Bob Weir – Rock Magazine

Ghost Stories From The Dead –
Semi-Startling Conversations With Bob Weir

It is late afternoon. Looking out onto the city from the picture window in the Long Beach Motel Coffee Shop, one can easily spot the expansive arena where ticket holders are already collecting outside the doors in hopes of snaring a good seat for the evening’s Grateful Dead show. It has been sold-out for two weeks.

Back at the coffee shop, Bob Weir sits reflectively staring out through the pane at the lights blinking across the city. “It used to be we couldn’t sell any records or sell-out any concerts anywhere,” he comments; the Dead’s relatively newly-acquired mass-acceptance is still much on his mind. “I remember when we once played Ohio in this huge arena to two-hundred people. It was a real flash, looking out into this big, cavernous place and seeing a couple hundred people. We played well that night if I remember correctly . . . . ”

Bob Weir was only seventeen back in 1965 when his guitar and vocal talents joined those of lead-guitarist Jerry Garcia, organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and bassist Phil Lesh to form a Palo Alto band by the name of The Warlocks. Now twenty-five, Weir is the youngest of the original Dead Line-up, and through the group’s eight years of existence he has slowly evolved from the inconspicuously efficient guitar behind fan focal-point Garcia, into a central, perhaps even the¬†central, Grateful Dead performer both on stage and on record.

“What was happening a while back,” explains Weir, “was that Garcia had been the rock guru and the leader of the Grateful Dead, as far as everybody was concerned, for years . . . ¬†and he was just flat tired of it. It seemed that if I could accept a little of the responsibility, it might take a load off his shoulders and he could relax and devote himself to other things. I didn’t mind, ’cause I didn’t have anything else to do really.”

And while Weir found himself inheriting a front-seat role with the Dead, the band began to skyrocket with the success of their first single, and their commercially accessible American Beauty LP. At this point the Grateful Dead began to garner their now massive following.

“I figure it’s the musician’s responsibility to reach people. If he feels he’s got something worthy of presenting to people, it’s his responsibility, to a certain extent at least, to make himself musically accessible to the people”, says Weir, gaining intensity as he speaks on the subject of commerciality in music. “That means, at least as far as I’m concerned, that would throw people like Coltrane, and really fantastic musicians . . . even Miles (Davis) to a degree . . . A lot of great jazz musicians, a lot of great blues musicians for that matter. It would seem to indicate to me that they’ve been failing at least on that one level. Certainly they’ve developed their music, but it it’s to a point where only other musicians can understand or appreciate it, you’re losing not only your audience, but (also) the excitement a larger audience can create. If you’re looking to expand the horizons of music, you want all the help you can get . . . and a big audience giving positive feedback is certainly an asset . . . ”

“We’re not doing the football game”, interrupts Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, while emerging from nowhere. “Phil’s gonna be out of town and he doesn’t want to come back that soon.”

Scully, not unlike Weir, has been with the band from the very beginning. Vaguely reminiscent of George Harrison, Scully first became involved with the Dead when they were all part of the Diggers, a group of thirty people or so gathered together by Emmett Grogan and Peter Cohen, for the purpose of playing street theatre to the institutions of San Francisco. The issue at hand presently, however, involves plans for the Dead to play during half-time a nationally televised December 23rd San Francisco Forty-Niners football game.

Awwww“, Weir groans. “We had ‘Stars & Stripes Forever’ rehearsed and everything. It transcribes pretty well to a rock ‘n roll band, y’ know.”

“I heard you were just doing ‘Sugar Magnolia'”, the writer comments.

“Well,” says Rock, “that would have been the only part that would have been on TV.”

“Wait a minute”, says Weir, completely miffed by now. “I thought we were just asked to play the kind of stuff other half-time bands play.”

Scully calmly pauses a moment to sort things out mentally. “Well, they were all supposed to have one of those bands too. And Andy Williams will be singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. Who would have set up to do twenty minutes pre-game to warm the crowd up, then they’d have had us back to do ‘Sugar Magnolia’ during the television half-time break.”

“I think we’ve got twenty minutes worth of crowd rousers”, estimates Weir.

“You could have started with ‘Not Fade Away/Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”, suggests Scully.

“Yeah”, retorts Weir, “but none of that stuff really makes all that much sense taken out of the context of a three hour performance”.

“But remember when we did the Danish television thing”, Scully recalls. “We had to do the same thing . . . and it worked. We only had an hour to play, and we were performing for cameras.”

After a while the exchange between Scully and Weir diminishes with the realization that it is all wasted talk. The Dead won’t be playing the ballgame, so what’s the use in shuffling the “if” deck. The conversation turns to Europe ’72, the band’s newest three-album set, which consists of live material recorded during their European tour.

“For what it is, I’m kinda pleased with it”, assesses Weir. “I was, at the beginning, against doing another live album after Grateful Dead. I was really hot to get into the studio and do an album there, so I went and did my own album. That’s what finally became of that urge. So we went ahead and did another live album. I think it came off a lot better than I expected it to.”

“Whose decision was it to put out another live album?”

“Group decision. Actually it was a group decision forced upon us by circumstances. That album, more or less, financed our European vacation last year. Europe ’72 was the answer to a whole lot of questions, like how the hell are we gonna to be able to afford to take the entire staff and crew and all of us on a European vacation.” So somebody said, ‘let’s make an album over there and that’ll pay for it’. And through a great deal of hassling and haggling and that kind of stuff, it actually came to pass that we went to Europe, recorded an album over there, came back, and lo and behold, the amount has paid for our European tour . . . which was a real nice way to do it I thought.”

After realizing that as a member of the Grateful Dead, it would be some time before he got back into the studio to record, Weir decided the time was right to go ahead and record his own album, Ace. The first step towards the making of album was for Weir, who is admittedly something less than a prolific composer, a retirement in the obscure Wyoming cabin of a close friend, John Barlow. “Nobody was around,” insists Weir, “except some ghosts and I didn’t care”.

“Did you get any songs from him?” asks wide-eyed Warner/Reprise press representative Garry George.

“Not from the ghost, no, but from Barlow, yeah. No, the ghost and I worked something out”, says Bob quite seriously. “I don’t know if you need to print this, but anyway, I learned a real simple, temporary exorcism ceremony . . . which I had to perform twice a day in order to keep him out for twenty-four hours. Once around sunrise, and once around sunset.

“He’d been scaring my dog, and dogs don’t like ghosts, so the dog had shit all over the place. The ghost tried to get into my head once around the time I was waking up, that was a real touchy scene. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience with a ghost, but it’s awful, ’cause ghosts aren’t the best things to deal with. They try to get into people, and it’s not very hard to get them to leave a man alone, but they scare the shit out of animals. Particularly dogs, and so my dog got the shit scared out of him . . . literally. I was up in the middle of the night cleaning that up, with the dog completely out of his mind berserk. The first time the ghost did that, I tried to reason with him saying, ‘Now listen, you don’t go weirding out my dog and I won’t do anything, but if you do it again, I’ll have to take steps’. Well, he did it another night and got me weird another night to boot. So, I started throwing him at night by using that exorcism ceremony. That worked.

“Then I felt that he might be able to see his way towards being a little more civil, so I started letting him stay in during the day. He lived in the water heater and used to make all kinds of noises . . . he would hoot and screech and all that kind of stuff. He had learned to operate the water heater over the years so that he could make it sound any way he wished. I would sit in the living room playing my songs he’d be quiet, but when I stopped, he’d start working the heater again. It was really strange.”

After returning from Barlow’s cabin with a fistful of new songs, Bob “Ace” Weir was ready to hit the studio. The album was originally planned as a strictly solo effort with as little outside musicianship as possible. As things turned out, however, Ace became more of a Grateful Dead album than a Bob Weir solo effort. “I think it was Rock (Scully)”, clarifies Weir, “who took me aside and told me ‘Man, that album of yours has got to be the new Grateful Dead studio album, ’cause the Grateful Dead aren’t gonna to be putting out for a while . . . so that’s gotta be it’. You have to understand that this all went down after the decision was made that the follow-up album to Grateful Dead was going to be another live album.

“When I originally told everybody that I had booked time and had plans for album of my own, they said ‘Great, have fun.’ But sure enough, when I got into the studios, the other members of the Grateful Dead began showing up at my sessions. It was kinda like Tom Sawyer white-washing the fence, an analogy I’ve used before. I just got crazy at one point and wanted to see if I could get them in, because nobody was interested in going into the studio for some reason, when I first began the sessions. One by one, they started coming around saying ‘Need any help? I’ve got nothing better to do.’ Everybody in the band kind of invited themselves into the session. I had intended to use Keith (Godchaux, the newest member of the band) on keyboards, because we hadn’t used him on record yet, but pretty soon after that Garcia, Lesh, and the others started drifting back again. After that, I just completely lost sight of doing anything solo . . . what I had originally intended to do.”

“Were you satisfied with Ace?”

“I was when it first came out, then I wasn’t sure. I haven’t listened to it for a while, so I don’t really know, though I suspect that if I listen to it now, I would be dissatisfied with it.”

“When will you be doing your next album as a solo artist?”

“Oh”, Weir sighs revealingly, “I don’t know.” It is obvious that Bob Weir considers himself more a member of the Grateful Dead than as a solo artist entrapped in a band. “In the next year or two perhaps, if I once again have the bug to do a studio album and nobody else seems altogether interested. Also if I find myself with too much material to use purely on Grateful Dead albums without having to squeeze other people’s material out. Then I’ll probably end up doing another album.”

Perhaps to clear up a certain item has been puzzling more than a few individuals keeping halfway close tabs on the Dead and their recording over the past year or so, the question was put to the guitarist as to why his composition, “Playin’ In The Band”, has appeared so frequently. The tune made it’s first appearance on the grooves of Grateful Dead, a two-record live set released the summer of ’71. Eight months later the song again came to light on Ace as a studio track. Never to say die, “Playing In The Band” was back again with within four months as a cut from ex- Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s solo endeavor, Rolling Thunder. Doubtless, we were all relieved to see it absent from Europe ’72. How was it that the song appeared on three albums?

“I don’t know, Weir laughs. “It’s completely different, you must admit, on all three albums. And I sang it on all three albums, didn’t I? Truthfully, at the time I recorded the song with Mickey (Hart), I never really expected the album to materialize. I did that song a long time ago, and things were looking pretty scattered out there for him. I really didn’t think that Mickey was gonna get his record off the ground. Then the record came out, which really surprised me . . . but what surprised me even more was that the song was on it. Mickey had told me he was going to have me back in the studio to re-work the rhythm track . . . Actually I think the song has seen just about all the recording it needs to (laughter).”

There has been much talk between Garcia and Weir about supplementing the Dead’s live act with a brass section, possibly even a string section.

“Well,” Weir responds, “It was just me and Garcia talking a while back about it being nice if we could get an ensemble together, maybe a string section and a brass section, and rehearse them to do a tour. A big production tour . . . or maybe just rent a relatively good-sized theatre and maybe run that whole show for two or three weeks. I think it would be a pretty nice show if we had a huge string ensemble, or maybe not huge, but essentially a twenty-five piece orchestra. It’d be fun.

“I personally would like to hear something in the direction of Philharmonic rock ‘n roll . . . that being lots of different kinds of sounds, lots of arrangement, which there is space to do on a studio album. It seems that finally, categories like country-rock, jazz-rock, blues-rock . . . all those divisions are disappearing, with the term ‘pop music’ replacing all of them. I feel that’s a good sign. People are also starting to think beyond the textures of an average rock ‘n roll ensemble . . . a couple guitars, maybe a piano or an organ, perhaps a brass section, electric bass and drums . . . towards strings and more orchestral arrangements.”

As for the next Grateful Dead album, it will at least be recorded in the studio. “It’ll probably have eight or nine cuts on it”, Bob reveals. “It’ll have some driving rock ‘n roll and even some sensitive ballads if we can pull them off. It’ll have a pretty good cross-section of what we do. It’ll all be new material, original material. It’ll even have a little Pigpen on it. By the time we get around to being in the studio again, Pigpen’ll probably be out and around. It’ll have one or two extended tracks on it, too.”

The Grateful Dead have been and most probably always will be thought of as primarily a live act. Still, the band couldn’t be more comfortable in the studio. “A lot of people complain about it as being a sterile environment, but it’s not really at all. It was just a different environment. Usually by the time we record we’ve got an audience there anyway.”

“So it’s just a matter of playing for a smaller crowd . . . ”

“It’s a large crowd. Is the biggest audience you can get. It’s all your record-buying public that you’re playing for.”

Rock joins us once again and subtley informs Weir that the showtime is rapidly advancing. Within several minutes entire twenty-plus Grateful Dead entourage are on their way to the arena.

The Dead play well that night. Hitting the stage at 8:30, they play until curfew time, a regular practice of theirs. At midnight the Dead finish their last encore . . . three minutes before the time when live music is unlawful in Long Beach. At least ten members of the vice squad stand next to the stage, they look at their watches and commenting about how it came right down to the wire. One of them tells Jerry Garcia he enjoyed the “Johnny B. Goode” encore. Garcia laughs and thanks them for appreciating it.

“We have certain numbers that we use for certain pivot points, of course”, Weir was to later comment on the construction of the Dead’s concert set. “We have the crowd pleasers for the end. A little bit into the second set, you can expect us to do a number that we’re gonna stretch out on . . . for like, forty-five minutes or an hour. And you can expect us to pull out of that with some fairly forceful rock ‘n roll just to shake out the cobwebs of the people that are . . . well, we space out on the space-out numbers and if we may be losing some of our audience at that point, we bring them back with a little rock ‘n roll. We try to take the numbers that we stretch out on and develop them very gradually from level to level to level so that we’re not all of a sudden introducing them to a whole new weird realm of music. I guess essentially, if it makes sense to them then they can keep up with us; if it doesn’t then they don’t. You have to have that positive feedback from an audience to keep you going.”

Courtesy of Rock magazine – Cameron Crowe – March 13, 1973