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R.I.P. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter
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Robert Hunter, the captivating poet and lyricist who was known for his timeless work with the Grateful Dead, has died. Per Rolling Stone, his family confirmed the news via a statement: “It is with great sadness we confirm our beloved Robert passed away yesterday night. He died peacefully at home in his bed, surrounded by love. His wife Maureen was by his side holding his hand. 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.” No cause of death has been given as of yet. He was 78.


Hunter, who was born in 1941 in Oceano, California, lived a fascinating life. While jamming with future Dead frontman Jerry Garcia in the early ‘60s, Hunter was reportedly a test subject in the CIA’s MKUltra experiments alongside One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey. “I couldn’t figure out why they were paying me good money to take these psychedelics,” he told Reuters. “[W]hat they wanted to do was check if I was more hypnotizable when I was on them than I was when I wasn’t on them. I didn’t find that to be the case. I didn’t find myself being hypnotized.”

LSD no doubt informed his lyrical sensibilities, but Hunter was always articulate when discussing his approach. “If you can even manage to tell exactly what a song is about, all you do is put that song in a box forever and it loses its evocative power,” Hunter told NPR. “A song doesn’t happen as a whole verse; it happens linearly, line by line, almost word by word, phrase by phrase. And if each phrase, each line, has a proper emotional feel and connects to the line before it and the line after it, the song will be doing what it should be doing. And that’s we’re looking for. We’re not looking to put a coherent short story in someone’s head. That’s a different craft. It’s called prose.”

With Garcia, Hunter penned songs like “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,” “Friend Of The Devil,” “Dark Star,” and “Brokedown Palace,” not to mention the ubiquitous “Touch Of Grey.” Though he didn’t play an instrument in the Grateful Dead, he was still inducted into the Hall Of Fame with the band in 1994. In 2015, Hunter was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

Hunter also released albums of his own, beginning with 1974's Tales Of The Great Rum Runners and continuing into the early ‘90s. He’s also known for translating the work of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and releasing volumes of his own poetry.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.