Weir Without Agendas
Bob Weir needs no introduction.
I left it at that, and Dean, our glorious editor, tactfully said "why don't you give it another try?"
I still don't know how to introduce Bob Weir, and to sum up the Grateful Dead, who created this type of music, and created the magazine whose website I write for, is impossible. So I'll say this: Bob Weir, his bandmates, Robert Hunter, John Perry Barlow, along with Bob Dylan and a few others wrote the soundtrack to my adolescence. I grew up with a more open mind, and I grew up more comforted, because I had the music of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia died when I was twelve years old, and I'm one of the first members of the generation that knows the Grateful Dead only through audio. Plato once said that "when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." In the city of San Francisco, in the culture which Bobby and his band defined (with the help of a few Pranksters), and in the walls we all build in our own minds, there was a whole 'lotta shakin' goin' on.
Even without the concert experience, it is still some of the most powerful, moving, and joyful music I have ever heard.
I spoke with Bobby briefly in Atlanta before the interview proper took place after the tour, and he said, "I don't care what you ask me. I'm not pushing any agenda, but I really like questions I've never been asked before." So I tried to ask him questions he'd never been asked, and, when asking one that's probably in every interview, I tried to phrase it differently than anyone else would.
Thanks to Ann C, Dean Budnick, Mike Greenhaus, Randy Ray, Annie Bond, and everyone on phantasytour.com. I really appreciate your help in coming up with questions.
Taylor Hill: Tell me about your parents. Were they permissive, strict?
Bobby Weir: In the middle, I’d have to say. They sent me to private schools and stuff like that. I wouldn’t call them permissive and I wouldn’t call them real strict. Probably a little more on the strict side. They read Dr. Spock for instance. Dr. Spock in that day was sort of an authority on raising kids. And he was kind of on the permissive side, that was what he kind of preached. He loosened them a little bit.
TH: Were they Grateful Dead fans?
BW: Well, not at first. They wanted me to stay in school. I grew up in the shadow of Hoover Tower at Stanford University, and that was more or less what they had in mind for me, but, you know, the music was giving me the come hither and that’s where I went. And they weren’t all that thrilled with it at first, but when I started bringing home gold records they started to see the sense in it.
TH: So it’s New Years Eve, 1963. You’re sixteen, Kennedy was shot five weeks ago, and you’re walking by Dana Morgan’s music store in Palo Alto and hear a banjo playing. What happens then?
BW: I was with a couple friends I think. We knew who it was, we knew it was Jerry. We just dropped in to hang. We’d all sat plenty of times in his bluegrass ensemble, I think it was Black Mountain Boys that outfit. We just dropped by and he was there practicing his banjo, and we asked “Can we listen?” or whatever and he said “Sure.” And then it came out that he was waiting for his students, apart from the fact that it was 7:30 on New Year’s Eve.I said, “I don’t think you’re gonna see many of your students tonight.” And he said, “you’re right.”He suggested that we break into the front of the store cause he had the keys, and break out some instruments and jam a little bit. We did, and it was fun. We started doing jugband stuff. I had picked up a lot, was sort of into that kind of stuff. We started playing that, and we had enough fun that we figured, “Let’s get together.” I think it was on a Tuesday night, and a couple rehearsals, and let’s get a band, and get some bookings, and make some dough. We did. Jerry brought in Pigpen and Billy Kreutzmann and the son of the guy who owned the music store that we were working at was willing to supply us with electric instruments if we let him play bass. So, that’s how it got started. But he couldn’t keep up with us and we had to this is after the jugband.
We worked for about a year and became real popular in the San Francisco area. Jerry went away that summer for a few weeks. He wanted to do a little tour of bluegrass festivals back east. So, I took over his beginning and intermediate students. I played a little banjo back then, kind of like my French is gone now. By the time he got back from his bluegrass pilgrimage, the Beatles were big and the electric instruments the Beatles and the Rolling Stones the electric instruments in front of the store were starting to look attractive to us. So we added Billy, who Jerry had done some basic rock n’ roll frat parties with, and the jug band turned into the Warlocks.
It was just in the air. All the folkies were starting to there was a wide range of stuff you could do on the electric instrument and they were popular. Our jug band was pretty popular, but we knew we’d be able to make more money and have a lot of fun with the electric instruments. And if we wanted to, we could always play the acoustic instruments for fun. Which we pretty much did all along, just for our own amusement. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty have a lot of acoustic instruments. Not so much after that, but when we were out on the road somewhere we’d pack acoustic instruments and play them for fun.
TH: Regarding Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, what led y’all to start sending psychedelia back down traditional roads?
BW: Well, we started playing psychedelia when we started taking acid and playing the acid tests. After a while, we gained enough facility on our electric instruments so that we could. We started mixing the songs, and we also got better at writing them. We started writing more songs that tended to be a little traditionally-oriented. I haven’t thought about that, but we just started playing traditional songs.
The [acid tests] were all a lot of fun. A couple that stand out were the Fillmore acid tests before Bill Graham locked up the Fillmore.
TH: Did you ever meet Igor Stravinsky?
BW: Sure would have loved to but no. I have listened to a lot of Stravinsky. In fact, of the classical composers, he and Bela Bartok have most influenced my playing. I just love what they’re up to.
TH: A lot of people were shocked to find out about all the conservative Deadheads. What about the Grateful Dead do you think appeals to them?
BW: It’s Americana, and conservatives are drawn to Americana. It’s pan-partisan Americana. What we did was real, there was real interaction going on onstage and a sense of adventure about it. A certain kind of person requires a little adventure in their lives and likes adventure in their music. In the old days, it would end up being a jazz fest. But that improvisational, experimental music, at least with us, came out in a rock n’ roll form people could dance to. And everyone found that attractive.
TH: What’s your favorite bumper sticker? What’s your favorite button?
BW: I always liked what we called the lightning chap, what most people called “Steal Your Face.” That pretty much said it all.
TH: Did the Laurel Canyon artists like David Crosby have any influence on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty?
BW: Well we were hanging with those guys. They moved up to Northern California for a while. They’d come up to our river studios and hang out. Mickey had a little ranch and in the barn he had a recording studio. We kicked a lot of stuff around, and their style of harmony sort of rubbed off on us. We learned how to do it.
TH: When did the big touring machine start to get scary?
BW: A couple of times. We had that huge experimental P.A. (the Wall of Sound), that was a monster with a thousand screaming eyes. We had a huge crew that was required to sit it up. We’d go to a hockey rink for instance, and fill it out, but we couldn’t make enough on tour to support that beast. It sounded great, but it took two days to set up, so we had to rent the hockey hall or basketball arena. That was really extensive, and real difficult to maintain.
TH: Did you realize that your business model was a genius business model, or were y’all just thinking “These are our values. Let’s share the music”?
BW: Well, it was working for us. We were sort of backed into that position early. We didn’t see that hurting our record sales, because our record sales were expanding all the while. At the same time, we didn’t want to be cops. We didn’t want to have to be telling folks “No, you can’t.” We didn’t want to be busting people out in the audience saying “This is not legal, you know.” We had enough of a job just playing the music. So it was a conscious decision of ours to do it, but we weren’t doing it for promotional purposes, it was just the easiest thing to do, to let them tape.
TH: Are you saying the Grateful Dead weren’t ideal law enforcement officers?
BW: (Laughs.) We didn’t want to have to carry around folks whose job it was to go out and basically bust the kids in the audience, take their tape recorders and then give them back on their way out the door. It wasn’t what we were up to.
TH: You spent an entire weekend at Bonnaroo 2005. What do you like about Bonnaroo? Does it remind you of earlier times?
BW: Bonnaroo’s a fun festival. They’ve got quite an array of different kinds of music. They’re pretty good about putting that together, and they’ve been pretty good about putting that together. It was fun going around and catching I almost never get the chance to go hear live music maybe in a couple of years. Bonnaroo is a great chance for me to get out and about and hear a lot of stuff that I’ve been curious about.
TH: How do you keep songs fresh after almost forty years, other than never playing them the same way twice?
BW: At this point we have a repertoire that’s been growing for a number of years, and so really, it’s unlikely that on a given tour we’ll play a given song more than two or three times, unless it’s a new song and really want to work on it. That’s the way we keep it fresh just having a big repertoire and so when I give a shot, it’s going to be my last crack at it for a while and I put whatever I have into it.
TH: Do you have a favorite Grateful Dead song? Do you think any Grateful Dead songs really suck?
BW: Both. A couple of the songs that I’ve written, the lyrics don’t get me that much, don’t work for me now, where they might have back in the 70’s. So I just dropped those songs from the repertoire. “Lazy Lightning” for instance. The lyrics, I just can’t get with. That’s one where I’m either going to have to rewrite the lyrics so I can sing them or just let that one live.
Favorites? They’re all favorites. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite out of that because I love them all. We get out there and we make it work.
TH: I’m sure you and Phil love each other and are family, but you haven’t played onstage with him in over two years. What is the block that keeps the two of you from being able to play onstage with each other?
BW: We all have our I just played with Billy and Mickey’s band, but we all have our current hot hands. I’ve been coming on 12 years with RatDog, and Phil’s been working on his book. RatDog, for instance, plays much quieter onstage than the Dead does. I like that dynamic it’s much easier to sing that way and I’ve got a real good working rapport with the guys in the band.