One of rock’s most ambitious and dazzling lyricists was literary counterpoint to the band’s musical experimentation
“It is with great sadness we confirm our beloved Robert passed away yesterday night,” Hunter’s family announced in a statement. “He died peacefully at home in his bed, surrounded by love. His wife Maureen was by his side holding his hand. For his fans that have loved and supported him all these years, take comfort in knowing that his words are all around us, and in that way his is never truly gone. In this time of grief please celebrate him the way you all know how, by being together and listening to the music. Let there be songs to fill the air.”
Considered one of rock’s most ambitious and dazzling lyricists, Hunter was the literary counterpoint to the band’s musical experimentation. His lyrics — heard in everything from early Dead classics like “Dark Star” and “China Cat Sunflower” and proceeding through “Uncle John’s Band,” “Box of Rain,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “Touch of Gray”— were as much a part of the band as Jerry Garcia’s singing and guitar.
Born Robert Burns in California in 1941, Hunter met Garcia in 1961 at a local production of the musical Damn Yankees, where they were introduced by Hunter’s ex-girlfriend, and Garcia’s then-girlfriend, Diane Huntsburger. The two didn’t immediately hit it off, their friendship took root a couple nights later when they saw each other at a local coffeehouse. Just one year apart in age (Garcia was 18 and Hunter 19 at the time they met), their bond was forged partly through the shared experience of losing a father — Garcia through death, Hunter through divorce.
While Hunter and Garcia played in a few bluegrass bands together, the former passed on an offer to join Garcia’s pre-Grateful Dead jug band to focus instead on writing. At Stanford, Hunter took part in an early LSD experiment (“I had a romping good time,” he recalled) and dabbled in Scientology, but eventually he began to struggle with speed and meth, prompting him to leave the Bay Area for New Mexico. There, Hunter began writing more songs — including future Dead classics “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “Alligator — which he sent to Garcia, who encouraged him to return to San Francisco and join the Dead as their lyricist.
Back in the Bay Area, Hunter would join the band at rehearsals and write lyrics. During one session, Hunter began writing lyrics to accompany an instrumental the band was working on; the result, “Dark Star,” was both a landmark for the band and also the official start of Hunter’s new role as the lyricist in residence.
Hunter was even aware of the song’s significance at the time. He told Rolling Stone that a couple weeks after writing the first verse at the rehearsal, he was working on the second in the Panhandle, the narrow park at the base of Golden Gate Park, when a guy came up to him and offered him a hit of something. “I don’t remember if I took it or not, but I said, ‘I’m writing the second verse for the song called ‘Dark Star’ for the Grateful Dead — remember that,'” Hunter recalled. “I had a prescience about the whole thing at that point. Once I started believing in that band, I thought, we’re going to go the distance.”
The role completely recast Hunter’s life goals. “What we were doing was almost sacred. The spirit of the times. … there was a time I felt this was the way the world would be going in a spiritual way, and we were an important part of that. I didn’t feel we were a pop music band. I wanted to write a whole different sort of music.” He told RS that his favorite line was in “Ripple: “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”
As the Dead’s lyricist, Hunter would hand stacks of songs to Garcia who would go through them, pick the ones he liked and offer Hunter fairly blunt notes and instructions (for instance, Garcia didn’t want anything with expressly political themes). Sometimes Hunter would write lyrics to whatever song the Dead were working on, like “Uncle John’s Band,” which was famously based off a 40-minute instrumental tape the Dead gave him.
Other times, songs would just pour out of him, like a stunningly fruitful day in London where, with the help of a bottle of Retsina, he wrote “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace” and “To Lay Me Down.” He also often found inspiration in unlikely places: He wrote “Playing In the Band” to the sound of the water pump on Mickey Hart’s ranch, while “Fire on the Mountain” was also written at the ranch, inspired by a literal fire on the mountain in the distance. The Dead would then craft the music around Hunter’s lyrics, often fine-tuning songs on the road. With “Truckin'” for instance, Hunter recalled, “It took me a couple months to write and it maybe took ’em about half an hour to put it together.”
Hunter was also a proudly irascible member of the Dead scene, sometimes nixing requests to use Dead songs in commercials or similar licensing deals. He rarely gave interviews. “There are things I have to do, like get a good picture, and I don’t take a good picture,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m ugly or the camera doesn’t like me.
Hunter and Garcia maintained their prolific partnership and friendship well into the Seventies and Eighties, producing numerous classics like “Touch of Grey” and “Standing on the Moon” even as Garcia struggled with addiction. “[F]rom many nights of raving all night the way people do in their early twenties, he knew me real well and I knew him real well, and I remember his girlfriend at that time, she said it was hard to tell where he ended and I started up,” Hunter recalled. “We were brothers in that sense. I loved that band until I didn’t give a damn about ’em, I’ll say that. I really just thought they were the cat’s whiskers.”
Like everyone in the Dead community, Hunter was shaken by Garcia’s death, although he told RS he felt it wasn’t completely unexpected: “I always saw it coming, but seeing it coming is not the same as seeing it. I didn’t get the feeling he intended to live for very long. There are things about Jerry I just don’t understand. Or maybe am not capable of knowing.”
Hunter’s work didn’t end with Garcia’s death. In the years after, he wrote songs with Elvis Costello, Bruce Hornsby, country singer Jim Lauderdale and Dead drummer Mickey Hart. His best-known collaborator after Garcia, though, was Bob Dylan. Starting with “Silvio,” the two co-wrote many songs on Dylan’s Together Through Life in 2009.
“He’s got a way with words and I do too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.” Hunter told RS: “He’s the only guy I work with who I give the liberty to change things. After all, he is who he is.”
Hunter, who is survived by his wife Maureen (whom he married in 1982), recorded several albums in his own and occasionally toured. In 2013, he went on his last solo tour as a result of medical bills; the year before he had had a spinal abscess and, by his own admission, hit the road to help pay his medical bills.
“I’m always glad that people are still out there performing the stuff, and the closer they are to the origination, the better,” he told RS in 2013. “There will be a time when there aren’t any of the originators left.”
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