This past week Bob Weir celebrated a birthday. This interview with Bob originally ran in the August 1990 issue of HIGH TIMES.
Born Robert Hall Weir on October 16, 1947, Bob Weir took up folk guitar at the age of 14. On New Year’s Eve in 1963, he walked into a music store in Palo Alto, CA and met a banjo player named Jerry Garcia. A year later they formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. In 1965 they became an electric blues band named the Warlocks. Then, after being introduced to Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and LSD, they became the Grateful Dead. In this exclusive interview, Weir discusses his efforts to protect the environment, Jerry’s illness, and the influence of pot and LSD on his life.
Do you have any idea how many people you have touched in this industry?
People tell me it’s extensive. I like to keep my eyes on the horizon. Like, for instance, a few years back I went and saw Count Basie in San Francisco, and it was just a wonderful show. He was touring, and he was playing spectacularly. He played a couple new compositions and he was just having a great time. Six weeks later he was dead. He was great and he was on his last legs, and that’s kind of how I want to be when my time comes – a long time from now.
Did you think that the Grateful Dead would last this long?
You know, I never have imagined myself doing much of anything else. It’s all I’ve ever done, and it’s all I ever want to do. But I never gave any thought to how long the Dead would last.
Have you ever wondered what you might have done if you had not been a member of the Grateful Dead?
Yes, I’ve wondered, and it’s a matter of some amount of conjecture on my behalf, but I honestly don’t know what I would have done.
What’s the official date of the anniversary?
Sometime in May or June, we think. But we haven’t bee able to really figure that out.
Are you going to be putting out a special live album and a video?
We’re working on a number of different projects; we’ll see what actually comes of any of them as soon as we finish them.
How long do you think the Grateful Dead can continue to perform and record?
I know that as long as I have strength in my limbs to do it, I want to do it, because it’s all I’ve ever considered doing. These days you have to work for a living, but part of working for a living means working for a world that’s capable of supporting life. That wasn’t a concern a hundred years ago, but now it is. And so I’m working for a world that will allow me to live in it – that’s capable of supporting life 50 or 60 years from now. If this world is still here, I want to be here and I want to be playing.
Jerry Garcia had a diabetic coma and he had to basically relearn to play his guitar. How did that affect you?
If he couldn’t have played again, I probably would have taken a year or so off, reevaluated things, and maybe done something different. It would have been a great shame, but I would have accepted it.
Is the relationship between you and Jerry close?
This is the closest thing to a family I’ve ever known. There’s not all that much that we get together on that’s extra-musical or outside of the Grateful Dead, but we spend a lot of time together working on projects that we love, and we entertain each other.
Are you still having fun?
Oh, you bet. That’s the whole idea. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.
Who are your favorite artists in today’s music scene?
Well, I’m still a big fan of Bob Dylan’s. I really love cellist Yo-Yo Ma. And I’ve always been a big fan of Eric Clapton’s.
Talk about Dennis McNally, who serves as the group’s publicity person. He’s been with you for a long time, hasn’t he?
He’s been with us for maybe half a dozen years.
Is he going to write your official biography?
He probably is, but I think it’s a bit early to do an official biography. I feel like I’m just now starting to him my stride.
Because I see myself as a slow learner, as a musician and as an overall guy out there in the world.
How about fellow musician Rob Wassermann? Would you like to work with him more?
Well, the way we have it worked out right now, he takes up my free time just about perfectly. Not so much that I’m over-extended, and yet I really never find myself sitting around on my hands doing nothing. There’s always something musical to do. He’s also a neighbor of mine. If we want to get together and work, I can call him up and we can be working together in my studio in about 20 minutes.
Do you have a studio in your home?
Yes. It’s a 24-track, state-of-the-art.
What kinds of equipment do you use?
The board is a SONY MCI-3000 series. It’s a nice board; it’s automated. And it’s the best sounding board I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t have quite as many features as some other boards, but it really sounds great.
Is it digital or analog?
Oh, it’s analog. Analog is way ahead of digital. Digital is too light and thin. Someday they’ll get digital up to where it’ll blow analog away, but not yet. Not in my estimation, at least. And then I also have a Studer AA2- 24-track.
So you work out the songs for the Dead and for your own projects in your studio?
When you and Jerry are putting songs together, what’s the process?
Any possible way that a song can get written, it gets written. And any circumstance you can possibly imagine that might end up in a song has happened.
There have been so many stories over the years about the Dead and drugs. What do you have to say about that?
Well, we got associated with drugs back in the mid-‘60s when taking LSD was a real adventure. First off, back then you could get good LSD, and I’m not sure that’s possible anymore. And what was happening back them made it an adventure. It wasn’t illegal, but it was a perilous undertaking because when you take LSD you have to be prepared to face yourself. And, God knows, you had better like what you see or be willing to work on yourself. It’s an assiduous task – facing yourself – just like life in general, given the view that you get under LSD. And then, after you’ve come to terms with yourself, a number of avenues of approach toward life open up – a lot of possibilities become apparent. If you learn a great deal about the way humans are, you learn stuff about telepathy and intuition – things like that – once you get over a couple of little hurdles. I can’t say that I see that going on in today’s drug culture.
Talk about drugs in today’s society?
Crack and the kind of horseshit that you get on the street corners these days are just not the same. We didn’t get famous for taking drugs for escape-oriented reasons. But, you know, I think I can understand why somebody who lives in a ghetto might find being high on crack a better place to live than their day-to-day existence. If that were a sustainable sort of place to be, I would be hard pressed to find all that much fault with it, but unfortunately, it’s not; it’s pretty clear that if you take those drugs there are a whole lot of attendant problems that go along with them.
You have to support a habit, for instance, and that causes all sorts of social ills. You become a criminal and all that kind of stuff, because there’s no other way you’re going to be able to make that kind of money. So, it’s not a sustainable way of life. You can’t just live there and stay high on crack. It’s also bad for you physically and mentally. It’s really very destructive.
What about marijuana?
If alcohol is legal, I just don’t see why marijuana shouldn’t be. Marijuana is so much less toxic than alcohol, and less habit-forming.
Do you still smoke?
I don’t smoke that much pot anymore. I’m really a cheap date when it comes to marijuana. I have to be prepared to be, if not exactly non composmentis, at least somewhat dysfunctional. I know that my short-term recall, for instance, is not going to be real great. I don’t want to be operating heavy machinery or driving. That’s about the same situation that alcohol would put you into, although alcohol is even more debilitating. My idea of a good time often doesn’t including getting intoxicated these days.
Do you find that marijuana helps relax you?
No, I wish I could say that. I’d probably smoke marijuana more, if it relaxed me. It sort of jazzes me. I get a little on the agitated side.
More expressive verbally?
Yeah, I giggle a lot.
And the munchies?
On another subject, we were surprised recently to see you wearing a suit at a major Arista Records function. We never saw you in a suit before. What happened?
You know, I found out at the last minute – on the airplane ride to New York that it was supposed to be black tie. So I stopped by a men’s store in the city right before the event and bought a suit.
Arista is celebrating an anniversary too – its 15th. Word has it you haven’t always been so thrilled with the label. Is that true?
They’ve done well by us in the last two years. At first, they didn’t know how to promote us. Really, Arista Records is son of an “easy listening” empire, and we certainly don’t fit neatly into that little cubbyhole. So, for the first few years, they didn’t really know what to do with us; and there’s also the fact that we’ve never been all that exceptional at making records. As a result, it was something less than a marriage made in heaven at first, but they’ve gotten a whole lot better with the release of our last couple of records, and we have no complaints with them; they’re doing a fine job now.
What are your feelings about Clive Davis?
I think he knows what he’s doing. But I really don’t know; I wouldn’t know a good record company from a bad one.
That’s just not what I do! I play music and I leave it to other people to sell it.
So, you don’t get involved in the A&R meetings and all that?
Oh, no. That’s not the realm of my expertise, and it’s also not where my passions lie. I’m relatively passionate about things like the environment and, of course, about my music, but marketing is a little different. I make the music. What happens to it after that is someone else’s responsibility?
If you don’t really get involved, then how do you make sure that your business is being taken care of correctly?
We have a management staff that’s been around us for over 25 years, and we’re real close to all of them. The newest people on our staff have been working with us for several years. And some of the people, who have tenure in the organization, have been there for approaching 25 years. We work closely together. One guy, our de facto manager really, who’s leaving and moving on, has been with us for about 23 years. He’s being replaced by someone who’s worked with us for almost a dozen years. Some of the secretaries have been with us for similarly long periods of time and some of the crewmembers predate them. So we’ve been working fairly closely together for a long time.
Just like a family, right?
Yeah. Like I said, it’s the closest thing to a family I’ve ever had.
Do you have any advice for people who want to be managers?
Be honest and don’t lie.
Built to Last, the current record, is not being supported by touring the way other records have been. Why is that?
The songs are new, and we’re working them into the show, but we can’t play them every night because we’ll get bored with them. But I admit that we should play them more often. There’s one song off the record that we haven’t played on this tour, “Victim Of The Crime,” and it just occurred to me that we haven’t done that. I don’t include it in the set because it doesn’t come to mind. But thanks for reminding me. I think I’ll do it tomorrow night.
Let’s talk about one of those passionate subjects you mentioned earlier: the environment. We know that the Dead has done concerts to raise money to help save the tropical rainforests, and that you are heaving involved with the cause. Why is it so important to you?
In big cities, like New York, it’s particularly easy to feel insulated, to feel that the rainforests are a long way away and we’re never going to see them anyway so why worry about them. They’re an issue for somebody else to be concerned about. Our planet is going to hell in a bucket in a big hurry. One-half the components that generate the weather that pours rain onto the valleys of the temperate zones where we live and where the food we eat is grown is found in the tropical rainforests. We might be able to tolerate bad weather, but we need food, and if the rainfall dries ups, so does the food and we die.
When did you first become involved in the fight to clean up the environment?
I first read about the environment 20 years ago, but about eight years ago I became involved with reforestation. I worked on a couple of reforestation projects in Africa, Central America, and here in America. I started to bone upon the environment and it just sort of caught my interest. Then, I discovered that when a rainforest is cut down it can’t be regenerated. The soil is only a couple of feet thick and it’s composed entirely of, and totally dependent on, its own droppings. As a result the soil become specific to each rainforest, and only that soil will grow new trees there. When an area is cleared and, say, planted with grass for cattle farming, the grasses don’t hold the soil in place and replenish it as effectively as the trees did. In a couple of years the rain in the region washes away the grass and remaining soil. What’s left after the land has been denuded is hard-packed ground in which eve bugs can’t live, and the area becomes a wasteland.
Does this problem affect only the tropical rainforests?
No, temperate forests have a similar problem, though to a lesser degree. If you clear the land, you may or may not be able to grow and effectively tree-farm. As you get closer to the tropics, the forests become more dense and more difficult to regenerate. When you get to sub-tropical forests, they won’t regenerate fully, and actual tropical rainforests will not regenerate at all. Given that more than half of the earth’s tropical rainforests have already been destroyed and that about a third of the earth’s biomass is gone, we’ve got an incredible problem. The biomass, largely vegetable, processes carbon dioxide – basically converting it into oxygen through plant respiration. While carbon dioxide is the natural byproduct of animal life, an overabundance is caused by the additional contributions from auto emissions and factories – in that order. Without the natural machinery to process the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, we’re asking for trouble. Thanks to our intervention, the earth’s chemistry has been altered, and one effect has been global warming.
That’s the Greenhouse Effect. But what really causes it?
The atmosphere’s new composition causes it to retain more heat than it’s used to. This will eventually cause the melting of the polar ice caps, as well as the polarization of the weather thermodynamics – a flip-flopping effect that will make areas that are normally hot cool down, and those that are usually cold warm up.
The temperatures are changing, but only a little at a time. Why is it so much of a problem?
Well, global warming occurs in what seems to be minor degrees – one degree over a certain period of time, and people think it won’t make much of a difference, but it does. There are people who think, “Oh, if it gets a couple of degrees warmer, that’ll be nice.” But what happens isn’t nice at all.
We’ve had some hotter than usual summers in the Northeast, and there are all those droughts in Africa. Are these the first indicators of global warming?
Not necessarily, but the first symptoms of global warming are here now: they involve things like hurricanes and tornados, more than droughts. We don’t know exactly what else is in store in the near future – probably droughts, but we don’t have 50 or 100 years to wait to find out if the droughts we’re experiencing now are the first effects of global warming or just natural climactic swings. By that time the curtain will have come down, and there won’t be life left on earth.
It’s really far more serious than most people realize, isn’t it?
Absolutely. The destruction of the tropical rainforests is the issue that most loudly and most clearly spells doom for the planet. Ten years from now, unless we stop the clearing of the rainforests and take action to reverse the devastating effects that destruction is having on the environment, the situation will become irreversible. The weather patterns will be changed profoundly enough in the equatorial regions that the rainforests will just die. Then it’s a matter of only a few years – 30 or 40 – before life as we know it will no longer be possible on this planet. And this is not just theory; it’s widely accepted scientific fact.
So what can our readers and we do to help solve the problem?
Right now, what everybody can do to improve the environment is educate themselves, and be aware of the fact that the earth is in peril – and that life on earth is an interrelated system, and that it’s in a bad way. For example, if we destroy the rainforests, all other life will be destroyed along with them.
The concept of environmental balance is seemingly so simple, yet, as a people, we don’t give it proper consideration. We sort of bury our heads in the sand and refuse to see the obvious, don’t we?
You know, you can be willfully ignorant, or you can be blissfully ignorant. If word has reached you that this is a problem and you don’t do anything about it then you’re willfully ignorant. Don’t be that way! If this article reaches you, take it to heart and do something. When you’re talking to people in social situations, you can, as I do, tell them what you’re up to and listen and find out what they’re up to – get ideas from them and give them ideas. It should be the major topic of discussion every time people meet. It’s everybody’s problem.
But shouldn’t the government be doing more? They’ve got the resources that we as average citizens don’t have.
The government will only respond to the will of the people, and the mandate has to be that something must be done – and now. They can’t take action unilaterally; they can only do what the people will them to do. It’s up to you to demand that action be taken now, before it’s too late.