Swinging Modern Sounds #54: Jam Band Apotheosis

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Back in the seventies, in circles I travelled in, you could not escape the Grateful Dead, even if you wanted to—and I was someone who wanted to. My sister had been to dozens and dozens of Dead shows, and was into the boots, and her boyfriend Peter, even more so. In my high school, in New Hampshire (not all that different from the private school that Bob Weir himself attended before dropping out to form the band with Jerry Garcia, or Taft, which boasts among its alumnae one Trey Anastasio), fully half the yearbook pages featured lyrical quotations from American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, and all those guys are still going out to see Phil Lesh and Friends.

If you came into the story where I did, after Pigpen was already dead, and Keith Godchaux had been dispensed with in favor of ersatz Doobie Brother Brent Mydland, there were some real problems with Grateful Dead. Whereas the Dead of the mid-seventies did occasionally achieve the luminous fusion of lyrical greatness and mystical psychedelic jazz/blues Americana that they aspired to, the Dead of the early eighties could not often get it together to make a studio album, and when they did it was noteworthy for its mixed results (they made only three in the whole decade, Go to Heaven, In the Dark, and Built to Last). I saw them play in the late eighties, at the Meadowlands, and the show was full of stadium gestures, wild community enthusiasm, and noodly passages that didn’t go anywhere at all. Sometimes, in those days, Dead shows seemed more about insuring that the dream was still alive than they were about the musical innovation. Indeed, when the Dead were doing half-hour long improvisations in the late sixties and early seventies, discovering the set lists on the fly, writing album-length suites about Allah, they were borrowing the rationale from the jazz world, and the experimental music world, and it would have been hard to predict that these gestures would harden into a fixed idea of how a show should go, how sets would be paced, and even what covers would dominate. There were a few performances of “Dark Star” in the last years, but it was almost a dodge, a feint, about the problem with Jerry’s voice, or his heroin addiction, and so on. As if the Dead, toward the end, had become a Grateful Dead cover band.

BuiltToLastTo put it another way, they were, in the last third of their career, a hard band to like, unless you had already decided they were important during the period when they were (Live/Dead, let’s say, to Terrapin Station). The Deadheads did not like hearing that Brent Mydland’s idea of a synth riff sounded suspiciously like KaJaGooGoo, or that the reason there were four tracks by Mydland on Built to Last was because the Dead were not built to last at all, but were teetering on the edge of a grim conclusion that was not long in coming. But it was hard to think otherwise.

Chief among the complexities of the band (and there were many, many complexities, so many that the idea of writing about the Grateful Dead is sort of farcical unless you are going to use a hundred pages to do it) was the role of Bob Weir in the Grateful Dead. To say that Jerry Garcia stood in for the band in some ways—his ups and downs were the band’s ups and downs, his conceptual ambitions were the band’s conceptual ambitions, was to overlook the astounding bench strength elsewhere: Phil Lesh’s remarkable contrapuntal bass playing, Bill Kreutzmann’s jazz accents, the rhythmic vitality of Kreutzmann and x-factor Mickey Hart, and, increasingly, over the course of the Grateful Dead, the enthusiastic and singular presence in the band of Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar.

Weir’s guitar playing, upon close inspection, never ever does the chukka-chukka-chukka that he might have been expected to do in order to provide a foundation for Garcia’s solos, and it never ever plays the triads without a great wealth of harmonic variations that don’t resolve in conventional ways (always with the suspended chords and the leading tones). He loves an accidental, and he loves a rhythmical eruption that doesn’t sit on the downbeats or anywhere conventional at all. Weir probably had to find his spots, as the jazz guys say, because in a band where Phil Lesh is playing counterpoint to Garcia’s leads—those Django-isms that are almost everywhere—and where you have Mickey Hart’s percussion filling in a lot of unusual places in the time signature, there’s no conventional groove for Weir at all. Weir had to find a way to play that was his alone, in daunting company. And he did.

Similar problems arose with his writing. The early Grateful Dead featured Garcia’s compositions, always the band’s strongest, Lesh’s experimental impulses, and then Pigpen’s blues workouts, which gave the band some rock and roll muscle that they didn’t always have. For a while, there wasn’t room for Weir the songwriter, and this perhaps accounted for him getting laid off for a brief period from 1968 to early 1969. But as with his rhythm guitar playing, Weir began to find a voice as a songwriter, and, in the early seventies, between American Beauty and Wake of the Flood, he released Ace, a de facto Dead album (they are the backing band), composed entirely of Weir tunes, which is among the very best studio albums ever released by the Grateful Dead. It has “Playing in the Band” on it, a hagiographic number with a lovely psychedelic opening, and it also features two of Weir’s best-loved songs, “Cassidy” and “Looks Like Rain.” All three became standard fare at Dead shows for the rest of the band’s performing life.

The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir, the new documentary that screened in April at the Tribeca Film Festival—brought to you by director Mike Fleiss and producer Marc Weingarten, the team who also made God Bless Ozzy Osbourne (2011)—touches upon these many complexities orbiting around Bob Weir, and does so with a light, moving, entertaining angle that permits Weir’s slightly weary and faintly cosmic aspect to be secondary to his capacity for wry one-liners. Weir is very funny about the Dead’s reputation for drugs (“I took acid every Saturday for a year”), non-judgmental, but non-indulgent. His womanizing tendencies are not entirely suppressed, and we learn a lot of about the cut-off shorts he wore during stadium shows in the late seventies and eighties. A lot of people you would not expect to have totally indulgent feelings about Weir turn up as tastemakers (Sammy Hagar! Perry Farrell!), including a shy assemblage of members of The National, who mumble some stuff about how difficult it was to learn “Cassidy.”

This is a documentary that produced rapturous applause and gasps of delight from a sold-out crowd of Dead enthusiasts in the BMCC Theater on Chambers Street, and so it hit all the right spots. If you want a few spoilers, you can go over to the Rolling Stone website and get up to speed on the gossip (Weir met his wife backstage when she was 15). But something special happens in this film that isn’t immediately apparent to the hardcore fans, or at least is well above and beyond a mere Weir doc for the already converted. And it happens despite the considerable and even glaring omissions. (If you are going to make a film about Bob Weir the musician, can you legitimately suppress the entirety of his solo career? Weir mentions his solo work prior to Garcia’s death exactly once, and Ace is never mentioned, nor are his three other side projects, the Bob Weir Band, Kingfish, and Bobby and the Midnites. And these are the bands before Garcia’s death. He was in Kingfish for two years! And what about his Hollywood period? The Heaven Help the Fool album? Not worthy of a single mention?)

2014 Tribeca Film Festival - "The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip Of Bob Weir"

But let it be said: the ineffable, slightly numinous, almost spooky thing that happens in the film is that Bob Weir, the goofball, playboy, sex symbol, jam band lothario, achieves high-art density. The film wants this to happen when we see the slightly lonely shots of Bob driving over the Golden Gate, or walking his dogs, or talking about the massive amounts of physical pain he’s in these days, but it doesn’t happen there, nor does it happen in the too-carefully engineered footage of Weir playing with The National or with Bruce Hornsby. It happens more, e.g., in the sad, memorable footage of Jerry Garcia’s daughter, Theresa Adams Garcia, who weeps while talking about Garcia’s death, and in the footage of Weir and his family in front of the Dead house at 710 Ashbury, or in intimate footage of Weir, Lesh, and Garcia rehearsing, and in the galvanizing inclusion of Weir’s discovery of his birth parents, late in life, after Garcia had gone off to the great jam in the afterlife.

In these moments, individuation, self-discovery, growth, apotheosis, happen for Weir only after he lets go of the thing he most wants to hang onto, the band with its enormous reputation and built-in counterculture community. Weir, like everyone in the Dead family, wants it to keep going, wants to think that it is some permanent feature of American culture (the antithesis of the dominant culture), but in order for it to keep going it has to wipe out the principals, and thus the footage of Weir and his family on the street looking at a chalk drawing of the band, in which his kids remark, “Hey Dad, why aren’t you in this picture? Oh! Because you aren’t dead!” Family, in the Weir story, is the thing you cherish, but also the thing that you have to release, to grow into your fully mature condition, your condition of spiritual attainment.

That is, Bob Weir survived the galloping mortality of the Grateful Dead, and death was the band’s modus vivendi. The Dead was the band that managed to survive—whose final/only hit featured the hook: “I will survive!”—only by shedding dead members at an alarming rate. Playing keyboard in the Grateful Dead was a guaranteed death sentence: of the six people who played keyboards in the band during its many incarnations only two are still living. Bob Weir survived all this, and the death of his “brother” Jerry, and somehow in the process he achieved a grizzled satori that we would never have suspected possible from the startlingly handsome slacker prince so dazzlingly photographed over the years, and much lingered over in Fleiss’s documentary.

This would all have been enough, on April 23rd, at Tribeca Film Festival—the cinematic transformation of jam band prince into grizzled veteran with significant physical pain, with the spiritual lessons to show for it (and I happened next to sit next to photographer Peter Simon, who first heard the Dead in 1968, photographed them for decades, and had a lot of good stories to tell). But then the man himself came out on stage, at the end of the film, and played for a good hour and a half, much of it solo, on acoustic guitar.

As I say, I am never sure what I think about the Grateful Dead. Or, rather, my mixed feelings are so various, so fueled by loss and grief, and so historically shot-through (when I was listening to a lot of punk rock, I very rarely admitted to liking them at all), that my uppermost feeling is often doubt, or even skepticism, but because of how passionate various family members and close friends have been over the years, I keep trying.

I was unprepared for the knockout blow of Bob Weir on acoustic guitar, strolling leisurely through a symbolically rich set that started with “Hell in a Bucket,” from In the Dark (“at least I’m enjoying the ride, the ride, the ride”) and then moved through a plangent and heart-rending version of the traditional “Peggy O,” often performed by Jerry Garcia, “Black-Throated Wind,” from Ace, and then a riveting “Corinna,” an unreleased late period Dead song played in a drop D tuning that rung with a country meter from which Weir squeezed out every bit of drone he could manage. The words were nothing special, but in the grip of the actualized Weir of the film, they seemed unusually profound, with the symbolic overlay of Big Joe Turner’s “Corrina, Corinna.”

I was unprepared for what an unpredictable and overpowering solo guitarist Weir turned out to be, and where I have felt, in the past, that his voice was at best equipped for the party-time exhortations like “Hey, it’s Saturday night!,” there was a kind of loss and vulnerability to the grizzled Weir whose best analogue, in fact, would be the Jerry Garcia of such classics of heartbreak as “Black Peter” and “Stella Blue.” The thing Garcia did in song that he couldn’t seem to do in life was fully inhabit emotional depth, and when he did it in song, he used up that mood, left it all on the stage, so that Weir was designated mostly for the upbeat songs.

So haunted by the Garcia legacy that even the documentary about him is called The Other One, Bob Weir is nonetheless freed, in this interregnum, to show longing, loss, heartbreak, and the kind of late-life dignity and wisdom that is what made all those great blues singers so alluring in their dotage, Skip James or Son House during the Folk Revival. Weir has made a true artist out of himself, in a similar way, or he did at the BMCC, and it is a sort of stunning act of re-invention. It was not possible to be there and remain unmoved.

Was it the documentary that caused it? Or was the documentary, too, in the prism of late life dignity, part of the transformation? Was it because of the Deadheads in the room? Or was it despite the Deadheads? Every legend of the band speaks of this numinous quality that they possess, but again and again throughout their public manifestations they seemed somewhat otherwise, uncertain, preoccupied, drugged out. And yet here was Bob Weir, intercessor for the high priests of song.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →