From the Eagle Mall to Terrapin Station: A Skeleton Key to Robert Hunter

There’s a single word that Deadheads and music journalists alike often use to describe “Terrapin Station,” Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s title song of the Grateful Dead’s 1977 album and live showstopper every year thereafter: epic. Perhaps it’s prog, maybe it’s stoned-as-fuck highfalutin dinosaur rock made as punk was bursting out all over, but–to many–it’s a multi-sectioned peak of Garcia and Hunter’s long songwriting partnership, touching on many of the Dead’s strong suits. There are mysterious moods, cryptic lyrics, and places for all kinds of lead guitar/bass/drums.

And “Terrapin Station” very much signifies itself as an epic every way, with a grand modal opening that puts the song in the realm of both folk ballads and the way classical music has often represented folk ballads; there’s Robert Hunter’s opening lyric, a brazen invocation to the muses in the most ancient sense; there’s the scale and structure of the song, with pastoral interludes leading to an enormous finale; and on the album version, anyway, much to the band’s later horror, there is an orchestra and chorale added by producer Keith Olson. There is, too, is the symbol-laden story at the center of the song, concerning the Lady With a Fan, the Soldier, the Sailor, and their adventures at the Lion’s Den.

But in another way, while “Terrapin Station” might be epic, it isn’t actually an epic. All the signifiers are just that, the whole song pointing at the notion of an epic without actually being one itself. Everything is just out of reach, a feeling of mystery rather than resolution, a bigger story–the story of the place called Terrapin–left completely unspoken, a broader universe known perhaps only to its creators.

Robert Hunter’s 1980 iteration of the “Terrapin Station,” with the first sections (as performed by the Grateful Dead) and new additions “Ivory Wheels/Rosewood Track” and “Jack O’Roses.”

Except for the fact that this last part isn’t true. You–and I mean every single one of you–can go to a store in your town and walk away with a book called The Giant’s Harp written by Robert Hunter, a fantasy novel set inside what might be called the Terrapin expanded universe, in which the storyteller does a lot more than speak. The catch, as it is, is that the book was only ever published online, in 1996, via Robert Hunter’s website. But it’s still online via the Giant’s Harp Gateway (working PDF here), and you can go to a local copy shop with a thumb drive, print it out, and pay to get it bound. Or you can just read it on your tablet or phone or the inside of your eyelids or whatever.

One way to describe The Giant’s Harp is to say that is that it’s the world that exists when the Storyteller of “Terrapin Station” stops speaking, the universe in which the Storyteller himself exists as a character, where he even has a name and does, in fact, make some choices.

The Giant’s Harp was serialized online over the course of 1996 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a curious history that connects in complex ways with both the music and legacy of the Grateful Dead. It is the longest sustained piece of published prose by Hunter. At the conclusion of the text, there are two notations. The first: in memory of JJG, November 1, 1996. The second: 1984-1996.

Along with the sweet dedication to Jerry Garcia is the 1984 date. The early ‘80s were perhaps the least productive years of Garcia and Hunter’s three-decade long partnership. They wrote two songs for the Jerry Garcia Band’s 1982 album Run for the Roses. The same year, the Grateful Dead debuted three new Garcia/Hunter songs, the first since 1979, and the last until after Garcia’s coma in 1986. They were beyond the days of churning out an album’s worth of material a year.

Hunter, of course, wasn’t inactive. He’d launched a solo career in the mid-‘70s that continued actively through the mid-‘80s with a stream of solo albums that never lacked for ambition. For a primary songwriter in the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter’s solo work is a body that is largely left unexplored by many. Mainly, I’d suggest, Deadheads have never quite taken to his solo music because of a severely divided opinion about his singing voice, which can sometimes–shall we say–be a bit bellow-y.

Robert Hunter put out his first solo album, Tales of the Great Rum Runners on Garcia’s Round Records in 1974, produced by Garcia, and is well worth a listen by anyone who doesn’t think they like Hunter’s solo work. Almost as soon as he and Garcia wrote “Terrapin Station” in 1976 and 1977, the narrative scope of Hunter’s solo projects began to expand dramatically. In 1978, he wrote the multi-character Alligator Moon, which he never recorded successfully in the studio but performed a live version at San Francisco’s infamous Hooker’s Ball on Halloween 1978 that featured a choreographed ballet trio. He released Amagamalin Street, a song cycle about four characters in 1982; and Flight of the Marie Helena: A Musical Narrative in 1984.

Two other Hunter projects from 1984 are worth observing as well. The first is Armageddon Rag, which–like those last two Hunter albums–is well worth of a dive by some Dead scholar. Armageddon Rag, first, is a 1983 fantasy novel by the now-familiar author George R.R. Martin, the noted Dead fan who populated his Game of Thrones world with Dire Wolves and other references. The next year, longtime Dead associate Phil DeGuere began to adapt Armageddon Rag into a film.

The book (which I have yet to read) contains a long history of a fictional band called the Nazgul and includes both setlists and track lengths. Robert Hunter was hired to help turn the songs into music, writing lyrics for a band that included Hunter himself along with Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina, former Santana and Reconstruction drummer Gaylord Birch, plus Jerry Garcia’s longtime side partner Merl Saunders and Merl’s son Tony. The movie was never made, but the recordings for the soundtrack survive, complete with dubbed-in crowd noise and segues between songs. It sounds, in a lot of ways, like a fictional Grateful Dead. Perhaps it put Hunter in closer touch with the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin. Or, maybe more likely, being a voracious reader, Hunter was already well familiar with Martin and a fan of the fantasy genre.

At the same time as this, Hunter was writing scripts for a reboot of the Twilight Zone, a show for which the Grateful Dead themselves contributed soundtrack cues. Only one of Hunter’s episodes was produced, with his script editor being none other than legendary sci-fi author Harlan Ellison. In Hunter’s online journal in 1996, he noted the circumstances, which reflect, perhaps, the existence of The Giant’s Harp, as well. “The Grateful Dead was on the financial skids in ’84 and things were looking like the were not going to get better. No new album for many years. JG wasn’t interested in writing… I was working on scripts for New Twilight Zone, figuring I’d have to make my living that way.” (The only way to access Hunter’s oldest journals, I believe, is via the Wayback Machine.)

So, because he was working on adaptations and reboots, was looking for a new source of income, or some other reason entirely, Hunter was moved at some point in 1984 to begin writing The Giant’s Harp, whose writing would take him beyond the Grateful Dead, and whose roots stretch back directly to the Dead’s earliest and most psychedelic days.

The most significant precursor to The Giant’s Harp can be found on Jack O’Roses, Hunter’s 1980 solo acoustic album featuring his arrangements of several Grateful Dead songs. Side two of the album consists of his version of the first parts of “Terrapin Station,” followed by two new songs he’d written in an attempt to complete the cycle (as Hunter noted in the 1990 edition of his lyric collection, A Box of Rain): “Ivory Wheels/Rosewood Track” and “Jack O’Roses.”

But, as Hunter obviously could tell by 1984, he wasn’t done with the world of Terrapin. In his online journal, Hunter noted that he wrote a complete draft of The Giant’s Harp by the end of 1986, working on his old Osborn computer. In fact, it became a family project, with Hunter passing the novel along to his father, Norman Hunter, then 83 years old, a retired McGraw-Hill editor. Throughout Hunter’s journal entries from 1996, he hints at various ways he was shaping the work as he went, and occasionally why, and indicates that most chapters passed through at least three or four drafts during the book’s initial phase in the mid-1980s. No speed-writing whimsy, this was a serious endeavor, though at no point does he ever mention the idea of publishing it professionally.

I think it’s important to underscore the 1984-1986 timeframe in light of what subsequently happened to the Grateful Dead, and the way “Terrapin Station,” the piece of music performed in concert by the Dead, came to be canonized with its own meanings and implications. Part of its greatness, of course, is how open-ended it is, with many Deadheads surely having their own visions of what Terrapin Station might actually be, presumably unsatisfied by the album’s iconic but overly literal front cover, in which Wes Wilson highjacked German illustrator Heinrich Kley’s instrument-playing turtles (originally used by Wilson on a sweet 1966 poster for the Turtles at the Fillmore Auditorium). “Terrapin Station” has many connotations to Deadheads, only one of which I’ll note here, which is the usage “Terrapin Nation,” embraced by Dead bassist Phil Lesh, among others, as a kind of utopian vision.

The world of Terrapin as described by Robert Hunter in The Giant’s Harp, then, will surely seem alien to many Deadheads. To continue the notion that this book represents an expanded universe, the question is whether it not it also might be considered part of the Terrapin canon, something definitive in the sense that this is what the song meant when the band performed “Terrapin Station.” And for many reasons, the answer is obviously, no, of course not.

Jerry Garcia never read The Giant’s Harp, certainly not in its completed form, and I would wager to guess not in draft, either. In many ways, this novel has zero bearing on the song the Grateful Dead played, except for the fact that this isn’t fan fiction, and the words are from the same writer.

“The Giant’s Harp was a remnant of Time Before,” the book reads early on. “It bore other names in other times. ‘Time Before’ was the long, long space preceding the short, short memories of the illiterate people of Terrapin, an inbred town bordered on three sides by desert, set on a cliff facing the sea.”

Terrapin is a society living among the mysterious ruins of its past. The Giant’s Harp itself is “a megalithic monument of marble, ancient beyond known local history.” The monument itself is covered in images and writing, beyond the grasp of those who live in Terrapin. One of the book’s plot points hinges on the arrival of a character named Jabajaba, from the city of Nikaba, who has hiked for 14 days across the desert to get to Terrapin.

Jabajaba is a scholar who has come to study the mysterious monument, except–as he discovers–he knows it by a different name: The Eagle Mall.

Like “Terrapin,” the Eagle Mall is a place in Grateful Dead history. More specifically, very much like the monument it describes, in fact, it is a lost place of Grateful Dead history. In 1980, around the time he’d attempted to finish the “Terrapin Station” suite, Robert Hunter debuted another piece of music called “Eagle Mall.” Almost 15 minutes long, it consisted of six different parts with characters like John Silver and Copper and recurring motifs. There is a geospatial reference to the “Mountains of the Moon,” and perhaps one to “China Cat Sunflower.”

“It’s a thing I’ve been working on for about ten years,” he introduced it at one of the performances. It was only with the 1990 publication of the lyrics collection A Box of Rain, however, did the full extent of that become clear. “This saga was written in 1968-1969,” Hunter wrote, introducing the lyrics to the song cycle, “a pet project of mine intended for setting and performance by the Grateful Dead. In retrospect, it was too ambitious a project for practical consideration.”

In 1996, on the first anniversary of Garcia’s death, he elaborated more on the song’s non-place in Dead history, recounting Garcia’s reaction when he passed along the lyrics. “Look, Hunter — we’re a goddamn dance band, for Christ’s sake! At least write something with a beat!”

And, yet, a strange document exists in the book Jerry on Jerry, editing together Dennis McNally’s interviews with Garcia: a sheet in Garcia’s handwriting labeled “set list.” Yet it is a “set list” featuring several songs the Grateful Dead were never known to have played: “Cortical 5” (also featured in A Box of Rain) and “Eagle Mall.” Whatever the suite was or wasn’t, at some point, it existed inside Jerry Garcia’s creative mind long enough to make it to what seems like a first draft of a track-list for Aoxomoxoa, likewise featuring “What’s Become of the Baby” and other tracks.

“The direction we took with Workingman’s Dead was more to the point,” Hunter said. Certainly that much is obvious listening to recordings of his “Eagle Mall” performances, and it would all but disappear from Hunter’s own sets after 1980. But it’s worth lingering over the fact that the words and images of the Eagle Mall are what occurred to Robert Hunter as something the Grateful Dead could do next as he listened to the them work through the rich and complex material like “Dark Star” and “The Eleven” that would soon become Live/Dead. As a solo guitarist, Hunter would give a properly folky feel with fingerpicking and other techniques, but–in his head–these lyrics and stories somehow resonated with the music the Grateful Dead were making in 1968 and 1969. As far as lost albums go, it’s not terribly tangible, but it’s certainly tantalizing.

Eagle Mall recounts the trials of a nomadic people and embraces the notion of eternal recurrence,” Hunter notes in the introduction in A Box of Rain. This description fits neatly into the world of The Giant’s Harp. There are a few obvious connection points to the story Hunter would lay out in prose, notably in the title song of the suite. “The languages we spoke have been forgotten / the windows to the age are white as chalk,” speaks to the future documented in The Giant’s Harp. “Brick by brick the wall evolves,” runs one of the suite’s choruses, perhaps a time lapse of the mysterious monument under construction.

By the time of The Giant’s Harp, it has become like an undeciphered Rosetta Stone on a massive scale, a “stone library with its arms in the clouds.”

On the Eagle Mall, there were “eight distinct varieties of script: cuneiform, pictograph, alphabet, rune, hieroglyph, cursive, one that looked like worms and broken twigs with dangling berries and another resembling a network of mazes.”

“Each aisle’s writings began with a quote from the aisle to its immediate left preceding with its own style of script. Jabajaba presumed that this was done for comparative purposes, so that, could one fathom the signs of one aisle, one might with diligence decipher the rest. He was led to believe this by the recurrence of a dotted circle within each form of writing, appearing in a similar place in the text example.”

The translation of the Eagle Mall is only one plot in The Giant’s Harp, but it is also the site of much of the book’s most dramatic action, authentically classical and dramatic and mythical in a way only implied by the crashing chords of “Terrapin Station” itself. The novel uncoils a world far more fantastic than anything remotely hinted it within the bounds of the already grand “Terrapin Station” suite as performed and recorded by the Grateful Dead.

While the isolated world of Terrapin might be isolated and devoid of a printed culture, there are stories and songs. In fact, what listeners think of as the “Lady With A Fan” section of “Terrapin Station”–the bulk of song–is exactly one of these, delivered in verse by the storyteller to a rapt crowd. It is an oral culture. Down by the rocks at the foot of the cliffs of Terrapin, the siren-like sea creatures called the Schulas sing long, meandering ballads.

Both the Storyteller’s ballads and the Schulas’ verses are written by Hunter, of course, two subtle different kinds of folk music of ancient Terrapin. Modes and characters and motifs recur across all of them, with presumably more to be discovered in the “Eagle Mall” suite of songs, as well. On top of it all, the Eagle Mall is itself an instrument, with its rows of massive pillars and hallways turning into a massive wind harp, giving the book its title.

Hunter describes one character sitting by the Giant’s Harp, playing a melody on a small whistle: “The Giant’s Harp echoed an accompaniment, sustaining the fundamental pitch and generating overtones that rang through the marble corridors. The echo suggested the missing notes of the pentatonic version, even supplied them with the high harmonics of its ringing resonance.”

Terrapin itself is an unforgiving place, where scholars are rare and looked at with suspicion, and yet they are also some of the central characters of the book, each trying desperately to locate themselves within the cosmic sphere via a different method, speaking different languages of the Eagle Mall.

If Terrapin itself is a strange town at the far end of a premodern world, the world beyond the confines of the Desert of Bones (as it’s called) is not so isolated. The even-more-expanded Terrapin universe is part of the story, too. In one intriguing passage, Hunter describes two of these rare scholarly residents of Terrapin.

“Ro was among the very few citizens of that town who had traveled beyond its boundaries. He’d made the dangerous trek, in the company of Lit, across the desert to Nikaba; Lit in search of books, Ro of diagrams, astronomical charts, discourse and lenses for the telescope he meant to construct. In Nikaba, Ro learned other names for the Giant’s Harp. He kept them to himself. It was not considered good form in Terrapin to know things.”

Beneath The Giant’s Harp runs a dry and dark cosmic humor, the book remaining mostly serious in tone — at least until the fates become involved, or one ponders the scale of Hunter’s story and what it means to be a scholar in the universe of Terrapin.

Hunter creates an amazing world inside The Giant’s Harp, rich and complex and almost as filled with mysteries as the Eagle Mall itself. But only almost, because it’s all right there in beautifully rendered English, published helpfully on the then relatively new phenomenon of the World Wide Web.

For someone who spent the majority of his career as a songwriter attempting to avoid direct interaction with the broader audience of Deadheads, in 1996, suddenly Robert Hunter became incredibly, amazingly, and directly accessible. He even had a public email address. At one point, it was possible to shoot an email directly to the inbox of one Bob Hunter, songwriter, and–if you were for real–he’d very likely engage you in some kind of dialogue. I regret to this day that I didn’t take the opportunity when I had it.

Perhaps in part because of the death of Jerry Garcia, Hunter was an online presence for a few years, posting an online diary on and off for nearly a half-decade, and posting a vast collection of writing projects, including impressive swaths of poetry that extend his bibliography beyond what’s been included in his several printed collections. There are many other treasures to be plumbed there, miniature Eagle Malls to be decoded. Some of it pertains to the Dead, most if it doesn’t, but another fun item from 1994 takes the form of a surrealistic (and apparently incomplete) script for a short film about the early days of the Grateful Dead, called Visions of the Dead. There’s also a book-length poem about the first days of the first Gulf War.

The context of finishing and publishing The Giant’s Harp was near the beginning of a decade of productivity by Hunter, writing and touring. During this time, he created a new body of songs and poems and other writings that, despite being instantly accessible to anyone with an internet connection, somehow feel like a rare treat, maybe because they’re so often ensconced in internet code that hasn’t been updated in 20 years. But within all of that, there’s nothing else like The Giant’s Harp.

The Giant’s Harp is a wondrous evocation of a complete universe by Robert Hunter, an unusual item by itself. It has singing sirens and myths, it has deserts and storytellers and nomadic tribes and folk ballads and millennia of lore. Counting the music inside The Giant’s Harp, it now does constitute a grand epic.

“At this stage, the complete Terrapin would be a multi-media event lasting six days,” he wrote semi-fancifully in his response to a reader query in 1996, and he’s perhaps not far off, counting the original side-long “Terrapin Station” as rendered by the Dead, the segments he wrote in 1980, the Eagle Mall Suite from the same year, and some adaptation of The Giant’s Harp itself. Perhaps he’s written more since then.

In fact, The Giant’s Harp has many things. And this might constitute a minor spoiler, but one thing the Terrapin universe in The Giant’s Harp does not have is trains. There is no Terrapin Central Railway, let alone a station to access the far off land surrounded by ocean and desert, myths all the way down. Which of course leads back to “Terrapin Station” itself, and even Hunter’s follow-up songs, like “Rosewood Tracks.”

The answer to that is perhaps simple, at least when conceiving of The Giant’s Harp in terms of the world of fantasy and science fiction and comic books. In his journals, Hunter makes casual mention of stopping by the comic book store to pick up the latest titles–he also wrote a graphic novel around this time–so it was certainly a world with which he was familiar.

“I will tell you one thing about figuring out the Terrapin Suite,” Hunter replied another to another letter writer, “There are sub-plots but no overall plot, although there is a motif — circularity and eternal recurrence of persons and situations.” “Terrapin Station,” “Eagle Mall,” and The Giant’s Harp connect in uncanny, magical ways.

Perhaps The Giant’s Harp doesn’t take place in an expanded Terrapin universe, but a Terrapin multiverse. Like the song says, “some rise, some fall, some climb to get to Terrapin.” Terrapin is a far-off destination, on the other side of blank wasteland, the Desert of Bones, and there might be many ways for one to find their way to this vast chasm, both the end of the line and the real beginning.

There are countless ways to get there, and countless perspectives on where there is. But Terrapin Station is nowhere at all, a train stop in an anonymous place on the far side of the desert, a little station house by a scruff of woods before all the vegetation disappears and the horizon swallows the barrenness with a scale you didn’t know possible.

Terrapin Station is only a breather before the perilous journey to Terrapin itself. It’s a one-room depot where you better hope the vending machines are working and you can fill up your water bottle, use the facilities, and charge up your phone. And if any of those weird turtles with banjos asks you for a favor or requires assistance of some sort, you best do it. It’s probably going to get weirder, and you’re going to need all the good karma you can get. words / jesse jarnow

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