Robert Hunter obituary

The Guardian-1 year before

A list of the songs that bear Hunter’s byline amounts to a road map of the Grateful Dead’s career. Dark Star (1968) and St Stephen (1969) were emblematic of their psychedelic beginnings, while Truckin’ (1970), Playing in the Band (1971) and Uncle John’s Band (1970) were imaginatively embroidered...chunks of the Dead’s autobiography. Friend of the Devil (subsequently covered by countless other artists) had the feel of an old west fable, and like many other of their compositions tapped into the folk and blues roots that Hunter and the guitarist-songwriter Jerry Garcia had grown up with. Touch of Grey (with its trademark lines “I will get by, I will survive”) was an ode to the group’s longevity and earned them their only Top 10 hit in the US in 1987.

Dark Star St Stephen Truckin’ Playing in the Band Uncle John’s Band Friend of the Devil Jerry Garcia Touch of Grey Although it is his work with the Dead for which he will be chiefly remembered, Hunter engaged in several other successful collaborations. An intermittent partnership with Bob Dylan began when he co-wrote the tracks Silvio and The Ugliest Girl in the World on Dylan’s 1988 album Down in the Groove, and he later shared authorship of most of the songs on Together Through Life (2009) and collaborated on Duquesne Whistle from the album Tempest (2012).

He also worked with Bruce Hornsby (who played keyboards with the Dead late in their career) and Los Lobos. As Hornsby put it, after Hunter had written his song Cyclone (2009), “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.”

Bruce Hornsby Los Lobos

Robert Hunter in the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal studio in San Rafael, California, 1977. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Hunter was born Robert Burns in Arroyo Grande, California, and later adopted his stepfather’s surname. “When I was nine my family split up,” he revealed, claiming that his father “was an electrician, an itinerant kind of a goldminer, something like that ... I’ve only heard from him once in 20 or 30 years.” One of his earliest memories was his mother singing along to pop songs on the radio while she bathed him. He spent several years in foster homes before returning to live with his mother, who later married Norman Hunter, a publishing executive at McGraw-Hill, when Robert was 11.

He had a band called the Presidents in Palo Alto high school, a Dixieland outfit in which he played trumpet. After a six-month stint in the army in 1959 (“It was an experience a lot of kids could probably benefit from,” he said), he spent a year at the University of Connecticut where he played in a folk trio, then moved back to California. He first met Garcia through a mutual girlfriend, and in 1961 they briefly formed the duo Bob and Jerry as well as playing in several bluegrass bands together. They parted company as Garcia pursued his musical ambitions while Hunter concentrated on writing.

Bob and Jerry In 1962 he volunteered to participate in a Stanford University programme testing psychedelic drugs (not realising this was run by the CIA), and was given LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. He considered that these experiences greatly boosted his writing skills, and he displayed a knack for expressing his altered state of mind. “By my faith, if this be insanity, then for the love of God permit me to be insane,” he wrote on one occasion.

However, a subsequent over-fondness for amphetamines prompted him to leave California for New Mexico, where he began writing song lyrics, including St Stephen, Alligator and China Cat Sunflower. He sent these to Garcia, who was sufficiently impressed to urge Hunter to come to San Francisco and become the lyricist for the fledgling Grateful Dead.

Alligator appeared on the band’s second album, Anthem of the Sun (1968), while the follow-up, Aoxomoxoa (1969), was almost totally written by Hunter and Garcia. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (both 1970) found the group moving away from trippy experimentalism towards a more traditional, country-flavoured, Americana style, and between them added up to a trove of the Dead’s finest songs, Cumberland Blues, Uncle John’s Band, Casey Jones, Box of Rain, Friend of the Devil and Sugar Magnolia among them. American Beauty’s Ripple was solely composed by Hunter, and contained what he claimed to Rolling Stone magazine to be his favourite of his own lines: “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of man.”

Their working methods were elastic. Sometimes Hunter would listen to the band working on a new song and devise lyrics on the spot; sometimes he would listen to tapes of musical ideas and write lyrics to fit; or he would give the group lyrics that they would then build music around. “What we were doing was almost sacred,” he said in 2015. “I didn’t feel we were a pop music band. I wanted to write a whole different sort of music.”

His partnership with Garcia lasted right through to the Dead’s final studio album, Built to Last (1989). Garcia died in 1995. “I didn’t get the feeling he intended to live very long,” Hunter told Rolling Stone. “There are things about Jerry I just don’t understand. Or maybe am not capable of knowing.”

Hunter also undertook collaborations with the songwriter Jim Lauderdale, with whom he wrote the album Patchwork River (2010), and the Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart, contributing lyrics to the albums Mysterium Tremendum (2012) and Superorganism (2013). He co-wrote four songs with Bill Payne on Little Feat’s album Rooster Rag (2012).

Jim Lauderdale Hunter performed in his own right occasionally, undertaking his final solo tour in 2013 in part to raise money to pay medical bills incurred during treatment for a spinal abscess. He recorded several solo albums, including Tales of the Great Rum Runners (1974), Tiger Rose (1975), Flight of the Marie Helena (a poem read against a musical backing, 1985) and Rock Columbia (1986). He also published several volumes of poetry, as well as two volumes of translations of the poems of Rilke. In 2013 he was given the lifetime achievement award of the Americana Music Association, and in 2015 Hunter and Garcia were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

Flight of the Marie Helena He is survived by his wife, Maureen, whom he married in 1982, and his children, Kate, Charlotte and Jess.

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