R.I.P. Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead Lyricist Who Found Ethereal Beauty in Everyday Truth
Robert Hunter, a musician and poet who is best known for writing the lyrics to many of the Grateful Dead’s songs, died at 78 years old on Monday, September 23. No cause of death has been reported. Hunter occupied an unusual spot in the rock’n’roll canon as a lyricist who is considered to be a member of a band despite not performing on their recordings or at their concerts. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Dead in 1994, the only nonperforming member of a band ever to be given that honor.
Hunter’s primary songwriting partnership was with Jerry Garcia, though he also collaborated with other members of the Dead, as well as musicians outside the band. Hunter cowrote the vast majority of Dead songs with Garcia, with the former writing the lyrics and the latter composing the music. Their collaborations include such classics as “Dark Star,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “He’s Gone,” “Friend of the Devil,” and many others.
The lyricist’s most notable non-Dead collaborator is Bob Dylan, with whom he co-wrote several songs, including nearly all of the 2009 Dylan album Together Through Life.
Hunter tapped into the expanding consciousness of the late 1960s and ’70s without ever resorting to psychedelic cliches, using crystalline imagery, fablelike narrative, and aphoristic concision to convey universal truths instead. Even at their most starry and rococo, his lines are heavy with lived experience and rich with observed detail. In “St. Stephen,” an early Dead masterpiece, he pairs fleeting glimpses of celestial beauty with earthbound axioms shared in gritty plain English. A verse about “lady fingers dipped in moonlight, writing ‘what for?’ across the morning sky” gives way to a simple affirmation that “one man gathers what another man spills.”
In the early to mid ’70s, as the Dead began incorporating elements of country, folk, and bluegrass into the their music, Hunter and his fellow lyricist John Perry Barlow drew heavily from American myth, creating an imagined country full of righteous outlaws, lonesome ramblers, and down-and-out drunkards. (Barlow, who worked primarily with Garcia’s songwriting foil Bob Weir, died last year.) Here, too, Hunter’s gift for braiding the cosmic with the everyday shined through. In songs such as “Deal,” “Loser,” and “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” he fixated on the archetype of the gambler, using the risks and rewards of the card table as an extended metaphor for the fundamental uncertainty of life.
In Hunter’s words, as in the high-wire improvisations of the Dead themselves, there is beauty in that uncertainty, freedom in admitting that you have no idea what comes next. “Ripple,” one of the Dead’s best known and most moving compositions, comes closest to distilling the Hunter outlook in a single line. A pledge of devotion to a friend, fused to an acknowledgement of oblivion: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”