Robert Hunter, the longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, died Monday, Sept. 23 at the age of 78. He died at his home, though no cause of death has been announced.
Hunter's career creating landscapes of language for the iconic California jam band began with the grand journey of the soul "Dark Star" in 1967. His tenure with the Dead continued on through the likes of the elegiac "Days Between," one of the final collaborative masterpieces for Hunter and Dead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia, introduced in 1993 just two years before Garcia's death.
In the nearly 30 years between those landmarks, Hunter created a singular body of work. His rich use of imagery was vivid and evocative without ever being explicit, giving one's mind just enough names and details to fill in the gaps of the story with pieces of our own hearts.
The grandly American saga "Jack Straw" folds time and space in on itself before unfurling it like an open road running from Wichita to Santa Fe. "Uncle John's Band" brings you right down to that gentle riverside. "Friend of the Devil" saddles up your mind for a midnight ride through the desert hills.
Hunter, along with the rest of the Grateful Dead, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
He received the Americana Music Association's lifetime achievement award for songwriting in 2013 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside Garcia in 2015. A performer in his own right, Hunter also recorded his own albums, toured and collaborated with the other artists, most notably Bob Dylan.
But if there is one particular area where Hunter's work moved us most brightly, it was in depictions of the tired and broken.
Frequently deploying imagery associated with vice — in particular gambling, drink and drugs — Hunter's authorial gaze turned, time and again, to folks who were down on their luck.
In the card player of "Loser" looking to complete that inside straight, or old August West of "Wharf Rat" who, Lord willing, will get back on his feet someday, Hunter connected with all of us in our darkest hours.
Hunter's songs were beautiful documents of weathered souls, pieces that in good times remind us of our own perseverance and in bad times show us that we're not alone.
In a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Hunter said his favorite lyric of his was in "Ripple": "Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men."
These are all hymns of the human soul, written with a pen that had a direct line to eternity. And when, as Hunter wrote, it feels like the night will last forever, we can still sing these songs of his own.