said before
and let it go at that old friend
the rest you may ignore.