Knight: Remembering Robert Hunter

Late songwriter Robert Hunter had great impact, often behind the scenes.

by Thomas Knight | 10/3/19 2:05am

Robert Hunter, one of the psychedelic era’s foremost songwriters, died last Monday, finishing what was certainly a long, strange trip around and around the sun.

Hunter wrote for Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, among others, but he was best known as the principal songwriter of the Grateful Dead, as a longtime member of the band who never played on a record and rarely stepped on stage. Hunter, the great-great-grandson of the legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns, crafted an undeniable poetic legacy of his own, often aided by the influence of psychedelic drugs.

Born into a musical family in Southern California, he briefly attended college, but dropped out and returned to the West Coast, where he became a member of the burgeoning bohemian scene, writing songs, poems and an unfinished novel. A year after returning to California, Hunter volunteered for the infamous MKULTRA program, a CIA-sponsored project that exposed test subjects to psychedelic drugs and intense psychological interrogations, formulated as a way to determine the scientific feasibility of mind control. Instead of brainwashing Hunter, the experiment imbued him with a singular creative vision. He described writing under the influence of LSD as seeing visions “conglomerate suddenly into a peal of silver vibrant uncomprehendingly, blood singingly, joyously resounding bells.” Soon after, Hunter reunited with an old friend, Jerry Garcia, who was impressed with his new poetry and lyrics, and the two eventually became the vaunted songwriting partners behind one of the counterculture’s most exciting bands.

But the 1960s were awash with dreamer prophets, burnouts and burnouts who thought they were dreamer prophets, and simply getting high and transcribing one’s mystical visions has not proved to be enough to qualify one for the canon of great American songwriters. The Vietnam War era in America was a time of fracturing of confidence between the young and the old, and the government and the governed, but it was also an era of a cultural divide between parochial perceptions of Muskogee and Haight-Ashbury — hard-working small town USA and the strung-out pockets of counterculture forming in cities, college campuses and rural communes. It was easy for the long-haired tribe to stay, at least psychologically, in technicolor bohemian enclosures where love was free and the acid was cheap. And many of the Dead’s fellow travelers did exactly that. But time and time again, Hunter pulled the band away from its comfort zone and coaxed out inventive and virtuosic performances, taking them to places where similar bands had never dared to tread.

Hunter had an intimate familiarity with classic works, and his fluency in scripture, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry was uncommon for most songwriters in the Grateful Dead’s genre. But beyond traditional literary influences, Hunter’s deepest love was for the American folk song. Effortlessly pulling from the traditional ballads of the Appalachian Mountains and the sorrow songs of the antebellum South, Hunter had an eye for the working man and an endless sympathy for the underdog. Instead of staying on the psychedelic mountaintop, writing reductive political screeds or fluff about kaleidoscopic clouds, he wrote songs about miners, prostitutes, gamblers, union men, the down and out and the profoundly unlucky. As emblematic as the Grateful Dead have become as the band of spaced-out, trippy half-hour jams, in retrospect, Hunter’s takes on the traditional American folk formula have become some of the band’s strongest songs. Classics like “Brown-Eyed Women” and “Friend of the Devil,” accompanied by the incomparable guitar of Jerry Garcia, haven’t aged like many records from the Sixties, despite their origins in songs and formats older than the United States itself. Hunter reinvigorated old clichés and aged storylines, anointing them with touches of the psychedelic that seemed to rejuvenate the classics and lend time-tested narratives to the cutting edge.

The Grateful Dead remain today among our strongest links to that strange period in American history. Although it is now more than 50 years from when hundreds of thousands of hippies gathered at Max Yazgur’s farm just outside of Woodstock, NY, the Dead still live. From fraternity basements to the classroom, it’s never hard to find a shirt bearing the famous logo of the band or some of Hunter’s lyrics. The enduring appreciation of Hunter’s work, even in an anonymous piece like a t-shirt, is a tribute to a man that dodged both spotlights and easy characterization on the way to canonization in the shrine of the all-time greats.