An appreciation of longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
I wonder if that immortal refrain passed through Robert Hunter’s mind in his last moments, the sweetly cliché reminder that life is a trip, one that must be taken whether we truly wish it or not, with a beginning and — of course — a final destination.
For most of us, we will most likely look back at the dusty road behind us and acknowledge a few bumps in the road, late-night drives, sunsets on the horizon, maybe a breakdown here and there, but a good trip. A meaningful, memorable trip with friends and family who joined us along the way.
But for a man like Robert Hunter, whose words were played over 2,000 nights to innumerable fans legends like Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, I would imagine his journey looked a bit different than most of ours.
The seventh member of the Dead (or the sixth, or the eighth, depending on who you ask and when you ask them) made his initial contribution to the group’s cosmic landscape in 1968, with the release of “Dark Star,” but his relationship with Garcia stretched back to their teenage years, before the Grateful Dead was even a dream — and before Hunter took part in what he later discovered was the C.I.A’s MK-Ultra experiments.
AUDIO: Grateful Dead “Dark Star” at the Hollywood Palladium 1972
“He was given LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline,” Stephen Kinzer, author of the book Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control and former correspondent for The New York Times wrote in an email to the paper: “Afterward he wrote an ecstatic six-page account off is experiences…Years later, he recognized the irony of the C.I.A. project, which was aimed at finding a mind-control drug. ‘The United States government was in a way responsible for creating the ‘acid tests’ and the Grateful Dead and thereby the whole psychedelic counterculture,” he concluded.
A writer at heart, Hunter’s experience with psychedelics didn’t lessen the passion he had for words. If anything, it opened the floodgates, allowing the words to flow freely, nearly overwhelming the innovative Garcia, who would exclaim, “Oh, God, Hunter! Not again!” Hunter said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “He’d throw away what he didn’t like. I’d like to have some of the stuff he tossed out.”
Even after losing some of his work to Garcia’s hand, Hunter suffered from no lack of songs, spinning together the subtleties of American folklore with the swirling psychedelia that defined not only the “Deadheads,” as the fans became known, but an entire generation. He was enigmatic, unmatched in ability, having developed an offbeat mental rhyming dictionary and refusing to print the lyrics with the recordings, allowing listeners to fill in the blanks and read between the lines, inserting themselves and their lives into the Grateful Dead canon. Aware of his contribution to the band — and the culture they created and represented — he wrote in the foreword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics (2005; annotations by David Dodd), “There were other lyricists involved…Had I not joined, by invitation, as a lyricist in residence, a year after they chose the name and nailed down the job through sheer prolixity, the band would have developed differently. It might have been less odd and more popular, for one thing.”
On top of his overwhelming to the wacky, weird, and wonderful legend that is the Dead (Jerry called him “the band member that doesn’t come out onstage with us”), Hunter shares credits with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat, and Jim Lauderdale, not to mention releasing two well-received albums with Garcia’s Round Records and several more with Relix Records. Not one for life on the road, Hunter toured rarely with the Dead and performed only occasionally as a solo act, accompanying himself on guitar to share both his solo work and a well-placed Grateful Dead song.
“There’s nothing to compare to that, being up onstage and doing ‘Ripple’ in front of people who’ve grown up with that song,” Hunter said. “They love it, and I’m able to give it to them as close to the source as you’re going to get it.”
His debut solo record, Tales of the Great Rum Runners, released in 1974, followed by Round Records’ Tiger Rose. Touring as late as 2013, Hunter’s mystical lyricism had a way of captivating listeners beyond the rollicking, folksy licks and soulful melodies. “The songs were about other worlds, other times, other places than most of the audience had ever experienced,” Warren Haynes said. “They’re not just songs, they’re stories, and they took place not in the here and now, but in some place that requires imagination.”
Upon his death, bassist Phil Less wrote, “As much as anyone, he defined in his words what it meant to be the Grateful Dead. His lyrics, ranging from old border ballads to urban legend, Western narratives and beyond, brought into sharp focus what was implicit in our music.” He was the only songwriter whom Bob Dylan trusted enough to make lyrical changes (“We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting,” Dylan said in 2009, after collaborating with Hunter for a song on his record Together Through Life). And Jerry Garcia — the legend, preceding Hunter in death by twenty-five years ago — in his last conversation with Hunter, said, “I just wanted to tell you that your songs never stuck in my throat.”
Hunter passed away at the age of 78 in his home in California, with his wife of almost forty years, Maureen, at his side. No cause of death has been released, but, for Grateful Dead fans, the loss of the famed wordsmith has left them without words.
AUDIO: Robert Hunter Promontory Rider: A Retrospective Collection (full album)