Throughout their 30 year career together, nobody epitomised the alternative nature of the Grateful Dead lineup like Robert Hunter. One of Jerry Garcia’s childhood friends in Palo Alto, California, Hunter took the same beat-inspired path that Garcia did. Even when the two were separated in their early 20s, Garcia and Hunter still gravitated toward each other. Eventually, Hunter would become the Dead’s in-house lyricist. Although he almost never appeared on stage with the group, Hunter was as much a member of the Grateful Dead as any of the musicians in the band.
After moving to New Mexico to get away from his drug addictions and failing to write a novel that he had envisioned, Hunter went more abstract and began composing verses, unsure of whether they would be poems or songs. The psychedelic imagery that he was tapping into was largely influenced by his experiences with LSD as a part of the MKULTRA programme at Stanford University. These visions inspired him to craft three different works, and when he was done with them, Hunter decided that perhaps his old friend and his new band could use them.
The first of those songs was ‘China Cat Sunflower’, the wildly imaginative piece that would land on the band’s third album Aoxomoxoa. Featuring references to “silver kimonos” and “golden string fiddles”, ‘China Cat Sunflower’ needed something to keep it tethered to earth. Garcia found the perfect counterpoint in the song’s central guitar riff, which gave it a funky rock and roll feeling. Garcia recognised the ease at which he could translate Hunter’s words into music, and decided to parse through his friend’s letters to find more verses.
In the process, Garcia stumbled onto ‘St. Stephen’, another ambitiously exotic poem with religious allegories and a distinct “Lady Fingers” section that inspired Garcia to expand his composition to allow for each section to sound distinctly different. With a little bit of compositional help from Phil Lesh, ‘St. Stephen’ quickly became a staple of the Dead’s early sets, also appearing on Aoxamoxoa before being dropped from the band’s live show as they entered the 1970s.
Finally, an early submission from Hunter entitled ‘Alligator’ fascinated the band. This was the only piece that Garcia had no part in bringing to life. Instead, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan took a liking to the mix of nature and psychedelia. This was a bit strange, considering how Pigpen was averse to psychedelic drugs and generally gravitated towards the bluesier and funkier side of the band’s music. But once again with an assist from Lesh, ‘Alligator’ was brought to life and became an early trademark track for Pigpen.
By the end of the 1960s, Hunter had officially joined the Dead family and was providing lyrics to almost all of the band’s material. He and Garcia co-authored every track on Aoxomoxoa, and would continue to work together for the rest of the band’s long and strange trip. However, notable instances of changing his words led Hunter to no longer work with Bob Weir. Instead, Hunter asked Weir’s friend John Perry Barlow to take over as his lyricist, giving the band two in-house lyric writers.