|Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle, by Andrea Holt (2012: Ballantine)|
Hunter signed up as the Grateful Dead's house lyricist in September, 1967. He collaborated with most of the members at one time or another, but most famously and most often with Jerry Garcia. Yet in the last two decades, the virtues of Hunter's literate yet singable lyrics have been an asset to a wide variety of recording projects. Since 1990, Hunter has had lengthy, multi-album collaborations with Bob Dylan, David Nelson and Jim Lauderdale. During the same two decades, Hunter has also found the time to write songs with Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Zero (the band), Warren Haynes, Malcolm Welbourne (Papa Mali) and others as well. Given Hunter's ability to work with other musicians, and his prolific nature, one of the things I began to ask myself was "why did it take so long?" Why weren't musicians calling up Hunter for some lyrical infusions, back in the day when his friends were headlining auditoriums full of young people, not bars full of old people (even if they were amongst those young people in the first place)?
It's impossible to know why potential collaborators didn't call Hunter back in the day, but a few salient points come to my mind.
- Back in the day, 'Star' rock bands on big labels released fewer albums, so they needed fewer songs. Hypothetically, bigger money was involved if an album was a hit, and musicians may not have been as inclined to share and potentially lucrative songwriting credits from a (hoped-for) hit album
- There may have been a notion that Hunter was an effective member of the Grateful Dead, and asking him to help write a song was poaching, in some way. It may have been that Hunter would have been more than willing to co-write songs way back when, but received no inquiries.
- The stone-age technology of the 60s and 70s would have meant that co-writing would have required that musicians actually spend a fair amount of time with Hunter, time that may not have been easily available for busy, touring rock musicians. We take word processing, emails and digital sound files for granted, but consider the difficulty of trying to collaborate without even being able to copy your lyrics or quickly pass on a recording--however basic--of new chord changes.
|The cover to the March, 1969 Quicksilver Messenger Service Capitol album Happy Trails|
In the early 1960s, David Freiberg was a folk singer, mostly performing in the duo David And Michala (I think Michala was his wife, but I'm not certain). I know that at some point around 1964, Freiberg shared a house in Venice Beach with Paul Kantner and David Crosby. David And Michala played on the same folk circuit as Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Janis Joplin and other scuffling bohemian musicians. Given how few in number the pot-smoking bohemian crowd really were, I suspect that Hunter and Freiberg had met up in the early 60s, but I'm not aware that they were particularly close.
In 1965, Freiberg was asked to help form a group to back folksinger Dino Valenti. Valenti got busted, and the band was put on hold. Freiberg got busted, too (set up for a nickel bag pot bust by a snitch), and he spent 60 days in jail. Freiberg got out to find that the band was still waiting for Valenti, and rehearsing at a tiny club called The Matrix. After many strange permutations, the band evolved into Quicksilver Messenger Service. With Valenti's legal problems making him only occasionally available, Quicksilver became underground legends and Fillmore headliners without him. By the end of 1968, Quicksilver were as big as the Grateful Dead, nationally famous and a tremendous live act. Freiberg played bass and shared lead vocals with guitarist Gary Duncan. John Cipollina shared front-line guitar duties with Duncan, and Greg Elmore anchored the band on drums.
Right before Quicksilver's epic album Happy Trails was released in March, 1969, Valenti returned to action and took away Gary Duncan. After a strange year in limbo, when the band released Shady Grove with Nicky Hopkins as a member of the band, both Valenti and Duncan returned by 1970. Quicksilver, now dominated by Valenti--which, ironically was the original plan--had some success, particularly with the song "Fresh Air." However, the San Francisco era was kind of over, and Quicksilver had crested the wave by 1971, even though they were still a popular touring act. Later in 1971, Freiberg got busted for weed, again, and was briefly returned to jail. When he came out, Quicksilver had replaced him as bassist, since they had dates to fulfill. The talented Freiberg played organ in the band for a few months, but he realized his time in the band had passed, and left Quicksilver. With nothing much to do, Freiberg filled in on bass for the Ace Of Cups at the end of 1971.
|The cover of Mickey Hart's 1972 Warner Brothers album Rolling Thunder|
In the 1971 period, with Freiberg stepping away from Quicksilver, he seems to have been taking a break from the touring musician's life, laying low in Marin. Based on what little I can piece together, I think David Freiberg was one of several musicians who liked to hang out at Mickey Hart's ranch. Since Hart's ranch had a studio in the barn, if the guys felt like playing, they could do that, and even preserve it on tape. Some compilation-type tapes endure, possibly versions of Hart's unreleased follow up to Rolling Thunder (rejected by Warner Brothers), and versions of the album The Fish by Barry Melton (re-recorded in Wales).
Many of the musicians who had played on Rolling Thunder were between bands at the time, or not touring much. Gregg Errico had left Sly And The Family Stone, for example, Freiberg had left Quicksilver, and the Airplane never had the urge to tour as relentlessly as the Dead. All these musicians were regulars at Hart's studio during the 1971-74 period, and apparently called themselves the "Area Code 415" band, a reference to the Nashville session man group Area Code 615 (who did the FM classic "Watching TV With The Radio On"). Some Hunter collaborations start to turn up during this period, including the first Hunter/Freiberg song, and a few songs with Mickey Hart as well. This leads me to the conclusion that songwriting collaborations in the 70s required proximity, and I think Hart's ranch was the keystone, the glue that kept a few Marin musicians together on a semi-regular basis.
|Jefferson Airplane's 1972 album on RCA/Grunt, 30 Seconds Over Winterland. This was the only Airplane album to feature David Freiberg. It was recorded on the band's final tour in 1972|
By 1972, the Jefferson Airplane usually just found excuses not to tour. By the middle of the year, however, for various reasons they were required to get out on the road to support their album Bark. Bark, among other things, was the Airplane's first album for their own label, Grunt Records, which was financed by RCA. Nonetheless, the Airplane were still very popular, and since they hadn't toured much there was a lot of pent-up interest in seeing them. Unfortunately, Marty Balin had left the band in 1971, and many classic Airplane songs did not work without three-part harmonies. Thus, for their final tour in 1972, Paul Kantner invited his old roommate to join the band, so David Freiberg sang Marty Balin's harmony parts as a member of the Airplane for one tour. Frieberg appeared on the live album from the tour, 30 Seconds Over Winterland.
Since Freiberg was an old friend, talented and a rock star in his own right, he seems to have been made a full-fledged member of the Jefferson Airplane. Of course, by 1973, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen spent all their time speed skating in Scandinavia and touring with Hot Tuna, so the chances of the Airplane actually playing live were pretty small. The Airplane had negotiated the Grunt contract with RCA so that the record company had to pay for unlimited time in Wally Heider's Studio. Now, it's true that the Airplane had those costs deducted from their royalties, so it may not have been a good move for them, but it meant that they could record as much as they wanted to at Wally Heider's and RCA would pay the bills. The famed PERRO Sessions had largely been funded by RCA, and David Freiberg was a regular participant in them. In fact, I suspect that was yet another reason that he could work well with the volatile Airplane crowd.
The odd confluence of hanging out and laying down tracks at Mickey Hart's Barn, for no particular reason, and working at Wally Heider's trying to make hit albums for RCA seems to have rather unexpectedly encouraged the pattern of collaboration between Freiberg and Hunter. Without both of these events, while I'm sure the two would have been friends, they would probably not have made the effort to have a significant working partnership.
Fire On The Mountain-Mickey Hart (unreleased, 1973)
Tales Of The Great Rum Runners-Robert Hunter (Round, 1974)
Solid Silver-Quicksilver Messenger Service (Capitol, 1975)
The earliest collaboration between Robert Hunter and David Freiberg seems to be the song "I Heard You Singing." It's impossible to date exactly, but it does turn up on various tapes that purport to be Hart's proposed follow-up to Rolling Thunder. That seems to point to a late 1972/early 1973 composition. I believe Frieberg sings the song on the Hart recording. Most people, myself included, only became aware of the song when it was included on Hunter's debut album, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners. That album was released in June, 1974, but based on the circulating Hart demos, we know that "I Heard You Singing" dates from much earlier.
Freiberg also recorded a version of the song, on the Quicksilver 'reunion' album Solid Silver, released late in 1975. Although Quicksilver had put out weaker and weaker albums, Duncan and Valenti were still leading a version of the band, and Capitol got Cippolina and Freiberg to rejoin them in the studio, and since Greg Elmore had never left, it was a sort of reunion. Even Nicky Hopkins was there, just to leave no turn unstoned. The magic was gone, however, and while there's nothing wrong with the album, there's nothing notable about it either. I think Freiberg wanted to contribute a good song, but didn't want to use up something he might have been planning for the Jefferson Starship. Recording a three year old song he co-wrote with Hunter seemed to have been a good solution. It's an important point, that I emphasize below, that by the mid-70s it was common if not mandatory for most or all members of a band to get some sort of songwriting credit on each album.
|The cover to the 1973 RCA/Grunt album Baron Von Tollbooth vs The Chrome Nun, credited to Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg|
Baron Von Tollbooth vs The Chrome Nun-Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg (RCA/Grunt, 1973)
"Harp Tree Lament" is a largely forgotten Hunter song. I know I have heard it, but I can't for the life of me remember how it goes. Nonetheless, I think it is the critical collaboration in this narrative. An unexpected confluence of events seems to have moved Hunter and Freiberg from making music as friends to an occasional but ongoing professional partnership.
By 1973, the Jefferson Airplane were major rock stars, but they had all but given up on touring. Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen had little interest in the Airplane, preferring to tour with Hot Tuna. More importantly, Grace Slick had zero desire to perform, much less tour. The only realistic chance for the band to make money was to record, easily facilitated by the band's contract with RCA. Of course, all the money they spent at Wally Heider's all but assured that the band members would get no cash in return, but the band hadn't fully grasped that yet. Since the Airplane could neither tour nor record without Jack and Jorma, Kantner and Slick worked on duo albums, also covered under the Grunt Records contract with RCA. They had already recorded two fine and modestly successful duo albums, Blows Against The Empire and Sunfighter.
Throughout late 1972 and early 1973, Kantner and Slick worked on a studio album. With Jack and Jorma only occasionally around, the album became a 'duo' record rather than an Airplane album. Numerous other local musicians, most prominently Jerry Garcia, also worked on the sessions (many of them engineered by Betty Cantor). However, Kantner and particularly Grace Slick found it difficult to find enough inspiration to complete the album. The timely arrival of old friend David Freiberg as a member of the Airplane was so productive that Grace and Paul ended up crediting their Baron Von Tollbooth vs The Chrome Nun album to Kantner, Slick and Freiberg. The album was released in May, 1973. The comical title was a reference to the apparently constant war of wills between Kantner and Slick, one of many reasons why working with the Airplane was reputed to be extraordinarily difficult.
From what I can discern, I think Kantner and Slick simply ran out of songs. Freiberg had written a song or two with Quicksilver, but he showed no lyrical flair. The solution must have been plain enough: Freiberg could write music, and he was a fine singer, so if all he needed was lyrics, he had Hunter's phone number. My own assumption is that Hunter and Freiberg had worked together on "I Heard You Singing" at Hart's barn when both of them had nothing to do, and discovered that they could work together. I have to assume that when Freiberg got in touch with Hunter about writing a song for the Tollbooth album, it was based on the idea that they had already seen they could work productively.
To consider how some of the barriers that stood in the way of collaboration in the 1970s didn't apply here, let's review them:
- Star bands didn't want to give up songwriting credits: when Kantner, Slick, Marty Balin and Jorma were all writing songs for Airplane albums, they didn't need outside writers. But Paul and Grace seem to have run out of songs. They needed to deliver an album to RCA, and couldn't wait for inspiration to strike.
- Asking Hunter to help write a song was poaching, in some way: the social relationships between bands (or anyone) is very hard to evaluate looking backwards. However, in 1973, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were peers, and Kantner, Slick and Freiberg were old friends and fellow travelers of the Dead. If there might have been social barriers to other artists working with Hunter, they most likely might not have applied to members of the Jefferson Airplane.
- The stone-age technology of the 60s and 70s would have meant that co-writing would have required that musicians actually spend a fair amount of time with Hunter, time that may not have been easily available for busy, touring rock musicians.This may be a far more important point in retrospect. The Grateful Dead toured relentlessly, of course, but Hunter rarely went on the road. By 1973, the Jefferson Airplane weren't touring either. Since both Hunter and Freiberg lived in Marin County, it would not have been difficult to get together and write a song. I am convinced that Kantner and Slick needed to deliver an album, needed an extra song, and Freiberg and Hunter got together and wrote one.
|The cover to Manhole, by Grace Slick, a 1974 album on RCA/Grunt|
Manhole-Grace Slick (RCA/Grunt, 1974)
Baron Von Tollbooth was not at all a successful album, by Airplane standards. I think Kantner and Slick were under a lot of pressure to release more 'product,' so a Grace Slick solo album was released in early 1974. Not only did rock critics and the public notice that Manhole was just the same Airplane crowd, it was widely observed that Grace didn't even appear on one song on her own solo album. That song was "It's Only Music," once again a Hunter/Freiberg composition. And once again, I feel certain that they were scratching for songs, and Freiberg called up Hunter and they put something together. Freiberg sings the song, quite nicely, I think, but it's plain from the album that Manhole is just a bunch of tracks, not a 'solo album' of any sort.
|The cover to Dragonfly, by Jefferson Starship, released on RCA/Grunt in 1974|
Dragonfly-Jefferson Starship (RCA/Grunt, 1974)
With Jack and Jorma completely uninterested in touring as members of the Jefferson Airplane, and suffering from serious cash flow problems, Paul Kantner righted the ship in early 1974. An early tour as Jefferson Starship, with Craig Chaquico and Peter Kaukonen on guitars, and Freiberg on bass, showed that the band was still a big concert attraction. With one more personnel change (Pete Sears for Pete Kaukonen), Jefferson Starship recorded their official debut, Dragonfly. It was released in late 1974, and it was a huge success.
The Jefferson Airplane had made boatloads of money, but surprisingly little of it had gotten to the Airplane. They were in litigation with their manager from 1966 until 1985, and many of the royalties from their great 60s hits were still tied up during the 70s. The band had also made the usual rock star mistakes, not least their contract with RCA which insured that the company would recoup recording costs before paying the band. Given the amount of time the Airplane had spent at Wally Heider's, this had to insure that even best selling albums took a long time to generate any cash.
Jefferson Starship changed all that. Not only did the group modulate the Airplane's edgy power into FM-friendly anthems, the band was run on a sound financial basis. The group toured profitably and made sure that everyone had checks to cash from their endeavors. The Starship were lucky enough to get to apply the hard economic lessons of 60s rock to a successful 70s rock band and they all made good money. One of the conscious practices of the Starship was to insure that band members had at least one songwriting credit on each album. When an album hit it big, everyone got paid. Freiberg and Hunter had a song on Dragonfly, written with Steve Schuster, later the saxophonist for the Keith And Donna band. Dragonfly had some songs that got great FM airplay, like "Ride The Tiger" and "Caroline," and the album was a major hit.
|The cover to Red Octopus, released on RCA/Grunt in 1975|
Red Octopus-Jefferson Starship (RCA/Grunt, 1975)
The success of Dragonfly was dwarfed by the massive success of Red Octopus, the next Jefferson Starship album. Marty Balin had written and sang the song "Caroline" on Dragonfly, and by Red Octopus, he was back on board full-time. Balin's song "Miracles" outsold every previous Airplane recording, even if it seems trivial now, and the album became huge. Other songs like "Play On Love" were also hits, and the album just didn't stop sellling. Hunter and Freiberg had co-written a song with Marty Balin, so they definitely got their piece of the action. Dragonfly also sold even more records on the basis of "Miracles," so everyone made even more money.
Red Octopus was the gold strike that every band hopes for. Not only was it a huge hit, the band had set up its finances and management in such a way that it was all profitable, and the members were experienced enough not to blow their money this time. I have to assume that Hunter made as much money from "Tumblin'" as he did from any Grateful Dead song. The rewards that came Hunter's way had come from hanging out in Mickey's barn with other out-of-work musicians. I am convinced that Freiberg only called Hunter up to write songs for Airplane projects because Kantner and Slick owed RCA albums and couldn't write songs fast enough. To paraphrase David Nelson, Hunter has always had the ability to serve up songs like hamburgers, and David Freiberg seems to have been the first to realize that new Hunter songs were just a phone call away.
I believe there was one more song by David Freiberg and Robert Hunter, that has been largely lost to history. Before Red Octopus was released, Joel Selvin reported in the San Francisco Chronicle that the name of the next Jefferson Starship would be Nighthawks. He also reported that the title track had been written by Freiberg and Hunter, and implied that the song was already being performed by Jefferson Starship at the time. Of course, tracking Jefferson Starship live shows isn't like the Dead or Bob Dylan, and I have no way of knowing if the song was actually played in concert.
I have a general recollection that the song "Miracles" was a late arrival to the recording sessions, and bumped "Nighthawks." I have been able to find no trace of the song since. After Red Octopus, while the Starship dutifully split songwriting credits, there seemed to be a profusion of writers, so Freiberg didn't call on Hunter again. Although there were numerous personal travails for the members of the Jefferson Starship, the band sold tons of albums in the 1970s, and the band members all largely stopped touring after they left the group, except when they felt like having some fun. David Freiberg left the Starship after 1981, after co-writing another huge hit ("Jane"), and hardly worked again.
David Freiberg was a successful rock musician in the 1960s, but he had little to show for it except fuzzy memories and some pot busts. He got a second roll of the dice in the 1970s, and he called it right that time. Freiberg, very quietly, seems to have been a guy who stayed ahead of the trend, and he seems to have been the first guy to notice that Jerry Garcia wasn't taking up all of Robert Hunter's time with songwriting. Now of course, it appears--I'm happy to say--that artists from all over get Hunter to contribute to their songs, but David Freiberg was the first. Here's to hoping that there's a recording of Jefferson Starship playing "Nighthawks," appropriately mixed by Jefferson Starship soundman Owsley Stanley, waiting to draw the circle to a close.
"Book Of Daniel" (Freiberg/Hunter)
Jack O' Roses-Robert Hunter (Dark Star Records [UK], 1980)
Astute and scholarly reader Jeff points out that I missed a song. On the 1980 Hunter album Jack O'Roses, released and recorded in the UK in 1980, Hunter recorded the song "Book Of Daniel." The song was credited to Hunter and Freiberg. Jeff also points out a February 5, 1980 live performance by Hunter from Kutztown State College (PA) where he introduces the song by saying "here's a song I wrote a few years ago with my friend David Freiberg of Jefferson Starship." While not dating "Book Of Daniel" too precisely, it still puts it squarely in the era of the other songs listed here.