Robert Hunter, 2013
|Born||June 23, 1941|
Arroyo Grande, California, U.S.
|Died||September 23, 2019 (aged 78)|
San Rafael, California, U.S.
Robert C. Hunter (June 23, 1941 - September 23, 2019) was an American lyricist, singer-songwriter, translator, and poet, best known for his work with the Grateful Dead. Born near San Luis Obispo in California, Hunter spent some time in his childhood in foster homes, as a result of his father's abandoning his family, and took refuge in reading and writing. He attended university in Connecticut for a year before returning to Palo Alto, where he became friends with Jerry Garcia. Garcia and Hunter began a collaboration that lasted through the remainder of Garcia's life.
Garcia and others formed the Grateful Dead in 1965, and some time later began working with lyrics that Hunter had written. Garcia invited him to join the band as a lyricist, and Hunter contributed substantially to many of their albums, beginning with Aoxomoxoa in 1969. Over the years Hunter wrote lyrics to a number of the band's signature pieces, including "Dark Star", "Ripple", "Truckin'", "China Cat Sunflower", and "Terrapin Station". Hunter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Grateful Dead in 1994, and is the only non-performer to be inducted as a member of a band. Upon his death, Rolling Stone described him as "one of rock's most ambitious and dazzling lyricists."
Hunter was born Robert Burns on June 23, 1941 in Arroyo Grande, California, near the town of San Luis Obispo. In 1973, Charles Perry reported that Hunter was a great-great grandson of noted Romantic poet Robert Burns. According to Grateful Dead chronicler Dennis McNally, Hunter's father was an alcoholic, and deserted the family when Hunter was seven; he spent the next few years in foster homes before returning to live with his mother. These experiences drove him to seek refuge in books, and he wrote a 50-page fairy tale before he was 11. His mother got married again, to Norman Hunter, whose last name Robert took. The elder Hunter was a publisher, who gave Robert lessons in writing. Robert attended high school in Palo Alto, California, and learned to play several instruments as a teenager. His family moved to Connecticut, where he attended the University of Connecticut. He also played the trumpet in a band named The Crescents.
Hunter left the university after a year and returned to Palo Alto. He enlisted in the National Guard, and spent six months training, before being doing a six-month tour of duty. Upon his return to Palo Alto, he was introduced to Jerry Garcia by Garcia's then-girlfriend, who had previously been in a relationship with Hunter. They did not immediately get along, but became friends after seeing each other again at a coffee shop two days later. At the time, Garcia was 18, and Hunter, 19. The duo began to play music together, and spent their time in "what passed for Palo Alto's 1961 bohemian community", including a bookstore run by Roy Kepler. They soon began to play music together, and formed a short-lived duo called "Bob and Jerry" that debuted at the graduation ceremony of the Quaker Peninsula School on May 5, 1961. According to McNally, the group did not last because of "Hunter's limits as a guitarist and Garcia's ravenous drive to get better", but the two remained friendly. Garcia became involved with bluegrass groups in the area such as the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers and the Wildwood Boys; Hunter sometimes played the mandolin with these groups, but became more interested in writing as time went by. By 1962, he had written a book, The Silver Snarling Trumpet, described by McNally as a roman à clef. The volume never was published; however, McNally writes that it showed Hunter's "skill at storytelling and his fantastic ear for dialogue". Recordings of folk and bluegrass bands that included Hunter and Garcia were later released on two albums - Folk Time (2016) and Before the Dead (2018).
Around 1962, Hunter was an early volunteer test subject for psychedelic chemicals at Stanford University's research covertly sponsored by the CIA in its MKULTRA program: others who participated included Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. He was paid to take LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline and report on his experiences, which were creatively formative for him. When a friend attempted to dissuade him, he said "It'll be fun! I'll take my typewriter and no telling what'll come out". This incident was the first substantial experience any of the Grateful Dead had had with psychedelic drugs, and the creative surge he experienced would prove influential on their collective outlook. Around this time he was briefly involved with Scientology, and also struggled with addiction to methamphetamine and speed, which drove him to move briefly to Los Angeles and then to New Mexico. Some of his hallucinations later inspired his lyrics, such as those to "China Cat Sunflower". At some point in this period he also took some classes in physics and astronomy, at the College of San Mateo. During the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, Hunter was briefly in Berkeley too, and expressed sympathy with the demonstrators.
While Hunter was in New Mexico, he wrote lyrics for three songs that became hits for the Grateful Dead; these were "China Cat Sunflower", "St. Stephen", and "Alligator". In 1965, Garcia, Ron McKernan, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann formed a band, initially called the Warlocks, but soon known as the Grateful Dead. To begin with, they covered songs from other artists, but soon began to form their own sound. They recorded and released their first album, which only included two original songs, but soon afterward began to develop more of their own, and started work on "Alligator", using Hunter's lyrics. As a result, they invited Hunter to join them in San Francisco and become their lyricist. He joined the Grateful Dead at a concert in Rio Nido, California, where he wrote the lyrics that later became "Dark Star".
Hunter played a minimal role in the Grateful Dead's next album, Anthem of the Sun, but he and Garcia worked together to write every song on Aoxomoxoa, which came after it. Though their music still was developing, the album produced a number of popular songs, including "China Cat Sunflower", which became an enduring part of the Dead's repertoire. A few months before Aoxomoxoa was released, Hunter and his then-partner Christie Bourne began sharing a house with Garcia, his wife, and his step-daughter. Living in close proximity gave additional impetus to their collaborative song-writing. Hunter's relationship with the band grew until he was officially a non-performing band member. The band's reputation also grew; in 1970, a group led by Miles Davis opened a concert for the Grateful Dead.
After Aoxomoxoa, the band shifted from an experimentalist approach towards a sound more influenced by Americana and country music, which was featured in their albums American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. This period produced some of their most successful songs, including "Cumberland Blues", "Box of Rain", and Sugar Magnolia. Many of these pieces were written by Hunter, and would go on to become enduring folks songs; according to McNally, pieces such as "Ripple" grew to be "part of the American canon." The band's composition methods were varied. Hunter would sometimes write lyrics that the others would compose music around; sometimes he would write lyrics to music that had already been written; and sometimes the group would work together, creating music and lyrics simultaneously. Their musical improvisation was often inspired by psychedelic experiences under the influence of LSD, and by other hallucinatory experiences: Hunter wrote "Dire Wolf" inspired by a dream he had after watching a film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Hunter's participation in the Grateful Dead was dominated by his collaboration with Garcia, based on, according to McNally, "friendship, common experience, Hunter's extraordinary capacity for empathy, and his sterling ability to translate that into lyrics." However, he also worked with other band members, and on American Beauty we worked with McKernan on "Operator", Lesh on "Box of Rain", and Weir on "Sugar Magnolia". However, he eventually decided that he could only work with Garcia, and the duo would write numerous songs together over the next 25 years. Their relationship was often challenged by Garcia's difficulties with drug addiction; Hunter would comment in 2015 that he was unhappy with the extent of cocaine use among members. Hunter himself has been described as a "proudly irascible" presence in the band, who would often veto attempts to use the band's songs for commercial purposes. After Garcia's death from a heart attack in 1995, the Dead disbanded.
Following the dissolution of the Grateful Dead Hunter successfully continued his writing career, working on new songs with Jim Lauderdale, Elvis Costello, Cesar Rosas, and Bruce Hornsby, among others. He was seen occasionally playing solo acoustic guitar and performing his classic works, as well as newer songs. In 2004 he opened most of the Dead's summer tour. He also co-wrote, with David Nelson, many of the songs on the New Riders of the Purple Sage albums Where I Come From (2009) and 17 Pine Avenue (2012). Hunter wrote "Cyclone" for Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers' Levitate album, released in 2009. When asked in a 2009 interview about some of the song's more "philosophical" lyrics, such as the line "I've got no answers of my own, and none have been provided", Hornsby said "You know those are Robert Hunter's lyrics with a couple of additions from me." Hornsby commented on his work for Levitate ("Cyclone"), saying "Well, I've always loved [Robert Hunter's] writing. I've loved so many of the Garcia/Hunter songs. They're just timeless sounding to me, could have been written hundreds of years ago. I had this song that had the same feeling as, say, 'Brokedown Palace'."
Hunter collaborated with Bob Dylan on several occasions; he co-wrote two songs on Dylan's 1988 album Down in the Groove, all but one of the songs on Dylan's 2009 album Together Through Life, and "Duquesne Whistle" from Dylan's 2012 album Tempest. "We could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there," Dylan said of working with him in 2009. Hunter co-wrote the songs for two Jim Lauderdale albums - Patchwork River (2010) and Carolina Moonrise (2012). Hunter later said that working with Lauderdale was a productive experience, as they both liked working quickly, and were as a result able to write an album in a couple of days when working together. Also in 2010 Hunter co-wrote the song "All My Bridges Burning" with Cesar Rosas for the Los Lobos' album Tin Can Trust. In the same year, Hunter wrote lyrics for 7 Walkers' debut album, including "Louisiana Rain", "Chingo", and "Sue From Bogalusa". In 2012, Hunter co-wrote lyrics for the Mickey Hart Band's albums Mysterium Tremendum and the follow-up Superorganism. In an interview with American Songwriter, Hart categorized Hunter's lyrics compared to other great lyricists saying "When you're in a situation in the future and you can't explain it, very often a Hunter line or two or three will explain something that's unexplainable." Also in 2012, Hunter co-wrote four songs on Little Feat's album Rooster Rag.
When the Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Hunter was included as a band member, the only non-performer so honored. In 2013, Hunter received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association. He then proceeded to perform "Ripple" from the Grateful Dead's album American Beauty. In 2015, Hunter and Garcia were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Hunter accepted the award along with Garcia's daughter, Trixie Garcia, accepting on behalf of her father. Hunter once again performed "Ripple". Hunter has said that his "pretty much" favorite line he ever wrote was in "Ripple": Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men. "And I believe it, you know?" he told Rolling Stone in 2015.
According to the New York Times, Hunter's lyrics helped "define the Grateful Dead as a counterculture touchstone". Analyzing his lyrics became a popular exercise among the band's fans, something that Hunter took pride in. His approach to songwriting has been described as "deeply literary", and as being responsible for differenting the music of the Grateful Dead from more mainstream popular music. The Los Angeles Times compared his lyrical aesthetic to that of Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, and wrote that he was one of the few lyricists who "delved into the unique characteristics of the American psyche". Hunter was the only writer to collaborate extensively with Dylan. Dylan would say in the 2000s that Hunter had "a way with words", and stated "We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting." Hunter was famously averse to explaining his lyrics and avoiding interviews.
Dennis McNally, who wrote a history of the Grateful Dead, said that the band only "developed their potential for greatness" when they made Hunter their main lyricist. McNally writes that while Garcia was one of the "outstanding guitar players and songwriters of his generation", his lyrical abilities were minor. Many of the Grateful Dead's early lyrics were "superficial" and simple. From Hunter and Garcia's collaboration came many of the songs McNally calls the band's masterpieces, including "Ripple", "Brokedown Palace", and "Attics of My Life". According to Rolling Stone, Hunter was "[considered] one of rock's most ambitious and dazzling lyricists, Hunter was the literary counterpoint to the band's musical experimentation", and his lyrics were "as much a part of the band as Jerry Garcia's singing and guitar."
In 1982, he married artist Maureen Hunter. They had three children. Hunter was once a member of the Church of Scientology, but by 1999 he no longer belonged to the organization. In 2013, he was compelled to go on a solo tour as a result of medical bills, having suffered a spinal cord abscess in the previous year. Hunter died at his home in San Rafael, California on September 23, 2019. He had recently undergone surgery before his death. Upon hearing news of his demise, tributes and remembrances were shared from his former bandmates Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh, alongside other musicians Jim Lauderdale, Trey Anastasio, John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge and Warren Haynes.