Bob Weir: Furthur & Beyond (From October 2000)
In honor of Bob Weir’s 70th birthday today, revisit this cover story with the Grateful Dead guitarist from the October 2000 issue of Relix where he dishes on a variety of new projects.
It was a hot, early summer afternoon. RatDog was playing at Asbury Park, New Jersey, the former stomping grounds of Bruce Springsteen. It was a shock to drive up and see the boarded up area that was once a major seaside resort. I suppose that when the music moves on, all that gets left behind are the skeletons…
A warm, friendly greeting from Bob Weir wiped away my surprise at the nearby desolate surroundings. His eyes were filled with light and vigor, and his sincere smile washed away the years. His willingness to talk was reassuring as the summer heat brutally beat down on us as we chatted by the pool.
Where can someone begin when there is a vast history and a million unanswered questions? The music is always the best place to start. Bob Weir has kept true to his musical vision in the years since the Grateful Dead has stopped touring. He was hesitant at first to incorporate material from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire into his solo touring entities-Weir and Wasserman and RatDog-because this was, after all, his solo career. And once Jerry Garcia died, the sorrow he felt at having lost his longtime contemporary also kept him from delving into the Dead’s musical well. Bobby was simply uncomfortable and chose to distance himself from that music for a while. This may have alienated many fans, but Weir feels that he has done things the way he needed to and has not compromised his music for the sake of drawing a crowd.
Selections from the Dead’s archives have gradually found their way into RatDog’s playlist. But there’s the lingering question of whether or not Weir should have pulled this material out just to please his audience. “I have to do what floats my boat,” Weir adamantly remarked. “I have to please myself first. Either that or I’m just an act. I’ll retire before I’m just an act. I’ve got to write. There’s music that I haven’t written. There’s stuff that I haven’t said, and I’m just getting to it. I think that’s probably always going to be the case. That said, there are also a lot of things that I’m not prepared to walk away from, so you’re gonna be getting some of the new stuff and some of the old stuff with me. I don’t even have a choice in the matter. I have to do it this way.”
The first, long anticipated RatDog album, Evening Moods, has just been released on Grateful Dead Records. It’s Bob Weir’s first non-Grateful Dead studio project since the early 1980s. He and the band spent several weeks in Weir’s home studio, Ace’s, and the songs evolved organically. RatDog then went to Coast studio in San Francisco, and in a live, jazz-like manner, recorded the tracks. Musicians on this album are Bob Weir on vocals and guitars, Rob Wasserman on bass, Jay Lane on vocals and drums, Jeff Chimenti on vocals and keyboards, Mark Karan on vocals and guitars, Eric Crystal on saxophone and Matthew Kelly on vocals and harmonica.
The Dead had been performing “Corrina,” the Weir/Hunter composition, for years, but had never released a studio version. (It did appear on last year’s live Furthurmore.) Weir’s approach to the song is distinctively RatDog’s, giving it a different feel than the Dead’s standard performance. Weir discussed the departure. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this song different,'” he explained. “Sometimes we decide to do that, but that wasn’t the case with ‘Corrina’ though it has come out substantially different just because the song has been morphing all along. There was never really an arrangement or a feel that was etched in stone or even in glass for that tune. I guess there is now that it’s recorded. Once it gets out on a record and hits the airwaves, then that’s the definitive arrangement.”
Weir had a hand in writing every song, having worked with several contributors. “2 Djinn,” “Bury Me Standing” and “Even So” were co-written with Gerrit Graham. Weir’s longtime collaborator, John Barlow, contibuted to “Lucky Enough” and “Welcome To The World” with Andre Pessis. Pessis also co-wrote “Ashes & Glass” and “October Queen.” “Odessa,” co-written by Weir, Graham and Russ Ellis, seems to have been a crowd pleaser during the last RatDog tour with its rowdy, up-tempo delivery.
At the time of our meeting, news of Furthur Tour 2000 had just been released. With so many other summer tours under way and local festivals popping up everywhere, there was a bit of concern over whether or not the tour would work coming late in the summer and spilling over into fall. Weir was conservatively optimistic about the Other Ones going out on the road again. “Here’s hoping that people have had summer jobs,” he mused. “I hope we don’t run into the empty pocket syndrome. But there will be people there. It’s gonna be a little tough, I think, because we’re doing it at the end of the summer and into the school year, so we’re not gonna get the vacation crowd. The hard core-they’ll be there. And the music will be good. We just got together with Alfonso [Johnson] for the first time a couple of days ago and that’s gonna go well. I’ve played with Alfonso before. But the rest of the guys didn’t know what they were in store for.”
Bassist Alphonso Johnson had been part of Bob Weir’s Bobby and the Midnites project. Johnson has also been playing in Jazz Is Dead in recent years, so he is particularly well-versed in the Dead musical spectrum.
There is still the underlying need for Deadheads to gather, and the opportunity to see so many former members of the Dead at once is bound to be enticing. Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Vince Welnick and Bill Kreutzmann will be joined by Johnson, Bruce Hornsby, Steve Kimock and Mark Karan.
Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers was announced as this year’s opening band for Furthur Fest. This was not an obvious first choice by most Deadheads, but Weir was generous in his explanation of how it came about. “That selection came our way through John Scher and the folks at Metropolitan,” he said. “I’ve got to say that I like the idea. The more I think about it, the better I like it, too, because it’s not a huge stretch for anybody. Most of the kids like reggae, and that guy’s the real thing. But he’s young, too. He’s young blood in reggae, and he’s good. People are really going to enjoy that.”
There are so many good bands out there that have gotten a fair amount of inspiration from the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir is familiar with many of them, even recognizing that Phish was, at one time, a Dead cover band. It was as if the Grateful Dead pushed the musical envelope in mixing musical styles and expanding on the improvisational level at a time when music was already becoming formulaic. His thoughts on the Dead’s influence on current improvisational, psychedelic, groove rock are very modest. When asked how he likes hearing other bands interpret the Dead’s music, his answer was not surprising. “I’m tickled,” he revealed. “I tend to write the kind of music that I want to hear, so it’s my kind of music. If I can be evangelical about it here for a moment, it’s gratifying to see people doing that. That’s our legacy, and I’m thrilled. Not that they need our go-ahead… As far as I can see, it’s all good. I mean, we didn’t develop this approach to music for no reason at all, or as a conscious ploy or marketing tool; we did it because it’s fun and interesting and leaves the music wide open for development from night to night and also from moment to moment. It’s gratifying to see other people doing that. The more people who play like that, I think, the better. It’s not like this is new. The jazz people have been doing it for years, and it’s an American tradition. We’re just bringing it into popular music a little more than it has been seen for a while.
“There used to be more room for improvisation in popular music back in the ’30s, for instance, when the dance bands were hot,” Weir continued. “That was the ultimate improvisation happening then. Those were jam bands-the Ellington Ensemble, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, all those people. They were jam-bands. So what we’re doing is not without precedent. Still, it’s great to see it come around again ’cause that means I can listen to a lot of bands and really enjoy it. When somebody’s playing something fresh, you can hear it. You can feel it. And there’s nothing else that supplies that punch. No magnificently rendered road performance is gonna amount to something that’s happening right there for the first time. I like to live my life like that, and I like to see other people live their lives like that. I think that’s the way it should be.”
After spending well over 30 years constantly touring, it’s amazing that most of the members of the Dead have kept at the thing they love best-playing live music. Vince Welnick was involved in several projects, including the excellent Missing Man Formation; Mickey Hart has kept busy with a number of percussion-inspired projects coming to fruition in his most accessible project to date-a full band that includes Welnick. Bill Kreutzmann recorded an album with the band, Backbone, in Hawaii where he currently resides, and Phil Lesh has come through a successful liver transplant and taken up touring with a variety of friends.
With the touring history that has made Bob Weir one of the world’s most traveled road warriors, it’s a wonder he hasn’t decided to kick back and take a breather. With his wife and new baby, he spends more time at home than he may have in the past, but he’s not considering it as a way of life. “Maybe I’d take a little time off from touring, but I’m always gonna have a guitar with me,” Weir explained. “I’m always gonna be writing or doing stuff like that. I thought of not hitting the road for a few months to do a little wood shedding. Work up a bunch of new stuff. New scales, new approaches, that kind of thing. And sooner or later, I’m going to want to do a little traveling. I’m gonna go to India for a while, Tibet, some other places. Like I said, I’ll probably always have a guitar strapped to my shoulder. I’ve spent some time on some beaches. I like to travel. I like Asia a lot. It’s just great over there, and part of my heart lives in Asia. Part of it lives here in America.
“This is a story that I’ve told a few times, but it bears telling again,” Weir continued. “A number of years back, I went to see Count Basie. He was playing the Venetian Room, an elegant nightspot in San Francisco. He came on and the band, they swung like angels, particularly the quartet. Three of the four people in the quartet had been together for 50 years or so. And it was just the most wonderful evening I could have imagined. As it turned out, that was his last gig. After that gig, he went home to his place in Florida, put his feet up and checked out. He was old, real old, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to live one’s life than doing what one loves and bringing it to people. I’m not in this business to make a killing and go retire in Maui or play golf for the rest of my days. I do this ’cause I have to. I’ll probably stop having to do it when my heart stops beating.”
The subject of Jerry Garcia is never far from Weir’s thoughts. In discussing how the scene has changed in the past five years, Weir had some first-hand insight and a little perspective that has been flavored by time. “Jerry’s not really gone from me,” he said matter-of-factly. “He’s breathing over my shoulder about 24-7. That’s really simply the case with me. There’s never a time… he was always there when he was alive, too. Very little is different for me. In conversation, I just don’t have to open my mouth anymore. That’s the only real difference.”
Weir’s sister, Wendy, has maintained a continuing dialogue with Jerry for some time, which she began at the urging of Bob. Her book, In The Spirit, contains quite a few of the after-life overviews she has shared with Garcia’s spectral self. Bob Weir believes firmly that “We’re all with him. Everybody’s with everybody always. That’s something I learned a long time ago, so I don’t freak out when people die. That’s a formality.
“As for the scene,” he continued, “I think it’s very much the same; Jerry was a figurehead of the scene reluctantly, and people ascribed to him all kinds of qualities and notions and stuff that weren’t him. A lot of what Jerry amounted to for people was conjecture-group conjecture oftentimes-and that’s still going on; so what’s the change? He’s not here anymore, but he wasn’t there for them anyway. Had people been able to meet him, their notion of him would have been considerably different. So people are taking the notion of the mass…the mass has taken this notion of Jerry where they will. Jerry’s something a little different for everybody. But he was that when he was alive, too. So that hasn’t changed much either. The thing that has happened was that he died, and people were able to focus on that event and make of it what they would. Aside from that, people’s relationships with Jerry are very much the same as they’ve always been. Just like mine-as far as I can see it.”
The Dead has left behind a rare legacy-the Deadhead subculture, which continues to evolve culturally. One aspect that has changed in the past five years is the advent of the Internet and how its sophistication has connected us beyond a word-of-mouth forum, linking the music, linking the gossip, linking the news. The members of the Grateful Dead are fully aware of what such a medium can achieve in getting the band’s recorded material out there. Rumors have been plentiful concerning the direction that is taking. “We’re trying to put together a company that will be able to distribute our music, and while we’re doing that, we might as well put together a company that will distribute music-period,” explained Weir, “and that means for us or other people, as well. Basically, we’re putting together what, in this age, is going to serve the function of a record company, and if that’s the case, then how should this be best done? We had to examine that from the ground up.
“Okay. What does a great company do?” Weir questioned. “One, it gets music to people. How does it do that? Well, it hires a staff to promote; it hires a staff to record; it hires a staff to produce. How can this be streamlined so that music is cheaper? The less considerations that come in-you know, is this marketable? No, that’s not marketable. That’s not good. Whatever. So what we want to do is get less constraints coming between the artist, the music and the people who get the music, the audience. The best way to have a record company is to have it owned and run, or at least owned and operated by the artists, and so that’s what we’re putting together. The technology expands to take care of the aspects of getting it all out there-live music, videos…It’s really pretty dizzying what can be provided in terms of media, musical media, so what we need is to bring together a bunch of musicians and do that. It’s taking a little while to hammer together the form of the company-the paperwork, the vision. We found some really good people to work with, some venture capitalists who can help us with the money that’s gonna be needed to do that-people that have the kind of vision required to be able to work with us. People like us to see that there is gonna be a better way to serve the music.”
The concept is that the musicians will have to participate in getting the promotion done on their projects. “For instance, with the RatDog record, I’ll have to finance its promotion,” Weir divulged. “We’ll be responsible for a lot more of the marketing of our record than most other record companies would make you do. But on the other hand, we’ll do it the way we want to do it. We’ll have excellent advice and excellent people to help us with that. It will be a little bit more work, but we get to streamline the process a lot by doing it this way. Eventually, the music will end up costing less for the consumer and making more money for the artist.”
This brings us to the matter of the Grateful Dead’s treasured vault-the place where all of the band’s live tapes are archived. Dick Latvala was the keeper of the flame for many years until his premature death in August of 1999. Mickey Hart has been quoted as saying, “It would take 20 lifetimes to get the Grateful Dead’s music out there.” Admittedly, no one could ever replace Dick, but Weir is enthusiastic about the person that has taken over at the helm. “There’s a kid who’s working for us named David Lemieux who knows our material,” Weir enthused. “It’s scary is all I can tell you. And he’s not a ‘get-a-lifer’ either. I don’t know where this guy came from…he must have rolled off a cloud. I think they kicked him out of heaven, and he bounced and landed in our vault. You’re gonna be hearing more about him in the days to come. Nobody’s gonna replace Dick, but this kid, David, is gonna take a little bit of the sting out of his passing.”
The word was out that there was a rift in the relationship of former members of the Dead. Mickey Hart made a few public comments about Phil Lesh, which outraged the public and caused such a backlash that Hart was forced to apologize via the Internet. It has always been this magazine’s policy to avoid personal politics of musicians that appear in these pages, but it was too harsh to ignore. Weir answered the question concerning the differences Phil Lesh is having with the rest of the band with diplomacy and tact. “He [Hart] was trying to make light of something,” Weir explained. “Mickey and Phil are having a real difficult time with each other. Phil hasn’t been making it real easy on anybody-I’ll say that. In the end, what it all comes down to is, he’s doing what he wants to do. He’s never done this before. So it’s not surprising that he’s wigging out a little bit, finding out what it’s like to take your own band out. He’s following his bliss, and he’s off doing what he wants to do-and I’m okay with that. Phil’s doing his own thing.”
Weir’s own plans include going out to promote his new record. “We’ll go out and tour just like we always do,” he said. “If the record’s doing well, and I don’t think the record’s gonna do poorly because I think it’s a pretty good record… I’m hoping that, for instance, we’ll be able to use an acoustic piano on stage and maybe even the acoustic bass. RatDog is just gonna continue to morph, I guess. Our personnel is pretty solid and everybody knows each other and knows how to work with each other and how to work each other, and we’re just gonna keep playing and writing.”
With so many years of road time under his belt, it’s easy to speculate that Bob Weir has many memorable road tales. When the question came up, he instantly recalled something that happened during the Dead’s trip to Egypt in 1978. “One moment stands out, and I don’t know why it’s coming to me now, but we were in Egypt,” Weir laughed. “The first night of three we were playing at an amphitheater at the foot of the Sphinx at the foot of the Great Pyramid. They light it up really nice. There was a light show and all that kind of stuff. It was pretty spectacular. We were not that far from the Nile River. But anyway, the sun was going down and we start playing, the lights came on, and I hear a mosquito buzz my ear. One lands on my arm and as we’re playing, I realize it’s dusk and I look around and there’s mosquitoes everywhere. I’m figuring okay, this is gonna be a ‘Welcome to hell.’ I’m not gonna be able to play a note. I’m staring to swat at mosquitoes. And I’m like, ‘How the hell am I gonna go this?’ and just as I’m thinking that, a shape goes by my head real fast. And the full moon’s starting to rise now; it’s gonna be an eclipse pretty soon.
“Back lit, you can see on the bluffs on either side of the theater, there’s these sand dunes, and these bluffs are now ringed with Bedouins on their horses and camels with their rifles over their shoulders-hundreds of them on either side. They had heard that this was going on and came to check it out. Meanwhile, back on the stage, we’ve got a cloud of mosquitoes and as it turns out, that shape that flew by my head, another one flies by and then another. I look around again, and there are these bats about a foot-and-a-half across. Big fellas. Lots of them going after the mosquitoes. So if you back off from this, what you see is the Great Pyramid lit up, golden, magenta, whatever color it was at that moment and the Sphinx also lit up, and the theater surrounded by these Bedouins. And on the stage is the band all lit up surrounded by a cloud of bats! It had to have been one of the most sublime moments that’s ever occurred. I left my body. (Laughter) If I had to freeze a moment in time, this is it. Take me now, Lord. This is how I want to remember it.”
In wrapping up our interview, it occurred to Weir that he was reaching directly to his audience by speaking with Relix. Asked if he had anything to add, his simple, honest response was, “I have more to say, but I do it best with my fingers and a microphone.”