Published: January 17, 2009
By Lloyd Peterson
This interview will appear in Lloyd Peterson's upcoming book Wisdom
It has been said before but there really has never been a group of
musicians quite like the Grateful Dead. And as the years have passed
on, I can no longer, as I did then, take their ability to turn sound
into magic for granted. It didn't happen at every performance, but
when the heavens opened, a perfect harmony existed between audience,
band and sound that became a phenomenon beyond the written word. It
was part of the elusiveness that was the Grateful Dead.
Musically, they might not have been the technicians found in jazz but
their creative minds and spirit allowed them to improvise far beyond
the boundaries of any artistic form and genre of traditional
thinking. Where most improvisation takes place within a rhythm
section, this was a band with a fierce disregard for convention,
where each member would improvise independently against and with each
other... all at the same time. And though effort could never
influence the process of transcendence, it was part of the challenge
of reaching this realm with every performance.
Bob Weir left High School and joined the Grateful Dead at the age of
17 and never looked back. He was able to develop a style of rhythm
guitar playing that was unique in its time and was a significant part
of what was to become one of the world's most creative but unorthodox
bands. While the media focused on the drug culture, there was very
little understanding and focus on the creative process, a process
that was firm and confident in its direction, yet completely open to
new realms and possibilities. They were and remain an exception in a
world of increasing contradiction.
Lloyd Peterson: Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis developed a new found
freedom for other musicians by breaking down the boundaries of jazz.
Almost simultaneously, the Dead proceeded to open a new creative
dimension and then invited everybody inside. Did you guys know you
were expanding upon the musical universe and tearing down creative boundaries?
Bob Weir: We were well aware of it but there were others such as Big
Brother and the Holding Company. We were all listening to the same
music such as Coltrane but the Dead just stayed with it longer. With
Janis's meteoric rise, things changed for Big Brother. Early on, Phil
Lesh provided a lot of new information and by the age of seventeen, I
was listening to Pendericki and Stockhausen. Further on, when we
developed more facility with our instruments, it became possible for
us to start exploring those new realms. So there was this overlay of
modern classical along with the avant garde and though there are some
classicalists that claim the avant garde isn't classical, they use
the same instruments and sit in the same concert halls so it's all
the same to me. It just comes down to how far you are willing to take it.
There was this soul romping of jazz in the 60s' and it was furious
and cooking so we concentrated on that along with what Ornette was
doing. In the early 70s,' Miles came out with Bitches Brew and Live
Evil but we also listened to Return to Forever which was fusion that
hadn't slipped into its dry and intellectual mode yet. Those fusion
guys had monstrous facility which seemed unattainable but Bitches
Brew was more groove oriented and a clear light post so we did that
stuff in rehearsal all the time. We could also pull it off on stage
from time to time.
LP: Did the audience always follow?
BW: We would take the temperature of the audience and though nobody
ever discussed it, there was an understanding. An understanding that
there is only so much of this that we are going to get away with
because for the most part, the audience came to hear songs and of
course we loved to deliver songs. We were story tellers and that's
the whole secret of music as far as I'm concerned, actually of any
art. You are telling a story. We used bridges from the developments
of new jazz along with the modern classical influences of Penderecki,
Stockhausen and ol' Uncle Igor Stravinsky. I also listened to a lot
of Bela Bartok and wrote a tune based on a concerto of his that just
floored me for at least a month. I listened to it every other night
until it was coming out of my ears and fingers. It was a full Bartok
progression with lots and lots of dissonance that worked well to my
satisfaction. That kind of stuff was happening.
LP: The song," Let it Grow" seemed to develop into an arrangement
with many of its harmonic relationships in fusion.
BW: Well, when you couch it like that but I tend to think of guys
like Return to Forever as being a little more harmonically developed
than we were. But thinking about it, I guess "Let it Grow" was
harmonically developed and I wasn't really listening to anything at
the time I wrote it. It just came out.
LP: Pablo Cassal's said that "The heart of a melody can never be put
down on paper" and in a sense, that was the magic of the Grateful
Dead in performance. At times, one couldn't help thinking that there
was no other place in the world where you would rather be.
BW: The moment that the music kicked in and the heavens opened, you
were in that moment and nowhere else, and there isn't anywhere else
that anyone ought to be. (laughs) We were no longer in the physical
realm anymore. We were far past that.
LP: There was also a transformative power with the Dead. When exactly
did you guys know that the music you were creating had this kind of
transformative or perhaps even spiritual power?
BW: Well it was undeniable the first time that it happened to us and
that was all that we needed to know. Of course we could also feel
that the audience was sharing in that. We knew we had a good thing going.
LP: Were you conscious of trying to get inside the center of the
sound and were you aware of what you were creating?
BW: We were not consciously creating it, but we were conscious of
finding it. And when we found it, we found it without looking. We
were aware of it and it's like mantra. I hate to wax metaphysical on
you but in the Vedic Tradition, sound perceives reality.
LP: The Dead's music was also completely committed in its vision. It
was very, very sure of its direction, yet at the same time, it
remained open to new possibilities. That in itself is a
contradiction. Can you explain what made it work?
BW: We were just kids following our footsteps. That said, there were
some interesting places where people would find contradiction but
usually where we found none. If you are able to find that thread, the
contradiction completely falls by the wayside and everything falls
into place. We never had any idea what we were chasing but when we
caught it, we knew it.
LP: Is there a separation between expressing love through music and
where your soul or spirit begins to influence the creation?
BW: When we get to where we want to go, time evaporates and there is
no sense of time. The only sense of time is the beat but that's
different. It's not the clock ticking. That time is infinite and
elastic. And given that we evolved to a timeless place, there is no
act of creation. It just is. I'm not doing it, it's just there.
LP: The great innovators have always pushed on the boundaries of
creativity. This was clearly the case of the Dead but towards the end
that might not have always been the case. And as most musicians as
they mature, they become more conservative with their creative
approach. But with your more recent work with Ratdog, there seems to
be more confidence and a desire to take more risks in your search for
creative discoveries. You are pushing on those boundaries again. What
drives you? What makes it work?
BW: I really cannot take all that much credit with Ratdog because all
the band members have just as much influence with the writing as I
do. But that's the way I wanted it because it brought the band
together and with my experience of setting music and lyrics together,
stories can merge out of that. But everybody was invested in the
writing and it gave us a sense of what we could do and it worked very
well for us.
LP: But you personally must have been very open to it.
BW: My responsibility on stage is to leave nobody in the audience
behind. So once again, we read the audience and we try to develop our
shows so that we are opening up ourselves every night and at the same
time, try to gauge how open the audience is becoming.
LP: One of the areas that separate creative artists from most other
musicians is that most are interested in the answers, but artists are
more interested in the questions, in the search itself. This was
clearly part of the foundation of the Dead but the chances of six
like minds coming together (Weir laughs) searching within that same
universe is quite extraordinary. Visionaries are rare and usually
walk alone. When did you guys know that you had something special in
a creative way?
BW: Well, the Beatles were notable for that.
Each one of us had our own particular pied-a-terre, nebulous
amorphous pieta tear, and we kind of relied on each other to pursue
our own direction. However, as soon as a melody or a harmonic
progression started to emerge, everyone would ferociously kick in,
trying to push and develop where they found it wanting to go.
Everybody was different, so it developed in surprising ways.
LP: There is a quote from Dennis McNally's book (A Long Strange Trip:
The Inside History of the Grateful Dead) where a club manager states,
"You guys will never make it, you're too weird!" (both laugh). But
you guys always received criticism yet always followed your own
creative vision. Did you consider the criticism validation of your work?
BW: For certain types of criticism but that statement was also a
challenge to us, it was a challenge. If we are too weird, well that's
just what we're going to hang with (laughs). We have to hang with it.
We were born with it and it's also how we were made.
LP: But isn't that also a kind of validation that you are going down
the right path, not just the traditional one?
BW: It was more of a challenge than a validation at that point. I had
just turned 18 so I wasn't looking for validation (laughs) I was only
looking for challenges and was looking to get into it. And at that
time, Billy and Pigpen were a year and a half older than me and Jerry
and Phil, not much older than that.
LP: What was it about the Dead's music that kept capturing the
imagination of youth for several generations?
BW: It takes a great deal of luck to find what the Dead found in
finding the right collection of guys who can keep cranking stuff out
that relates to youth. Dylan and Neil Young are elemental writers who
compose songs with infinitive eternal things who have the gift of the
ears for eternal youth. That's wisdom and it's nothing less than that.
LP: There seems to be a correlation with artists and higher awareness
levels. As an example, there are many that seem to have the ability
to look past and beyond cultural differences. Have you noticed this
and can it be attributed to the power of music or is it perhaps from
a particular type of spiritual or cultural enlightenment?
BW: You know, artists are probably born and not made. It's the
questing soul. But you can also be a questing soul and fall into
science as well as engineering. But the questing soul who is born
with artistic aesthetic sensibilities is probably going to fall into
art. For me personally, I have never looked for answers, I have been
looking for the burning questions that could beg answers and draw
stuff out of the universe.
LP: There has always been a sense that the members of the Dead were
driven by some other outside force or that somehow the stars lined up
just perfectly. Did the band feel this power and did you feel a sense
of responsibility to nurture it?
BW: I always felt that that was what we were here to do and I still
do feel that way. I'm here to take that as far as I can.
LP: But is there pressure with that? Do you still feel that you have
a responsibility to carry this on?
BW: You learn to live with pressure and I think all successful people
have pressure. However, it needs to be balanced with the joy of
discovery along with the ecstasy and elation of being able to deliver
as well. And when you are delivering to an audience and they are
getting it, it is a two way deal. They are working too. Everybody is.
You know, many hands make light work.
LP: To jump off the cliff" during a performance requires a musician
to let go of their ego and be extremely committed in their vision.
Very few reach this level to that extent. Where did you guys get your
collective commitment and passion to search and discover?
BW: I came around very slowly but it still came within the first few
years and I think LSD probably had something to do with that. But for
awhile now, my contention has been that it really wasn't the LSD so
much. The LSD was sort of a sacrament to get everybody involved, such
as with the acid tests. "We're going to step off a cliff here." So I
guess that compulsion to go cliff jumping came relatively early on.
Eventually, we became a little more intelligent about it and
developed our sense of feel with regard to what we were going to use
to fly and see if it kept us aloft. We had some miserable crashes but
we also had some soaring experiences too.
LP: You are one of those rare musicians that brings it to the table
every single night. From the moment you begin fine tuning your
equipment until the end of the performance, your focus is completely
in the moment. Why is music this important to you?
BW: You know, it always has been. When I was eight years old, my
brother taught me how to tune a radio and I knew at that moment that
it was music. I knew that that was what I was going to amount to. And
by the time I was 15, I was already on my way and I met Jerry just
after I had turned 16 and have been a professional musician ever
since. Music has always been very good to me. There were a few lean
years in the mid-sixties but those were the starving artist days and
you don't want to skip that, you just don't want to skip that.
LP: You seem to be sensitive and passionate about everything that you
get involved with and that's not only in music. Can you explain where
these roots are from and what continues to drive you?
BW: If I'm going to get into something, I'm going to want to dive in.
I want to feel it.
LP: Do you still have that same passion today?
BW: Claude Monet developed cataracts in his eyes and his color
perception slowly changed over the years. For him, all of those
fantastic colors were just natural, but to the rest of the world,
they were super natural. And he had no idea what was happening to him
but after he had cataract surgery, he wanted to destroy all of his
paintings. So your perception changes over the years and though I
feel passionate, there is nothing that I would rather do than catch
that next wave on stage.
LP: There is now a younger generation coming to Ratdog performances.
Do you sense the same vibe from this audience and the same search for
wanting something more?
BW: It's still the same. It's the kindred spirits. It's a certain
kind of person that requires a little bit of adventure in their lives
and in their music. And we are more than happy to provide that
because that's what has kept us going. We are all kindred spirits and
actually, I'm just a professional adolescent anyway.
LP: Can this culture sustain itself for many more generations?
BW: I think it has been in our culture since the fusion of African
and European music. By the time of the late 20s,' people were
listening to Afro Euro music. That was open ended music and there was
adventure there. There were jazz bands that were jammin' and the more
rigid folks responded with, "Stop this noise! Stop this noise!" They
couldn't relate. Look at what happened when Stravinsky debuted the
"Right of Spring". People hooted, booed and stomped out but the
younger folks got it. And Stravinsky was only about 21 at that time.
In our culture today, there is an understanding that art can be
derived from a more elemental part of ones being and its there before
one reaches adolescence. And just before early adulthood, the more
intelligent ones start to develop enough appreciation for art and
music that they can handle the complexity in art. They are going to
go with this new creative form and it was proven again with the
emergence of rock and roll. And when I talk about rock and roll, I am
talking about a specific period and era, a specific kind of music.
After the late 50s and very early 60s, it had already started to
dissipate, turning into rock music, the heavily amplified electric
bass and driving stuff. The lithe part of rock and roll was gone. I
developed that awareness a little further on in my career and by the
time I was in my mid to late 20s, I had realized that, "this isn't
rock and roll," this is something else." It's good and I don't mean
to devalue it, it's just that it's not rock and roll. If you are
going to play rock and roll, it has to have the swamp factor with
varying degrees of shuffle within straight rhythm, which is
mathematically imprecise and necessarily so. And a certain kind of
person can do that but you have to be free of neurosis; neurosis
being the inability to accept ambiguity.
LP: The following quote is from the great classical violinist Yehudi
Menuhin: Improvisation is not the expression of accident but rather
of the accumulated yearning, dreams and wisdom of our very soul. Does
that resonate with you?
BW: I agree with that to a certain point but accidents do happen. An
intuitive improvisatory musician hears an accident and immediately
makes that a positive development. But Yehudi Menuhin probably said
that back before Bitches Brew. Today, if someone adds a note that
doesn't necessarily work, somebody else in the band might hear it a
little differently and compile something completely different where
that mistake now works and it's all because of the collaborative
experience. And suddenly, "Oh, there's a new harmonic territory here
that we are going to overlay and then find meaning in the juxtaposition."
LP: There is an argument that can be made that perhaps no other time
in history did music have such a profound affect on society and
politics than the 60s. It was a time when music actually did make a
difference in society and in a positive way. Did you know at that
time that music was having this type of influence?
BW: We were pretty aware of that, yeah. But I think you can attribute
that to the baby boomer demographics. There were a lot of kids
listening to youth oriented music and from that; anthems emerged that
shaped the culture of youth. We were a part of that. We were
generating that kind of stuff but also appreciating that kind of
stuff. We were embodying it and commenting on it. Everyone was doing that.
LP: The band never stood on a pedestal and made political statements
yet you supported causes that you believed in. Your actions spoke
louder than words. Is it still that way for you?
BW: Yes. After a show is over, I work with an organization called
"Headcount" which is trying to register young voters at concerts. My
feeling is that we need to get kids interested in voting now because
it's their future that is being decided and I think that the
direction of government is becoming more far sighted. When people
start to get older, they start to lose that thousand yard stare that
a child is sort of born with. We need the youth of our country to
right the ship.
LP: Is it a case of kids feeling overwhelmed and too insignificant to
make a difference?
BW: And that's what I'm trying to influence, that they can make a difference.
LP: We are now at a place where questioning one's government is
perceived as questioning one's love of country. How did we get to this place?
BW: My understanding is that that's wrong! It's straight up
nationalism, unquestioning nationalism. The whole idea of democracy,
especially as embodied by the founding fathers was to take
nationalism out of government and put pragmatism in, pragmatism in
the highest possible sense. That's a reversion to the more basal
instincts in human nature and it's horrendously shortsighted. It's
fascism, pure and simple. Because the people who decide that the
questioning of government is the questioning of ones national
identity... I mean come on. That just gives the leaders all the rope
they need to hang our entire culture. And as we have seen in recent
years, that's what they will try to do, such as stacking the Supreme
Court and politicizing the justice department. The intent is to try
and hold their power with no intention of governing for the better
good of all, which is way down on their list of priorities. The first
priority is consolidating your power and marginalizing your enemies,
your perceived enemies and that is unbelievably short sighted. And I
hate to use words like wrong but if I'm going to use one, that whole
notion that questioning your government is unpatriotic is pure
unadulterated horseshit and is not what our founding fathers would
have told us.
LP: When you think about it, it's really quite incredible to think
that a group of people were able to come together and find a way to
agree on the form of government that we still have today...
BW: Well interestingly, that was accomplished by a collection of
young people that were involved in that movement, people that had
retained their spirit of youth and had acquired some wisdom. But
again, it's that questing spirit of youth and they were able to
retain that and acquired wisdom and acumen and came up with the
constitution of this country. And it has lasted into our 3rd century.
I think what happened in the mid 60s' and up to the very early 70s'
will be culturally retained for the next few hundred years. It was
another step forward for our culture where we found a newer and
fresher well to draw our art from, a newer, deeper and fresher well.
LP: The events of 911 influenced compassionate and sensitive feelings
towards the U.S. in a positive way for the first time since the
Vietnam War. Now we have lost that. Does that concern you?
LP: Do you see the difference when you travel, do you sense that or see it?
BW: Looking the way that I look, it couldn't be more obvious to most
people that, "there is one of those American's that doesn't really
buy into what is going on in Washington." So I don't get flack for
it. People are sympathetic to me and they can see on my face that I'm
embarrassed by our government and I'm embarrassed by this war like
LP: Why did things change for the worse after the 60s? Why did we
fail at the most opportune time to make and sustain a difference with
our sense of ideals and values?
BW: I think that as the bulk of the people got older, real life
concerns such as making a living, started inserting itself into our
reality and that reality was basically a bubble. I have never left
that but when we were living in Haight Asbury, I was only 18, 19 and
it was quite easy to be idealistic at that age. But as you gain more
experience, a conscious reality starts to creep in and not just our
little havens reality, but with the rest of the world as well. And if
you are an open minded person, you are going to take that into
consideration and put it into balance. And if you are not, then maybe
you can stay with that earlier subjective reality but you are going
to lose touch with a whole lot of folks. I'd rather be in touch.
LP: The politician has to sometimes compromise their own beliefs but
the artist will not compromise his or her art form which usually
doesn't reflect the compromised vision of leadership. That in itself
is a clash of values and seems to be part of the challenge for what
is at stake for our future. How can we get them to work together?
BW: Every now and again, a politician comes along that is actually
artful. We had that in John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. They were
eloquent and there was art to what they were doing and from what I
can see, the same with Barack Obama who is also a rare transcendent
politician. And most politicians are just technicians, they are
engineers. It's apparent to me that not everyone can be an artist who
is born with those sensibilities. God I wish it were possible. My
hope is that in some age, we will find that everyone is an artist.
Perhaps at the end of the year 2012 in the Mayan calendar and at the
end of the Kaliyuga... the end of time as we know it, which is
predicted to occur and at that point, everybody wakes up and they
discover that they are foremost an artist. I'm going to go on that
hope for a few years.
LP: Hazrat Inayat Khan who was from India wrote a book titled, The
Mysticism of Sound and Music and stated that, "Someday music will be
the means of expressing universal religion. Time is wanted for this
but there will be a day when music and philosophy will become the
religion of humanity." Do you think music has this kind of power?
BW: It's done that for me. When I'm on stage and the bond is strong
between the band and audience, a higher truth becomes injected into
that bond and the commonality that everybody in the assemblage
shares. There is a higher humanity that is brought into play and it
cannot be done without all those folks. I suppose it could be done
but I'm not doing it. But I do manage to get there with the help of
the audience and with the guys in the band.
LP: There has been an imbalance in the world for a long time now. Can
music be the liberator?
BW: When the music is happening and the song is being sung, whether
by instrument or by voice, there is no place I would rather be.
LP: As human beings we need love, we need compassion and we need
peace yet we don't seem to have the desire or sense of necessity to
make that a priority. What are we missing? Why is it not a priority
for us today?
BW: I think you are going to have to go to India or Tibet or the
mountains of Mexico or South America. I'm not entirely equipped to
answer that but I do know that we have our best guys on it.
LP: The great artists do not separate life and music, they bring it
together and you cannot tell where one ends or one begins. The love
and commitment is always there. Can you explain what has influenced
you to this degree?
BW: That's the whole point of art. For me, any artist is a story
teller and a story teller brings the listener and the story together
until they are all one so everyone is living in the same place and
that's really living, in capital letters. That's true living and
people are really alive at that point.
LP: Do you miss Garcia; do you still feel his presence?
BW: Sure, I miss the warmth and brotherhood that we had and the music
was a just a part of our relationship. We spent a lot of time
traveling together, entertained each other and there were always a
lot of laughs. And having a guy live in your head for thirty years is
not going to go away right away but then I don't suspect that it ever will.
When we played together, I would start hearing what he was doing from
the downbeat and I could feel his directives. "Don't go there, but go
here." There were some nights where I felt like I was in conflict
with him and some where I was in complete harmony with him but Garcia
wasn't looking for slavish emulation. And if I was playing something
and being completely hard headed about it, just maybe there was a
reason for it. With some of those conflicts, sometimes there would be
a breakthrough where that conflict would result with great things
happening. In the realm of intuitive music, that's where it really
gets interesting. A lot of great art is born from tension and we had
total respect for that. The harmony that happens from the downbeat
can make for a wonderful night but the ones where there is conflict
are probably the more interesting nights, especially if there is a
LP: If you could move forward 200 years from now and people were
interested in knowing what your fondest memories were, what would you
BW: Well, when we were playing in Egypt and let me first say that we
really didn't play that well, which was a result of being jet lagged
along with other numerous difficulties. The electricity was hit and
miss and was very disruptive to our flow. And the first night that we
went on stage, we sound checked and tried to get everything as right
as we possibly could but the electricity was on and off. We were
playing at the Salumina Theater which is at the foot of the Sphinx,
which in turn is at the foot of the great pyramid with two other
pyramids behind it. They were all lit up spectacularly. But the
problem was that we were also close to the Nile River and there were
lots and lots of these big mosquitoes. After the stage lights came
on, I saw this cloud of mosquitoes and I was getting bit and my
immediate thought was, "welcome to hell." And just as I came to that
conclusion, something flew by my head, and then another and then
another. I looked across the stage and there were these big bats, a
foot across feasting on all of these mosquitoes. And they saved our
asses, and this happened every night.
On the third night, there was an eclipse with a full moon that lit up
everything. I looked out across the moonscape along with the
silhouette and there were two ridges that were lined up with Bedouins
on their horses and camels, guns slung over their backs. And at that
moment I thought, OK here are the Bedouins on the bluffs, silhouetted
under a full moon and then in the backdrop is the great pyramid and
the Sphinx. And then there is this thousand year old stage and on
that stage is a rock and roll band surrounded by a cloud of bats. It
was then that I had one of those moments where I thought, "Take me
now lord, just take me now. I want to remember it just like this."
"Cassidy" by John Perry Barlow and Bob Weir
I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream.
I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream.
Ah, child of countless trees.
Ah, child of boundless seas.
What you are, what you're meant to be
Speaks his name, though you were born to me,
Born to me,
Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac.
I can tell by the way you smile he's rolling back.
Come wash the nighttime clean,
Come grow this scorched ground green,
Blow the horn, tap the tambourine
Close the gap of the dark years in between
You and me,
Quick beats in an icy heart.
catch-colt draws a coffin cart.
There he goes now, here she starts:
Hear her cry.
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly.
Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine.