“Once in awhile you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look it right” — Robert Hunter
Few artists are as ubiquitous with some rock and roll’s best yet as comparatively unknown as Robert Hunter. The American lyricist has worked with some of the greatest artists of all time, including the unfathomable feat of composing lyrics for Bob Dylan, all within a star-studded but understated career.
We’re looking back at the late, great Hunter’s incredible career by revisiting five of his best songs for The Grateful Dead. While it’s hard to narrow down Hunter’s contribution to music – well over 600 songs – to just five, the below collection is the perfect snapshot of an artist unlike any other.
Most well known for his time as the main lyricist for The Grateful Dead, Hunter was a longstanding member of the group and one of Jerry Garcia’s oldest friends. Together, they worked seamlessly on new tracks, with Hunter providing truly poetic lyrics and Garcia interpreting them with his guitar.
Hunter contributed extensively to The Grateful Dead’s huge catalogue and started with their album Aoxomoxoa back in 1969, working alongside Garcia until his death in 1995. It was a career that will remain untouchable as the decades pass. Hunter’s is a canon rich with honesty and rendered by the sincere artistic purity he put into all of his work.
Below, we’re giving you a crash course in some of Hunter’s finest work.
Robert Hunter’s top 5 Grateful Dead songs:
“Dark star crashes
Pouring its light into ashes
The forces tear loose from the axis.”
While on stage, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were held together by Bill Kreutzman to avoid them floating off into space; Robert Hunter had no such restrictions on paper and was allowed to wander where his imagination mapped. It meant the songwriter could allow his poetic imagery to run wild.
On ‘Dark Star’, arguably the band’s most famous song, Hunter does just that conjuring up imagery of a fallible universe that is only every a good tug away from falling in on itself.
“Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of man.”
Sometimes Hunter’s lyrics seem a little superfluous to the incredible musicianship usually displayed around it. But on ‘Ripple’, Hunter and the band, most notably David Grisman and his mandolin, effortlessly melt into one another. Composed during the Festival Express tour of 1970, the track became the focal point of their latest record American Beauty.
A song about writing a song is the kind of complexity that Hunter not only thrived on but somehow made feel as natural as a song about teenage love.
The lyric above is largely regarded as Hunter’s favourite, telling Rolling Stone in 2015 that it is “pretty much my favourite line I ever wrote,” adding: “And I believe it, you know?”
“See here how everything
Lead up to this day
And it’s just like any other day
That’s ever been.”
Another song that was written on the road, Hunter, capitalised on what was an incredibly fruitful creative period for the band. One note of particular brilliance on the band’s seminal album Workingman’s Dead was the first-person account of a man’s demise entitled ‘Black Peter’.
While death would become a fascination of Hunter’s, the singer is far bleaker and to the point here than on his later efforts. Perhaps the frivolity of youth made death seem a little less scary or poignant.
Somehow, that fact is what shines brightest on this song and allows the imagery contained within to flourish.
“My name is August West
And I love my Pearly Baker best, more than my wine
More than my wine
More than my maker, though he’s no friend of mine.”
Perhaps more than most, this track offers the key to unlocking the wonderful talent of Robert Hunter. Taken from the band’s second live album Skull and Roses, ‘Wharf Rat’ depicts a down and out man only a few steps away from desperation and the black hole of depression it provides.
It allows Hunter to get down and dirty in the realism of everyday life rather than taking his audience to another dimension altogether.
The song is the beginning of the songwriting period in which Hunter and Garcia collaborated on a series of great story songs set in an America peopled by outlaws and other vagrants. A joy.
“While the fire lights aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow
Till things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.”
You know when a Grateful Dead tune is listed as an entire side of the record that you’re in for a mind-expanding treat. The song was composed by Hunter and Garcia in isolated unison, which provoked Hunter to proclaim it “about as close as I ever expected to get to feeling certain that we were doing what we were put here to do.”
On this treat of a song, though it feels a bit pallid to call it such, Hunter and Garcia take us on a truly mystical journey that is certainly best enjoyed with headphones and about half a day to lose yourself in it.