Freak Speaks with Bobby Weir of The Grateful Dead & Ratdog & Furthur
FreakIntro: In 1978, in a candid interview, Jerry Garcia described Bobby Weir as “(Bob is) like my left hand”. With that level of complimentary partnership & telepathic respect, it should be no wonder that the Grateful Dead rose to such scene highness dispatching their live musical realms during their 30 years together. I believe it also had to do with deep overwhelming trust in each other. On top of that, having fun together & pleasing people are also paramount here. They played, we danced. That said, let’s peer into one of the sources of that mysterious improvisational world of worlds.
Timmy the Freak: All right. I’m just going to jump right in. To start, I’m really, truly elated and honored to be talking to you, Bob Weir, & I appreciate this opportunity. How’s everything going? Bobby: Just fine. Thanks. Freak: Good! I’m really impressed by your career from when the Grateful Dead roamed the earth until now, where you have Ratdog, not to mention all the other countless projects that you’re taking on. You seem to have a restless, constant energy of someone always trying to improve, not just as an artist & musician, but as a human being. And I’m just wondering what drives you?
Bob: I’m not entirely sure. It’s just what I’m here to do. I don’t know what else I’d do with myself.
Freak: I hear you. One of the things that the Grateful Dead did for me was to open me up and increase my curiosity for all kinds of music. Once this started happening, my appetite was insatiable. Do you hear this from other heads?
Bob: Uh, you know, I think we probably touched different people differently but that was kind of where I’ve been coming from all along. You know, diversity is the name of the game. We pretty much lived in the American musical heritage, which is amazingly diverse, & just, you know, couldn’t get enough of it.
Freak: Right, it really had a big effect on me, & I still feel it today.
Freak: I’ve had a long love affair going with the Bay area (San Francisco Bay in northern California) & in particular Marin County as I lived there for four years from ‘87 to ‘91. I mainly lived in Fairfax & San Anselmo, & I was just wondering what do you dig most about this area?
Bob: Well, it’s always been home for me. I was born in San Francisco & raised around here, & I know the lay of the land. And then there’s also that old saying, “There are no heroes in your own backyard.” And whereas in other places, I get a lot of attention. Here, nobody takes me particularly seriously, which is nice.
Freak: Right. It just seemed like paradise on earth to me, being from Minneapolis & the Lake Minnetonka area, which is beautiful, but not for all seasons! (laughs) So I really loved it & I still do. Like many Deadheads growing up in the Midwest, Alpine Valley was our Mecca every summer to pilgrimage to see you & the Grateful Dead play. I went there in 1986, ’87, ’88, & ’89, & it was genuinely a special vibe there out in the middle of nowhere, & these are some of my most precious memories with friends old & new. Could you talk about Alpine & your experiences there?
Bob: Well, each night was different, but it was a wonderful gathering of a whole lot of people getting together & having a little hoedown. It wasn’t all that different from other gigs for us, except more often than not, we had to helicopter in, & I got to fly a helicopter, I got to learn how to fly a helicopter when I was (doing that).
Bob: You know, the chopper jockeys figured, “These rock & rollers think they’ve seen a thing or two!” so we had some adventures doing that. But aside from that, it’s basically another gig. Although, I’ve got to say our percentages of hot nights at that place was pretty high.
Freak: I felt that too, I saw quite a number of shows. I kind of feel like that was my backyard even though it was five hours away. There was something about it. Some of the things I’ve read, I understand that you still often feel the presence of your dear friend and band partner Jerry Garcia. How do you best remember him?
Bob: I remember the laughs. We had a lot of fun on the road. I think that was probably the secret of our success was that we kept ourselves entertained, you know, just back and forth. It was a lot of fun. That’s one of the things I remember best. The other was the music. He was electrifying. I tried my best to be as well.
Freak: Right on, that’s great. You know, we always think about him, but I’m just so glad there are folks like you that are keeping it going, that really makes me feel good. I heard that the Grateful Dead has something like 2400 recorded live shows in the Vault, & I was wondering, do you think, in our lifetime, all of these will be shared with the public?
Bob: You know, that’s our hope. It’s going to be time consuming & costly to digitize all that stuff to make it readily available. We’re doing– now we’re doing the shows one by one. At some point, a massive effort, I think, should be mounted to digitize the whole Vault. That way, you can hear every “Uncle John’s Band” (from the band from) 1978 to 1988, or whatever you want, a song at a time, but that’s still a ways off, I think.
Freak: Right, it sounds really hopeful, though. It is a lot of material. I can imagine the undertaking is just massive, so I’m glad that you guys are doing that. I remember saying many years ago that the Grateful Dead has inspired more artwork and creativity than perhaps any one musical group in the history of humankind, not to mention music too. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
Bob: I hadn’t thought about that. (freak chuckles) I guess if that’s true, that’s something I can tell my grandkids, I guess. Freak: Yeah. Bob: (laughs) I don’t know what to say really.
Freak: I was just making an observation, being a Deadhead, and seeing like a hundred & sixty-odd shows, & the parking lot scene & stuff. (Both laugh) I guess it was kind of a loaded question! But I’ll move on. With Ratdog you’ve done something like seven hundred shows since 1995, and you’re mindfully rotating about 200 different songs in your tours. I believe that you & the band are getting better all the time too. Can you describe the chemistry of this evolving musical force?
Bob: It’s not unlike the Grateful Dead. We’re friends, we’re brothers, & we’re players. And we’ve, over the years, become a band. It takes a while to do that. You know, you have to learn to intuit each other’s moves, & then, you know, be there when they get there with like a little surprise for them, & we’ve all learned how to do that. You know, it’s the same modus operandi. We just play (the song) & take it for a little walk in the woods.
Freak: Right. That’s a great description. With the Grateful Dead, no one ever made a set list, it was completely spontaneous & in the moment. So with tour uniqueness & with fans in mind, Ratdog decided to write set lists, & so I’ve heard that you were devising your own software program to help you always create original set lists for Ratdog. How is that coming along?
Bob: We’ve been doing that all along. When we were with the Grateful Dead, we sort of roughly mapped out how we were going to start a set list and end a set list. Jerry & I would do that because we were trading vocals, & then in the middle of the set, while Jer was singing, I had all the time on earth to figure out what I was going to do next. I don’t get that opportunity all the time with Ratdog, but that said I’m trying to work up a software program that will highlight all the songs we haven’t done in a while & de-highlight all the songs that we have done recently. Or the last time we were through a given town, & I’ve got this little teleprompter that I can bring that list up on, and in that case, I won’t have to sit down & write set lists, which is one of the banes of my existence anyway. I’m not real fond of that, but for the time being, you know, if we come through a given town, you can be pretty sure you’re not going to hear anything you’ve recently heard.
Freak: Yeah, I really like that idea. I’m glad that you’ve got that going. A lot of bands don’t think about that stuff, & the ones that do are the ones that I want to go see. During the same summer of 1985 that I discovered the live Grateful Dead experience, my same friend turned me onto the Radiators from New Orleans, & so with those two favorite bands firmly in my head and heart, it really set the stage for what I’m still doing today. And now I’m excited to see that you’ve been guesting with them occasionally, and you even did a whole show together as the Weema Wompas at the Sweetwater not too long ago. Could you talk a little bit about your friendship with the Rads?
Bob: They’re good musicians, the music that they make is generated from somewhere in the same region as the music that we generate, it comes from somewhere between the heart & the pit of the stomach. They’re coming from the same place, they have a huge repertoire. They’re good players. And they know the history of their music, which is important, they know their heritage, & they play their heritage, which is what we used to do too, & still do, for that matter, with Ratdog.
Freak: You know, I wanted to bring up the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. You just showed up there a few nights ago to play with Donna Jean & the Tricksters, and I also realized that Ratdog’s early beginnings were there, too. And I myself am a big fan of the Sweetwater’s vibe and the ultra-intimate venue going back to my early days in Marin. What are your thoughts as they prepare to close that space and possibly move somewhere else?
Bob: Well, I think they are going to move. I was just at the final, final party last night, & it went late, & I’m hurtin’ today, and it was a lot of fun. But I think when it all boils down, last night was probably just a great excuse to have a party because I think it’ll reopen somewhere else, and perhaps it won’t be quite so hot in that building! One of the problems with the Sweetwater is, it’s known as the ‘Sweatwater’ with the musicians, it’s like a buck ten, on stage buck fifteen (degrees fahrenheit) , it’s really hot!
Freak: Wow, you don’t really need a sauna then!
Bob: Not at all. I get off stage, & I might as well be coming out of the swimming pool.
Freak: (laughs) That’s encouraging that they’ll move and some of that magic will continue somewhere else, hopefully in Mill Valley, somewhere. And so, let’s see, I know you have a wonderful family & home life, & on top of that, you’re situated on a beautiful mountainside very close to nature. Do you find this comfort zone conducive to lots of creativity and inspiration?
Bob: On a good day. It comes & goes, it ebbs & flows like with anyone else. I could be doing the same thing living in a city somewhere, but I’ve always been sort of a country boy at heart, so I’m out in the woods. It’s nice out here. I’ve got a good life.
Freak: Right, I share those views, because when I lived there, I remember mountain biking up Mount Tam (Mount Tamalpais in beautiful Marin County) as often as possible, once a week at least, and that really, it was kind of like my therapy, it was so wonderful. And it’s fun to mountain bike around Minneapolis, but it’s just obviously not the same. So anyway, how about songwriting? Do you tend to write a lot when you’re alone, or do you– & also, do you still write with John Barlow these days?
Bob: Barlow & I are taking a break. I’ve been writing with an old friend, Garrick Graham, of late. I write both alone & with my group. I tend to favor writing with my group because almost necessarily they’re going to have ideas that I wouldn’t have, song will go directions that I wouldn’t take them, & I like that. But I do it both ways.
Freak: Lastly, I was wondering if you have any or thoughts that you might want to share with our audience?
Bob: Well, register & vote. You know, this is your democracy. It’s a simple matter these days of use it or lose it, because there are people who would like to make this country a democracy in name only, & run it for their own interests. I don’t think that’s what the people want, but the people are going to get that unless they exercise their right to vote.
Freak: I agree fully with that & I think if enough people make enough noise, maybe we can wake some people up & have them figure out what’s really going on and maybe where we need to go now. Well, here’s where I wanted to thank you for being one of the creators and instigators of what I consider rock & roll’s greatest adventures ever, and strangest, I might add (laughs), & of course, I mean that as a compliment. The live Grateful Dead phenomenon was for many of us, the last American Frontier, no offense to Alaska. [Freaknote: this was much earlier stated by Jerry Garcia, who called it ‘the last American adventure’.] But we’re really happy to have Ratdog, & Phil (Lesh), & then everything else that’s going on, & all the music. And lastly, I see you have a birthday coming up pretty soon, & another tour after that. So all of us at the Weekly Freak want to wish you the very best ever, & we hope that you have many many more. Safe travels on the road to all of you. Thanks for your time. It’s been a real pleasure.
Bob: You bet!
Freak: You’re kind and generous for talking to us, & there are tons of other things I didn’t touch on that I wanted to. I’ve got a big list still. There’s Bill Graham & (now) the Grateful Dead’s got the new satellite radio channel (station), & the Grateful Dead Movie has been redone a little bit, so maybe on another occasion, we can talk again.
Bob: Well, here I am.
Freak: Great. Well, thanks a lot, Bobby, take care, hope to see you soon. And maybe if you could say hi to Natascha for me too. [editors note: Timmy is old friends with Bob’s wife Natascha since attending the University of Minnesota together in the 80’s.]
Bob: I shall.
Freak: Awesome. You have a great one. Thanks a lot for being in our Twentieth Anniversary Edition.
Bob: The pleasure’s mine! Thank you.
Freak Outro: I found Bob to be extremely intelligent, receptive & easy to talk to. This combination joined with his warmth & charm made our conversation an uplifting success. My times with the Grateful Dead helped positively shape the person I am today. It is with great gratitude & vast respect for them, that I feel so strongly blessed. Our grassroots grown music scene magazine enjoyed its infancy being nurtured in the parking lots & so-called Shakedown Streets surrounding the Grateful Dead shows from Virginia to Ventura (Cali) & back to Alpine & Deer Creek, etc. Without this backdoor approach & creative support from heads both traveling & local, we would not have survived. Believe it or not, I’m listening to the good ole Grateful Dead right (freaking) now. Thanks to all for being here to share with. I want to extend my most sincere thanks to Dennis McNally & everyone in the family known as the Grateful Dead (& Ratdog too). We are everywhere.