(Reprinted with the author's permission in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.)
Robert Hunter is certainly best known through his work as resident lyricist for The Grateful Dead; indeed considered the voice of the beloved group, and a fully embraced unseen member of the legendary band. Although a performing and recording musician in his own right, the breadth of his genius is most notably realized in the extensive body of his literary work. The definitive text for his collected lyrics is contained in the volume A Box of Rain, although a complete compilation of his writings is still unrealized.
Over the course of his 35 year career, his involvement with the seminal Beat literary scene around San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York has spawned discourse with - and reference to - Jack Kerouac and the Satori of the traveling narrative sage, Gary Snyder and the Zen perspective from 'Cold Mountain,' ...et al. Hunter found himself relating to, embracing, and paralleling the socio-historically significant and multi-tiered journeys of Neal Cassady; who traveled from a larger-than-a-drive-in-movie, cage rattling, Technicolor sledgehammer juggling, flesh 'n' blood carnival barking, biting, real life anti-hero and human inspirational torch, ...to fictionalized icon as hip road guru Dean Moriarty in On The Road,...and then finally symbolically and symbiotically 'promoted' to Merry Prankster Bus Driver. Cassady 'headlined' the definitive generational image...evolution from walkin' shoes to gasoline to plutonium but always celebrating the powerful visionary clarity of "narrative sage as reference point"...and that 'great bridge' to the psychedelic literary orbit of Ken Kesey, whose vortex of talents pulled together, and united, the artistic destinies of beatniks, hipsters, The Grateful Dead and their entire 'generational' sphere. Successfully shadowing Cassady's wake, through writings, letters, newsletter 'allegories,' prose, poetry, lyrics, and the assorted literary 'artifacts' of a lifetime spanning a most turbulent period in modern history, Robert Hunter has thus established himself as a reverentially embraced contemporary icon - a true "voice of his generation" who has very literally, and profoundly, changed people's lives through the power of his muse. As we discuss the art of Robert Hunter, the perspective that is missing in latent historical distance, and therefore an existing reference library, is easily exchanged for the vibrant opportunity to assess Hunter's literary heritage in a fresh, contemporary vein.
Intricate yet expansive "lyric cycles" are the cornerstone of a study of Hunter. Entire albums of work exist not only as successful, free-standing pieces, but are woven into classic, literary choruses of harmonic interaction. The great 'wheel'... or 'cycle'... of life and death is a common thread within his imagery, and the great 'dance' between childhood and old age...of innocence with wisdom...is pervasive. Classic literary references evoking both text, ambience and rhythm draw on the common, yet diverse, cultural heritage's of nursery rhyme, nonsense verse, workaday life, folk songs, popular verse and prose, archetypal imagery, and the traditions/iconography of life-cycle plateau's - especially birth and death - as well as a playfully reverential 'academic' breadth spanning sources diverse as Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll, Homer to T.S. Eliot, from the Old Testament to Peter Pan, and even dry historical text. While he may appear to ask of us which is the more ultimate mystery: the overlapping shadows of life and death, drama and reality, perception and deception, illusion and delusion..., answers are transitory, and understanding the questions is simultaneously trite and profound. There may be no pat answers - whether reasonable or even mad - but there are always solutions; sometimes the solution is that "there is no answer!" There is an omnipresent flavour and bouquet, in Hunter, of either a finely balanced or horribly scattered grasp of spiritual and pragmatic sensibilities. Zen serenity rides shotgun with plastic Americana, in a post-modernist (and signature 'psychedelia') "union of incongruity." Yet there is in Hunter a foremost vision, and palpable affect/effect, of beauty and balance...of ultimate unity and purpose in the face of chaos. Life rises from death, and darkness is borne within the light, in a tradition of classic fable, parable and allegory. There may be yin and yang, but this is America, with frontiers and electricity that render the fulcrum of God's great balance a bit of a wild card...a joker. To endlessly wrestle quicksilver enigma...that elusive counterbalance...is the wellspring of profoundly human conflict; as human a dance as the marriage of youth with age, conception with destruction, reaping with sowing, faith and dispair; in short...a circle essentially completed only by going in all 4 directions at once, as a spinning wheel flings off its debris in any/every direction serving all points of the compass, a panorama of tension in delicate and dangerous balance around the central focusing anchor of a definitive, sublime axis!
In the space of a knowing wink and nod, beyond the historical limitations of any temporal 'campfire,' the "master storyteller" remains the most 'central' artist of human narrative. As the archetypal campfire is itself the central 'axis' for the assembled, circled participants in a pre-historically shared fiction...huddled together against the dark and facing the warm light as they face each other...different stories are being told within a single drama, and yet all stories ultimately tell the 'same' tale. Hunter is as such a tribal soothsayer, a classically constructed time traveler on the verge of Electric-Armageddon, well armed for Apocalypse with the carefully honed tools of Genesis. Classic Grecian and Celtic influence, among others, therefore conspire to serve justice on the 'Beat' vanguard, and that literary tidal wave that followed Neal Cassady from Kerouac to Kesey mocks, and yet embraces, a hollow and thirsty deconstructionism seeking a spiritual empiricism that can take the modern legacy of the "Lost Generation" and realign it with profound human roots. Folk tales thus reinvest post-modern ennui with ecstatic sanity; form, function, and content of classic literary, and therefore storytelling, legacies unite not only immediate generations (i.e. 1860's to 1920's to 1950's to 1960's...), but much vaster, almost evolutionary, eras and regions of human experience and even collective unconscious in the form of Jungian archetypes.
The song-cycle contained as the album Aoxomoxoa is prototypically representative of the epic lyrical design, and yet simultaneously tight imagistic weave, of Robert Hunter's poetry. Most integral to the structure and thematic substance of this coherent suite of lyrics, is the image of life-cycle as a complete and holistic entity. The 'cycle' of life is contained as in a wheel, a most powerful image of spiritual revelation and continuity...of balance and purpose. Just as light and darkness are mutually conceived, and thereafter inseparable, upon the birth of sight itself, so the beauty of a rose is inseparable from its thorns, in Hunter's two most useful, and classic, allegories of life. Indeed, he says that "the rose is the most prominent image in the human brain, as to delicacy, beauty, short-livedness, thorniness...It's a whole(!)...There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, life itself, than roses." The ultimate implication is that without a paradigm of 'pragmatic bittersweetness,' there is not only a sacrifice of balance, but a breadth too shallow to allow the full and true spectrum of human emotional texture. There is no sincere joy without the echo of heartbreak, there is no life without death, no wisdom without innocence. Hunter's vision truly realizes a holistically spiritual, even Zen-like, embrace of cyclic balance and unity. No spoke of a wheel is more or less important than any other, since without the entirety of machinery, there is no final realized package...no healthy, attuned organism. Human life is thus the ultimate 'ergonomic,' if allegorical, "wheel,"; a breathing, bleeding, "rose," poignantly ambiguous, yet so balanced that all honest arrows, just as 'true' spokes, point to the center...the "axis." Within the unfolding of Aoxomoxoa, (a title alliteratively and reflexively evoking the very word "axis" itself!), the flora-like tendrils of childhood experience are anchored, and then extended spoke-like through the flights and journeys of life's passage.
With the wheel comes cycles. Above, below, and around us are cosmic clockworks of circling circles...the sun, moon, and stars in heavenly orbits marking our days, and years, and destinies of charted fortunes. This spherical cog called Earth is itself spinning in opposition and alignment with the machinery of ether, virtually forming the very dawns and dusks...and seasons that give rhythm to the passage of our lives. With seasons come the wind and rain, and life-giving gardens and oceans that also figure prominently in Hunter's imagery paradigm. With spring's birth and winter's death, continuity is formed through opposition...a recurring opposition that creates dimension - a dependable dichotomy that nourishes faith itself. As the oceans are given a 'pulse' through the rhythm of tides via the alignment of sun and moon...so the reality of secular, magical and 'Druid-like' lunar cycles lets a very real and corporeal humanity slip into the cycle where innocent and dependent faith falls minutely short of definitive conclusion. Hunter lets a door open between worlds...somewhere between the ill-fitted threshold of 12 months and 13 moons in the same 'year'...between seasons, ultimately between day and night, and between man and woman.
As such, Hunter has particular reverence to the power, and implications, of 'female' imagery... and the complicated enigmatic textures of love and hate that become mated with the ensuing and responsive 'male' perspective, keeping in mind that most 'classical' storytellers were men, inheriting a feminism filtered through collectively 'male' fictions. An extension of the image paradigm is obvious: females experience the most profound and physically realized "transformation" upon puberty (and thus the biologically imposed onset of menstruation cycles), where the pronounced threshold between girlhood and womanhood is twofold, and much more definitive than any similar male experience. First, the female womb assumes the fertility of a garden, imagistically. There is a demonstrable passage, or transference, of the mantle of motherhood...mothers begetting 'future mothers' as it were, ad infinitum. Secondly, just as the ocean is treated by Hunter as the ultimate garden, or womb (of life), the cycles of lunar tides are also aligned with the 'magical' menstrual (ergo lunar) cycles of 28 days...a harmony of biological and heavenly clockwork that somehow slips that enigmatic and "odd" 13th full moon (tide, and menses) somewhere in-between the cracks of the 4 even seasons.
Observations paraphrased from critical philosophers Harold Bloom and Soren Kierkegaard are particularly salient regarding these cyclic image structures, when the panorama of Hunter's scheme is enlarged. "Continuities start with the dawn, but repetition belongs to the watery shore. Most of what we call 'poetry' is a kind of questing for fire, that is, for discontinuity. Critics love continuity...but it is poet's who skulk forth at irregular intervals to feast upon the mighty dead, in the dark of the moon...on the airy journey up into a fearful freedom of weightlessness. Prometheanism, or the quest for poetic strength, moves between antinomies...(and though) this is merely a cyclic quest...its only goal and glory - necessarily - is to fail,...to break this cycle and live, to enter into a 'counter-sublime', a poetry of earth...the surrendered dream is not merely a phantasmagoria of endless gratification, but is the greatest of all human illusions, the vision of immortality." (Bloom)
For Kierkegaard, repetition never 'happens' (therefore submissively), but breaks forth (or "steps forth"...therefore aggressively), since it "is recollected forward, just like God's Creation of the Universe." "If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would never have come into existence...therefore the world endures, and it endures for the fact that it IS a repetition." "Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been...it is repeated backwards... whereas repetition...is recollected forwards. Therefore...(passive, backward-looking) recollection makes a man unhappy, whereas (engaged, forward-looking) repetition makes a man happy."
Though this may appear to be the most appropriate invitation to engage a post- structuralist fragmentation of Hunter's textual format, ala Jacques Derrida and the poo- poo'ing of the localized 'discourse de jour,' it is in fact my contention that Hunter actually succeeds in a spiritually empirical re-humanization of the language - less by avoiding a tortuous deconstruction than by passing through it, intact and realigned. The very means Hunter utilizes almost parody's the chief complaint against Derrida, in fact...that the hollow 'gutting' of the spiritual center of the language lends itself to what IS a most appropriate metaphor for Hunter's effect, ala Kierkegaard: "aporia: the intellectual vertigo caused by looking into an apparently endless hall of mirrors."
Within Hunter, the image of "mirrors" is very illuminating, and not obfuscating. Just as a mirror reflects the influence and experience of the surrounding world's images, as well as the viewer it objectifies, it may either illuminate or distort, but always offers a window (or threshold) into the viewer and the viewed...never to be seen quite so 'innocently' the same. Acting as a window, and a trap, illuminator and deceiver, unifier and shatterer, a magical doorway into Alice's Wonderland and 'translator' of DaVinci's "perverse poetics of the human sciences," the malleable image of the 'mirror' joins the other primary images used as essential tools by Hunter in his sculpture of air, his craft of "Wordsmithy." The wheel, rose, garden, and mirror are the 'cornerstones' of Hunter's circles; they define the flesh of dreams...organic yet plastic enough to lend themselves to his wonderfully infusive re-spiritualization of humanity.
With Aoxomoxoa, the palindromatic reflection of life and death is held in circular balance, with a wonderful cover painting eerily representative of the 'visual nature and capacity' of the essential themes...as well as implying even more far-reaching textures. The left side of the painting reflects the right half, and is rendered unchanged when viewed as a whole even in mirrored reflection. Death-like imagery at the bottom of the painting "reflects" equivalent Life-like imagery at the top, with the entire pattern representing the evolution of life, from single cell to reptilian to birds, etc. Mammalian wombs are imbedded within the garden/graveyard, and a skull is simultaneously a penis. The sun, central axis mother of life, is an ovum surrounded by swarming sperm giving it an aurora of flames and light. The title Aoxomoxoa (explored later), is very possibly pronounced with the 'x' as an alliterative 'z', and thus "...zoa"; or Latin, for "life"...as in 'protozoa', or trenchantly, "spermatozoa!" A central image is of the Dung beetle (scarab), an important symbol of ancient Egypt...wherein the 'self-contained' life-cycle of the beetle "represented a microcosm of the cyclical processes in nature, and particularly of the daily 'rebirth' of the sun...and the enduring human soul." Hopeful, yet bittersweet, and taken as a holistic image with the tightly woven scheme of the songs, both lyrically and musically, the overwhelming micro and macro-scopic panorama speaks directly to the most recognizable, necessary and universally traumatic experience of childhood... the loss of childhood through the inevitable passages of either dying, and/or "growing up."
The most obvious theme in this cycle of songs is that of the spectrum of childhood experience, and the grounded position of childhood within the balance of life's cycle. Beginning with a cosmic vision of birth, and 'embryonic/cosmogenic' journey, we spiral down to a specific infancy, and impishly echo T.S. Eliot's 'signature post- modernist wink,' to "let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky... Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" Let us go and make our visit" into the compression of infinity that ultimately yields life from space-dust in "Dark Star."
The evocative, haiku-like or even Zen-esque, verses of "Dark Star" capture images in transition. The star crashes; reason tatters; searchlights seek; mirrors shatter. Rhyme and assonance are sparce, and conceptual; crashes/ashes; tatters/axis/shatters/matter; delusion/can; dissolving/revolving. Prosodically, the haiku verses contain rhythmic beats of '13' (at least when stylistically vocalized...or 'sung'); somewhat long for its form, but almost hypnotic and chant-like. There is no real illumination of 'meaning' for the extended syllables; in fact, the imagistic weave becomes more and more enigmatic. However, all the major images of Hunter's allegorical paradigms are seminally introduced: on the 'shoreline' between 'wet light' and 'arid ashes,' between day and night, clouds and water define the garden-of-life where roses grow, colorful women/mothers wrestle with reason and madness. Wheels, axes, mirrors, and gemstones are caught in the transitions of twilight, dawn, or perhaps even a growing child - with no less promise than that which eventually turns ash into diamonds. There is no 'dark side' to the 'heavenly bodies' other than as a result of the horizon shared by the circling 'bright side,' and defines the paradox of 'dark star.' This birth of cosmogenic paradox will imply that 'classic fables' may be at work, and would seem to support a review of Greek Mythology, wherein Zeus gives birth to 'Man' at the same moment as his destruction of the Titans, extending the logic that there is no actual 'darkness' until we "let there be light," should we apply our "tattered reason" to the logistics of Genesis.
"Dark Star" is itself something of an oxymoron: the brightest of objects, seen in the absence of brightness. Later, in "China Cat Sunflower," we return to this image as a "midnight sun." We are perhaps figuratively located on Earth's own axis, in fact, since at the North Pole (where we are "sitting on top of the world"), the sun shines brightly at midnight half the year, and is profoundly 'set' during the height of the day for the other half; something of a grotesque balance who's physics are determined by cosmic 'wheels.' If the image alludes to an 'eclipse' event, then that would also support an inference of cosmic alignment, since the great circling waltz of orbits between stars, planets and moons must be lined up with the precision of tumblers in a grand celestial lock, the combination known only to the master, if not the 'master storyteller' himself.
The sense of a "phoenix-like" rising of reborn life-force from "ashes" establishes not only opposition of pragmatic extremes, but the flow of continuity through them. Beyond the mere imagery of the most 'primal' of gardens, literally 'ash' itself...where life is bourne from out of a virtual graveyard, there is also being established the first seeds of a parallel Theogony and Cosmogony which follow the entire suite of lyrics. From out of 'original' darkness, Christian Genesis allows to "Let there be light," and ultimately indeed; "from ashes to ashes, dust to dust," in a palpable nod of 'western-civilization' to flowers upon graves; gardens and cemeteries transposed. Establishing Hunter's reflexive framework of classical Grecian mythology, I submit my notation of parallel/comparable 'genesis;' again, wherein Zeus waged a successful battle against the Titans, (incidentally, his own relations...so the familial destruction is rather internalized), ultimately immolating them by hurled bolts of lightning...(pouring its light into ashes?) From these ashes - this "pile of smoking leather" ("Mississippi Halfstep Uptown Toodleloo")--mankind 'as we know it' springs forth.
Creation, or 'cosmogonic,' myth is usually the most important myth of a culture, offering a definitional paradigm for existence itself. In this sense, we are seen to emerge from a metamorphosis of embryonic forms; simultaneously 'ex nihilo' - from out of nothing - and yet also from out of 'primordial chaos' - or literally, from everything. Nothing or everything, timeless or linear, fire or water, violent or peaceful...it cannot make sense in a temporal manner, just as command of the secrets of life and eternity are beyond our "tattered reason." We must merely accept form from formlessness, on faith, even as we struggle for definition of our being, the combination of purpose and transience. We are unpardonably subject to invincible powers as well as immovable objects...bearing the weight of the very congealation of gravity itself...if only for its own sake; 'made so in order to be so!' However, the "transitive nightfall" of our sanity is a "delusion" wrought with holes, through which light may indeed shine, not unlike a star- filled nighttime sky, or the dream-like unsettled evening of "... J. Alfred Prufrock" which is both sedated and catlike ...our "nightfall" is rich with diamonds. We are mere passengers on our voyage, even if repeated over and over, lacking the 'great answers' or even steerage, save for the ability to continue that journey, if only because "we can."
With "Saint Stephen," the images of a garden, with wind, rain and roses, place us onto the great garden itself, Earth, in it's rightful place within the great cycle.
Here's a man as innocent yet confused as Prufrock, and like us, caught between the helplessly spinning wheels of paradoxical ruminations, circular yet therefore directionless thought, and inconsequential action.
Again, like us, Stephen is caught between the smoke of the past, and the dream of the future...as well as the almost Dantean purgatory of an indefined garden/waystation between heaven and hell; he's sandwiched within both time and space, yet every moment is the crest of time's wave, and every piece of Earth is perceptibly "the top of the world."
We now make the transition from the dusk of 'Prufrock'/"Dark Star", to the counterbalancing threshold of dawn, equally ripe with philosophical ambiguities.
Stephen is an enigmatic confusion-ridden character who has neither the Big Answers, nor the Big Questions. He is a seeker, a ponderer, who Hunter has intimated represents an 'Adam'-like Everyman, equally capable of destinies 'foolish,' or 'shamanistic.' He "just is," ontologically speaking...asking "what would be the answer to the answer," then. Though of indeterminate age, he is obviously childlike, if not a child in a man's body, and seems to become the 'father' of the "babe" wrapped "in scarlet colours" who is perhaps the "central" child-character, or transcendent protagonist, of the song cycle. Zeus was himself "saved" by his resourcefully deceptive mother, Rhea, by exchanging him for a "stone wrapped in red swaddling clothes" when his murderous father, Cronus, was in an infanticidal rage. This image of infants and women "wrapped in fabrics" reappears several times throughout the song-cycle, and contributes to the enigmatically problematic identification of the "child" whose transition through/from childhood is ultimately being examined. We shall see further on how supportive this seminal imagery responds to my development of Zeus' grandson, Orpheus, as the annotationally centralized character.
Of course, it would still be amiss to shortchange the requisite lip-service to this obviously Christian-esque imagery. If we look at him as The St. Stephen ('Catholic' italics), his original reference is in the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:8-7:60), wherein he is described as both a "good man" and a "miracle worker" who is "full of God's grace and power." He is framed by the same authorities that render him to trial, and being enraged by his non-submissive and vigorous defense, ultimately sentence him to death-by-stoning. As such, Stephen became the first Apostle to die as a martyr!
"In and out of the garden he goes," and if in fact the Garden of Eden is inferred, Stephen has a beatific and saintly 'pass-key' in the complex and delicate rose he holds. Again, Hunter is directly quoted as saying "the rose is the most perfect allegory for life itself." Unlike Adam and Eve, who represent humanity expelled from paradise, Stephen passes freely between that paradise and the 'graceless' world. Irritating to the 'lesser and envious mortals' who are condemned/confined by their limitations, his expression of his state of perfection is neither humble nor arrogant. So "wherever he goes, the people all complain," and their own projection of sinful envy, heresy and fear culminate in his death.
If we examine the Orphic allegory in this light, there are distinct similarities. The Thracian musician Orpheus, whose magical skills on the lyre enabled him to charm trees, beasts, rivers, and even "stones themselves" (!!), certainly had supernatural powers over the elements of this metaphorical garden -- from the seeds of birth to the 'instruments' of death, (Saint Stephen's stones). By rejecting worldly distractions himself, Orpheus stirred the homicidal ire of not only the Thracian women, the MAENADS, but of their god Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus, god of lustful pleasures of the flesh), whom Orpheus rejected in favour of Apollo as a 'reborn' sun-worshiper. While Dionysus's appearance usually accompanies violent activity and/or threats to the conventional order, Apollo's sun image is one of centrality, balance...literally the Axis to Earth's very seasons, and the mother of light and warmth for the nurturing of the garden. For Orpheus, however, the rage engendered by his successful quest for realized wisdom leads to his death by dismemberment, as opposed to Stephen's stoning. The motivating factors, though, are quite similar and one must admit that as regards execution, either method approaches the extreme of brutality and martyrdom.
Both Stephen and Orpheus also share more than the power to master earthbound passages and their vulnerability to martyrdom. They both exhibit a vital ability to travel between the living and the Underworld...Hades. Orpheus was married to the nymph Eurydice, but she was killed by the bite of a snake (another allusion to the Garden of Eden and Satanic materialization?) The grieving Orpheus, 'wheeling and dealing' his way outside of mortal limitations, finds passage through a cave (thus a round hole in the ground, as in a "Wishing Well") down into Hades. Charming the appropriate deities with his golden lyre, he wins her release. Her passage back to the living is ruined, however, when he violates the terms of his unholy agreement. She is thus forever damned, although Orpheus remains obsessed with vain attempts, over and over, to return to hell (to "lower down and lower down again") and retrieve her.
Rather than seeking to retrieve the Dead (as Eurydice) to the living, Stephen also appears not to be raising "waters" from this well up to him, but is rather filling the bucket up with refreshing waters of life, if not the very Roses of the garden itself, and sending it back down as a gift from the living to the denizens of torment, caught in a timeless purgatory and thus removed from the cycles/wellsprings of life's natural order. Such empathetic pity for those who's souls are banished to a dry and barren desert; literally twice-expelled from the garden! Perhaps again, we face a paradoxical union wherein Eden's very well-spring is shared by Hell...or is at least a threshold between worlds, not unlike the mirrors intimated by the reflective surface of still water.
Stephen is, if nothing else, a realization of the philosophical leap from "Dark Star" to "Saint Stephen." The epilogue to "Saint Stephen" is called "The Eleven," with an 11-beat time signature counter-pointing the 13 oral-syllable phraseology of the 'acting' prologue, "Dark Star," of course preceding it; both are unusually large, odd, and indivisible 'prime' numbers, weaving a rhythmic exercise in over-saturated haiku, where Hunter's penchant for elevating ambiguity to a philosophical stance mirrors the density of imagistic harmonics. The weave is so pointedly convoluted, it even contains the only instance in memory of a poetic turn-of-phrase containing "and/or!"
He will evolve, adapt, and bend to the forces beyond his Ken, as there is nothing else to be done, and by so doing, 'finds himself' actively seeking enlightenment, or at least tangible, pragmatic wisdom (by default?). Profound human pliancy and resiliency is a key to letting the cycle 'come back around!' A spirit and mind that bends is one that can grasp faith with the same care and appreciation that one would grasp a thorny rose caught within the entrapped seasons of the garden.
"Now is the time past believing/the child has relinquished the rein," is itself a phrase with dual meaning that cuts right to the heart of Hunter's playground! In the Peter Pan sense, it describes the 'loss of childhood,' as "relinquished the rein," or as the effect from losing that defining sense of wonder, faith and magic...of 'growing up' and maturing to the point of being "past believing." As sung, however, the phraseology indicates a sartorical realization that the 'child never did die,' that we have matured to the point of realizing the child never did actually release his grip on his youth...that the time for that delusion is 'now past,' and that everything...regardless of qualification or rationalization...has its seasons of confusion and clarity.
...it is the sense of "wonder" itself that will ultimately nourish the "children of the garden."
Stephen, as an image of Orpheus, is "spun" from the womb of Calliope (or Kalliope), daughter of Zeus and Muse of Epic Poetry. The image of "calliope woman" is surrounded by a child's 'curious senses', the "spinnin" wheel and "fortune" crawling like an infant. Though Orphic imagery is initially launched by reference to Calliope, it becomes immediately apparent that the allegorical thread from Zeus' Cosmogony in "Dark Star" is annotationally linked now in "Saint Stephen's" garden to his daughter, the Muse Calliope, through the essential central image of the "child" character - most notably as her son, Orpheus. Though all three Greek figures - Zeus, Calliope and Orpheus; as three generations united by common Theogony/Mythology - may be referentially interposed as the "babe/child" introduced to the more accessible imagery of our "garden," and certainly have a relationship that is enigmatic, at best, with the saintly Stephen, it is as literary paradigm that they are most importantly realized. This seminal framework of characterization is ripe with opportunity for exploration of Hunter's themes, now positionally established for the remainder of the body of Aoxomoxoa's lyrical journey.
"Dupree's Diamond Blues" returns us to the image of diamonds, where instead of offering hope as they did in "Dark Star," are shown for their 'evil' counter-balance, and represent the temptations of darkness. This cycle is more accessible for the external perspective; from shimmering stars to ash/coal to diamond/gemstones to moral currency. Covetous greed for diamonds, and the corporeal pleasures they could purchase, expose the dysfunctional agendas between the sexes; of life forces out of balance, and in fact the undercurrent of violence inherent in the basal lusts of Dionysian allegiance. Directly based on rural American folk songs, but based on vast socio-historical reference, it is presented as a 'facts of life' allegorical tale from a "Papa" to his son, who "was just a little young boy." It's a warning of the mis-direction befalling the weak, specifically the moral compromise a man will suffer in the name of women:
It's a plateau of moral growth, it seems - a milestone of maturity (and thus death of childhood?) - to realize you just can't get everything you want; and often you lose more than you gain. Again, we see the tightrope of death and madness playfully flirting with the normally benign image of a simple "stone." Natural desires have occasion for dire consequence, since either direction they may take inevitably leads to a 'loss' of some part of pardonable childhood. Learning the difference between right and wrong, and embracing those values, becomes a trade-off with a bit of that innocence that comes with a sheltered, if not entirely beatific, youth. It's a delicate balance with high stakes, to be sure...and most of them are not obvious to the 'players.'
"Rosemary" is evocative of the 'Gothic ennui' of adolescence, as we continue to grow and move forward through life's journey. The herb rosemary is a common ingredient in "a breath of cologne," but most commonly associated with both weddings, as a garland, and funerals, as "sprigs of remembrance. During the 17th and 18th centuries, rosemary became also the flower of mourning." (Tergit. pg 48)
Apparently back in "Saint Stephen's" garden, we now face the philosophical paradoxes bourne of introspection. Who among us has not felt the pointedly adolescent despair of hopelessness, of senselessness. The 'need' for answers to Great Unanswerable Questions, such as "'What for?' across the morning sky," have driven many a youth to madness or suicide (again that fragile tightrope of life and sanity), and is a very demonstrative threshold of spiritual and emotional maturation. 'What's the use, if we're all going to die anyway?' is trap, a portal to madness, an agent of imbalance, a microscope to nowhere rather than a telescope to everywhere. It is a profound deceiver, masquerading as overview; the 'big-picture' without the meaningfulness of framework; deception as perception, delusion in the form of illusion. The lack of perspective, and hopelessness of introspection, is shown wherein "all around the garden grew," but oblivious to the beauty, "the mirror was a window she sat by alone." She is displaced, physically as well as emotionally. Isolated, her grasp of the cycle is tainted by focusing only on specific phases; that death overrides all else, and so life is itself unnatural. By seeing only the aspect of 'graveyard,' and not 'nursery,' in the garden...she has rendered it barren 'by default' - literally by will. If one ceases to water the dead, one will literally end up dehydrating the living. The Latin name of the herb, Ros Marinus, or "rose (dew) of the sea," supposes it to thrive best "within sound of the ocean," (the ultimate 'cologne' and womb of life), and again is re-infused with positive image when linked to "Stephen's" garden, a "seashore washed by the suds and foam." The cleansing power of the ocean, (and rain?),...literally 'life-blood'... is the only 'solution' to this girl's dilemma; the 'answers' will not be rational ones. "Where rosemary flourishes, so goes the tradition, the 'mistress' rules." (Tergit. pg 301) "To be 'touched' by rosemary...is to wake the Sleeping Beauty...curative...as a love potion."
"Doin That Rag" is again reconfigured from popular sources, drawing from many generic, somewhat urbanized 'Ragtime' formats of the early 20th century, most specifically Irving Berlin. It may, in fact, represent a lyrical 'journey' from the rural folk of "Dupree's Diamond Blues," to a 'rite of passage' contained in one's symbolic 'trip to the big city.' The tone of this song is so bright and bouncy, it's like a comet blasting through the dark brooding of the previous piece. Yet it is a response, joyful and carefree, built upon the growing experiences of maturation.
It rings of the same paradoxical inquiry we found in the musing's of Stephen, (and especially the 'William Tell' passage), where the 'questions' appears slightly mad, or at least trite and nonsensical:
and a fair stab at some possible, or at least harmless, 'answers';
There is, even in the bouncing fun of ragtime rhythm, less a feeling of inane innocence as a growing sense of experience and resolution. The image of games and gamesmanship is incorporated into the wisdom of almost perverse incongruity. It may be a game with steep stakes, but the rules are really no different than as a child: "Come back here pretty baby Louise, and tell me the name of the game that you play! Is it All Fall Down? Is it All Go Under?" Even in the prosody of childhood, in the style of nursery rhyme, the images of falling down and going under (the water, thus 'drowning') are simultaneously carefree, yet with pointed life and death consequence. The image of water has become more complex, if not sinister; both threatening and nourishing , not unlike its dichotomy in the ultimate fates of Orpheus (who's dismembered head is set adrift on the river Hebrus), and Stephen (who's garden 'by the sea' is literally 'fertilized' by ample waves and rain.)
Following this motif of simultaneous regression/maturation, "Mountains of the Moon" is a classically realized nursery ballad: "Hi Ho the carrion crow, fol de rol de riddle, Hi Ho the carrion crow, bow and bend to me." Again we set a scene "down by the water"....the "cold mountain water"...(with an implied 'Zen'-bent regarding Gary Snyder?). "The Jade merchant's daughter," and "the Marsh King's daughter" play together, almost frollicking. Yet, "it's time to matter," and their diverse, divisive social levels come to play in the games of affection for "young Tom Banjo." The fantasy of royalty for one, and the reality for the other, very much separate the options available to them, particularly in the social arena of courtship. Another 'facts of life' vignette (for adolescent girls this time, rather than the boy of "Duprees...") that is surely a hard lesson, fraught with irresolute rules, where the compromise is not only unacceptable, but inescapable. Even the requested mock-mannerism of subservience from the "carrion crows" belies the fact that they are obviously 'vultures,' the scavenging birds of death itself. At its core, this is a children's nursery-song which unflinchingly thumbs its nose at the spectre of death, as a vehicle for sharp-edged play! The ontological dichotomy between dreams and reality is also re-established. Dreams are not 'un-real'...they are very real, in fact...they are simply real as dreams. Their flesh, or carrion, is quite solid...in 'dream flesh.' Again, the solution is in the very rhythm of the ballad itself, a soothing form which defies reason, and the recurring image of 'anchor': "The earth will see you on through this time." The enigmatic 'mother-garden' is again sown "in the rain...in the wind," and the value of 'her' function is blatantly stated: 'to see you through.' However, the implication is that when graves are 'planted,' (by corpses, I fear), "more than laurel you may sow," since you are most certainly sowing virtual embryos of death...in cyclic transit, of course.
The "Mountains of the Moon" have historical references evocative of St. Stephen's "Garden of Eden." Several books detailing "geographical expeditions" in the 18th and 19th centuries by period explorers, specifically John Edward S. Moore, Patrick Millington Synge, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, make reference to a region of Central Africa in the Ruwenzori Mountains (bordering Uganda and Zaire) as The Mountains of the Moon! The stylized name was popularly given to that area thought to be the ultimate source of the Nile River (with a nod again to the Egyptian images of scarab and afterlife cycles, etc). Obviously imbued with images as the "wellspring of life" itself (as it surely was for the Egyptians), it has also been embraced in some anthropologic circles as the "likely area where the species of homo sapiens was born" ...as another, or parallel, alternative to Zeus' fiery sleight-of-hand. It is even considered by some to be the actualized region allegorized by the Bible as the Garden of Eden itself! In his poem "Eldorado" (1849), Edgar Allen Poe even makes mention of the mythical, magical land of Eldorado as existing "Over the Mountains of the Moon."
Equally interesting is the mythological reference to "the mountains of the moon" (literally...in translation) as the summit scaled by Orpheus every morning before (Stephen's?) dawn, and thus by moonlight, so as to greet the god Helios (Apollo, or the Sun). This daily 'constitutional' ascension is said to be of particular irritation, performed as it was as a devotional act, to Dionysus...and certainly contributed to Orpheus' climactic and tragic spiritual conflict!
With "China Cat Sunflower," we return to full-blown enigma. Hunter avoids external and literal explanations of these pieces, since "to concretize his own images onto them will inevitably reduce their power to evoke intense, personal, and 'perversely unique' imagery in the reader." He will readily admit to writing this one under the influence of LSD, however, so it's inviolate position within the song cycle is 'slippery' to fathom, except to attempt a correspondence with "Dark Star," it's "partner in acid" as regards this album.
Transposed, if enigmatic, imagery runs rampant here, yet the weave is tight. There are a China cat, a Crazy cat, and a Cheshire cat; they're "walking jingle" and "peekin' through." Golden stringed fiddles, silk, and silver kimonos evoke both Orpheus' enchanted Lyre, and the mystical nature of the recurring image of fabric as a costume and/or masquerade, and thus allowing either an adjustment of identity/perception or deception of reality. Again, the recurring image of the diamond...this time in the eye of a jack where a deck of cards follows the gamesmanship/gambling thread. Waterfalls and showers evoke the necessary liquid 'anchor,' musical song is accomplished from out of "silk trombones," and oppositional imagery evocative of "Dark Star" comes from the ringing of a "silent bell," and of course "the midnight sun" (being an alternate definition, in fact, for 'dark star'?). "Leonardo words" is a particularly playful reference to 'mirror- writing,' a DaVinci trademark, and maintains the image of the mirror begun in "Dark Star,"(where it shatters), to a refuge from reality in "Rosemary," and has now become a 'key' to translation and understanding...a literal 'Rosetta stone.' The "palace of the Queen Chinee" not only provides a mate...indeed, a sexually balanced partner... to the castle of the previous "Marsh King," but closes the 'oriental' loop begun with the China Cat, if not actually maintaining the ambience of Zen/haiku sensibility begun with "Dark Star." Finally, the Sunflower itself, (a dual image of sun and flower!) and the "leaf of all colors" find us comfortably situated in the requisite garden. Without fail, even in the midst of apparent nonsense, quite a bit more profound than the mere simplicity of nursery rhyme, the textured weave of all the major imagistic threads is realized; in fact, wound so tightly as to appear at first glance to be completely unwound!
More problematic is the image of the "bodhi;" in Sanskrit literally "awakening or enlightenment." In Buddhism, it represents the 'final' enlightenment, which puts an end to the cycle of transmigration, leading to Satorical Nirvana. As the process of attainment of 'Buddha-hood,' or total ascension, it is attained by ridding oneself of all false beliefs and the hindrance of passions. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Is this a complete escape from the very cycle represented in this album? Is it an embrace of the realization that the holistic fabric of infinite cyclic paradigm is unembracable? Or is it simply the image of all these possibilities, itself incorporated into the mosaic, or "crazy quilt stargown" (3 thematic images, no less) of a grand cycle inclusive of all imaginable spectacle. Ultimately, I sense that 'Buddha-hood,' or even the 'attainment' of that 'Buddha-hood,' is not really the focusing point...but rather the very (mere) act of the process, for its own sake...a 'seeking to seek' rather than actually attaining something after which you seek. The process is one of Stephen's essential lesson of pragmatic, 'operational' wisdom, and a powerfully focusing (if rather elusively definable) theme of Hunter's...that of "philosophical ambiguity as ontological position."
In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland again, '"Bye-the-bye, what became of the baby?" said the Cat. "I'd nearly forgotten to ask."' The next-to-last lyric of the suite is in fact, "What's Become Of The Baby," and for confirmation of its source;
We have a most pronouncedly bizarre poem here, rendered as the most inaccessibly performed song on the album. It doesn't exist in a coherent "musical" sense, and is unperformable live, so is singularly extant as a written piece. It does pull together all the lyrical and imagistic threads, with images of mirrors, illusions, 'fields'(garden?), 'wandering,' and of course 'the dawn.' With a narrative quality both linear and self-contained, it is in the tradition of the most accessible pieces, yet as metaphorically creative and multi-textural as the strangest of the psychedelia pieces. More than any other single lyric in this album, the images of a dream reality is pervasive. Indeed,
Once again, lost in the philosophically obtuse shadows of the dawning day, plaintive, lamenting, the wail of "What's become of the baby...?" invokes an anxious sense of loss, or of being lost, and could easily be visualized coming from Stephen's mouth. "But where is the child who played with the sunshine's?" Fully seven lines of verse end in question marks, leaving the sense of unresolved incongruity...(oddly enough, considering the inaccessibility of this piece, it conveys a sense of questions thus rendered more 'tangible' than the more sublime ambience, elsewhere, of that afore- mentioned 'philosophical ambiguity'). "Go to sleep you child, dream of never-ending always...;" the sense of childhood lost is a palpable dispair. Even while...
There is ample acknowledgment that there is, in fact, no disruption of the great, overriding/encompassing cycles; yet there is little smugness in the sense that God him/herself is lost! (In Hunter's paradigm, is there any greater peace in the belief that God is 'found?') In the eye of woman, all the world is "captured." This "woman," this "Scheherazade gathering stories to tell...(to merely survive for that 1001 Nights!)," is the "babe wrapped in scarlet" then "Baby Louise," "the Jade merchant's daughter," the 'playtime' "Queen Chinee" and the anointedly lonely "Marsh King's daughter." She is the sad brooder of dried, dead rosemary, the "lady in velvet," the innocent child, imaginative waif, teasing girl, tortured adolescent, the daughter, the Queen, the mother- in-waiting, the mother of mothers; she is the "calliope woman," and so the grand damme Muse of Epic poetry, and Chief of the Muses. She was the mother of Orpheus, by Apollo, or not! (Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia) Orpheus is the 'son' of ambiguity, itself! He knows not who his father really was ...either God of the River, or God of the Sun?! The original martyr/saint Stephen? WHO?! The child "wrapped in scarlet," bloody cloth or sunrise stained? - and then shadowed through the phases of growing up; is this child Orpheus, or herself Calliope?...or is it 'us,' we humans born of fire and flood?... Who? Are we growers-into-adulthood, or merely losers-of-our-childhood? If I die, have I become a man then?
With the final lyric of the cycle "Cosmic Charlie," we're again addressing a child with the phrase; "Go on home your mama's Callin' you." Here is a character playing quite innocently again with a paper canoe, and waiting for enough wind to fly his kite;
Is this reference to our wailing "Calliope" regarding the keyboard instrument you might expect at a carnival, or in fact a final verification of 'epic' female life-cycle? The images are of a clock gone haywire, with time out of synch - either too fast or too slow, either way a trenchant, traumatic disruption of the very innermost 'gut' of everything - but somehow grotesquely distorted like that temporal ether burrowed down inside Stephen's Rose-garden Well. In fact, to speed up we'll still be "left behind," since the biggest Wheel is always still turning, and 'the cycle of cycles' will be completed. First and last, one or two, "new ones coming as the old ones go;" it's the changing of the guard. If the female Muse is 'calling you home', it's time to reset the great life clock! Even within the vast spectrum of this cycle, the universal experience of transience is expressed - that "it all happens much too quickly." Regardless of those plodding phases where a dreamlike slow-motion is maddening, all too soon we're just "left behind"... ultimately. There is a certain serenity though, in the certainty of cycles greater than ourselves, and so out of our control and beyond our own penchant for self-destruction, self-doubt and self-questioning...wheels spinning in quicksands. At once helpless, we are also absolved of so much falsely perceived responsibility. Therein might we retain our virtual 'childhood,' and perhaps our very humanity. Childhood may be lost, either by growing up, or dying, or by loss of childhood "spirit"...a loss either 'real' or 'perceived,' if there actually is a difference. But it is universally contained and maintained, literally impregnated within the very fabric of our existence, and so cannot be lost even if foolishly discarded or mislaid through confusion or delusional intentions. At best, it is reconciled with our maturity and experience. At worst, it will 'come back around' since:
Within our very being is an inevitable contract (binding you?!) with God-image; that you cannot, by definition, avoid the inescapability of universal 'motion,' and that whether profoundly sublime, or maddeningly confusing...the very experience of experience 'itself' contains the seeds of its own wisdom. That's all we need to know, other than the fact that we are thankfully not driving this machinery ourselves.
Representative of the dynamic of Hunter's paradigm of Aoxomoxoa, is a quick dissection of the title itself. Though apparently nonsensical, it wonderfully represents the cyclical, and holistic, nature of the entire song cycle. "AO" is a classical shorthand for the alphabetical Greek "alpha and omega," literally 'the beginning and the end.' "X" is an image of intersection, or union. "OM" is a tantric representation of the sound of "infinity," the compilation of all possible extant sounds at once - the "dial tone of the universe." It may be interpreted as 'the unification of all things with the beginning and ending of everything;' or literally, as Siddhartha would attest, "the beginning and end of all things united, it is everything, brought together in a perfect infinite circle."
As the very words of Hunter are themselves richly pigmented, they dance together playfully, yet precisely. Creating tones, and images, they compound into pictures, scenarios, vignettes, scenes, and ultimately serve panoramas of epic scope! Lyric cycles offer the structural framework for a holistic paradigm both timeless and time-specific. An examination of Hunter, his contextual identity, and his works support the integrated image of a spiritually fueled and epochally transitive mosaic of organic circles inside circles within circles circling circles.
PERIODICALS, RECORDINGS & ON-LINE SOURCES
.....& numerous uncited sources for insight and inspiration. Special thanks to David Dodd for his "inspirational godfatherhoodliness", and Blair Jackson for many wonderful years of The Golden Road!! ...& of course, the soothsaying prestidigitator himself, the man who's words DO glow with an alchemy found in the innermost spark at the center of the sun...Robert Hunter. ...& RIP Jerry, his partner in crimes against the dark side. --LS