RIP: Robert Hunter, songwriter for Grateful Dead

Robert Hunter, the man who provided the Grateful Dead with lyrics for some of their most memorable songs, passed away on Monday night.

Rolling Stone shared a brief history of his friendship with Jerry Garcia, which led to his special role within the Grateful Dead.

Born Robert Burns in California in 1941, Hunter met Garcia in 1961 at a local production of the musical Damn Yankees, where they were introduced by Hunter’s ex-girlfriend, and Garcia’s then-girlfriend, Diane Huntsburger. The two didn’t immediately hit it off, their friendship took root a couple nights later when they saw each other at a local coffeehouse. Just one year apart in age (Garcia was 18 and Hunter 19 at the time they met), their bond was forged partly through the shared experience of losing a father — Garcia through death, Hunter through divorce.

While Hunter and Garcia played in a few bluegrass bands together, the former passed on an offer to join Garcia’s pre-Grateful Dead jug band to focus instead on writing. At Stanford, Hunter took part in an early LSD experiment (“I had a romping good time,” he recalled) and dabbled in Scientology, but eventually he began to struggle with speed and meth, prompting him to leave the Bay Area for New Mexico. There, Hunter began writing more songs — including future Dead classics “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “Alligator” — which he sent to Garcia, who encouraged him to return to San Francisco and join the Dead as their lyricist.

Back in the Bay Area, Hunter would join the band at rehearsals and write lyrics. During one session, Hunter began writing lyrics to accompany an instrumental the band was working on; the result, “Dark Star,” was both a landmark for the band and also the official start of Hunter’s new role as the lyricist in residence.

Years ago, my pal David Gross (aka Punmaster), turned me onto an inspired version of LOUIE LOUIE by Robert Hunter, live on May 8, 1982 at The Boarding House, San Francisco, CA.

What I really enjoyed about this version is that it was the first concert I’ve ever heard that featured a heckler yelling out “Play LOUIE LOUIE or I’ll kill you!”

…. and I loved how Robert Hunter handled it!

As it turns out, there’s also three other Robert Hunter live versions of LOUIE LOUIE – April 7, 1979 at the Rainbow Tavern, Seattle (WA), May 2, 1979 at Stockton State College, Galloway Township (NJ), and September 1, 1980 at the Cellar Door, Washington, DC.

It’s interesting to note how he incorporated LOUIE into a variety of different medleys. Listening to the Boarding House show, one might think it was a one-time event, done under pressure from the audience. When you listen to the other three versions, it’s obvious he had some real affection for this particular song.

You can learn more about these four versions and other Robert Hunter live recordings by visiting the Robert Hunter Setlists page at GD, which includes set lists and links to download a lot of rare live recordings.

Rest in peace, Robert Hunter.


Reference links:

Rolling Stone -Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead Collaborator and Lyricist, Dead at 78

NY Times – Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead Lyricist, Dies at 78

GD SETS- Robert Hunter Setlists page

Archive-org – Robert Hunter 1982-05-08 Boarding House, San Francisco (CA) page
Full Details on the 1982-05-08 Boarding House, San Francisco recording

Archive-org – Robert Hunter 1979-04-07 Rainbow Tavern, Seattle (WA) page

Archive-org – Robert Hunter 1979-05-02 Stockton State College (NJ) page

Archive-org – Robert Hunter 1980-09-01 Cellar Door, Washington, DC page

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