Sunday, May 19, 2013

Underestimated Prophet

Bob Weir

Even among the most ardent Deadheads, Bob Weir is the source of much controversy. Beloved by some, reviled by others, and frustrating to pretty much everyone. At his best, his energy could make an arena explode. At his worst, momentum killing cheese. 

Part of Bobby's problem is that he had to play second fiddle to Jerry, and just about anyone would look uncool in comparison to Captain Trips. His guitar playing was not as good, his songwriting inconsistent, vocals not as emotive, and his choice of attire not as groovy, sporting the short shorts, pink guitars, wool socks in sneakers look, in comparison to Garcia's classic black on black t-shirt and slacks ensemble. 

But it seems that Weir has often been misunderstood, particularly in light of recent onstage troubles he's experienced, and a more balanced assessment is in order.

When the Dead started in 1965, Bob was only 18 years old. He had completely dropped out of school about 2 years prior, having been kicked out of a half dozen or so schools already at that point, running away from home, spending time as a cowboy on a cattle ranch, and playing folk music around the bay area. He was a professional delinquent, so he fit right in with the Dead even though he was considerably younger than much of the rest of the band. While many 18 year old's have dabbled in a bit of drugs, they have not done Grateful Dead level drugs, including performing at the Acid Tests. Hard to imagine. For Bob, he was so overwhelmed that he became a space cadet, started hearing voices, and stopped intentionally doing LSD just a few years later. Did I mention he was quite the heartthrob and beloved by the ladies? All while still going through puberty.

He's been on the road, writing, and performing since then, for almost half a century. When the Grateful Dead ended in 1995, he was only 48 years old. Bob has continued at a steady pace in this his 65th year, when most Americans are thinking about taking it easy and moving to Florida.

Weir never tried to be like Jerry, and whether it was intentional or not, a good thing, because he would've failed in trying, and never set out on the unique path he chose. A typical rhythm guitar player would never have fit in the Dead. Grateful Dead music was based primarily on bluegrass, with each player simultaneously soloing, rather than blues based pop/rock with a rhythm section playing a repeating pattern for a soloist to play over. Bobby certainly didn't often play traditional strumming type rhythm guitar, more often using angular chords to create atmospherics for the rest to weave webs around. Check his playing from the Morning Dew on Europe 72. 

But when it suited the song, Bobby could play more traditional rhythm guitar, as he often did in his country-rock tunes. New Minglewood Blues is a tune the Dead played throughout their entire career, and as far as I'm concerned is a rather forgettable song, but could have some pretty ripping jams, with Bobby building up the intensity pushing Jerry to rip it up: Stealing women from their men.

And while Bobby certainly didn't have the technical ability, instincts, or dexterity of Garcia, he wasn't a shabby guitar player either. He could be quite inventive, as in the opening trills of China Cat Sunflower, and exploratory and expressive, pushing the band past the boundaries of country rock during the transition into Rider:

In many ways, Weir was Garcia's foil in the Grateful Dead, the Jekyll to his Hyde. Weir had the youthful energy to Garcia's stoned cool. Weir had the dashing looks to Garcia's rolled out of bed approach to life. Weir had the rock star persona that was lacking in Garcia and the rest of the Dead, able to light an arena on fire when needed. Having been the youngest in the Dead, he likely felt like the low man on the totem pole for much of his life. In addition, he had extreme dyslexia that wasn't diagnosed until his 40's. Not only did he have difficulty reading, but objects on the horizon often appeared to move, even when sober. Not sure how that went undiagnosed for so long, but I guess he just accepted that he was weirder than everyone else.

Bobby's unique perspective on reality and life likely fed his songwriting, which was also in great contrast to Garcia's. While Garcia wrote many timeless American beauties, they relied on familiar folk, blues, and ballad song structures. Bob's songs incorporated odd time signatures, jazz influences, unique chord changes, and other peculiarities. Today, you're much more likely to hear one of Garcia's songs covered by another artist. And while this is somewhat due to the superiority of Garcia's songwriting, there is a simplicity to Garcia's songs that make them more accessible. Weir's tunes are so unique that it is hard to imagine anyone else covering them. For example, what a weirdo fucking song Saint of Circumstance is, but it rocks, and only Bobby can pull it off.

And consider Estimated Prophet. There is no song like it that I've ever heard, combining spacey reggae grooves with rock star histrionics. Another part of the genius of Weir tunes are they allow Garcia to focus on guitar playing, and in Estimated you get the classic murky Garcia groove.  Who else could sing this song?

Bob also got a lot of crap for cutting jams short in, forcing things to happen rather than letting them meander along. And while there were undoubtedly a few times Bob fumbled the ball, he doesn't get credit often enough for the times he made a left turn in a jam and it worked. Without Weir, there would've been a lot more endless meandering. Take for example this excellent clip of the transition from The Other One into Dark Star. The Dead are in outer space, and likely could've stayed there for a while. Garcia lets out a familiar flurry of notes, Weir picks up on it, and hits the perfect chord at the perfect time to steer the band back into Dark Star. An absolutely seamless transition. After listening to the passage in question, rewind this video to the beginning and watch what I believe is the finest video of the Dead: Closing of Winterland.

Garcia and Weir, rock's ultimate odd couple. Garcia, ancient and haggard externally, charismatic, intellectual, and cool internally. Bob was more youthful, the ball of energy waiting to explode. Externally, the ultimate California Boomer: a weird hippie-jock-rich-rock star hybrid. Internally, his wires were a bit crossed. Sometimes that unique perspective lead to genius, other times it crashed and burned.

On of my favorite Garcia quotes on playing music with Weir was something along the lines of "I don't know what the hell Weir is doing over there, but I'm just hanging out here in A and it seems to be working." They certainly did love each other.

This all seems to be turning into a rather convoluted way of saying that Weir was a peculiar freak, but he was not without his positive attributes, and his guitar playing, singing, song-writing, and rock star persona certainly contributed to the Grateful Dead's, er, greatness.  Some furthur proof:

80's rock psychedelia show opener:


A fantasy-autobiographical number, that opens up into an instrumental passage that has it's origins in the Mind Left Body Jam:

Weir was a great interpreter of other people's music as well, particularly Dylan. Here he is putting more of a ballad feel to Masterpiece, letting it build up. Another great thing about Bob's tunes are Jerry's backing vocals, Garcia's haggard whine the perfect balance to Weir's overbite:

Yes, Weir is undoubtedly a space cadet. Here he is a bit out of sorts, under the influence, overwhelmed, or something or other, on Letterman:

And here's classic rock star Bobby, singing of his often reciprocated love of the ladies:

Update: Somehow I forgot to include this 80's gem, which sums up every negative thing anyone has ever said about Bob Weir. I take back all the nice things I wrote. Sorry Bobby.