Bob Weir: The Music Never Stopped
Published: January 17, 2009
By Lloyd Peterson Discuss
This interview will appear in Lloyd Peterson's upcoming book
Wisdom Through Music.
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?
“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.”
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 nationalism.
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: BW: 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 resolution found.
LP: If you could move forward 200 years from now and people were interested in knowing what your fondest memories were, what would you tell them?
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."
3 hours ago