An interview with Bob Weir

Today is Bob Weir’s 68th birthday. Happy birthday Bob.

This interview appears in my Ebook, Reckoning: Conversations With the Grateful Dead, along with similarly extensive interview with Phil, Phil and Trey, Robert Hunter, Bill Kreutzmann, Warren Haynes, Mark Karan and Steve Kimock. It costs less than a latte. Check it out!

A couple of notes: I spent a lot of time with Bobby down in Philly on this afternoon and really enjoyed talking with him. He was gracious, relaxed and easy to be with. We did most of the interview in his hotel room, but also hung out quite a bit at the show.

Just before this – I think even the night before — we also hung out at the Jammies for a good while. They were at Roseland that year, and I actually presented an award. Wish I could remember what it was or to whom. Anyhow, we chilled in his dressing room then. And then I also hung out with him in an NYC hotel room as he did a guitar lesson with Andy Aledort that ran with this piece and it was really fascinating to watch/listen to him demonstrate many of his songs and the proper way to play them.

For as long as the Grateful Dead has existed, people have loved to rag on Bobby for a lot of different reasons – some of which are easy to understand, others of which I think are really unfair. But he is a very interesting and different guitar player; he composed a lot of their most intricate and interesting songs, such as “The Other One,” as well as their catchiest tune – “Sugar Magnolia”; and he is a very good hang. Ultimately, only thing matters: he’s the guitarist Jerry wanted playing by his side all those years.

One other editorial note: when you see Bobby discussing Napster and downloading below, this interview was conducted when that was a very hot issue and Metallica was a taking a lot of fire for battling downloading and file sharing.

Kirk West Foto

Top Dog
Former Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir returns to the land of the living with Ratdog, his ever-evolving “rock and roll Dixieland” band.
by Alan Paul

Outside Philadelphia’s Electric Factory the wind is whipping on a cold winter night. Shivering ticket scalpers circulate through a parking lot slowly filling with musical pilgrims arriving to see Ratdog, the band led by Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir.

Inside the nearly empty theater, the mood is sedate as soundcheck gets underway. Lead guitarist Mark Karan is showing off his beautiful assortment of instruments, including a vintage Gretsch and Les Paul and gleaming new PRS and Modulus guitars. Drummer Jay Lane is giving his young daughters lessons, with one girl banging the snare drum while another taps the high hat. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti is eating a slice of pizza and chatting with the techs.

Without uttering so much as a single word, Weir plugs in his custom Modulus guitar, turns up the volume and starts playing a slinky triad riff. Longtime Weir collaborator Rob Wasserman settles down behind his upright electric bass and joins in. Within moments, the guests peel away, the musicians turn serious and the band falls into place, quickly moving into “Bury Me Standing,” the lead track of the group’s debut album, Evening Moods (Grateful Dead Records). And just like that, they’re off, tearing through a half-hour tune-up for the coming gig. In a few hours, they’ll bring down the house full of aging Deadheads and young jam lovers with their interlocking, ebb and flow improvisations, playing a mix of new material and beloved Grateful Dead standbys.

Those are the moments for which Weir lives, the reason why he’s out here humping it night after night, promoting his new album and whipping his band into shape. He has a beautiful wife and gorgeous two-year-old daughter 3,000 miles away in California and he could be with them, spending his days relaxing in the sun, riding his beloved mountain bike or hiking the wooded trails of Marin County, north of San Francisco. Such are the perks of 30 years spent in the Grateful Dead, a group he helped form when he was just 17 years old.

But Weir is far from ready to give up the ghost. He sees himself as a guitarist. And a guitarist plays guitar, so here he is on a cold East Coast night, pushing ahead with the group that has received most of his passion and effort since the Dead’s 1995 disbanding following Jerry Garcia’s death.

“We are coming into our own,” says Weir. “We’re not there yet, but we are learning how to read each other’s moods and impulses, which is what makes a good band. You need to get to the point where you hear footsteps coming up behind you and know with certainty that someone else is about to pick up the ball and finish your phrase. That’s what the Grateful Dead had and I feel it coming in this group.”

Evening Moods is an important album for Weir, the first of his six efforts outside the Dead that really captures his essence. In doing so, it clearly illustrates what he brought his old band. Weir hardly ever played solos, content to spur on Garcia’s crystalline flights of fancy. But he is an extremely interesting and inventive player, rarely playing the consistent, revolving patterns that are the bedrock of most rock rhythm styles. Instead he relies on counterpoint, riffs and non-circular chord progressions. He was also an important songwriter for the Dead, contributing much of the band’s oddest, most ambitious tunes, like “The Other One,” “Weather Report Suite” and “Estimated Prophet,” as well as “Jack Straw” and “Sugar Magnolia.”

All of these tunes can be heard in different versions on the never-ending stream of Grateful Dead live albums, released on both Grateful Dead Records (mail order only, online at www.dead.net) and Arista. There are also plans to digitize the band’s extensive tape archives to make them available for online downloads, a process said to be causing rifts with bassist Phil Lesh. And, of course, there’s the ongoing story of Ratdog. Certainly, there is much to discuss with Weir and he’s game to talk about it all, reclining comfortably on a hotel suite couch, barefoot and clad in jeans and polo shirt, hours before the Ratdog gig in Philadelphia.

Your guitar style is extremely original. Who were your primary influences?

Initially country and acoustic blues players, but my dirty little secret is that I learned by trying to imitate a piano, specifically the work of McCoy Tyner in the John Coltrane Quartet. That caught my ear and lit my flame when I was 17. I just loved what he did underneath Coltrane, so I sat with it for a long time and really tried to absorb it. Of course, Jerry was very influenced by horn players, including Coltrane, but I never really explicitly thought about that relationship, because I didn’t really ever decide to pattern myself after McCoy Tyner’s piano. It just grabbed me.

I’ve never had much of an idea of what I’m up to and I’m not sure that I do even now, but I have always been there to serve the music and believed that if you sincerely do so then your appropriate role will present itself. Then it’s just a matter of finding the perfect place to play that role and I’m very fortunate that this happened to me at a very young age.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

One of the hallmarks of your style is that unlike conventional rock and roll rhythm playing, you do not play repetitive patterns.

I think that is partly a result of my dedication to rhythm playing and not really trying to be a soloist. Because I’m concentrating on just that figure, I can put a little more energy into it and develop it more brightly. Another big reason for me not being repetitive is the influence of Jerry and, even more so, Phil, who never repeats anything. If no one else is repeating anything, I’ll be damned if I’m going to play the same thing over and over. Besides, it’s not what the music ever wanted. It wants to keep developing and growing and moving, and I really am in service to the music.

Rather than straight chords, you play a lot of figures, riffs and fills that often verge on lead guitar. I’m thinking, for instance, of your work on “China Cat Sunflower.”

Right. I always played a lot of counterpoint in support of Jerry’s guitar or vocal melody. But it’s funny that you mentioned “China Cat Sunflower” because that’s just about the only song where Jerry ever taught me a riff and told me it’s what he wanted to hear. That little arpeggiated lick was his. I do something similar on “Scarlet Begonias,” which I came up with. But the concept of the band was always group improvisation, not merely playing behind Jerry’s solos. The Grateful Dead’s m.o. was to play together in a seamless mesh. We coined the term “rock and roll Dixieland,” a phrase we also often use in Ratdog, and that explains a lot because in Dixieland jazz, every instrument plays a crucial role in support of one another. Jerry was quite a lead guitarist but he also often chugged away in support of what someone else was doing. But people focused so much on his leads they often missed that, and frankly he was so far up in the mix that fans often thought his support lines and rhythm parts were lead lines.

A lot of your songs have featured unusual timing and odd chord changes. Do those things come naturally to you, or did you say, “I want to use unconventional structures?”

It goes back to the late Sixties when the Beatles studied with the Maharishi and suddenly there was an explosion of Northern Indian classical music in American popular culture. To even begin to appreciate people like Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar you have to be able to count in their time signatures, where they will take, say, 13 and put it against 18. They call them the “talls” and it’s nothing I ever expect to master because it is very deep. But even attempting to understand it got me started.

I got this little box called a Trinome, which had three levers, a ding and two clicks. You set a quarter-note pulse, then one through 12 for the ding and within that bar there’s another pulse, so you could get things like three going against four. Working with that, I developed a fascination with seven, because it gave me the best of both three and four. For instance, you can play something in 28 where you play several bars in three then make it up by playing a four here and there. It’s odd at first, but once you learn to breathe in seven, it becomes really interesting because it rocks the rhythm by skewing it one direction then very suddenly skewing it the other. And you can play slightly ahead of the beat and get a whole different feel. It’s a lot of fun to play with.

You can hear a lot of similar ideas in Ratdog’s music. It seems that the reason this band is so successful is you’ve embraced the role you always played in the Dead. Some of your earlier side bands took a left turn, consciously going in a very different direction. Is that because this is now your primary artistic outlet?

There is probably something to that because I’m definitely marshaling my resources for this effort. I’ve taken it slower and easier. In some of my previous groups, I was thinking, I have six months so I have to make something happen, and I often tried to force stuff. With Ratdog I am just letting the band and the music know where to go. And it took a while to find the right lineup. We went through several different incarnations until we settled on the right guys. Another reason the record worked is we started recording it, then went on the road where the songs grew up a bunch. So we ditched what we had and started over, working fast and live. It was mostly cut like a jazz record, so you can hear the conversations going back and forth between all of us. That approach even led us to do songs we hadn’t planned on doing, like “Corrina.”

I had no interest in redoing an old Dead song, but at the end of “Two Djinn” the segue just happened. Everyone just started playing “Corrina,” because the connection was so strong. I actually tried to dig in my heels and stop, but everyone ignored me. The segue you hear on record is what actually happened, minus a few bars snipped out as I changed guitars, putting on my Roland guitar synth.

You were the lone guitarist for Ratdog’s first several years. Did that change your approach at all?

Not radically, but it would sometimes become clear that a certain passage needed a featured guitar part, so I had to step away from putting my shoulder to the wheel and do something. I started poking my head out here and there and, much to my surprise, I found that I rather like leading the charge. I do more of that now, though I doubt that in this middle part of my life I am suddenly going to develop into an extended soloist à la Django Reinhardt or Jerry Garcia. Those guys are good at stating a theme, developing it, taking it for a walk in the woods and coming back home. I generally like to stay home. I am really rediscovering the joy of group improvisation and I want to camp out here for a while.

Along those lines, there’s not too much soloing on this record.

No. There is no dominant soloist because the music we’re playing is telling us that we need group improvisation and a weave. One of us will start to play something and someone else will pick it up and finish the idea. It’s the type of thing that only comes from playing together a lot.

The word on the street is that the entire vault of Grateful Dead music is being digitized to be made available for download. What is the status of this project?

We’re still trying to round up financing for it because it’s going to be an expensive process. There’s no infernal rush. We do have to get to those tapes before they deteriorate but the means of distributing the music over the internet is not yet hi-fi enough to any of our satisfactions. In the meantime, we can and will get started as soon as we get some financing. It will take a while, so we’ll probably do an internet survey of the most popular shows and do those first. The first way we are going to make it available is not going to be via download, but rather made-to-order CDs. You go the web site, click on a show, listen to some of it, and shop until you know what you want and then we’ll burn you a disc. Or if you want every “Dark Star” from ’72-’76 or a disc of all the stuff we did while someone was changing a broken string, we can do that, too.

There are a lot of rumors that this process has caused dissension between Phil Lesh and the rest of you.

No, this is not what has caused the dissension, believe me. My read of the situation, basically, is Phil wants to be the captain of his own ship. If you’re on board with him, that’s great. But don’t argue with him because he won’t have it. That’s all there is to it, really. I guess since having a brush with death [Lesh had a liver transplant in 1998—GW Ed.], he’s come to the realization that he wants to do things his own way with absolutely no compromise and that’s his right.

Over the years most Grateful Dead songs were written as collaborations either between Jerry and Robert Hunter or you and Hunter or John Barlow. A lot of people assumed that you or Jerry wrote the music and the others wrote the lyrics. Now that you clearly co-write all your lyrics, I wonder if that assumption was wrong.

Yes and no. It was exactly that way with Jerry and Hunter and that’s one of the reasons that Hunter didn’t particularly like to work with me. I throw away a lot of stuff and do it myself. On the Barlow songs, I wrote anywhere from a third to a half of the lyrics. There are a few of the songs he wrote entirely himself, most notably “Cassidy,” but most of them were full-fledged lyrical collaborations.

You were always seen as sort of the Dead’s blues guys since you sang most of them. Now you have direct Robert Johnson references on “Bury Me Standing,” the first track on Evening Moods.

Right, Gerrit [Graham, co-writer] and I set out to do that very explicitly. A long time ago I got the notion to bounce flamenco and blues off of each other and see what resulted and I finally did it, with that ham-handed flamenco riff. [laughs] I’m certainly no flamenco guitarist, but I feel that the two idioms are so close they are like brothers, both born and raised in barrooms and whorehouses, driven by six-string guitars largely tuned to “standard” tuning and evocative of evil, smoky imagery.

“Ashes and Glass” seems like a sequel to the great Dead tune “Throwing Stones,” tackling the topic of nuclear apocalypse and lightening it with a child’s rhyme, this time “Mockingbird” instead of “Ring Around the Rosie.”

Yes, I returned to that dire frame of mind. In fact, it was getting more and more dire, so much so that I was about to abandon the song. Then I was bouncing my six-month-old on my knee, singing her “Mockingbird.” She was loving it, so I started making stuff up, just anything that rhymed so as to keep going. And it came to me that was what the song was about, juxtaposing all this dire imagery with the only way you can respond—do what you can and keep going. So you have the pessimism of the verses contrasted with the optimism of the choruses.

You have talked before about the ecstasy of realizing that you are nearing a musical peak. Is that more of a rush than actually hitting the peak?

The exciting part is the anticipation, but the payoff is when you actually become electric in the classical sense. You are no longer flesh and bones. I actually believe that you physically transcend for a while, and if someone fired a bullet at you, it would pass through, because there is nothing there. You are still visible and you are still causing physical things to happen—you’re singing into a microphone, tubes are humming—but you’re not there. You don’t weigh anything. Those are the minutes that I live for. Fortunately, we are hitting those moments more often in Ratdog.

Your mentioning of metaphysical electricity reminds me of a story I’ve heard that you were almost killed at Woodstock by physical, voltage-type electricity.

A very different sort of electricity! [laughs] Yes, that’s true. Our soundman decided that the sound system was woefully inadequate and he was going to set up our P.A. He got the ground plane wrong—real wrong—so anytime Garcia, Phil or I touched our strings, we got 30 or 35 volts, enough to really irritate you. And all hell broke loose if you had the temerity to go anywhere near your microphone while touching your strings. I did so and a blue line about an inch and a half thick flew out, hit me in the mouth, lifted me off my feet and sent me eight or ten feet through the air, crashing into my amplifier. I had a few fuzzy moments and when the birdies went away, I had a fat lip.

If this had been in England, with their higher voltage, I would have been history. As a result of that whole fiasco, the Grateful Dead have been written out of the history of Woodstock. We played so poorly that we wouldn’t allow the footage to be used in the movie or soundtrack album. You try playing with a constant 35-volt shock every time you touch a string.

You took lessons from the great blues fingerpicker Rev. Gary Davis. How did you come to meet him?

Jorma [Kaukonen, Jefferson Airplane guitarist] was a big fan of his and he helped me look him up in Queens. I made my way out there whenever I was in New York. I only got three or four sessions with him before he passed from this mortal coil [in 1972]. He was my main guitar influence, really, and if you listen to his stuff you’ll see that he took it all from piano, too—all of his parts are stride piano playing adapted to guitar. It’s amazing stuff. He had a Bachian sense of music, which transcended any common notion of a bluesman.

You also co-wrote “Eternity” with one of the blues’ greatest writers, Willie Dixon.

That’s right. I went to see him when he played a club near my house and he called me up to jam and, of course I had a great time. Then Rob [Wasserman] suggested we work on a song for his Trios record. We got together in a studio in West Hollywood and kicked some ideas around and agreed to regroup the next day in my hotel room. I had the song’s signature descending riff, which I wrote based on him telling me, “Don’t be going to any of them jazz chords.” He wanted to step slightly out of his bag, which is why he wanted to work with me, but he didn’t want to step too far, so I came up with this Louis Jordan jump-blues style pattern. He slowed it down and we started developing it, and he came up with a chorus and got me singing it with him singing the harmony part. Then we went to separate corners to hammer out our parts and he was jotting down words really fast.

He handed me this piece of paper, filled with simplistic, almost child-like writing and I was really disappointed. He said, “Sing it out loud,” so I started and after two verses and choruses of thinking it rather lame, the eloquent simplicity of the words hit me and my jaw just dropped. I think he read everything I was thinking because he just started laughing and said, “That’s the wisdom of the blues.” That was a big moment for this boy because as far as I’m concerned Willie Dixon was a living fucking saint. I thought that before I met him, and I had every single suspicion confirmed from knowing him for a few years.

Your best known song, “Sugar Magnolia,” is atypical of most of your work.

That was my take on Southern Rock, and an attempt to do a rock and roll version of a Cajun fiddle tune. We did the Trans Canada Festival Express tour with Delaney and Bonnie and I spent a lot of time hanging out with them and the boys in their band. I loved the way Delaney played rhythm guitar, marked by sliding into A chords. I picked that up and used it in “Sugar Magnolia” as well as in “Monkey See, Monkey Do” and a few other tunes.

At the same time there was an outbreak of Cajun fiddle music, with guys like Doug Kershaw becoming popular. So I tried to throw an overlay of that onto Southern Rock and see what shook out, and the result was “Sugar Magnolia.” The chorus uses a trick straight out of Cajun fiddle tunes, where you go to the four chord, then walk to the four chord of that and back.

And it fit right in with what Garcia and Hunter were writing on American Beauty. Was the outbreak of Americana on that album and Workingman’s Dead a result of the influence of people like Delaney and Bonnie and the Allman Brothers Band?

To a certain extent. We were certainly well aware of those people and we were influenced by anything that came our way. Anything that came within pissing distance of us would be sucked up and incorporated into our music. We sort of forgot our roots during our psychedelic era, but as soon as we stopped taking psychedelics with any absurd regularity and put our feet back on the ground, our love of American music took back over. We osmosed it right up through our systems and it came out our pores and into those songs.

And acoustic roots music was your initial link to Jerry, right?

Absolutely. We formed a jug band [Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions] about a week after we met. That happened on New Year’s Eve, 1964. I was walking through an alley behind the [Palo Alto] music store where I gave guitar lessons with two friends and we heard some banjo music and knew damn well it was Jerry. We went in and he was sitting there waiting for his students. I said, “Man, this is New Year’s Eve, I don’t think you’ll be seeing anyone.” He wasn’t quite ready to give up the ghost, so he said, “Do you guys play? I have the key to the instrument room.” He got some guitars and we ended up playing well into the evening and had enough fun to think about doing something together. The next week we had a jug band and the next year we had a rock and roll band. The rest is pretty well documented.

 So you knew Jerry before that night?

More like I was aware of him. He was a local hero, playing banjo with the Black Mountain Boys, a really hot bluegrass band. For some reason, our jug band took off and became real successful with much less accomplished musicianship. There was some juice behind it that there’s no explaining. I was 16 and had only been playing guitar for a few years, but I knew I was onto something here. Jug bands were big at the time and one thing that really gave us a leg up was that just after we formed, I was at a friend’s house and discovered his folks’ collection of old Bluebird “race record” 78s and it was a treasure trove of obscure down-home blues. There were no reissues then so no one had heard this stuff and that gave us a lot of material which none of the other guys were doing. Then we also discovered Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller and that gave us the rest of what we needed to be a viable contemporary jug band. Someone came up with a live tape and we just put that out [Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, on Grateful Dead Records], but unfortunately it doesn’t contain many of the songs I’m talking about.

Despite your obvious belief in the potential of online music distribution, you have been an outspoken foe of Napster.

Of course. It’s like Marxism except they forget the “from each” part. It’s not a complete system because it consists of people taking and not giving, and it is therefore doomed to failure. It can really bust stuff up. It can really fuck up American popular musical culture. I argue this point with advocates all the time. I say, “How are musicians going to make a living and let their craft be their livelihood?” They always get squinty eyed and go, “But don’t you see, don’t you see?” They have nothing else to say—and I don’t see, though I wish I did. People pick on Metallica by talking about how rich they are, but it’s not about them or me. I’m a guy who can afford to give it away, but I’m talking about the guys in my band, who need to make a living. I’m talking about me when I was 18 years old living on the street. We couldn’t afford to go on the road. The Grateful Dead had to make a record and get an advance in order to get out there and make our way.

On a more personal level, I have to say that we just made a damn good record and Napster is killing us because we’re square in the middle of that demographic. If we can’t at least make back the money we put into that, we’re going to have to think twice about making a record again. And if I’m in that position, believe me, others are, too.

But the entire history of the Dead, as well as bands from Phish to the Allman Brothers who copied your “allow taping” model of business indicates that the more that is available for free, the more people will be into the band and support you. You’ll sell more tickets. More people will buy the actual releases…

But there’s a huge difference between a third- or fourth-generation cassette tape and a digitally reproduced downloadable version of what is essentially the master recording. Then you don’t have to buy the record unless you want the cover and you can probably get that online, too. It can be really injurious to American musical culture. And it’s not like these guys are Robin Hood. Give me a fucking break. They’re making money hand over fist. Napster is worth millions. Of course, I can’t defend the music industry either. You hear stories of mid-level executives having catered lunches or chefs coming in and preparing them gourmet meals, and someone’s paying for this behavior, too. And the whole business of not being able to get something on the radio if it’s not four minutes long is not good. It’s bad. Real bad. And that’s our music industry as it stands. It’s got to come to somewhere in the middle. I think the net is going to have a huge and hopefully positive effect on music, but the absurd left and the absurd right have to disappear for a meeting in the middle if music is going to survive. Maybe it will even open some people’s minds so they throw off the labels the industry has tried to apply to them—“you’re a metalhead, you like jam bands and you only listen to jazz.” The net could take us back to the late Sixties when you could hear the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Igor Stravinsky back to back on the same radio station.In any case, we need the utopian idealists and there always will be people who are only in it for the money. That’s the lexicon of humanity and that’s music. It will sort itself out, but as my friend Bobby Cochran said, “People are going to have to honor what they love.” If you love music enough, support it.


This interview appears in my Ebook, Reckoning: Conversations With the Grateful Dead, along with similarly extensive interview with Phil, Phil and Trey, Robert Hunter, Bill Kreutzmann, Warren Haynes, Mark Karan and Steve Kimock. It costs less than a latte. Check it out!

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