|A Village Voice ad from February 20, 1978, advertising the Jerry Garcia Band and the New Riders Of The Purple Sage (and Robert Hunter and Comfort, unbilled) at the Suffolk Forum in Commack, NY on March 12, 1978|
Often when I have seen or heard David Nelson with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage or the David Nelson Band, he has said something like "I called up Hunter and told him I dreamed he was serving up songs like cheeseburgers. He said 'do you want fries with that?'"A terrific Nelson/Hunter composition always follows. I had always assumed that this conversation referred to the wave of material that Nelson and Hunter started to write in the 1990s and beyond. Yet a long ago tape dates the conversation down to a specific weekend in 1973, and the transaction wasn't quite so crisp as Nelson made it out to be, although it is perhaps more interesting for that. Unraveling this tiny piece of history also sheds some light on a subject that I have been pursuing for some time, namely why Hunter had so few collaborators in the 1970s.
October 9, 1981: The Boarding House, San Francisco, CA: Robert Hunter with David Nelson
After some attempts at a conventional rock career with the bands Roadhog and Comfort, Robert Hunter had retreated to performing by himself by 1979. At the time, seeing Hunter or hearing tapes was always interesting, because he performed old songs that the Dead had not yet resurrected and he played new material that had not yet been heard. A few of these songs even turned up in the Grateful Dead repertoire. I recall hearing "Touch Of Gray," "West LA Fadeaway" and "Day Job" from Hunter in 1980 or 1981, sometime before the Grateful Dead performed it. Thus Hunter had a good local following in the Bay Area, but he was definitely still a club act.
The Boarding House had been a tiny, if popular club in San Francisco from about 1970-78, located at 960 Bush Street. The 350-capacity club was beloved by artists and fans, but it was simply too small for the booming rock market. Jerry Garcia had played there a number of times in 1972 and '73 with Merl Saunders and Old And In The Way, but he had simply outgrown the place. Proprietor David Allen was well liked by musicians, managers and artists, but he wasn't a great businessman. The old Boarding House had finally gotten sold for condo redevelopment, but Allen had been barely hanging on as it was.
Allen re-opened the Boarding House over in North Beach, at 901 Columbus Avenue. During the disco era, the room had been a popular place called Dance Your Ass Off, but by the end of the 70s that was passe (before that it had been The Village, but that is another story). Old Waldorf owner Jeffrey Pollack had then opened a "New Wave" disco there called X's, which sometimes had live bands, but that too became passe (as everything does in San Francisco). Allen took over the building and remodeled it, making it into a nice 600-seat club with great sightlines. Hunter played there a number of times.
Poking around sugarmegs, I found a brief snippet of a long-ago tape of Robert Hunter at the Boarding House, joined for a few numbers by his old friend David Nelson. The October 9, 1981 audience recording only has three numbers by the pair, "Sawing On The Strings," "Crooked Judge" and "Dark Hollow." Amidst much on-stage banter, Nelson gives what may be the first version of the 'Cheeseburgers' story, and the longer, unedited version is different than the bon mot that Nelson usually delivers.
After "Sawing On The Strings," but before playing "Crooked Judge," Nelson says
I had a dream about four years ago, just a regular every day dream, you fall asleep and then you wake up. I called Hunter because he was in it and I said 'I dreamed that I was ordering up songs like cheeseburgers, and you were giving them to me.' He said 'Ok, just give me a little time'This brief statement (transcribed somewhat approximately by me) is not much longer than Nelson's usual joke, but for the likes of me it is very revealing. It also makes a good case study on how musicians reflect on their own past, which justifies my parsing of this remark (plus, that is what this blog is for).
About a week later, we were in Boston, and he was there staying with the Dead, and he came to my room and said 'ok, I've got your song' I said what? He said "you know, cheeseburgers.'"
To deal with the simplest detail first, the song "Crooked Judge" was released on the New Riders album Brujo in Fall 1974, and it was recorded in July or August of that year. Thus Nelson had underestimated how much time has passed--it has to have been at least seven years, not four, since Nelson had his dream. My own experience, having attempted to parse many such statements by long-ago musicians, is that time is the hardest thing to get right in your memory. Once you get past childhood, when there are built-in markers, most of our vivid memories are not particularly time bound. I worked at the same place for over a decade, and while I have many vivid memories, it is often hard to be certain exactly when memorable events actually occurred. So I never discount musician's memories as false if they botch the timeline, but by the same token I am never that trusting of long ago memories of exactly when something happened, either, however accurate other pieces of the memory of that event may be.
Although "Crooked Judge" was recorded by the New Riders in the Summer of '74, it became part of their live shows quite a bit earlier. The first confirmation of the song's appearance was on November 17, 1973 at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. Thus, all that remains to date the Cheeseburger Dream was to locate the Boston event where the New Riders and the Dead were both present. That isn't very hard--the New Riders and the Dead shared a lot of bills in the Spring of '73, and they played together at the Boston Garden on April 2, 1973.
So here's the scenario as I see it: the New Riders were playing intermittent shows with the Dead around the country, since they shared management. Thus Nelson and Hunter met periodically in different hotels throughout the land. Wherever Hunter was Nelson called him, he knew that he would be seeing Nelson soon, so he wrote a song for Nelson to set to music. Because we know when the song appeared (November '73), we only have to find the previous Boston Dead/NRPS show (which was April 2 '73) to locate the date.
The first verse to "Crooked Judge" may in fact offer up a hint, with it's reference to Boston:
Paid my money to a crooked judgeNelson And Hunter--Why Just One Song?
Set out to find an honest man
That's how I came to be in Boston
Looking like I am.
To my knowledge, "Crooked Judge" was the only song that Robert Hunter and David Nelson wrote together between 1967 and the 1990s. In many ways, this fact is quite peculiar. Hunter, Nelson and Garcia were apparently like the Three Musketeers in the early 60s, and they were the original members of The Wildwood Boys, the first group any of them formed. According to McNally, however, Hunter showed up one time at a Wildwood Boys rehearsal only to discover that it had already started, and Eric Thompson had replaced him as guitarist. While Hunter would surely have conceded Thompson's superior ability, Garcia and Nelson, Hunter's two best friends, hadn't told him and wouldn't look him in the eye. In response, Hunter moved to Los Angeles for a while.
Nelson and Garcia went on to pursue music, with the New Delhi River Band and The Grateful Dead, respectively, while Hunter pursued writing. In 1967, Garcia and Hunter managed to merge these goals by bringing Hunter on board with the Grateful Dead as an in-house lyricist and songwriter. Yet Nelson and Hunter did not do the same with the New Riders of The Purple Sage, even though it was surely feasible for Hunter to wear the same hat for both bands.
I have written at length about Hunter's attempts to become bass player for the New Riders, in either late 1969 or early 1970. Hunter's one songwriting effort for the New Riders, "Friend Of The Devil" was adopted and modified by Garcia for the Grateful Dead. When Hunter's role as rehearsal bassist for the Riders was trumped by the invitation to Dave Torbert to join the band. Hunter has claimed, in his own words, that perhaps there wasn't room for another songwriter in the New Riders. Certainly, in 1970, John Dawson had a huge batch of fine songs, but once again, an opportunity for Hunter to play with Nelson was passed by with nary a word to Hunter.
However, by 1972, the New Riders had used up Dawson's store of songs, and he hadn't written that many new ones. Dave Torbert was a fine writer, but he left the band by the end of 1973. Another songwriter would have added considerably to the New Riders' possibilities. In fact, "Crooked Judge" seems to have been written in time for the Panama Red sessions, but Hunter contributed a song of his own to the Panama Red album ("Kick In The Head"), and "Crooked Judge" ended up on the next studio album (Brujo). Yet Hunter had little profile with the New Riders. Why not? Of course, given the musical history of Hunter and Nelson, Hunter may not have been quick to offer his services. However, I think a more mundane factor played an equally big role.
Co-Writing Songs In The 70s
Sometime in the 1990s, everyone seemed to catch on to the idea of using Robert Hunter as a lyricist. The list is long: Bob Dylan, David Nelson, Zero, Little Feat, Jim Lauderdale, several members of the Dead, Warren Haynes and so on. Some of these collaborators have actually written multiple albums with Hunter, not just a song or two. Yet in the early 70s, collaborations with Hunter were fairly rare. I have written at length about how David Freiberg seems to have been Hunter's first regular non-Dead collaborator, and the reasons I think why that was the case. However, without recapping the whole post, I think I can make a critical point that may seem self-evident, but is still worth making--back in the day, you couldn't co-write songs without proximity, and touring musicians never saw anyone not in their own band.
We take for granted that its easy to email sound files, text, pictures and everything else, and to do it on our cell phones to boot. Yet none of those things were possible in the 1970s. If someone left your house and you forgot to tell them something, you had no way of contacting them until they got home, and that was only if they actually went home and answered the phone, and if you knew their phone number. In order to collaborate, musicians had to spend time together in the same place. Hunter and Garcia shared a house, and Hunter often toured with the Dead, so they saw a fair amount of each other. Yet Hunter and Nelson, good friends as they were, probably hardly saw each other except backstage.
Even when Hunter gave Nelson the lyrics to "Crooked Judge," however quickly or slowly Nelson wrote the music, he would have had no way to share it with Hunter until he saw him again. Yes, Nelson could have recorded the song and mailed it to Hunter, but if Hunter wasn't home--being on tour with the Dead--he would not have heard it. All of this seems obvious when you write it out, but no one ever thinks about it. Because Nelson had a chance dream and called Hunter about it, Hunter wrote a song for him. 18 months later, it actually turned up on an album. Regardless of whether or if there were other complications between Nelson and Hunter, collaboration for touring musicians was so difficult that it almost never happened.
The new Boarding House closed in mid-1982. After some permutations, Bill Graham Presents took it over and renamed the club Wolfgang's, benefiting from all of David Allen's upgrades. The club was open from July 4, 1983 through July 31, 1987, when it was closed after a fire.
Now, of course, Nelson likes to say "I called up Hunter and said 'I dreamed you were serving up songs like hamburgers,' and he said 'do you want fries with that?'" and today it's probably true, thanks to email and cell phones. Hunter and Nelson wrote some fine songs for the David Nelson Band, and two albums worth for the New Riders, just as it should have been in the prior century. But in a previous century, it was like a dream that could never come true, and didn't seem realistic at all.
October 9, 1981: The Boarding House, 901 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA (later Wolfgang's)
Robert Hunter-acoustic guitar, harmonica, vocals
David Nelson-acoustic guitar, vocals
Sawing On The Strings