Robert Hunter, the lyricist, poet and mystical seeker who wrote some of the most beloved songs by the Grateful Dead, has died at age 78. Hunter’s family announced his death in a statement, writing, “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.” No cause of death was available at press time.
“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,” the statement continued, ending with one of the most iconic lines to flow from Hunter’s verdant mind from the Dead ballad “Ripple”: “Let there be songs to fill the air.”
Born Robert Burns on June 23, 1941, in Arroyo Grande, Calif., Hunter was one of the key figures in the burgeoning West Coast psychedelic rock movement, befriending future Dead singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia via their mutual love of bluegrass and jug band music and volunteering to be one of the subjects at Stanford University’s legendary psychedelic testing lab. Though Hunter did not perform with the Dead, Garcia invited him to contribute lyrics to the band’s mind-expanding albums beginning with 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. His lyrics were so key to the band’s musical identity that Hunter was inducted with the performing members — past and present — when the group was ushered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
If you’ve ever seen or uttered the phrase “what a long strange trip it’s been” (from “Truckin'”), you have Hunter to thank for it. And while he performed and recorded on his own over the years, the press-shy poet was best known for writing the lyrics to such classic Dead tracks as “Uncle John’s Band,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Box of Rain,” “Wharf Rat” and the Dead’s late-period biggest hit, 1987’s “Touch of Gray,” most of them sung by musical soul mate Garcia.
Hunter released a number of solo albums, including 1974’s Tales of the Great Rum Runners and 1975’s Tiger Rose, later collaborating with other musicians including Bob Dylan, Jim Lauderdale, Los Lobos, Steve Kimock and Bruce Hornsby in the years after the Dead called it quits in 1995 following Garcia’s death. He also released a translation of Austrian poet Rilke’s Duino Elegies in 1987, as well as collections of his own poetry, Night Cadre (1991), Idiot’s Delight (1992) and 1993’s lyric collection, A Box of Rain: Lyrics: 1965-1993.
His lyrics often read like mysical poetry, telling ambitious tales of mythical American figures — miners, gamblers, pioneers — searching for an elusive truth behind the mystery of life. But sometimes they also just told a story of opening your eyes to the wonder of the universe all around us. “Look out of any window/ Any morning, any evening, any day/ Maybe the sun is shining/ Birds are winging or/ Rain is falling from a heavy sky/ What do you want me to do/ To do for you to see you through?” he wrote in “Ripple.”
“For this is all a dream we dreamed/ One afternoon long ago.”