Bob Weir: Friend of the Devil
YOU COULD SAY THAT THE GRATEFUL DEAD was a willful, remorseless, evanescent and arcane, infidel, raucous and occasionally clumsy inside joke, and you got it or you didn’t, but, either way, it’s gone, one extravagant means of making noise in the world disappeared and no more easily replaced than Charlie Parker or Elvis or Bill Monroe or John Coltrane. No other luminary rock & roll band was as supple, as tribal, as ardent in pursuit of spontaneous invention, less shy of fumbling, as rarefied or as complex in its musical and lyrical references, as deft at storytelling, less greedy, or more indifferent to the embrace of the popular culture. Everyone knows that the effort didn’t always succeed. There were setbacks and fallow periods. The veneration surrounding the band was simple-minded and tedious. It reduced Jerry Garcia, an extravagantly gifted, haunted and charismatic man, to something resembling a cartoon figure – Uncle Jerry, Captain Trips. Only the eleven musicians who took part, four of them now deceased, know truly what the experience of being engaged in the endeavor was like – it amounted to an intimate freemasonry – and how fragile it was.
Three of the band’s members – Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart – are performing this summer with the Other Ones, a seven-piece band playing songs from the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. In the three years since Jerry Garcia died, Lesh has not joined a band or made a record. Hart has formed Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box, released a record and appeared twice on the bill of the Furthur Festival. Weir has toured assiduously to establish a following for Ratdog, a six-piece band that began as a collaboration between him and Rob Wasserman, the bass player who has worked with Lou Reed and Rickie Lee Jones and also made records on his own. The other members of Ratdog are the drummer Jay Lane, the keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, the saxophone player Dave Ellis and Matthew Kelly, who plays harmonica and guitar and was a member of Kingfish, a band that Weir double-jobbed with in the Seventies. Ratdog covers songs from Weir’s solo career, songs from the catalog of rhythm & blues and, at the insistence of promoters, a number of songs by the Grateful Dead. Weir was not keen to accommodate them – he regarded it initially as living off the past – but on reflection, he became aware that he “wasn’t yet ready to give some of the material up.” Ratdog travels by bus. Weir is one of the least spoiled men who ever enjoyed acclaim. He has never been pretentious about what restaurants he eats in or who makes his clothes or who cuts his hair or where he takes his vacations. He shed the opulence and prerogatives of rock & roll stardom as easily as someone sloughing off a coat. Ratdog plays at smaller halls and at lower volume than the Grateful Dead did. Weir’s voice has been easier to hear and has become richer, more assured and more expressive. He is the band’s only guitarist, and the responsibility has made his playing – always eccentric – more agile and inventive.
Weir was the youngest member of the Grateful Dead, and the others frequently treated him as if he were slower and less sophisticated than they were, as if he were a kid. For years the band engaged a sound engineer who didn’t care to listen to Weir play guitar. The engineer reduced the volume of Weir’s contribution until, at times, he was nearly inaudible. “I was definitely low man on the totem pole,” Weir says, “especially at the beginning. And for a long time, I just had to shut up and take it.” Of the reward in the next world for his tolerance of being the band’s most put-upon member, he says, “Another star in my heavenly crown.” Sue Swanson, who has known Weir since they were high school students and who attended the second rehearsal of the band that was to become the Grateful Dead – no one was allowed in to the first – says about him, “He’s gracious and compassionate, and he’s got a heart of gold. Being the kid whom everyone teased, he had to defend himself all the time, but he’s matured a great deal, and I don’t think he’s going to play the fool anymore.”