Poet Robert Hunter brought the Dead to life, dies at 78

Robert Hunter, lyricist for legendary Classic Rock band the Grateful Dead, died in his California home on Sept. 23. Courtesy of David Saddler via Flickr

I’d like to think that I’m self-aware. Which means I have to be honest when it comes to my clichés, and being a crunchy dude among many crunchy dudes here at Vassar means I come with a lot of crunchy dude clichés. So when Robert Hunter, The Grateful Dead’s songwriting counterpart passed away last week, I felt the need to celebrate Hunter’s words with my fellow crunchies out there. Although, like many people, I couldn’t say much about him before beginning this piece. More than that, it lets me do what I really want to do: have a reason to listen to the Dead again.

The syrup-paced jams and easy-does-it vibe of The Grateful Dead have beckoned generations of fans to join in their mirth. While their funky-smelling aura may cause you to think they are purely a psychedelic rock band, their music pulls decadently from American roots. I treat the Dead like the most ideal buffet for the musical munchies, their sound steeped in country, blues, folk, rock and bluegrass. And behind it all, Hunter was the Dead’s master chef, off stage and behind the kitchen steel doors, adding the secret sauce.

Robert Hunter grew up in and out of foster homes. His father was in the Navy, but left his mother and the young Hunter early on. Later, Hunter would drop out of the University of Connecticut, head out to Palo Alto and get involved with a teenage musician named Jerry Garcia. The two would bond over absent fathers (Garcia’s father had died), bluegrass, folk and country music.

The canon of country music is wide and acquiescent, and it grew in the late ’60s to accommodate rock groups like The Byrds, CSNY and the Dead, as the new wave outfits infused their sound with generous helpings of slide guitar and country-western imagery. Hunter and the Dead’s early work lived up to this trend, both musically and lyrically.

Workingman’s Dead, one of Grateful Dead’s first and only studio records, boasts some of their most indelible songs. “Uncle John’s Band” offers playful despondence to the paranoia of the ’60s: “When life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” “Casey Jones” retreads the story of a steam engine worker high on cocaine, speeding at 102 miles per hour, and “headed for you.” Like the rest of Workingman’s Dead, it’s early Hunter-Garcia, but it’s their artistic relationship at its peak.

The woeful tune “Black Peter” is a perfect example of country’s soul-wrecking influence on Hunter’s pen. Peter’s fate is plainly depicted in the opening lines, “laying in my bed and dying.” His friends come to see him off, but Peter sticks around for days, chillingly wishing for his own death: “One more day I find myself alive/Tomorrow maybe go beneath the ground and die.” Garcia sings the tale in mournful yodels, which he exasperates with long pauses between. Between the awful lapses in verses, you wonder if Peter has finally gotten his wish.

In an odd twist of fate, Deadheads may have the CIA to thank for Hunter’s more trippy prose. In the throws of the Cold War, the CIA was searching for a leg up on Soviet spies. Hunter, eager to try psychedelics after reading the Acid Bible (“Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxle), was paid $140 for the privilege of giving mescaline, acid, and psilocybin a shot. While the experimenters were testing the capabilities of acid as a truth serum drug intended to enchance interrogation techniques, Hunter was tripping balls. In a 1988 NPR interview with personified truth serum Terry Gross, he admitted that the people taking his blood every two hours were vampires (at least he hallucinated).

His ongoing experiences with acid certainly played a role in his songwriting. “It had to,” he said to Gross. “I was making these connections that were written for the time…it was part and parcel to that generation.”

As the psychedelic-using lyricist for the world’s most regaled psychedelic rock band, Hunter indulged in stories that were spellbinding and, at times, utterly whimsical. He wrote about a long-distance runner stuck in trepidation in “Fire on the Mountain,” a foolhardy gambler in “Friend of the Devil,” a Prohibition-era family that turns to bootlegging in “Brown Eyed Women” and the long, strangeness of it all in “Truckin’.”

Hunter was playfully aware of the effect that the Dead’s long jam sessions had on their audience. The line, “If you get confused/Listen to music play” in “Franklin’s Tower” invites the audience to tune out from his haphazard vignettes and “drop in” to the wayward melodies meandering from stage.

The Dead recorded some of their most famous live albums at colleges around the country. Likewise, it’s no secret that their music has a certain effect on college-aged folks and their extra cool parents alike. Their music and narratives are so bizarre and unique that getting into the Dead doesn’t seem like it should be one of the most clichéd things a crunchy college kid could do—but of course it is. That makes sense, or at least it did to Robert Hunter: “[P]eople would swear I was writing about them, if something is personal enough, there’s a certain line when things become universal.”

Okay, that was a lot of Dead. We should probably listen to some punk or something else now. You guys heard of the Ramones?

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