By Mark Guarino
The long strange trip of Grateful Dead guitarist, singer and songwriter Bob Weir began 40 years ago when he met Jerry Garcia and they formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Several incarnations later, The Dead became a enduring rock institution which a new generation can get a taste of through its current line-up featuring Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh along with guests Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring on guitar and Jeff Chimenti on keyboard.
Weir, 56, wrote or co-wrote many of the Dead standards including “Cassidy,” “Jack Straw” and “Sugar Magnolia.” A new compilation, “Weir Here” (Hybrid), compiles Weir’s contributions to the Dead songbook along with songs from his roadhouse band Ratdog.
We talked last month about looking back at 40 years of work and the impact the Dead continues to have. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Was releasing a two-disc retrospective of your work with the Dead a way of making a statement about your contribution to the band?
A: It’s not much of a statement really. It was just a suggestion that came from one of my managers. I was doing a big remodel, particularly on my studio, and I haven’t had a chance to write anything for the last couple of years. And so my management wanted to put out a record to make sure folks wouldn’t forget that I was around or something, I’m not entirely sure. Anyway it occurred to me after they suggested it, that there is a wide body of material.
Q: As the other songwriter in the Grateful Dead, was there a competition between you and Garcia?
A: No, to the contrary. We were all encouraging each other to write as much as possible. That way we would have more stuff to do.
Q: Where there expectations to keep feeding songs to the band?
A: Yeah, and to myself as well. To keep my hands on it.
Q: The Dead is so associated as a touring entity that the songwriting is always overlooked.
A: Yeah, that has been overshadowed. But the thing about it, what kept us going live onstage, is the strength of the songs in particular. Not just the “music,” in capital letters. (The songs are) what kept us going, that’s what kept everybody alive. In years to come, what’s going to be remembered of us, what’s remembered of Jerry right now, is his songs. When you bring Jerry to memory, when you bring him back, you’re not thinking of his guitar licks, you’re thinking of his songs. So that was the strength, that was the lifeblood, that was the chi that kept us alive for all those years and still does.
Q: Did touring prevent you from pursuing what you felt you needed to pursue in the studio?
A: Not really, no. There was always a feeling all along that pretty soon, we’re going to break a record. And it finally did happen.
Q: In the liner notes to the new compilation, (Dead historian) Dennis McNally writes you were a kid in the midst of the lunacy around you. How did that manifest itself?
A: I was a kid in that I got all the (expletive) chores. I had to do all the diplomacy, all the interviews and stuff like that that no one else wanted to pick up. Because it was dumped on me. For instance, writing the charts. I wrote the charts, all that kind of stuff. I was the youngest guy and I got treated like it.
Q: Why did you click with your lyricist John Barlow?
A: We just had an intuitive sense of each other, of where we were going. If I came up with a chart of music, he would be hear how I wanted to paint the colors. And vice versa, if he come up with lyric, I was going to apply music to it. We were on the same level.
Q: Is there a Dead standard you wrote that means more for you now than it has in the past?
A: I would have to say “Cassidy’s” been a real workhorse for me. It’s taken me lot of incredible places.
A: I can’t really tell you. It keeps unfolding. Next year it’ll be substantially different than the way it is this year. As I mature as a musician and as a singer, that’s the song that keeps benefiting the most. I don’t know exactly why. I guess I just love that song.
Q: The Dead is out yet again this summer. What’s the motivation to keep it going?
A: I simply love to play. I love to light people up. And I love to mix it up with good musicians. There’s nothing I’d rather do. I suppose I can hang on a beach somewhere but I’d go nuts instantly.
Q: The personnel keeps changing. What questions do you ask when deciding who to add and who to subtract to the line-up each year?
A: How much fun are they going to be to play with? Can they handle a fluid tonic situation? Can they sing?
Q: Questions that are specific to how they affect your performance.
A: Yeah, absolutely. One of the considerations is, are they going to take me new places?
Q: These are questions you hear jazz players ask: what combination is going to take you where. Do you see the Dead in jazz terms?
A: What we are is a definitely a fusion band. We’re jazz and rock and roll fusion. That word came to mean a certain sound a number of years ago and we don’t sound like that, but our m.o. is, we take the song on a little walk in the woods. Our standards are different, that’s all. But we use the same scales … we use a slightly different instrumentation and a slightly different colorization for how we go about it.
Q: Are your musical heroes predominantly jazz players?
A: Well jazz and I also like modern classical music. (Russian composer Igor) Stravinisky is one of my big heroes if he could be considered modern. I love what he did texturally, rhythmically and all that kind of stuff … Stravinsky, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the fathers of rock and roll. I’ve actually pirated from him, from time to time.
Q: Does touring in an election year feel different?
A: Well, we want to get a lot of kids registered for voting at our shows. I don’t want to tell them who to vote for but I don’t think I need to. It couldn’t be more important at this point. But that won’t have anything to do with the music. We keep music and politics separate. People don’t pay to hear my political views, they’re coming to hear the music.
Q: But the Dead rose out of Vietnam and today, we hear so many comparisons of what’s going on in Iraq to that war. What’s different for you playing before a new generation of kids considered to be going through a similar situation?
A: Well, I think it’s worse now. The difference is, there’s no draft right now and there’s not likely to be one for a number of reasons. But aside from that, the danger back then was that you could be sent to Vietnam and made to participate in a war we had no business being in and have to die or kill other people for no good reason. And that’s a serious thing to have to be afraid of. On the other hand, today we’re very much in danger of losing our democracy. And we won’t see it again. It won’t come back without blood on the streets. There’s a sinister quality and that’s even worse in some regard. It’s bigger than our individual lives. It would be a real sad thing to see our democracy part of history and not part of the present. It’s a very real concern. And I think the kids can feel that too. I’m hoping.
Q: But why aren’t the kids storming the streets like your generation did?
A: I think they’re numb to it. That’s not to say they’ll remain that way.
Q: I read recently that you said you don’t miss Jerry Garcia because you still feel him. How so?
A: I can hear him, I can feel him, all that kind of stuff. He’s just there.
Q: Onstage or off?
A: Even offstage. I hear him most when I’m onstage. But you know, when I’m thinking about stuff, there are times when he comes to me. When I’m having some kind of philosophical quandary or pondering some important issue. But most often, it’s just onstage.
Q: He still lives on all the T-shirts kids wear at the shows. Is that weird for you to see that?
A: Well, it’s a little strange because he hated that. But at the same time, it’s nice to see his face.