Robert Hunter’s long, strange trip is over: The poet, translator and songwriter best known as a go-to Grateful Dead lyricist died on Monday night of undisclosed causes. He was 78 years old.
“It is with great sadness we confirm our beloved Robert passed away yesterday night,” Hunter’s family said in a statement issued to Rolling Stone. “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.”
“Fare you well, Mr. Hunter. We love you more than words can tell,” wrote Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux in a tribute to Hunter published on the band’s website Tuesday.
Born Robert Burns on June 23, 1941, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Hunter met and befriended Jerry Garcia in Palo Alto in 1961, performing alongside him in numerous bluegrass bands before joining The Grateful Dead as a lyricist in 1967. Hunter sat in with the band at a rehearsal and wrote the first verse of essential Dead track “Dark Star,” and that, as they say, was that. Hunter would go on to become the Bernie Taupin to Garcia’s Elton John, contributing lyrics to nearly all of Garcia’s songs, including Dead classics like “Truckin’” (which was recognized as a national treasure by the United States Library of Congress in 1997), “Box of Rain,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Casey Jones,” “Touch of Grey” and “Uncle John’s Band,” among many others. The band’s official bio for Hunter describes him as the Dead’s “secret Ace in the hole,” adding, “It was Hunter’s work that would elevate their songs from ditties to rich, complete stories set to song.” Just weeks before his death, Garcia, not normally one for compliments, told Hunter, “Your words never stuck in my throat.”
Hunter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside The Grateful Dead in 1994, making him the only non-performing member of the band to earn that honor, and he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. He went on to record and release a handful of solo albums, also collaborating with Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Bruce Hornsby, Jim Lauderdale, Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and Dead alumnus Mickey Hart. Hunter’s work beyond songwriting included some half-dozen books of his own poetry, as well as translations of two collections of Rainer Maria Rilke’s work, and he had begun work on a novel, according to his bio.
Hunter is survived by his wife of 37 years, Maureen.
Watch The Dead bring Hunter’s lyrics to life circa 1991 below.