Robert M. Petersen

Robert M. Petersen

1936 – 1987

“We did not hear much from Robert M. Petersen. He published one volume of poetry, Far Away Radios, and wrote a handful of lyrics for the Grateful Dead before he died in 1987. This publication [Alleys of the Heart: The Collected Poems of Robert M. Petersen, Hulogos’i: 1988] of his collected poems puts on record one true voice of a generation. Petersen was born in 1936 of a solid middle class background in Klamath Falls, Oregon. In the 50’s he hopped the freights, played jazz saxophone and attended San Mateo College in California. He served time. Sometimes he lived on the mountain. He knew the lore of the West, its local and natural history. He practiced freedom. He bridged the beat scene of San Francisco to the rock era, like his sometime companion, Neal Cassady. His poems are lucid testimony of culture in transformation.” – Alan Trist, 1988

Robert M. Petersen wrote three lyrics for the Grateful Dead: “New Potato Caboose” (Anthem of the Sun, 1968), “Unbroken Chain” (Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel, 1974), and “Pride of Cucamonga” (Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel, 1974).  The later two songs were never played live by the Grateful Dead.  A recent obsession with “Pride of Cucamonga” lead me to investigate the life of Robert M. Petersen. Aside from two brief biographical notes on Grateful Dead fan sites (here and here) there exists no record of Petersen or his poetry on the internet.

I recently acquired Alleys of the Heart: The Collected Poems of Robert M. Petersen and will being posting the works of Petersen on the WMWC blog on an irregular basis.  Alleys of the Heart represents the collected works of Petersen in his “mature voice” starting in 1964 and continuing until his death in 1987.  Petersen had previously published Far Away Radios – a collection of poems written primarily in the mid-to-late 1960s – which was published by the Grateful Dead’s publishing company Ice Nine Publishing in 1980 and is included in Alleys of the Heart.

I will start by posting the poem which lead me to seek out Petersen’s work: “Fern Rock.”  Petersen was a close friend of and influence upon the Grateful Dead and because of this his poetry should be freed from obscurity.

Petersen’s friend, and editor of Alleys of the Heart, Alan Trist states that the last fifteen lines of Petersen’s “Seismic Disturbances” “stand as Robert M. Petersen’s epitaph, expressing, as they do, the modesty and warm determination of his nature”:

Truly these lines have represented the legacy of Robert M. Petersen.  Through this endeavor I hope to bring new life to his poetry so that it may inspire again.  I will end this series of posts (some months from now) with “Seismic Disturbances” until then, enjoy.

jason walsh

5 Replies to “Robert M. Petersen”

  1. Rod, the lyrics for Unbroken Chain as performed by the Grateful Dead are here,

    They didn’t perform it until 1995, but did so ten times that year, though it appeared on their album Mars Hotel years earlier. I always assumed Phil Lesh wrote it since it was a “Phil” song, one of his few. He and the various configurations of surviving band members have played it frequently during the last twenty years. In fact Phil sung it tonight at the Fare Thee Well 50 year celebration of the Grateful Dead in Chicago.

    It is only tonight that I learned it was written by Robert Petersen. Now I find myself getting interested in his work. I’ll start looking for a collection of his poetry.

  2. Also published around 1965 by Frank Westlake at Bindweed Press 900 copies of Robert Peterson poems with book title “Home For The Night”. Book design and prints by Mel Fowler.

  3. I hung out a little with Bobby in Arcata in the 70s. Warm, modest and wickedly intelligent man. At the time he was married to a lovely woman named Jane whom I believe was teaching math at Humboldt State. I have always wondered how he died at such a young age and whatever happened to beautiful Jane. If you have any more information please share it. I also want to obtain a good copy of Alleys of the Heart.

  4. the Dead actually did perform “Unbroken Chain” a few times there near the end, and Petersen wrote one more lyric, performed live once but never recorded, called “Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues.”

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