Blair's Golden Road Blog-Bob Weir at 65: An Appreciation
“Nooooooooooo!” I can hear my cry in a very hazy memory. April 2, 1973. The house lights dim, a roar builds steadily in the crowd and grows to a deafening din as the band members amble onto the stage at the Boston Garden. As the spotlights brighten, I squint from my perch near the top of the upper level of the enormous arena. Something doesn't look right onstage. “What the-?” Oh, my God, Bob Weir's ponytail is gone! Jeez, you don't see the band for eight months and all hell breaks loose.
Did it matter? Of course not! I'm mostly kidding, but in some way, the disappearance of that ponytail, which cascaded so elegantly down the middle of his back, felt like another sign that the band was leaving its hippie past behind and that young Bob, just 25 at the time, was—gasp!—growing up. I was about to turn 20 and wanted to be Bob Weir—not that I had an ounce of musical talent. But I dug the look and I loved what he brought to the Grateful Dead's unique chemistry. To me, he was the essence of hippie cool. My first Bob was the Cosmic Cowboy one; I'd missed the beautiful young androgyne by a couple of years.
Bob was the Wild One. He was the rock 'n' roller, but also the confident, smooth-voiced narrator on all those dramatic country-rock numbers about desperados and fugitives; a perfect fit for those tunes. He was the guy who would screech and scream himself hoarse at the end of the show, whipping us into a dancing frenzy. He was the droll, wise-cracking emcee informing us that the band would resume playing after technical gremlins had been extinguished and everything was “just exactly perfect.” In the early days, he even told a few bad jokes. What a prankster. Seems as though he was never far from a smile or a smirk.
Except sometimes when he was playing—then he'd often have that look of intense, focused concentration, as he conjured endless creative guitar lines that provided an ever-moving rhythmic center in the heart of the group's sound. Labeling him a “rhythm guitarist” always felt horribly inadequate, because he wasn't some guy just chopping out simple chords in a conventional pop music way. Rather, he used an immense musical vocabulary and deft touch to construct sophisticated parts that were both rhythmically assured and amazingly nuanced.
I have this picture in my head of him standing in a semicircle with Phil and Jerry in the early '70s blasting through the nether regions of “Dark Star,” or maybe “Playing in the Band,” and he's hunched over his big Gibson, his whole body in fluid motion, and you can practically see how the parts all fall together organically. One moment he's grinning at some miraculous turn the jam has taken, the next he shakes his head, flips the hair out of his eyes and looks up into the lights as if he's wondering where it can go next. I get excited just thinking about that dynamic interplay—that's what turned me into a Dead Head in 1970, at the age of 16, and what has nourished my soul ever since.
Of course there were also the songs, and Bob co-wrote many of my favorites from my first years seeing band—“The Other One,” “Jack Straw,” “Truckin',” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Playing in the Band,” “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Weather Report Suite”—all completely different one to the next, each a glimpse into a different world. Later, I was knocked out by “The Music Never Stopped” and “Estimated Prophet,” “Feel Like a Stranger” and the still-amazing combo of “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance.” I got my early education in country music listening to Bob sing “El Paso,” “Mama Tried,” “Dark Hollow,” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” “The Race Is On” and “Big River,” and as time went on he provided new windows through which to view Dylan classics, old blues and so much more.
Basically, I'll follow him anywhere. I haven't loved every band he's been in or every song he's written. But he's earned my eternal respect and admiration for continually pushing boundaries and moving forward in a way that is so idiosyncratic—so … Bob!—that I want to be a part of and support whatever it is.
I first interviewed Bob for The Golden Road in the late '80s and instantly learned that what everyone in the Dead scene had told me through the years was true: he's a sweetheart! (It's a word you hear applied to him by both men and women.) He's warm, friendly, thoughtful, possesses a dry wit and has a surprisingly good and detailed memory (a boon to those of us who pester him with historical questions). I've never seen him be anything but polite to those around him, and in the dozen or so interviews I've done with him in the past 20 years—some on the phone, most in person—he has never really spoken ill of anyone. Which is not to say he lacks opinions or is uncritical. But he tends to give people the benefit of the doubt and he seems to have an inherent faith that things can and perhaps will work out for the best. His track record for giving his time unselfishly for benefits speaks for itself—and to his optimism.
On his most recent birthday, October 16, Bob hit 65, retirement age for many. His bushy grey-white prospector's beard almost makes him look his age for the first time (when The Warlocks started, he was 17 and looked about 14; in his early 40s, he looked 10 years younger), but fortunately for all of us he has not slowed down one bit. Maybe he's just trying to keep up with his GD elders—that indefatigable wonder of nature Phil (72), Mickey (69) and Bill (66). Nah, he just loves his job. Playing music is what musicians do. Age is just number (says the writer, pushing 60).
Look at just some of the great work Bob has done the past couple of years: Multiple tours with Furthur; his extraordinary collaboration with the Marin Symphony; a handful of shows with RatDog (here's hoping for a RatDog tour in 2013!) and Scaring the Children (with Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane); fine music from his acoustic trio with Chris Robinson and Jackie Greene; a bunch o' solo shows, plus appearances with Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis; and sit-ins with such disparate acts as 7 Walkers, Jackie Greene, Slightly Stoopid, The National and God Street Wine. Those last few were at Bob's magnificent high-def audio-video facility in San Rafael, Calif., TRI Studios. Bob has been extremely generous in sharing TRI with a broad spectrum of different artists, and is helping to pioneer a new era of high-quality music distribution over the Internet.
So here's a virtual toast to Bob on this auspicious occasion. You've done more for us than you'll ever know, and we're all counting on being able to celebrate 70, 75 and beyond with you! I know this song, it ain't never gonna end!
Care to share some nice thoughts/memories about Bob Weir?
You can't spell weird without spelling weir, and he's the guy who gave the Grateful Dead that wild, unpredictable flavor, the "call of the weird" someone once said; a completely original guitarist who plays like no one else.
Chords from outer space! Yellow dog stories! It was all just exactly perfect...
Thanks for all of it, Bobby!
...is easily among my favorite Hunter-Garcia songs. I love everything about it. And Bobby does it really well, too...
Weir is a fine guitar player and great stylist. And HE HAS GREAT MUSICAL TASTE. His covers are just unbelievably well chosen and played. Thank goodness he kept writing for the GD when Jerry was mailing it in. (Standing On The Moon, really??? Did that take like an hour to write?) My favorite Weir cut, from all the tapes and CDs, is Playing In The Band from the Rockin The Rhein bonus disc. Weir's voice is shot, but he keeps belting and slurring out those great lyrics, and man oh man they just play that song like their lives depend on it. Ten minutes of insanity, psychedelic rocket juice, all-hands on deck. If you do not know it, try it. It will blow you away.
Thank you Bob Weir.
About 30 years ago Bob Weir was crowned the nicest person of the year to interview by a Swedish newspaper. So I guess HE IS a sweetheart! I have just met him briefly at the 1990 Europe Tour press conference in Stockholm. Nicest of the members then, to me, was Vince Welnick. Nobody was rude, of course.
i just recently saw further for the first time, and personally, i kinda wish that bob and phil would go back to ratdog and phil and friends. now i think that further is more like phil/friends, but still, i like their own personal takes on their music. i miss ratdog! i miss mark karen, the sax, etc. and i really liked phil when he would have 2 true lead guitar players, like when warren and jimmy were his 2 guitarists. that was the awesome!
but whatever makes those boys happy, makes me happy!
thanks bobby, for a real good time!!!
In reading my Dead history, I recall being amused by the image of Weir sleeping on the couch on Asbury St. while Neal Cassidy rapped and juggled his hammer in the living room, just soaking up that flow. My personal favorite Bob story was the one about dropping the water balloon on the cop investigating the car out front, who had no idea where it came from until Bob walked by and smiled at him, leading to the lyric "busted me for smiling on a cloudy day."
I also remember the interviewer asking him if he would ever get the words right to "Truckin'," to which he answered, "Doesn't bother me."
At the beginning, I had some problem with Bob personally because of the wicked crush my girl/then wife had on him; that is tough competition. I have always loved his contributions musically to the texture, spirit and dynamics of the Grateful Dead, but my favorite of all is the screaming. Best screamer in Rock'n'Roll.
Keep on Bob!
I had some friends in grad school who hated Bob. I suppose they still do. I had always liked Bob and for me the "Bob songs" were usually more rockin' at shows in the 1980s and 1990s. For those of us who joined the bus in the 1980s or 1990s, we had to get past the Daisy Duke shorts and pink polo shirts. Once you did that, Bob was golden.
I have greatly enjoyed all of Bob Weir's post-Dead incarnations and have fond memories of Ratdog at the Kalamazoo State Theater in the early 2000s. At the Alpine reunion shows in 2002, the first night was a lackluster show (IMO) and I told my friends before the next night's show that Ratdog would get the house going. Ratdog delivered and the Dead built upon that to have a really good night two.
Thanks Bob and keep rockin'.
what a nightmare spook is
Sometime ago Bob did a live radio interview for a rock station in Baltimore. The DJ asked Bob what was the strangest thing he every saw on stage....after a pause and queit laugh, he said this (close to this)..
It was on the final night at the pyramids and the dead's show light were the brightest thing for miles.. Well, the lights attracted bugs wihich then attracted large bats. The were swarming all around the stage.. After viewing some of the film from those shows , I SEE what he means. I'm sure Bob saw many funny things during live shows...happy belated B-day, great person he seems
see you guys down the road