He was “the kid” in the Grateful Dead.
I guess, in a manner of speaking, he always will be. Although he’ll be 62 years old when you see him playing live this summer, the Count Basie story he relates to me in this interview tells you all you really need to know about Bob Weir’s commitment to music, to performing and to life itself. (And considering his ongoing “connection” to Jerry Garcia, which you’ll read about here, maybe even beyond this life!).
No matter what name, or names, he chooses to make music under, he will always be celebrated and defined by his connection to that cultural institution known as The Grateful Dead.
One of those “other” names is Furthur. And this summer, Bob is back out on the road with former Grateful Dead cohort Phil Lesh! The touring quintet is filled out with Jeff Chimenti on keyboards (he’s been playing with Bob since 1997), guitarist John Kadlecik (a Jerry Garcia savant and co-founder of The Dark Star Orchestra), and drummer Joe Russo (who came on board with Furthur in the fall of last year.) Even if you missed their Coney Island shows in the last week of June, you can still see them in action this summer in New York City at the Nokia Theatre on July 28th and 29th.
One final thought: Bob is a thriving survivor of the highest highs and lowest lows of his association with that legendary traveling band of roving and raving musical gypsies. They’ve been part of our lives for almost half a century now, and that impact and influence show no signs of letting up or disappearing anytime soon. No one carries that legacy more affably and effortlessly than Bob Weir. I’ve interviewed him in every decade since the 70s and always found him to be engaged and engaging no matter what the subject up for discussion. Here’s our conversation from the “oughts,” chock full of stories about the living and “The Dead!”
Pete Fornatale: What’s it like for you these days to play a club? Bob Weir: It’s intimate. People think that the bigger venues—hockey rinks, stadiums and stuff like that—they’re more frightening. They’re more, I don’t know. Really the more intimate the situation is, the more I get stage fright and stuff like that.
Fornatale: You have to have a different mindset depending on whether it’s a club, a theater, a stadium, an outdoor venue or unlimited number of people? Weir: Not that big a difference. Really playing is playing. You got to get warmed up, you got to get loosened up and then just let it roll, let it flow.
Fornatale: Your two-cd-set retrospective Weir Here on Hybrid Records is two cds, one studio recordings and one live recording. Which brings up an interesting part of your past, Bob. What’s the difference for you between going into the studio to make a record and going on stage and capturing that lightning in a bottle that sometimes happens? Weir: Of course, you have a live audience when you go on stage and there’s energy there, energy that you don’t get in the studio. Over the years, I’ve kind of learned to work with that. We sort of refocus and we get that energy from the audience. Then we play with it, refocus it and give it back. It’s sort of a game of catch that we get going and that energizes the music. You just don’t get that much in a studio. You can imagine it or you can go for something else to get the fire burning. I’ve spent so much time on stage and actually, comparatively, so little time in the studio that really what I’ve become is a live musician, you know, developed into. That being said, we’ll still make studio records, but I think we’ll make them live on stage. You can do that now.
Fornatale: They each have assets and liabilities. Of course you can take out any blemishes in the recording studio, go over it 18 times until you get it. Weir: Now you can do that live. With Pro Tools and all that kind of stuff, you can record in multi-track and then if there are what we call clams in the rendition, then you can go back the next day at soundcheck and repair.
Fornatale: Going back to your earliest days of recording, for me, I remember that the first two albums, the first two Dead albums, I guess those were your earliest experiences in the studio. I did not get the band until Live/Dead. Then after that you have that one-two punch where I really felt that you had conquered the studio and that was the year of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Did you feel that way about it at the time as well? Weir: At the time, but everything is a totally fluid situation the way we make music, the way we go about it. People call it making music, but actually you’re just letting it happen. As the years went by, we went through new levels, new plateaus or whatever of learning how to let it happen. By the time the 80s came around, for instance, our approach going into a studio was different than it was at the time that we made Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, stuff like that. There was just something different about it. It would be hard to explain. Right toward the end of the 80s, we came to another sort of agreement about how to go into the studio and how to go about making a record. We made a couple of good studio records back then. In between, we were sort of at a loss in the studio, or at least I felt, working with producers and stuff like that rather than on our own. The records we made were a little unlike us.
Fornatale: Everyone in the band had their group identity and then went off and did solo things at times. The first one for you was the Ace album, which is well represented on Weir Here—five or six tracks to start it off. Do you still have a fondness for that collection? Weir: That was when I really first kicked into gear and started writing.
Fornatale: Your collaborations over the years have been very interesting, very varied, but the primary collaboration was with an old school friend of yours, John Perry Barlow. Tell me a little bit about that partnership, how it began and how it lasted for so long? Weir: We met when we were sophomores in high school. We were sort of the outcasts; we were the different kind of guys at the school that we were attending. I got the [old toad] from that school characteristically. He went on to become student body president and all that kind of stuff. After that summer, I went out and stayed on his ranch, or his folks’ ranch. We were just friends at that point. Then we ran into each other, then wouldn’t for a while, two or three years, and then ran into each other in New York and we picked up our relationship again. I was reading his poetry. He had a book of his poetry one time and I asked him if he ever considered writing lyrics for songs. He thought that might be a cool thing to do and so we started doing it.
Fornatale: What’s the working process like? Weir: We’ve done it in every conceivable way. We’ve done it over the phone, we’ve done it starting at zero and making a whole song right there. Sometimes I start with the music, sometimes he starts with the lyrics, hands me a page of lyrics. Any conceivable way it happens or it could possibly happen, I think we’ve done by now.
Fornatale: It’s over 50 years since the New York Times Magazine coined the phrase “Beat Generation” to describe everything that was happening back then in poetry and in art. We had one hub of it here in Greenwich Village; you had another hub of it there in San Francisco. Weir: I grew up in that atmosphere and yeah, it was. Poetry was part of life for us… My heroes from that movement were the guys the poets wrote about it. Ken Kesey, Neil Cassady, most particularly.
Fornatale: The song on the Ace album called “Cassidy” has kind of a double overlay, doesn’t it? How did that come about? Weir: I wrote it shortly after Neil checked out down in Mexico. The song came to me—I was living at a ranch in the middle of Marin County in California. There were a number of us. We were living sort of communally there at the time. One of the ladies here was busy birthing a baby. I went out into the living room. There were a lot of folks sort of helping in that. It was a bit much for me so I went in the living room, picked up my guitar, and just started playing. This tune came. She named the kid Cassidy. Meanwhile, when this tune was coming through, you know, coming through the sky or wherever they come from, I was still thinking, I was still sort of meditating on Neil and his effect on my life and stuff like that. The song was sort of—the music was sort of about the new Cassidy and it was also sort of about the old Cassady. Barlow and I sat down and we hashed that out, we talked that down a bit, and then the lyrics came out.
Fornatale: Bob, in the beginning, you were “the kid.” You were the kid in the Grateful Dead for a pretty long time. When do you think that you came into your own as a member of the band? Weir: Probably in the early 70s. I was still a kid, probably, I guess, still am as far as the other guys are concerned. (laughter).
Fornatale: Was it after Pigpen died to some extent? Did you have to step up to the plate at that point? Weir: Might have been. I don’t know. I never thought much about it, but it could’ve been. Because Pigpen was, he was something to behold. He was a big part of the band while he was still here.
Fornatale: You and Jerry once did a show with me called Rock Calendar in which I asked you about Pigpen. You told a story about contacting him on a Ouija board. Do you remember that? Weir: Oh yeah. Boy, were we spooked…We had this Ouija board and we were at rehearsal. I guess this was in the late 70s, something like that. It was one of those days where we really just didn’t feel much like working, so what are we going to do? “Oh, let’s grab the Ouija board,” so we grabbed the Ouija board. We started using it and whatever we contacted, there was—it felt like we had something there. We said, “Okay. Who are you?” It spelled out Pigpen. “Ah, come on. You’re not Pigpen. If you’re Pigpen, what’s your middle name?” Because we all knew his middle name. He was Ronald Charles McKernan. He didn’t give us that. What he gave us was a word that started with Q-U-Y. It was a word that I’m not going to say, but it was, if anybody knew Pigpen, they knew that was his real middle name spelled the way only he would spell it. We were a bit flustered by that. Then we just threw up our hands and left.
Fornatale: Do you feel you’ve had similar experiences with Jerry? You’ve said that you feel as if he’s with you 24/7. How does that manifest itself? Weir: The way friends after a long time just rub off on each other. It affects me most particularly, I can explain it most particularly, in the music when we’re playing. I can more or less hear him still around the edges. I know where he’s going with it. Like the flux of the music is presenting what’s happening. I can hear him, I know where he’s going with it, and I can try to head for a complementary or a contrapuntal place. I know where he’s going and I know kind of when he’s going to get there. I can be there with a complement or a surprise or something like that. Just like it always was… It’s like that with the rest of life, too, for me. He’s just there. I can hear him laughing, I can hear him being caustic, whatever. “Go there, go there. No, don’t go there. That sucks,” and all that kind of stuff.
Fornatale: What do you miss most about him? Weir: I miss the yucks. We laughed our way across and back America and around the world. His one big quote was somebody recently told me that when they met us and we were hanging in what we used to call the hacienda, the little guitar players’ tent. Somebody came by and they met him and we were just carrying on back there with Steve, Jerry, me. We always did. This person was kind of a little taken aback by what we were—you know, we were just yucking it up. Jerry says, “Well, yeah. The music’s just what we do. Comedy is really our thing.” We had some fun.
Fornatale: That’s very funny. I know Weir Here is the Bob Weir retrospective, but do you have a favorite moment where Jerry shines on the collection. Weir: One thing that I’m seeing here is “Looks Like Rain.” His pedal steel part on that. He had just gotten it. It just shows what a game kind of guy he was that he was willing to do a pedal steel part, and actually wanted to do a pedal steel part for that. Because it’s a complicated song. Got a lot of chords and stuff like that. I thought he did a really beautiful job of playing that part, coaxing that part out of that new instrument for him.
Fornatale: Rock and roll is such a melting pot of diverse elements. Some of the best groups, the individuals, have brought very specific textures to it. Whether it’s R&B—I guess Pigpen brought the R&B to the Dead. Jerry brought bluegrass, banjo playing, folk, and country. You seem to come with a jazz influence, Bob. Where did that come from in your life? Weir: From the time I was in my mid- to late-teens, I was always sort of, I always just loved it, loved to listen to it. Though I never went to school like most jazz players do or hung with jazz players, with a few exceptions. I don’t know. That’s what appealed to me.
Fornatale: Any particular artists that you care to acknowledge as a— Weir: —Bola Sete was a wonderful guitarist that I hung out with for a while back in the 70s. He checked out, I think, before the 80s. I listened a lot to McCoy Tyner. He was John Coltrane’s piano player. I listened a lot to Coltrane as well. McCoy Tyner’s chordal style, the way he would work the harmonic development of a tune and at the same time work the groove of the tune, I found altogether fascinating.
Fornatale: You must have had a very interesting record collection at the time. Do you still? Weir: Yeah. I got my iPod and it’s loaded up with stuff. I just put it on shuffle. It’s kind of amazing the swings you get from Bill Monroe to Igor Stravinsky.
Fornatale: Listen, your fans can recollect specific shows by the date, by the place. Can you do that or are you too busy doing the shows to do that? Weir: There’s an awful lot of them. On some rare occasions I can remember a specific place. The dates are going to be pretty hazy.
Fornatale: Bob, when you go out and do a solo project, is there some way or do you feel on some level like you’re competing with this magical, mystical legend called the Grateful Dead? Have you come to terms with that? Weir: Not so much competing. What I’m trying to do is work up a meaningful, complementary line. Just like we do in the music. We try to come up with complementary lines, either that or a line that juxtaposes what’s going on, that’s a surprise. That’s really all I’m trying to do.
Fornatale: For some, a retrospective like this is an end parentheses. You’ve already labeled it “Volume 1,” so we know that that’s clearly not the case for you. You tell a wonderful story about the late Count Basie. Would you mind telling it? Weir: I guess it was 15-20 years ago, something like that. Count Basie was playing in town at the Fairmont Hotel in the Venetian Room. It’s a very elegant setting. I dressed up, took a friend, and we went to check out the Count Basie show. The band was wonderful as ever. Three of the four original guys in the quartet were still there. They’d been playing together 50-something years. Most of the guys in the band had been in the band for 30-something years. They swung like angels. The Count, there was nothing slowing him down or anything like that. The show was over, he said a quick hello to a few old friends of his that were in town. I watched him do that then he went on backstage. The next morning he went home to his place in Florida and within a couple days he put his feet up and checked out. When I read that he’d checked out in the paper that week, I realized, “Okay, well there’s my hero.” That guy, he had nothing better to do than to keep doing what he was doing, spreading that music, spreading that joy, spread that whatever it is that music does. I’ve got some footsteps to follow here.