Grateful Dead lyricist-poet was ‘visionary wordsmith’
LOS ANGELES — Robert Hunter, the man behind the poetic and mystical words for many of the Grateful Dead’s finest songs, has died at age 78.
Hunter died Monday at his Northern California home with his wife, Maureen, at his side, former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally told The Associated Press on Tuesday. The family did not release a cause of death.
“We loved Bob Hunter and will miss him unimaginably,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said, adding the lyricist was “a visionary wordsmith extraordinaire.”
Although proficient on a number of instruments including guitar, violin, cello and trumpet, Hunter never appeared on stage with the Grateful Dead during the group’s 30-year run that ended with the 1995 death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, his principal songwriting partner.
When he did attend the group’s concerts, he was content to either stand to the side of the stage or, better yet, sit anonymously in the audience. It was in the latter location, he told the AP in 2006, that he received his greatest songwriting compliment, from a man who had no idea who he was.
“He turned to me during ‘Cumberland Blues’ and said, ‘I wonder what the guy who wrote that song a hundred years ago would think if he knew the Grateful Dead was doing it,’ ” he recalled, referencing the tale of American miners.
Other of Hunter’s most memorable Grateful Dead songs include “It Must Have Been the Roses,” “Terrapin Station,” “The Days Between,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Jack Straw, “Friend of the Devil,” “Box of Rain,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Black Muddy River.”
Although the man who spoke to him during “Cumberland Blues” couldn’t know it, he had perfectly captured Hunter’s songwriting brilliance contained in all of those songs: the ability to craft lyrics that sounded so timeless that listeners were certain they had heard them before. It was a skill he matched seamlessly with a boundless knowledge of subjects running the gamut from classic literature to street life, which in turn allowed him to write authoritatively about everyone from card sharks and hustlers to poor dirt farmers and free-spirited lovers.
All of those stories he seasoned with a poetic skill some would say rivaled even that of Bob Dylan, with whom he sometimes collaborated.
“He’s got a way with words and I do too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine in 2009. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”
“Truckin’,” arguably Hunter and the group’s best known song (and the one containing the memorable line, “What a long, strange trip it’s been”) was designated a national treasure in 1997 by the Library of Congress.
Once asked by the AP who his influences were, he laughed and replied that, “just to throw people off,” he would often cite both the great 19th century theatrical songwriting team of Gilbert and Sullivan and the American folk music balladeer Woody Guthrie.
After a moment’s reflection, he added more seriously, “Actually, that’s pretty close to the truth.”
Other influencers included novelists James Joyce, John Steinbeck and Hans Christian Andersen, musician Josh White and the traditional European ballads published by American folklorist Francis James Child.
Born Robert Burns on June 23, 1941, Hunter was 7 when his father abandoned him and his mother, resulting in his spending several years in foster homes.
When he was 11, his mother married McGraw-Hill publishing executive Norman Hunter, who gave the boy a new last name and an appreciation for such writers as William Saroyan and T.S. Elliot.
Robert Hunter, primary song writer for San Francisco band the Grateful Dead, died Monday. He was 78.