Grate­ful Dead lyri­cist-poet was ‘vi­sion­ary word­smith’

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By John Rogers

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.

EVAN AGOSTINI/AP 2015

Robert Hunter, pri­mary song writer for San Fran­cisco band the Grate­ful Dead, died Mon­day. He was 78.

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