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.”
Weir is fifty. He used to look like a girl; now he looks a rancher. As a young man, he was hollow cheeked and wiry, but he has thickened slightly, his hair is shorter, and his slotlike mouth has turned down at the corners, so that if he’s tired or distracted, he looks grumpy. When he is engaged by the turn of a conversation, he listens with exceptional attentiveness. This heedfulness is perhaps the result of being dyslexic. His dyslexia is so severe, he says, that sometimes when he looks at trees on a hillside, they shift from one place to another. Throughout his childhood the condition went undiagnosed; he realized he had it about ifteen years ago, when he heard someone describing its symptoms. As a boy he assumed that everyone found reading as difficult as he did. What his classmates learned from books, he derived from what he heard. He listened carefully to his teachers so that he could repeat what they’d said with sufficient elaboration to sound thoughtful. When a phrase struck him as notable, he retained it, especially if it was ornate.
The vigilance and fierce resolve required to absorb what he hears is also apparent in Weir’s character, in the form of an exquisite antipathy toward authority. He avoided being drafted into the army by visiting his draft board dressed as Cochise, an Apache chief; also by having been arrested for possession of marijuana. He was drafted shortly after the arrest. “With a shaky hand and a tearful eye,” he says, “I had to write the draft board saying that until the matter was resolved and my innocence established, I was, regrettably, unable to serve.” He was acquitted, drafted again, then arrested again. He wrote another letter, insisting on his innocence, and after that the draft board left him alone. Weir continued to correspond with the draft board, however, sending it bricks, stones, sticks, tree limbs, tree stumps, pieces of lumber, packets of gravel, masonry shards, “anything I could get into the mailbox,” he says, under the impression that the draft board was obliged to retain any correspondence from a citizen.
By nature, Weir is skittish and balky and not easily drawn into conversation that is revealing. He usually says no more than is necessary, and his way of letting a person know that an exchange is at its end is to say less and less until he is mostly responding by answering yes, no or all right, as if the effort of speech had worn him out. A person who spends any time with him becomes aware that his attention has different degrees of acuteness and that sometimes he appears to withdraw himself altogether. It is as if he had been stunned. His friend John Barlow, who has known Weir since the two were classmates in high school and who has written the words to many of Weir’s songs, says, “Bobby has a lot of internal weather. He gets cloud bound.” Weir’s aloofness never seems arrogant, but there are periods of silence when the air seems rigid around him.
Weir’s manner is considerate to the point of courtliness. Some years ago, a woman who was a friend of his from childhood became pregnant by a man she didn’t intend to marry. Weir offered to marry her and pay to have the baby delivered in Switzerland so that the child could have a Swiss passport and avoid serving in the American military. Sue Swanson once threw water balloons from the roof of the house the Grateful Dead occupied in San Francisco during the late Sixties; when the police arrived, Weir said that he had thrown them and was arrested in her place.
Weir was not an accomplished musician when the Grateful Dead began, but he developed one of the most artful, unorthodox and self-effacing styles of guitar playing in rock & roll. Its hallmarks are lyric asides and cunning contrapuntal remarks that suggest a line of melody traveling through the map of the chord changes. The patterns of his attack and the structure of his accompaniments have elements of orchestral music and of jazz, especially the left hand of a jazz pianist, especially the left hand of McCoy Tyner, who was a member of the John Coltrane Quartet. Thousands of people have played guitar in rock & roll bands, but no one else has thought that it might be played the way Weir has played it. Using a commonplace object with a specific tradition differently from how everyone else has used it is an indication of a singular mind.
WEIR GREW UP A “SILVER-SPOON KID,” he says, in Atherton, a prosperous suburb south of San Francisco, near Palo Alto. He was the second of two boys adopted by Frederick and Eleanor Weir. His older brother, John, joined the Army when Bob was sixteen. John is now a long-haul trucker and lives in the East Bay; Bob sees him only occasionally. Two years after the Weirs adopted Bob, they had a daughter, Wendy, an artist with whom Weir has written two children’s books.
Frederick Weir was an engineer with his own firm in San Francisco. “My Dad went to Annapolis and came out at the beginning of the second World War,” Weir says. “From the time he left port on his first commission to the time he got back, he was seasick. They got him well and sent him off again, and this time the seasickness nearly killed him. I think he met my mom while he was recovering in the hospital in Seattle.
“I had a pretty regular growing-up, I guess. When I was nine or ten, my parents decided that the richest child is poor without the gift of music and bought a piano and gave us all lessons. I wanted to play the piano, but I hated ‘The Bluebells of Scotland,’ and, being dyslexic, I couldn’t read the music anyway.” As a student, Weir was nomadic. He was suspended or removed or expelled from school on at least eight occasions – twice from elementary school, twice from junior high school and four times from high school. “If there was a snowball fight or a prank happening somewhere,” he says, “and you got to the bottom of it, I was probably there. I just couldn’t help myself.”
His parents sent him for his sophomore year to a boarding school in Colorado called Fountain Valley, where his roommate was John Barlow. “He was a strange, goofy kid,” Barlow says. “He’s not a troublemaker as much as he’s just different from other people. He was definitely then, as now, marching to his own drummer, and it may not be a drummer at all.”
Weir and Barlow once rolled the pages of three months of the New York Times into balls, which they tossed over the transom of a room belonging to a boy who was away for the weekend, and when the boy returned and opened his door, the paper flew toward him like shrapnel. Weir emptied a bucket of water on Barlow while he was sleeping under an electric blanket. The blanket delivered Barlow a stunning shock. (Weir: “I didn’t know it was an electric blanket.”) They dressed as cowboys and chased each other up and down the halls with cap pistols. Years later, an airline banned the Grateful Dead after Weir fired off a cap pistol in the vicinity of a ticket agent. Barlow recalls that Weir liked to play guitar in the tiled showers for the echoing resonance. His one other passion was football. “I developed a mean streak,” Weir says. “I just loved to play. I was flipped out about football.”
At the end of the year, Fountain Valley gave Weir what he calls “the old toe” – that is, they informed the Weirs and the Barlows that one or the other of their sons could return, but not both. Barlow went back. “The difference between you and Mr. Weir,” Barlow says the school told him, “is that you know right from wrong, and we’re not sure that he does.”
Barlow is descended from a family that settled in Wyoming during the nineteenth century. The summer after he went to Fountain Valley, Weir left home without telling his parents and got a job as a hand on the Bar Cross Ranch, which belonged to Barlow’s mother and father. Barlow spent part of the summer at the ranch and the rest of it at summer school. Weir rode on a roundup, mended fences, put up the hay crop and lived in the bunkhouse with the cowboys. Barlow’s father noted that Weir did poorly with repetitive work, so he assigned him what Barlow says is the “most random task in the hayfield: scatter raking.” Scatter raking required Weir to drive a tractor hauling a rake. The rake collected whatever hay the harvester had missed. When the rake was full, Weir was to dump the hay in front of a piece of machinery called a hay sweep, which carried the pile to the haystack. Barlow describes his father as an employer of last resort and says that decades of superintending ranch hands had accustomed him to eccentric and unpredictable behavior. Even so, Weir struck him as an exotic. He frequently found the tractor that Weir had been driving crashed into a windrow or spinning its wheels in a ditch. The explanation was likely to be that Weir had seen an old rusted tool in the grass and had abandoned the tractor to examine it, or perhaps had jumped off to observe the progress of an eagle pursuing a field rat.
“My father’s diaries for the period are pretty funny,” Barlow says. “He liked Bobby – it was almost impossible not to – he just didn’t know what to make of him.”
At the end of the summer, Weir returned to his room at his parents’ house. He enrolled for his junior year at the only school that never kicked him out, Pacific High School, “a school for arty types,” Weir says.
On New Year’s Eve of 1964, Weir and a friend were walking around Palo Alto when they passed the music store where Weir gave guitar lessons, mostly to high school girls, and heard someone playing a banjo. Weir knocked on the door. It was opened by Jerry Garcia, who was waiting for a student. Weir reminded him what night it was. The two of them picked the lock on the door to the room where the instruments were kept and played for hours. As they were leaving, Weir says, “Garcia suggested that we had enough half-talent to form a jug band.”
At first, Weir’s mother would drive him to the music store – he didn’t have a license – so that he could rehearse with Garcia. I asked Weir if, after school, he used to bring home Garcia, who was five years older than he was and living in a car. “A few times,” he said. I asked what his mother and father made of Garcia, and he thought for a moment and said, “They would have preferred me hanging out with kids my own age.”
Weir’s parents felt that Pacific High was too permissive, so they enrolled him in Menlo Atherton High School, which kicked him out. When the suggestion of military school arose, Weir says, “I made it plain that if they ever wanted to see me again, they could give that up.” His parents arranged a place for him next at the Drew School, in San Francisco, which Weir describes as “a private school for well-heeled little maniacs at the end of the line.”
His attendance at Drew was episodic. “I would work with the band until closing time, at two,” he says, “then get up in the morning at six to ride the train to school, and, needless to say, I missed a few classes.” His schooling nearly ended altogether when the band was playing at a club in Belmont, near San Francisco, and a guy from Salt Lake City approached with an offer to work as the house band at a bar in Utah. The offer, though, fell through. Wendy, Weir’s sister, says that by now Weir was often staying out all night. “He would have dinner with my other brother and my parents and me,” she says, “then go out, and we’d see him again when he came home in the morning as we were having breakfast. Finally our mother said, ‘This is not the way our family operates. If you’re going to keep this up, you’ll have to move out on your own.’ And he did.”
During 1966 and 1967 – that is, when Weir was nineteen and twenty – the Grateful Dead occupied a converted rooming house at 710 Ashbury Street, in San Francisco. For a while, Weir’s roommate was Neal Cassady, who had been the model, ten years earlier, for Jack Kerouac’s character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Cassady loved to drive around the city, and sometimes Weir would accompany him. “He’d go fifty-five or sixty miles an hour without ever stopping for a red light or a stop sign,” Weir says. “One hand would be on the wheel and the other on his girlfriend beside him, and at the same time he had a way of punching the buttons on the radio so that the voices would appear to be having a conversation with each person in the car.
“He was about five feet eleven and a little wiry; he had a look that was something like a young Paul Newman, a Denver cowboy type,” Weir says. “There were a few minutes during each day when he was more or less human, and then, as the day progressed, he would get more and more revved up, and by the end of the day or the evening or well into the night, he would be carrying on conversations with two or three people at a time. Some of what he said was kind of crazy sounding: He used to tell people that he was having to pay back in this life for indiscretions he’d committed as the Al Capone of Mars. He usually spoke in rhymes. I can’t remember anything of it – it all went by so fast – but he used to come to our rehearsals and kind of rap along with us, and some of it might have been incorporated into lyrics. I had read On the Road as a teenager and it had hardened my resolve to be done with any other form of respectable life. I don’t want to say that he was a saint, because that’s not what he was, but being close to him was like being close to the sun. He looked like God to me.”
Weir’s bed during this period was a couch. The paper bag he kept at the foot of the couch contained nearly all his possessions. From time to time, his parents would visit – usually on Sunday afternoons and ask if he wanted to come home.
WEIR LIVES NORTH OF SAN FRANCISCO, in a house in the hills he bought twenty-five years ago with money he inherited from his parents. The house is mainly made of redwood and cedar. It is built into the side of a steep hill and looms above the road that goes past it. Through windows in the living room, you look into the branches of trees. Beyond the trees are a valley and more hills, and in the distance are grass-covered hills that rise like waves: the Marin headlands. Above his garage, Weir has a recording studio, where he has worked on his own records and where the Grateful Dead occasionally recorded – the neighbors complained about the noise.
Briefly, Weir and Garcia owned a house a few blocks from where I live in New York. Shortly before Garcia died, a FOR SALE sign was hung by the front door. A while ago, I noticed that it had come down. I asked Weir if he had sold it. We were sitting on a deck by his front door. It was a hot day, and a carpenter was banging nails at a house across the road.
“Yeah, it’s history,” he said. He had told me once that he and Garcia bought the house with the intention of using it together. I asked whether this had been part of a strategy to separate Garcia from the people in California who supplied him with heroin, and Weir said, “No, we were going to hang and have some fun. We rebuilt the penthouse as a sort of bachelor’s duplex because we were both solo at the time. He was in good shape. It was when he was having his show on Broadway, around Thanksgiving of ’87, and I was in New York for some reason. We were talking, and I said, ‘I could spend some time here,’ and he said he could, too, and I said, ‘I’ve got some nickels in my pockets, let’s buy a house.’ “
When Weir says, “I’m not grieving for Garcia” or “I carry his memory with me” or that he is “fulfilling a promise” by continuing to play music and that Garcia’s death was “something I have learned to accept” and that acceptance is “just one of the lessons of life,” I feel more the presence of his immense stubbornness and will than I do the workings of a timeless psychic process. He is resistant in any case to confession. “Even when he’s hitting on all four cylinders,” Barlow says, “he’s not the most emotionally revealing person in the world.”
Wendy Weir says that someone wishing to comprehend her brother’s habitual disengagement must not undervalue the defenses an adopted child embraces. Barlow says, “You have to understand, he was born outside of everything. Outside of his family, outside of the rest of the world in some sense with his dyslexia, and even, at times, unable to find a meaningful role for himself at the core of the organization that was central in his life. He was always the kid.”
WEIR’S MOTHER AND FATHER DIED three weeks apart from each other, in 1971. His mother had been ill for some years with cancer. It was a relief to her, Weir says, to have lived long enough to see that her son would be able to support himself.
Ten or twelve years after his parents’ deaths, Weir endured a period of insomnia that ended finally when he fell asleep early one morning. He dreamed then that he was a child in their house. He and his brother were in his brother’s room, looking at the bed, in the center of which, under the sheet, was a lump. Weir, the bolder of the two, grabbed the sheet and pulled it back, and the lump turned out to be a stillborn child.
Weir’s phone rang then and woke him. A young woman from his office said that she had on another line a woman who had called from a town east of San Francisco, saying that she was Weir’s mother. Weir spoke to her. It was clear from details she knew about his adoption that she was who she said she was. As a condition of giving him up, she said, she had promised not to contact him as long as the Weirs were alive. Even after she read in the papers that both had died, she had struggled over whether it was proper to call.
Weir had no idea of his background. She told him that she had been living in Tucson, Arizona, when she discovered that she was pregnant by her boyfriend, and she had gone to San Francisco to deliver the baby and arrange for its adoption. She never told her boyfriend the reason for her leaving. She didn’t know what had happened to him, where he was or even if he was still alive. A private detective whom Weir engaged eventually found him. He had retired from the service as a colonel and had raised four sons, one of whom, a musician, had recently died from cancer. Remarkably, he lived about ten miles from Weir.
The detective gave Weir his father’s phone number, but Weir did nothing with it for some time. Then he took a deep breath and dialed the number. He figured that he had about fifteen seconds before his father might hang up if he didn’t come to the point, so he rehearsed several ways of introducing himself. “My name is Robert Weir,” he eventually said, “and I live in Marin County, and I have some information that might be of interest to you. But first I have to ask you a few questions. Did you ever have anything to do with a woman named” – and he gave the name of his mother – “who lived in Tucson nearly fifty years ago?” His father said yes and then grew very quiet. “I don’t know how many children you have,” Weir went on, “but you might have one more than you thought you did.” When his father finally heard the news, he said, “Give me a second here.” Then he said, “The only Robert Weir I know of plays guitar with the Grateful Dead,” and Weir said, “Well, that would be me.”
On the day a few years ago when Weir told me this story, I asked whether he saw much of his father, and he said, “We had dinner last night.” His mother has since died. Then I asked whether his mother had given him a name when he was born, and he said that she had. I asked what it was, and he said, “It doesn’t really feel right to go into that.”
IN JUNE 1995, A COUPLE OF MONTHS before Garcia died, I heard the Grateful Dead play at the Meadowlands, in New Jersey, and after the concert I rode back to the band’s hotel in New York with Weir, Mickey Hart and Vince Welnick. To get clear of the traffic around the stadium, the band’s car followed a police car with a flashing red light. I had never had a police escort before. To Weir and the others, of course, it was routine – the kind of courtesy the governor extends to dignitaries who make the state and its citizens a lot of money – but I couldn’t overlook the radiant feeling of privilege or the sight of the flashing red lights reflected in the rear windows of the cars in front of us.
The conversation among the musicians revolved mainly around how much fun the three of them had derived from playing that night for thousands and thousands of people. I felt, somewhat morosely, that I had never in my life had as much fun as they were describing. And, of course, this had been a night more or less like any other in the career of a band that played more often than any other band. The night had been unusual, though, because a speaker blew in Jerry Garcia’s amplifier, and so he passed several minutes playing notes that no one could hear, fiddling with the knobs of his guitar and throwing malevolent glances in the direction of the guy who was trying to patch him into another part of the sound system. As it happened, the band was playing “The Other One,” Weir’s swirling, vampy jam written in 1968. In Garcia’s absence, Weir and Lesh had stepped forward and played with terrific force and momentum, and I couldn’t help feeling that part of the pace and exuberance was the result of Garcia’s having been forced to lay out. Mickey Hart said something about whatever drug it was that Garcia had taken that night – I didn’t recognize the name. Vince Welnick asked how much he had taken, and Hart told him. “Jesus,” Welnick said. “That’d kill a normal person. Half that’s toxic.” They all laughed. “Anything less, he wouldn’t even feel,” someone said. Hart said he had fought with Garcia all night to keep the tempo from flagging, and they laughed some more. Near the end of the concert, during a lapse in a period of improvisation, Garcia had stepped to the microphone and had sung, rather plaintively, the chorus to a calypso that goes, “Matilda, Matilda, she take the money and run Venezuela.” It had been a peculiar and unsettling moment – his voice was thin and mournful and so without artifice as to seem almost childlike.
Wendy Weir says that when her parents died, Garcia became a father figure for her brother, and that when Garcia died, he found himself adrift. Part of what has helped restore him, she says, is the relationship he has begun with his actual father.
FROM A DIARY: JUNE 1996, BOB WEIR at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, eight or ten people in the audience attending a rehearsal of Apartment House 1776 and Renga, two pieces by John Cage, being played simultaneously as part of the program of “An American Music Festival,” put on by the San Francisco Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. On the stage are the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas and, occupying folding chairs by the footlights, what’s left in town of the Dead – in addition to Weir: Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Vince Welnick. Bill Kreutzmann, the other drummer, is living in Hawaii, skin-diving mostly, and couldn’t be persuaded to return for the performance. A few days earlier, he consented to taking part in a sit-down held at the Grateful Dead office to discuss the band’s business, but once that had been disposed of, he got back on the plane.
Under the gauzy indoor light, Weir, the bashful cowboy, the artless pretty boy, the goofy, football-playing sensitif, is fingering his chin and peering at the score, which sporadically requires him to make “new music”-style contributions – tics and twitches and noodly little gestures of sound. He’s baffled, really, but he’s trying. The score consists of curving lines and shapes and geometric figures that Henry David Thoreau drew in notebooks – sketches of plants, scratchy little calligraphic bird tracks, animal tracks and various squirelly subjects such as cracks in pond ice. Cage transferred the drawings to music paper, arranged them into groups, and divided the groups among the orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas had the idea that parts could be given to electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drum synthesizer, which made it possible to engage the Dead. The musicians have been instructed to play their idea of what the figures they’ve been assigned represent – it’s a conceit – and Weir is puzzling over how to respond; he’s got drawings that look like star clusters and crawling snakes and creatures you see under a microscope, and nobody’s said anything to him like, “Uh, Bob, this figure at the top here, the little blob with the feelers coming out of it – I guess it looks a little like a virus, huh? – that actually represents, in a funny way, a C-sharp ascending lentamente to a G-natural, and the rhombus two measures ahead is an E major 7, pianissimo,” so he’s waiting for his cue and squinting at the squiggles on the paper. To his left and a little behind him is a kind of altar built from four large televisions on which appear a number that identifies for the orchestra the section of the piece being played. There are thirty-eight sections; Weir’s parts are brief and appear in only a few of them. During the approximately forty minutes of full-bore, roundhouse, swing-for-the-fences cacophony, he will play for a total of, say, two minutes, maybe less. The rest of the time he will simply sit there, an icon of the popular culture at rest.
In the balcony are instrumental soloists – a drummer, a violinist, a young woman playing a piccolo – and on the stage there are also four singers, who stand, two on each side, to the left and right of the Dead. A white man sings Sephardic music, a black woman sings a slave song, a white woman sings a Protestant hymn, and an American Indian man sings a chant and beats a skin drum he holds in his hands. Each singer is performing a fragment of a kind of music Cage assumed was heard in America in 1776. Sometimes the singers overlap, and always they sing against the grain of the orchestra. “Come go with me to that land where I’m bound,” sings the slave, and at the same time the Indian goes, “Hey-ah, way-ah, hey-ah, hey-ah.” This sort of chaos, of course, is close to the hearts of Weir and his companions, but the first run-through of the pieces is shrill and ragged, and the electric instruments sound tinny among the warmth of all the brass and wood. Thomas stops the orchestra. He is tall and thin, middle-aged, with dark hair and a narrow, boyish face. He pensively holds a finger to his lips, then turns to the soloists in the balcony. In the empty hall, pitching his voice just above a whisper, he says, “Have the courage to play softer.”
The soloists and the singers and the Dead and the orchestra begin again, and this time, over the course of the next half hour, there are moments of striking beauty and great clamorous authority, and the effect of all the lavish discordance and the subtle observations is beautiful and complex and moving.
The audience for the performance the following night will consist partly of blue hairs from the list of symphony subscribers and partly of a hopeful posse of the sweet, bland, disengaged kids who followed the itinerary of the Grateful Dead as a calling Drawn by the first opportunity in nearly a year to lay eyes on Weir and the others, these polite, aimless zealots will cheer and applaud when the Dead appear from the wings, as if they draw a kind of runic sustenance from the musicians’ presence, as if the sight of them were a balm. The music, though, confuses them. They exchange looks. They refer to the program. They shuffle their feet and finger their hair. It sounds nothing like the Grateful Dead, and the Grateful Dead are no more important to its success than the singers or the Youth Symphony or the lady in the balcony with the piccolo. Afterward, the lost and dispirited will gather in the chromium darkness on Van Ness Avenue, in front of the hall, and try to decide whether the experience had been broadening or unsettling. Or worse, designed to make sport of them in some abstruse way.
Weir, on his way home, will stop at a club in Marin County and play guitar until early in the morning with musicians who invite him onstage. Beforehand, though, backstage at the symphony, someone will refer to the poor, perplexed pilgrims, and Weir will smile and say, “I think it’s a safe bet that none of them had any idea what they were walking into.”
THE IDEA THAT THE MEMBERS OF the Grateful Dead might play with each other again was suggested last December by Bruce Hornsby. Kreutzmann declined. Hornsby had toured with the Grateful Dead and also with his band on the Furthur Festival. His occupying the position of keyboard player left no room for Vince Welnick, who now has his own band anyway, the Missing Man Formation. Weir thinks that one of the reasons he and Lesh and Hart were willing to take up Hornsby’s suggestion is that “it wasn’t Bill or me or Mickey or Phil who raised it,” he says. “We’re too used to not taking each other seriously.” He hopes that they will also perform new material, and to furnish some he has been at work with the lyricist Gerrit Graham.
In addition to Hornsby, Weir, Lesh and Hart, the Other Ones includes John Molo, the drummer in Hornsby’s band; Dave Ellis, the saxophone player in Ratdog; and guitarists Mark Karan and Steve Kimmock. During most of May, Weir and the Other Ones rehearsed six days a week. “More hours than your average fireman,” Weir says. Working through material for the new guitar players has occasionally been fatiguing for Weir. “I feel like I’m singing the life out of these songs,” he says. “The Grateful Dead never did much rehearsing, so there was always room to preserve the excitement.”
One evening a few weeks ago, after a rehearsal, Weir was sitting at a table in a Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall in the town in Northern California where he lives. He was having dinner with the actor Woody Harrelson, whom he calls Young Woodrow. The two of them are considering being partners in a hemp plantation in Southeast Asia and in a factory that turns the hemp into paper. When Weir arrived at the restaurant, Harrelson was sitting by a window and writing with a pencil in a notebook. He put the book away, and they ordered sake. Weir noticed that the sunset looked dramatic and suggested that they go outside and observe it, so they left their seats and crossed a parking lot and stood beside a small inlet of the San Francisco Bay. They discussed surfing, which Weir took up seriously about twenty years ago, and a remote beach they had been to in Costa Rica that had exemplary waves and no one around to compete with you for them. Weir decided, somewhat sheepishly, that the sunset hadn’t been quite as striking as it had appeared from his seat. They went back in and had some miso soup and more sake and vegetable sushi. Weir’s girlfriend, Natascha Müenter, a kindergarten teacher, a sleek and striking dark-haired, olive-skinned young woman, arrived with their infant daughter and a friend, had dinner, then left, taking Weir’s car.
Two of Weir’s friends showed up also and insisted that he accompany them to a club. Weir said, “No, it’s a school night. I want to be home by 10:30.”
“Come on,” Harrelson said. “We’ll have you home by twelve … thirty.” Weir was dependent on them for a ride home, so he finally shrugged. “Natascha will probably hit me with the frying pan,” he said, “but it’s a hero’s way to go.”
His friends kept him out later than 12:30, and the next day he was late for the rehearsal, which was meant to start at eleven. He arrived around noon and spent six hours running through material inside the big, high-ceilinged studio in the old Coca-Cola bottling plant that the Grateful Dead bought just before Jerry Garcia died. In the front of the warehouse are offices for various business ventures involving the Grateful Dead. In these areas, the part of the building where the musicians rehearse is referred to as the Boy’s Club.
The band auditioned a series of guitar players before hiring Kimmock and Karan. They began with Stan Franks, a jazz and funk guitarist from the East Bay who had been suggested by one of their managers. Weir had played with Franks and been impressed by his versatility and by the vitality and confidence that are elements of his style. Franks had been only peripherally aware of the Grateful Dead. The idea of selecting a guitarist distant in tone and musical background from Jerry Garcia appealed to all of them. Each day for several weeks, Franks took home tapes of Grateful Dead performances prepared for him by one of the band’s engineers. At night he absorbed the arrangements of dozens of songs he’d never heard before, and during the day he devoted himself to finding a place among the ensemble while also deciphering the multiplicity of musical references the band members share intuitively. “It’s one thing for the Grateful Dead to quote Stephen Foster,” Weir says, “and another for the Grateful Dead to quote Charles Ives quoting Stephen Foster, and another for someone else to try to take that all in, I guess.”
The band, with Franks but without Hornsby, who was engaged somewhere else, or Dave Ellis (honeymoon), spent much of the day rehearsing “Corrina,” a song Weir wrote that has a strong percussive and modal feel that lends itself easily to elaboration. Their exchanges with each other were concise: “We need to keep chasing this for a while, key of D,” or “There’s two ways of playing this – lyrical or toothy – you can move back and forth between them.” No one made any remarks about anyone else’s playing. Occasionally the band would stop and Weir or Lesh would say, “Teach Stan that line that Jerry used to play there.” Weir was wearing a pair of sandals made from what looked like the kind of twine you wrap heavy boxes in, and Franks said, “Now I know what to do with all that extra rope I got around the house.”
John Molo’s drumming has a lithe, vibrant and perhaps more linear feel than Kreutzmann’s, which makes the music less atmospheric and more orderly. The textures of Weir’s guitar, Lesh’s bass, Molo’s drums and Hart’s succinct and intelligent embellishments wound in and out of each other so deftly and offhandedly and with such vigor that it seemed to me as if the music itself were breathing and had a life of its own.
I was impressed by their applying themselves so diligently toward finding new ways to handle familiar material, by their responsiveness toward each other, their inventiveness, their belief that form would emerge from a context that was still unfocused, and their faith in music as a means of invoking an intensified and elevated version of experience. This is what I was thinking. What I was doing was standing in a corner and keeping my mouth shut. I was obliged by arrangement not to make any remarks or talk to anyone while the rehearsal was in progress. Weir had once told me that while there were “a lot of unspoken agreements among the Grateful Dead, there were a lot of unspoken disagreements, too.” What, beyond the obvious, had sustained him and the others, I didn’t ask. A few days later, though, I came across a sentence by Oliver Goldsmith, the British writer of the eighteenth century, which seemed apt. Goldsmith wrote, “Innocently to amuse the imagination in this dream of life is wisdom.”