Jan 30, 2019

1970: Bob Weir Interview

An interview by Bud Scoppa & David Reitman

Some things flow along so organically, you hate to interrupt them or bring them to an end. Like the Dead's music on a good night. So you just lie back and let yourself get carried along. When I showed up at the hotel room to talk to Bob Weir, I found Bud Scoppa there doing just that. What they were discussing was so startlingly real (for a change) that I couldn't bring myself to break it up. So Bud and I decided to combine our interview right there and I oozed into it at that point.
Talking with Bob Weir, and the assorted New Riders and friends that were present, was like hearing the Dead verbally. Maybe it was those chocolate-chip cookies, I don't know. I do know that I and Thou had their first good discussion for a long time, and since Bud was doing such a good job as Thou, I kept my questions/comments to a bare minimum. I hope this edited version of that marathon makes you feel as good as it made me feel. Or at least gives you some insights into the Dead's music.

BS: What is your relationship with Warner Brothers like now? 
BW: We finally caught on to how to make a commercial, or more commercial, record. And with that came their renewed interest in marketing us, and with their renewed interest in marketing us came a renewed relationship between them and us.
BS: But even prior to that, the "put on the Dead and spread" thing...
BW: They were without a doubt trying before that thing...
BS: It might be hard to separate these two elements, but on the one hand you've got Warner Brothers' need for a salable product and on the other hand you've got this whole vocal-traditional thing working itself out. Did those things just come together? Was it more one than the other? Did you consciously strive to make a salable record?
BW: No, not really. You try to make it as good as you can and hope that it'll be salable. Workingman's Dead came out with ten cuts on it as opposed to 3 or 4...
BS: Well, the first one was like that...
BW: Yeah.
BS: Is that the kind of thing that was just before its time?
BW: That was the kind of material we were doing at that point. Then later we got into more extended improvisational stuff. Then after doing a couple of years of that we found sort of a happy medium, where we could do both extended improvisational stuff and songs. From a record company standpoint and the way the media's set up these days, it's easier to sell songs than it is to sell improvisational long pieces.
BS: That's even more substantially true now than it was a year ago. It seems to me to be awfully tight.
BW: That's one of the restrictions of the art of making a record. The art of making a record encompasses the music, how long the piece is going to be, how appealing and how accessible it is to the audience. By accessible I mean easily understood. As opposed to John Coltrane, who played some dynamite music, I mean some really fantastic music, but he was never any superstar. And he had not much of an audience, because not many people could understand what he was playing.
BS: So accessibility was really the problem with your music...
BW: Yeah, I would think so. It bugs you if you are playing music the best you can play it, and not many people are listening, and just because you want people to listen, because you're a performer, and a performer wants people to listen, generally, you might consider changing your material or finding a new sort of material that more people will be interested in listening to, and at the same time you will still be interested in playing it. And that's kind of where we settled down, at least with Workingman's Dead.
BS: Do you prefer one way to the other? You're involved more in the improvisational aspect, aren't you?
BW: Not when I write songs. It's hard to say; I like them both. Generally when I write a song I think first of the record, of the recording of the song. It can grow from that point, in live performance. So these days I think of an encapsulated song and I try to state all the possibilities and avoid repetition and try to keep within a short space of time a whole lot of movement and to build a relatively cohesive unit out of the song. So I live in both those worlds...
BS: Complementary, in your case...
BW: Yeah, because say in a single for instance, two minutes and twenty-five seconds, if you can state a theme that could be a jam, if you can state a theme that can suggest everything that could go on for 20 minutes in that theme in 15 seconds, you've really created something...
BS: I've always thought that singles were pretty highly evolved art forms...
BW: I feel the same way.
BS: And the other thing is, not on your earlier records, but especially in live performance, it seemed what you were doing was 2:20 singles surrounded by transitions, you know, going away and coming back again. It's like when the people get up and start dancing and scream their heads off, that's when you hit that recognizable part...
BW: Right...
BS: ...and that's kind of the exciting thing.
BW: That all falls in the realm of accessibility once again.
BS: It seems like a successful formula. Like the Byrds did it with "Eight Miles High."
BW: Right. That's a really graphic example of what I was just saying...
BS: Is anybody else doing that specific process?
BW: Well, Buffalo Springfield were doing it a long time ago and so were we. A lot of bands have been doing it for a long time. You can go out at any given point and then come back and there's a flash of recognition, and that's the onstage excitement syndrome where everybody used generally the same ploys. That's a ploy where the audience gets off a whole bunch and retrospectively you get off, where you've gone out for an extended improvisational period of time, shall we say, and you flash back in on the song and everybody goes "Oh wow!"
BS: That's the thing that makes it transcendent, because it isn't really planned...
BW: We've been doing that pretty consistently on the Other One, the song with the "tiger paws" rhythm that Billy and me came up with, and the other night it was getting slowed down and convoluted and there was really no direction it was headed, and all of a sudden I had a flash of inspiration and I kind of half remembered a Coltrane riff from Africa Brass that I was particularly fond of, but I couldn't remember it all, so I made up my own tonal structure for it and I came in with a rather slow, lazy African shuffle, and Phil picked up on it real quick, and underneath it all the time was the other rhythm, because they were synchronized...
BS: You're really doing two things at once...
BW: We're playing one thing and suggesting the other, and then intuitively at one point we both made Garcia feel it; Garcia was playing in between the two. So me and Phil and I think Bill came crashing back with the other rhythm and the crowd of course stood on its head... That's a great feeling, because I look over at Garcia, before all that went down everybody was tense, trying to get it on, nobody was smiling much, and at the point that we came back into the Other One rhythm the bottom half of my face just about fell off and Garcia, well he was more grin than beard, which is unusual.
BS: And you can really avoid that whole thing about being on Broadway for 500 shows because you can make it whatever you want it, within some context.
BW: There's a lot of factors there - how much sleep we've had, how particularly inspired we are...
BS: Well that's the danger I guess. You are taking a risk every time you go out on the stage.
BW: I don't think we'll ever be at the point where we can go out there and rip off a really professional show behind playing just set music, because none of us can get off behind it any more. Because of that fatal first flash of when you get into some really far out intuitive stuff, and it's so electrifying when it works right...
BS: As much from you as the guys out in the audience...
BW: Oh, probably more, because we feel it really deeply. It's so electrifying and satisfying when it works right that we can no longer get off performing anything set. So in any of our given songs, there's very, very little structure. The structure can go only as far as chord changes and at our best, we even intuit chord changes. That's pretty far out. That hasn't been done in music yet, where people are cohesively intuiting chord changes together, and that's happened to us and that's just some amazing stuff.
BS: It really mates the mind and the body, doesn't it; it's really like coming I suppose...except in your head.
BW: Sixfold. Cause there's six of us doing it.
BS: In our all-encompassing need to classify things, it seems as though there's a movement afoot to classify the music you've been playing as something other than rock, whatever that means.
BW: It's nothing more than an extension of rock and roll, a logical, I would think, extension of rock and roll.
BS: I was thinking that calling that rock rather than calling it jazz, let's say, has as much to do with the response to the music... That's the kind of response that jazz might find it handy to imbue upon an audience, bring a kind of warm excitement back rather than a cool appreciation. Am I being simplistic?
BW: We played with Miles Davis at the Fillmore West and he started playing amplified music and, lo and behold, it's still jazz. I think there is a fine line there. One of the fine lines is that Miles Davis has been playing for how many years and he can play 32nd notes until his nose turns blue, and each one's more beautiful, more perfectly timed and well placed than the next. He has so much more technique and there's so much more going by; generally there's not too much time to get really worked up. Though he has the same effect on  me that a really good rock band does, he really gets me off. He's got a lot of young people in his band and when I was listening to him at the Fillmore West, he'd take a solo and split and some other soloist would come in, but they're all younger guys, pretty much in our range. They're pretty well versed and certainly musically know a lot about what they're doing, but they didn't get off - I know they didn't get me off - like Miles got me off; as soon as he stepped back up to the microphone and started doing what he was up to, playing his trumpet...
DR: Didn't jazz in a sense get away from the people, during the bebop era; as you said, they ripped off a whole bunch of 32nd and 64th notes and it was very hard to know what was going on, unless you were a musician, whereas what you're doing is a little more accessible because you don't play as many notes.
BW: Well, it depends what you're going after. Of course what you're going after depends on who you are. Like I say about accessibility, I can appreciate Coltrane - Phil turned me on to Coltrane as a matter of fact - but how many people can appreciate Coltrane? I guess it's a shame Coltrane sacrificed accessibility for something else - whatever else he was doing. And the result was he had little audience and great music.
DR: You seem to be trying to get an audience and make great music.
BW: Well, we try to learn by example, and Coltrane set a really striking example of that possibility where you can get just too far out... He brings me up and I start playing stuff I didn't know I could play, and I imagine when I'm 30 years old, I'll be doing that to somebody else. So we have a scene where we have people who know where to go and people who can follow, but it gets turned around - sometimes I have the far-out idea - generally it's Garcia or Phil - but sometimes I have the far-out idea and it goes that direction, but in that we have so many people playing together and a sort of a basic commitment to make it understandable to everybody in the band - and by taking in everybody in the band you can generally reach everybody who's listening - it seems to work.
BS: It seems like every X factor you add, you multiply the number of levels you can reach, because you're bringing in all the levels each person is capable of and all the levels they're capable of getting to with each other's help.
BW: Right. But somehow it didn't work that way with Coltrane, where he had a lot of people, he had Pharaoh Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and of course Elvin Jones, and the combination of Trane and Jones was the musical happening of that decade for certain, probably the musical happening of the quarter century, for that matter. But they were all too well versed, there wasn't enough diversity in what they were all into. They were all pretty much conservatory trained musicians and they started right there on a level that's beyond the man on the street's, and of course they got better and better, more proficient in their realm, and left more and more men on the streets being men on the streets instead of enlightened individuals, like they left a few.
BS: I guess it's all in the way you look at music, like if you define music as that which is played and that which is heard...
BW: Right, right...
BS: Then Coltrane is less valid than, let's say, the Beatles.
BW: For sure, in that sense.
BS: It seems to me that, as you move up the line, that if you keep one hand locked onto what you started with...
BW: We started with something different because our roots are completely different than Coltrane's. Jazz obviously came out of the blues and into what Coltrane was doing. But our roots are American country music, and a little bit of country blues, as exemplified by the jug band. Seeing as though we've been playing around those forms of music for a long time, we understand them best and work within those modes, and those modes are really ingrained on people's psyches. They've heard blues, rehashed and rehashed, to the point that none of it can get by them; so we're relatively safe if we keep working in that area, for the next few years, in terms of getting over people's heads.
DR: Why do you suppose that older country musicians never took it in the direction you're going in, that is take it as a basis and then stretch it out?
BW: Well, I would say probably economic reasons. If you're a Nashville studio musician you play Nashville studio music, that's how you make your living, and I imagine they get together and jam. I've heard stories of rooms full of pedal steel guitar players, and as early as 1964 - 1963 actually - the big rage down there was playing Charlie Parker riffs, on the pedal steel guitar, getting them perfect, sounding like a horn. If they can do that, they can fuckin' do anything. And the pedal steel guitar is an amazing instrument anyway. And there's other perfectly capable musicians down there, I don't have to start running off examples among those musicians, there must be some supermen who can do anything, and I imagine they've done pretty much anything you can imagine down there in their own spare time. You don't hear it because there's apparently no market for it.
BS: Well, maybe you'll help them indirectly.
BW: The restrictions of their art are how far you can get within the 3-chord or 4-chord restrictions of country music. And that's a meaningful restriction. And a restriction like that makes the form a fine art. They've done some really amazing stuff behind those limitations.
BS: Strict limitations don't always hurt. I think in some cases they kind of compress and challenge artists who ordinarily might be too lazy to challenge themselves.
BW: Either that or they have a tendency to force scenes you can't spread out, they have a tendency to force you higher. If we're playing in a country mode, you won't hear us going off into Coltrane licks and that's understood; in order to appreciate the art form, the country music art form, you have to appreciate its limitations, you have to play within it. At the age of 23 I can't say I'm going to be the innovator that's going to melt these two together, because I can't say that I've got enough experience or proficiency or anything to be that innovator until I'm sixty years old.
BS: And you do keep them distinctively separate.
BW: We at least try to.
BS: By having two separate parts of the show, with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, rather than one in the middle of the other, let's say, and by using certain musicians in each...
BW: Right...
BS: By adding that to what you already have it's kind of like a natural completion. You've been giving them post-rock and roll and now you're giving them pre-rock and roll, and the middle is the core and the core is just the distance. That kind of leaving a no man's land between them. Which is the body of what they've been hearing for the last few years.
BW: You can suggest all that by giving them the roots and giving them the logical completion, not the completion but the extension of where they're going, and you can suggest easily all the distance in between. A lot of times we play Coasters songs and "Good Lovin'" for instance, and stuff like that.
DR: Weren't the New Riders born out of necessity as much as just pleasure?
BW: Pleasure.
DR: But doesn't that experience enhance what you do elsewhere? You can bring things back from it.
BW: It's an attempt to bring more different music to the people...
BS: You know, what you have is a close parallel to Kubrick's "Space Odyssey." You know, the ape throws the bone into the air and it turns into a rocket ship. The bone turning into a rocket ship and becoming all those thousands of years that went in between, you know, in a much compressed sense...
BW: You know we've suggested much more music than we can possibly between all of us play in one night...
BS: When I first heard American Beauty I really liked it instantly a lot better than Workingman's Dead, like I always liked some tracks on it, but I never could get behind the whole album. I thought Live Dead was the one that should have been shouted about instead, or should have sold, but this one is really good. I don't know what the difference is. I think you do sound a little tighter vocally now.
BW: That, as a matter of fact, has been instrumental in the change. The change that has been the most noticeable to the record buying public. Well, we all decided that we'd like to sing, because singing is a lot of fun and we'd been glossing over it for a long time, and all of a sudden we delved into it. That was pretty much maybe like Crosby's and Stills' influence on us, cause they were hanging out for a while with us back around this time last year, and they were really good singers and they never directly got together with us and coached us on our singing, but perhaps their influence...whatever it was, we began singing together.
DR: Why do you suppose the Dead have lasted as long as they have? Is it because you have been denied the ego conflicts brought about by super-stardom?
BW: If I get to be rich I'll be glad. If, on the other hand, I get to be a rock and roll star, it'll probably bum kick me. Because that makes it impossible to relate to people. It's to the point now where it would be very difficult for me or any one of us really to fall into a scene here in New York, for instance, because most everybody knows our faces now and we just cannot relate to people on a person-to-person level. The time-honored bitch of the star.
BS: Well, it's as valid as it ever was.
BW: Like we had a whole myth and we actually supported that myth in the eventuality that someday we might make it big. We supported that myth in the hopes that even if we did make it big, that we could still be real people and still have the fun that real people have and still have the trips that real people have. And apparently that's not possible with the arrangement the media have got for promoting music.
BS: It's funny. Groups will come into town for the first time and I'll talk to them and they'll be just like you and me [and the next time] they'll have a best-selling record and they'll be changed.
BW: It's hard not to.
BS: Well, I guess you get protective of your own time.
BW: I know very few people who have achieved any success who've gotten a big head behind it or anything like that. But you do get defensive and you do get a lot of shit laid on you. Like, for instance, along with success comes responsibility and people assume that you should be owned up to the responsibility, and that of course is a great weight on you. Like for instance I've got to be right on with whatever I say, and I've got to be as universal in my thinking as I can possibly be, and if I'm ever pursued to make a statement about a given subject it's got to be like I say, right on. Or I'm going to start factionalizing people. If I said "Kill the pigs" or came across with that philosophy, then all of a sudden you find there's a bunch of people that are on that trip and, "So and so from so and so group are big stars, and they say that, so that must be where it's at." You start scenes like that and you can easily create a whole lot of unrest. It gets beyond music into political philosophy. And I'm a musician, not a political philosopher. And generally I say, "I just play the guitar" or words to that effect. I may have the feelings on any given subject, but a lot of times I'm not at liberty to express them.
BS: Well, you're pretty much acting out your political philosophy.
BW: Exactly. This is my bitch: that people don't see I'm living and acting out any political or social philosophy that I may have. I'm not a perfect example of the way I think and the way I feel about things, because the way I think and feel about things hasn't come to completion yet. So you can only see it half way and you can misconstrue what you see, easily. So I have to be very evasive. And that's generally the case for most everybody...

(by Bud Scoppa & David Reitman, from Rock, 15 February 1971 - also partially reprinted in Sounds (UK), 15 May 1971)

Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com. 


  1. An excellent interview. Though printed in February 1971, it seems to have been done in fall 1970 - it took place in New York City, and Weir refers to the six-member band. Since they talk about general issues rather than specific recent events, it's impossible to date more precisely. (Though it would be nice to know what date was the Other One Weir talks about, it may likely be from a lost show. When Weir says "a lot of times we play Coasters songs," he may specifically be thinking of 11/8/70.)
    The interviewers do a great job, talking on the same level as Weir and finding some interesting questions.

    This interview finds Weir fretting about the band's accessibility. The Dead have now become successful to a mass audience, and the interviewers ask him about the changes from the band's earlier, more improv-heavy period: short tight songs, more singing.
    Weir particularly has Coltrane on the brain here, as an example of great but inaccessible music reaching only a small audience, a fate he wants the Dead to avoid. In later years as well, he'd be concerned with not "getting over people's heads" and making sure the music didn't get "too far out" for the audience to follow.
    Nonetheless, he's proud of the Dead's improvisational skills here, boasting about their ability to "cohesively intuit chord changes together... That hasn't been done in music yet." (But I think he exaggerates how unstructured their songs are.) His account of a recent Other One is probably the best description of being inside a jam that anyone in the Dead has given.

    A few other highlights:
    - when he wants to write a song that suggests a 20-minute jam theme within 15 seconds, that can grow in later performances, it's hard not to think of Playing in the Band, soon to be composed.
    - the 23-year-old Weir imagines that "when I'm 30 years old," he might be an influence to other players. (Nonetheless, he doesn't think he'll be a true genre-melding innovator until he's 60, although an interviewer suggests the Dead might help more traditional country musicians stretch out.)
    - he talks about the Dead keeping different styles of music separate: "If we're playing in a country mode, you won't hear us going off into Coltrane licks."
    - he briefly mentions playing different styles or genres in a show to suggest a larger whole, playing "the roots [and] where they're going [so] you can suggest easily all the distance in between... We've suggested much more music than we can possibly play in one night."
    - Weir talks quite a bit about jazz music, Coltrane's and Davis's bands, but is somewhat critical of both.
    - he's concerned about becoming a rock star, not only in not being able to relate to people anymore, but in having to be evasive about what he says in public: "I've got to be right on with whatever I say."
    - best line: "Garcia was more grin than beard."

  2. Extremely articulate and balanced for a 23 year old, thanks!