Robert Hunter | still from video
R.I.P. Robert Hunter, profound lyricist for the Grateful Dead
There are many reasons for loving the Grateful Dead — their fearless instrumental explorations, their immersive and expansive approach to performing. But if their poignant, sentimental, deeply-affecting lyrics are one of your touchpoints for the classic rock icons, you have Robert Hunter to thank in part for that.
The California poet who penned the words for some of the Dead’s most enduring songs — “Ripple,” “Box of Rain,” “Uncle John’s Band,” and “Touch of Grey” to name a few — sadly passed away on Monday at age 78, Rolling Stone reports.
In a statement to press, Hunter’s family said “For his fans that have loved and supported him all these years, take comfort in knowing that his words are all around us, and in that way his is never truly gone. In this time of grief please celebrate him the way you all know how, by being together and listening to the music. Let there be songs to fill the air.”
Hunter was born Robert Burns in 1941, and met Dead leader Jerry Garcia age 20. They kept in touch as Hunter moved around the state, but solidified their bond at a Bay Area show where Hunter wrote words to accompany the band’s frenzied jams. Illusory lyrics like “Shall we go, you and I while we can / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?” were more than just inspired by the dreamlike licks of “Dark Star”; they elevated the song to a new plateau where one was inseparable from the other.
Hunter had a particularly strong showing on the Dead’s iconic fifth LP, 1970’s American Beauty, which opened poignantly on “Box of Rain,” and also boasted strong narratives in “Friend of the Devil,” and featured the enduring “Ripple” on the top of side B, a song that is as much the embodiment of Hunter’s style as anything, incorporating naturalistic imagery and a hopeful outlook that acknowledges the struggle and sadness of the world with hopeful advice about life and how to live it: “You who choose to lead must follow / But if you fall you fall alone / If you should stand then who’s to guide you? / If I knew the way I would take you home.”
In addition to the work with the Dead for which he is best known, Hunter also collaborated lyrically with Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello, and even the Nobel Prize winning poet of the 60s folk / rock era, Bob Dylan. In a 2013 interview, Dylan told Rolling Stone “He’s got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.” He also worked as a translator, on an edition of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Dunio Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.
Hunter is survived by his wife of 37 years, Maureen Hunter. Listen to some of his highlights from the Dead canon and beyond below.