Saturday, November 25, 2017

Together Through Life: Robert Hunter and Bob Dylan Team Up to Produce a Gem

“Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded.” 
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

During the Fourth of July weekend in 2009 I hung my first solo art show in more than 30 years at The Venue @ Mohaupt Block. In addition to framing and mounting illustrations and paintings from two years of blogging, quite a few of the works were from stages of my earlier life, thus making it a retrospective of sorts. The title I gave this show was First Hand Experiences. The significant piece of this story is that Bob Dylan's Together Through Life had been just released and for two days running I must have listened to the new album forty times while hanging my work.

What I didn't know at the time was the critical role played by his songwriting collaborator on this project, Robert Hunter. Born Robert Burns in June 1941, one month after Robert Zmmerman, Hunter purportedly descended from the great Scot poet of that same name, apparently an heir to the poetry gene embedded in his DNA.

Together Through Life wasn't Dylan's first collaboration with Hunter, who estanlished his cred as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. After the brief six-gig Dylan and the Dead Tour in July of 1987 Hunter co-wrote at least two songs with Dylan for his 1988 album Down in the Groove, one of these being Sylvio, a favorite of Dylan's which he's since performed live more than 500 times during his Never Ending Tour.

According to an interview with Hunter in 2014 at the website Highway 81 Revisited, when asked how his relationship with Dylan got started, Hunter replied: It started with a song that I had written for the Dead. I used to write up a little book full of songs titled “Can You Dig It?” every year or so, and give copies, and the guys in the band who wrote would choose stuff they liked out of it. Dylan came to the practices for that Dead/Dylan (tour in 1987), and I was in court at the time, so when I got out, Dylan said, “Hey, I set one of your songs,” and he had taken “Silvio” from that book. He said, “I dig your work,” and I said, “Well, I dig your work too.”

We bantered back and forth over the next couple years. I wrote more things, and nothing was really clicking too much. Then out of the blue he asked me to write an album for him (“Together Through Life”), so I got clickin’ on that, and it’s very much a collaboration. His words are in there as much as mine are, to the point where I don’t even remember who wrote what in those songs.

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When the album was released, Dylan described Hunter as "an old Buddy" and said, "We could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there... He's got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting."

No question about it.

In 2015 Robert Hunter was finally inducted, with Jerry Garcia, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. (Dylan inducted in 1982)

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"Hunter tapped into his generation the same way Dylan did," says Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, a longtime Dead fan. "People will look back and say, 'That's American culture represented in music.' He captured the hippie freedom, the mentality of the little guy against the corporation. A lot of the songs are about gambling, card playing and riverboat guys who'll cut your throat if you look the wrong way."
Source: Rolling Stone, March 9, 2015

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For more on Robert Hunter, here's an exclusive Rolling Stone interview from 2015.

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For me, Together Through Life shines as another Dylan triumph, creating yet another "sound" with its accordion accompaniments, exploring still new tonal territories. I am reminded here of how he incorporated Scarlet Rivera' magic violin into the striking sound for Hurricane, Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue.

What's more, this is his first full album of songwriting collaboration with a single artist. I would love to have been a fly on the wall, as they say, when these two creators hashed, slashed, restructured, dreamed and re-dreamed the lyrics they produced here. Where does one end and the other begin? Even Robert Hunter isn't certain, he said.

The whole world is my throne
Beyond here lies nothin'
Nothin' we can call our own

There's some dark shadows flowing through a lot of the songs, and the gravel-voiced Dylan conveys this stark beauty so convincingly.

The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

Meantime, life goes on all around you... Listen to the music.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Once more a good piece of writing, with nice scenery... But aimed at a record I find myself puzzled with almost as much as the albums centered around the American Songbook. The sound as you say is beautiful and somehow new, even if filled with tradition, well that's Dylan. But the lyrics are a bit too sober for me, the only song that really hits me is This Dream of You, and it wasn't written together with Robert Hunter, who has delivered excellent stuff for the Dead. Everything's Good is to the point and fun, just like My Wife's Hometown, the rest has some lines, but remain undevelloped, almost mediocre. As if none of the two dared step ober the line and intrude upon the other one's ideas. Still it's an enjoyable record indeed. On Tempest Dylan showed what he is really capable of, yet somehow less and less willing to show. it seems...
greetings hans altena

Michael Simmons said...

Fine piece, but concerning this quote: "What's more, this is his first full album of songwriting collaboration with a single artist." If by "his" you're referring to Dylan, this isn't accurate. The Bob album "Desire" was comprised of songs co-written by Dylan and Jacques Levy, with the exception of one, as I recall. "Together Through Life" -- like "Desire" and Dylan/Levy -- are all Dylan/Hunter co-writes with the exception of one.

For my taste, "Together Through Life" is one of Bob's most underrated album.

Ed Newman said...

Hans,
Thanks for the incisive commentary. My partiality toward the album no doubt stems in part from the associations that accompany it. Or maybe it's just"the sound," which also has associations for me of Old Mexico, and Musica Nortena. (esp. If You Ever Go To Houston, Together Through Life and It's All Good.)

For some reason the darkness of the lyrics in some places is fine... Time Out Of Mind has some pretty sober places.
Thanks for leave a few additional insights. And yes, Tempest shows that Dylan still had it in him at this point.
e.

Ed Newman said...

Michael:
Thanks for the correction on Desire. I was aware of his collaboration on some of the songs there with Jacques Levy, but had not remembered how extensive the collaboration was.
Together Through Life isn't the only underrated Dylan album...
thanks for the affirmation
e

Anonymous said...

Well Ed, I sure understand your partiallity, hearing a record under certain circumstances is vital, and the New Mexico vibe here draws me in too, moreover I do not have difficulty with the darkness of it, the relative lack of striking imagery, always Dylans strength in my opinion, makes me wish for just a little more anytime I listen to the album, which is a lot, and I find it insightful how you draw a link with Time out of Mind, that one is sober as well, completely right, and also there I sometimes wish he had gotten just a bit more wordy, still my critics attack me for being too baroque, so, maybe I should think this over a little more, let my guard fall and listen to it for the precious unadorned stone it is. Thanks for your insight.
hans a.