BOB “ACE” WEIR
Inside Straight on the Dead’s Full House
It is most certainly an understatement to say that the Grateful Dead have come a long way since their days as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (later The Warlocks). It’s been eight years, in fact, and along the way they have been immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; they’ve gained and lost a drummer; had their ex-manager skip town with all the band’s coin; pushed their music to extremes, then back to basics; and, watched their popularity slowly then suddenly grow.
Now the once broke epitome of the “underground” band is a solid rock and roll institution whose massive body of followers are among the most rabid on the scene. That once infrequently encountered weirdo – The Grateful Dead Freak – is now commonplace.
Through all these changes, there have been two constants: the high quality of their music, and Jerry Garcia fronting the band both onstage and in the media. Jerry’s name and the group’s have been married in most minds. However, by design and the natural evolution of things, this constant is beginning to change. Little by little, Bob Weir, the youngest of the Dead’s original lineup, is moving to the forefront. The slim, pony-tailed 24-year-old rhythm guitarist songwriter/vocalist is coming on stronger on stage; he has just released a solo album (Ace) and his songs are beginning to be featured by the band more frequently.
Weir attributes his ascension to Garcia’s desire to take a back seat. “Garcia’s mighty tired of it, I’ll tell you,” he told me.
“Garcia pushes him out there a lot,” his lithe lady, Frankie, added.
“Yeah, he’s like the devil’s pitchfork. ‘You go out there and tell them a story,’” Bob mimicked Garcia.
But, Bob elaborated, his new-found facade of power has done nothing to alter the group’s internal structure. “Well, I can lord it over the band as long as we’re doing a song of mine. By the same token, Garcia lords it over the band when we’re doing a song of his. That’s more or less everybody’s square inch of power. That’s where you get to work out being the Almighty Despot. It’s more or less a tacit agreement. Everybody’s always entitled to an opinion, but the final word rests with the guy who wrote the song.”
But before elaborating on his shift in status, Bob turned to a topic he was especially hot “to get off my chest” – the Dead’s recently completed European tour.
“It was really fun. It was a flash the first time we played to a completely foreign-speaking audience. Our first gig was in London and that was kind of strange to us, but nothing like when we got to Denmark. You plugged in, cranked-up, and said ‘Good Evening’ to the folks. And they looked at you (as if to) say ‘What did they just say?’ You look out there; they’re looking back at you; and, there’s a couple of G.I.’s out there cracking up because they know the problem… Then every once in a while somebody will say (Bob affects a heavy accent), Play ‘Uncle John’s Band’ or something like that, and you know he took his high school English… There’s strictly no bullshit. You play good and the people will enjoy you.
“When we got to London, it was relatively uneventful. We all packed over to our hotel in London, and everybody immediately came down with a cold, cause – I gotta say – there’s no excuse for the weather in England and especially in London. No Englishman will ever disagree with me.” Derek Taylor, Dead Publicist who just happens to be an Englishman and also just happened to be there, nodded.
“It was a blight,” Bob continued. “It was real cold, rainy and miserable. I caught laryngitis the second night of our Wembley concerts. I had the rare opportunity of standing on stage singing a song and physically feeling my voice just go away… Thank God, it was real late in the concert, and I faked it through my last couple of vocals. The crowd didn’t really seem to notice… Well, I mean, I really liked London…the folks, the buildings…the whole mystique, aura, and feeling…that laid-back, really, really conducive to creative vibes there. But the weather is so fuckin’ bad…
“We played two concerts at Wembley, and we figure no one knows who we are. It’s about an 8,000 seat capacity arena… We arrive at this huge, cavernous place, and it was about 45 degrees inside. At 45 degrees, your guitar strings really feel like barbed wire… First off, we notice there’s no way in hell we’re gonna fill this place. Secondly, it’s going to be cold and we’re going to play miserably. Thirdly, the sound was cataclysmically bad in there…like a five-second echo if you clapped your hand… But, well, we’ve got to go through with it. So we started the sound check, and, just magically during the context of the sound check, one by one these parachutes were coming down from the ceiling. The heater was put on full blast… The PA was tuning into the building… The next night when we came back, the place was full; the parachutes (were) all up; and, the sound was beautiful… We really had a good time all night playing, and the audience was just really dynamite…really appreciative, enthusiastic, warm… It really blew my head.”
Two nights later, “We played in Newcastle in a small, 1500-seat capacity theater…and nobody seemed to be at all interested in what we were doing. It was the coldest, stiffest audience I’ve ever played for. We finally managed on the last number to get them up by playing ‘Not Fade Away,’ ‘Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,’ and built that into our version of monumental rock ‘n roll. If they still aren’t going to come unglued, then we hit them with ‘One More Saturday Nite.’ If they still don’t come unglued, then we go back to the hotel and lick our wounds… We actually didn’t play that poorly, but I’m told that that’s about as responsive as a Newcastle audience ever gets.”
As they swept through Denmark and Germany, the Dead encountered more normal crowd responses and were really only surprised by the facilities.
“We played in a couple of places that the old boy – Hitler – had built. That was weird.” But the hall that really blew the Dead over was the one they played in Frankfort. “A huge place that looks like any other really boss, ultra-modern concert hall you’ve ever seen…nice wood interior, really fine velvet drapes and big plate glass windows. Except that every last thing in that place was made out of plastic. It was unbelievable. It was built by a big plastics firm in Germany, and they gave (it as) a gift to the City of Frankfort… The big velvet drapes – plastic. The big plate glass window – plastic. The wood floors – plastic. Everything was made out of plastic, and you couldn’t tell. It’s just incredible…and it was a good place for a rock ‘n roll concert… Then we went to Paris and that place is crazy. In every respect that New York City is notably crazy, Paris is actually crazier. The people in the shops bitch at each other more. They’re colder to the customers. The people drive more maniacally. And just like we have a pretty good following here in New York City, the Paris audience was every bit the New York audience: just as loud, boisterous, and clamoring… The regular eat-you-alive New York audience, only it was Paris.”
On to Lille: “We got there and our equipment didn’t because some asshole punk – if I may be so blunt – in Paris poured water in the tank of our diesel truck that was to take our equipment there. So the motor seized up – as motors will do with water in the engine – nine kilometers out of Paris. The equipment never made it, and we arrived at the hall to find the stage with no equipment there, but a lot of angry Frenchmen on it.
“The hall was sold out – about a few thousand capacity… We kinda grouped around the promoter while he explained to the folks (over the P.A. system) that there wasn’t going to be a concert tonight – he didn’t think – cause there wasn’t any equipment. Well, Frenchmen being irate Frenchmen will get irate, I guess. And they didn’t take the situation lightly. So we retreated to a backroom and set up a date when we could go play in their park for free. We also invited the press back so we could at least get the word disseminated because we couldn’t talk to the people; they were after our throats.
“There was a lot of fist shaking and a lot of screaming. And they sure did crush forward…they were all around us on stage. We had to form a V to get to the back room and slam the door and lock it. We actually had barricades, chairs up on the doors and all that. Well, the press never did make it back, or if they did, they were a little late because we finally lost our nerve and went out the back window. We climbed down this drainpipe twenty feet to the ground and escaped through the back streets of Lille on a moonless night – kind of chuckling. It was great…a lot of fun. Chicks out the back window. The band out the back window, running for your lives. And, you know, while you’re running for your lives, it’s hard to take it seriously.”
The group then hit England again for an outdoor rock festival which went on despite horrendous weather. Then back to the continent, Amsterdam and Luxemburg: “We played over Radio Luxemburg over all their services with a million and a half watts of power to an audience of between 20 and 40 million people, they tell us… It’s a clear channel all the way to Australia.”
Back to Germany, Munich to be precise, then “the buses went on to Geneva, and a couple of us rented cars and took a side trip through Bavaria and through Austria and Switzerland…Switzerland…an amazing place. It looks like heaven on earth, and the people were really boss. We flew back to London and did four days at the Lyceum ballroom…and then home.
“Actually, we’d probably have played better for all our tastes if we had played more and taken less days off to see Europe. And we would have seen Europe better if we hadn’t been playing. It was a pretty nice combination of both.”
The next Dead album will come out of the tour tapes.
“We’re thinking of a 2- or 3-record set. But we may market it in the form of a two-record set and a single disc with a special package price. That’s one thought that’s occurred to us… It would be selected cuts from our European tour. It was all recorded.”
* * *
Although he’s barely had time to sit back and enjoy his emergence as an outfront Rock Star, Weir expressed general satisfaction with his solo album.
“I’m especially satisfied in the fact that a lot of these songs that were new when we were doing the record – they were just in their infant stages – they were really remarkably apt performances of those songs for that stage of their development. It was really lucky that we got them that good in the studio. We were really starting from scratch then, and it has actually taken us quite a while (since then) to get back to that level of proficiency.”
Ace came about because “nobody else seemed to be on the (studio recording) trip. I approach Garcia, ‘Well, man, you know, I got this and this to do.’ And Phil’s got this (to) do, and he’s working with David Crosby. So, more or less, the unanimous opinion is: ‘Why don’t you just go and do a (solo) studio album.’ I got a lot of material, and I just can’t use all of it for the Grateful Dead. There’s just not room. So I just said, ‘Okay, I’ll just do a solo album,’ I guess.
“I pretty much knew in the back of my mind what would happen. I go and get the time booked and start putting the material together. Everybody gets wind of the fact I got the time booked, and I may be going into the studio. So, one by one, they start coming around, Lesh and Garcia, ‘Hey, man, I hear you got some time booked at Wally Heider’s. Need a bass player? A guitarist? etc., etc.’ It’s kinda like the Tom Sawyer routine with the fence. And I say, ‘Wel-l-l, I wanna be careful and get just the right musicians for the record, you know.’ Of course, I ended up with the Grateful Dead on the record, which I figured upfront. I don’t have any reason to believe anybody else thought it’d be any different. And we had a great time making the record.”
Since ‘One More Saturday Night’ usually closes a Dead concert, it seems curious that ‘Cassidy’ ends the album. “Well, ‘Cassidy’ fell together last. It was the last song we did in the studio. It was the one I left to last. And it seems that after ‘One More Saturday Night,’ you’re all jacked up. At least, ‘One More Saturday Night’ jacks me up. And if you’re all filled up with energy, it seems a nice gesture to me – not to sedate that energy but more to put a finishing touch on it. In my opinion, ‘Cassidy’ is a much more polished song. At least, the vibes I’m trying to put out…the picture I’m trying to paint is a much more mellow sort of thing…which is not to say lazy, laid-back, slow or down, cause it’s a very up song to me.”
‘Cassidy’ seems to be about Neal Cassady – the former Merry Prankster and one of the leading characters in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. “It’s two Cassidys… A friend, a lady by the name Eileen, a really boss chick, had no place to stay, and we put her up. She was pregnant and decided she wanted to have a natural child birth. We suggested that she do it at our place.
“While she was having the child, I was sitting out in the other room – the living room – scratching on the ole guitar, and the song just kinda made its presence known. It just all fell together real nicely. I had the song for about a year and a half, and I’d just called it ‘Cassidy’ cause it was born the same day as Cassidy Law, who is named after Neal Cassady.
“So, an old school friend of mine by the name of John Barlow who I’ve been working with – he’s been doing the lyrics with me – also knows the lady Eileen and the child Cassidy. He finally flashed that ‘Yeah, there seems to be a relationship between the song and the kid.’ So, he wrote the song for the child Cassidy. And, while he was doing it, he all of a sudden flashed that he was painting a picture or a story that was being seen through the eyes of Neal Cassady. It seemed like he was telling the story. It was really strange and beautiful the way the whole thing fell together.
“He finished that up about a week before we did the record. I just looked at the words and said ‘Beautiful.’ Thought it was just dynamite and just right. And they were. I just folded (the paper) up, put it in my pocket, and didn’t even attempt to make sure that the words coincided with my melody line. Then the last day that we were recording, I just took the words out of my pocket. I had previously recorded a basic track with my guitar and Billy (Kreutzman) playing the drums. That night I overdubbed a couple of rhythm guitar tracks and a lead track, and threw them all together to make this sort of lush, a bit out of tune, sort of angular sound I wanted… I was working with Donna Godchaux – Keith’s wife – on vocals, and we just went over the song once. I broke out the words, and we looked at em. As I just read them off, I was applying the melody for the first time really, and it all worked perfectly. By the second verse, Donna was singing harmony. So we went over it like that and then went out and recorded it. Then we did a short overlay for the bridge part. And that was the song. The whole thing was relatively effortless.”
Weir feels the Dead’s new pianist, Keith Godchaux, and his vocalist wife Donna are “incredible additions. I don’t know, they must have come straight from heaven. It’ll be a year in August for Keith (in the band), and if we ever get off our lazy asses, we’ll get Donna worked into the group. She sings on a few numbers now, but it’s criminal the way we’ve neglected her talents.”
Also neglected, it seems, were Weir’s songwriting talents. “I had retired for the longest time with ‘Born Cross-Eyed’” (on the Dead’s second album, Anthem of the Sun) “which didn’t come out like I had imagined it. I had it all together in my head, but at that time, I just was not able to convey to a band what it was I wanted to hear. So it was useless for me to write a song. Garcia had been working with bands for a long time, and I was relatively new to it. Garcia knew how to tell a band what he wanted to hear and all that. If you’re writing a song, you have to be able to express yourself to the people you’re working with or you’re never going to get what you want. It’s frustrating.
“Anyway, I just slowly over the years learned how to get stuff out of musicians that I wanted to hear. The way you do that is by learning how to be responsive to other musicians and to find out what they want and give it to them. When you’re learning one, you’re learning the other. Finally, it got to the point where if I wanted to do a song, I could just take it to the band, and we’d have it worked up just like I wanted to hear it. In most cases, a little bit better. So, I started writing songs again.”
Lyricist John Barlow makes his debut on Ace. “Barlow’s an old school friend of mine and a really good writer. He was born, raised, and lives in Wyoming. It seems to be a budding working relationship. I mean, he gives me a lot of shit. He gets on my case and rides me. I live in fear of a telephone ringing because I figure it’s him telling me to get off my ass and write a song. Nonetheless, he’s a really proficient, really good poet. I think it was probably me who told him he was a good poet because he always regarded himself as a prose writer. He’s working on a book now.
“I’ll continue to write with Hunter. Although, Hunter’s mostly busy writing with Garcia and riding his bicycle.”
One of the most obvious influences that show in Weir’s writing is a distinct Spanish flavor. “I took a vacation to Mexico,” he said, “and I can’t get out if it. Once you’ve been down to Mexico, there’s a certain aesthetic you’ll never outlive. Well, maybe I’ll outlive it but it’s just taken a while. It just keeps cropping up. It’s just something that I find pleasant, humorous. There’s something about Mexico that I find really humorous… I really like that particular type of feeling.”
On the album, Weir used strings and horns for the first time on any Dead member family album. “It was about time as far as I’m concerned,” he said firmly. “At one time or another, we’d like to rehearse a brass section and maybe even a string section and do a tour like that. We’ve kicked the idea around, but we’re nowhere near doing it yet.
“We have a chance to play a country & western show in Missouri on a bill with George Jones and Tammy Wynette. There’s a chance. By the time this is printed, we’ll know… I’m really looking forward with eager anticipation and bated breath to play to a redneck audience. I think that’d be a lot of fun. I’d just like to see what they could possibly think about us. Cause, we’ve now played to a hall full of Germans…”
Would the Dead just play their countrified numbers?
“I don’t know. We always do the best we can. We might just say ‘Fuck it’ and do what we always do.”
Frankie: “You have to because you couldn’t just walk in and just try to do your country and western numbers.”
Bob: “We couldn’t do anything like that. ‘And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Bobby Ace’ or anything like that. They just wouldn’t go for it. I could go down and get a Nudie suit and they still wouldn’t believe it. Garcia has one.”
Frankie: “He doesn’t have the nerve to wear it.”
Bob: “I think I’ll get one anyway.”
Frankie: “Garcia carried it all over Europe.”
Bob: “It’s a real beauty too.”
Frankie: “If it didn’t make it on the bus, he’d scream at his old lady: ‘Where’s the suit? WHERE’S THE SUIT?’”
Bob: “You’ve got to see it. It’ll rot your sides.”
Frankie: “It’s the flashiest, gaudiest suit you’ve ever seen.
“I mean, it’s so gaudy, he didn’t have the nerve… Finally, he got Bobby on the bus one day and said ‘If you get one, I’ll wear mine.’”
Bob: “If I can afford it, I’ll get one.”
Frankie: “Well, it’s very camp, but I’m afraid somebody’d think you guys went over the deep end.”
Bob: “I’m not sure we haven’t. Garcia himself says: ‘It may not be altogether tasty, but it’s FLASH!’”
Frankie: “It’s filled with rhinestones.”
Bob: “…and he got boots with solid silver heels to go with it.”
Everybody continued to yuk it up over Garcia’s Nudie suit, but we finally made it back to the group and their music, particularly the way they spontaneously structure a show.
“We play cues to each other, and depending upon whether or not anybody’s listening or whether anybody cares to second the motion, we’ll go that way. If you can get two on a trip, you generally go there. It can be something we all know or a completely new idea introduced within the context of what we’re doing. If the movement gets adopted, then we can go to a completely new place. Or if somebody introduces a familiar line from an old place – it may be a song or a passage that we’re more or less familiar with – we can go that way.”
Frankie interceded: “They send signals to the audience unconsciously. Honest, in my mind, I don’t think they know that they’re doing it. At one gig, they spent hours and hours laying out a story that I’m sure they weren’t aware they were laying out.”
“Sometimes we know what we’re doing,” Weir affirmed. “Sometimes we’re completely lost in what we’re doing, and maybe it just grabs us and takes us there too… It seems to fall into place a lot to me also. It’s a tenuous art of trying to make format out of chaos, of course. As we get better practiced at it, we can get looser and freer in our associations, and let the music more or less move us in a given direction. Sometimes, if what we’re doing just really wants to go somewhere and the air is just pregnant with it, it’s undeniable, we’ll just go there. On a really good night, it’ll happen a succession of times. No one will even play a cue, yet bang we’re just off.”
Will the Dead play “Alligator” again?
“It’s not a matter of not wanting to. I’ll tell you and this is the honest to God truth, we’ve forgotten the song – how to play it. We dropped it from our repertoire once cause it got tired. Now we’ve just fucking forgot it.”
Yet they continue to egg on the crowd to request it.
Frankie: “They like to hear that guy yelling ‘Alligator.’ That’s a standard joke backstage.”
Bob: “We call him the ‘Alligator Man,’ whoever he is.”
But the Dead did play “Caution (Don’t Stop on Tracks)” at Manhattan’s Academy of Music…
“Well, we tried ‘Caution’ for the first time in a long long time because that part (of Anthem of the Sun) is not so structured, and we can remember pretty much how that one goes. It takes a lot of work to get back into that old stuff. And we’re more interested in the new stuff that we’re trying to work out.
“Pigpen, if health permits, will be coming up with some surprises pretty quickly. His album is still in the future. It’s not a real concrete reality yet. He’s written some very good songs. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s not ready to do an album yet because he’s not going to make the same mistake I did, of not being absolutely ready.
“I left a lot of stuff to chance. I did it purposely… But in Pigpen’s case, it would be pretty much advantageous to really know what he’s going to do… The way I see it, he could do a record best if he did it in a week. I mean, that’s everything – recording the vocals, putting in the brass, etc… If he recorded it in a week, it’d have a spontaneity that Pigpen can just put out.
“Everyone in the Dead had played on (ex-Dead drummer) Mickey Hart’s upcoming album that he’s been putting together over the last year and a half in this studio he has hustled together to his everlasting credit. And, he’s got just about every superstar in the world on it.
“And, we hope to have a surprise for New York City soon.”
* * *
Surprises, surprises… The Dead keep growing and spreading out yet somehow managing to become tighter than ever in performance. The group that originally just thought of themselves as “dormant musicians” who “just wanted to play good enough music to survive and live reasonably comfortably,” as Bob relates, has grown into one of the major rock acts. And now they’re even in the midst of changing the “upfront man.” Their longevity, however, has produced some weird effects.
Frankie: “You can sure see it backstage. Some of those people who’ve always been there are there. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a 13-year-old. A 13-year-old to see the Grateful Dead! And Bobby pointed out the gray hairs.”
Bob: “Yeah, there’s gray hair showing at times for our concerts now.”
Frankie: “It’s gotten really nice.”
Bob: “I’m digging the variety myself. It’s great, man.”
Frankie: “It’s really strange.”
What to expect at a Grateful Dead concert? Anything less than variety and a touch of creative insanity would really be strange.
(by Andy McKale, from Crawdaddy, September 1972)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com
(Lesh & Weir talk about the Europe '72 tour in 1995.)