Friday, July 17, 2015

Bob Weir

I don't know if I discovered I had any talent. It was dogged persistence. I had to have the music.

I once picked up some extra cash not through industry, endeavor, or knowledge, but through a combination of ignorance and apathy.  It just goes to show, I guess.

As a musician, I'm limited and indifferent.  I can't really read music and I can't transpose without working quantum physics-like equations through my head.  As a child, I played the bagpipes without much success; as a young adolescent, I played the clarinet poorly.  I hated to practice and "Cadet Band" was my least favorite class in 7th grade.  When I discovered that girls liked guitarists, and I liked girls, the next instrumental choice was easy, but I still didn't really practice and never was much good.  As it turned out, girls didn't really care about that.

However, I performed pop music in high school, later played in the rhythm section in rock bands, experimented with some wandering jazz and blues, had the time of my life in the nightclubs of New York during the great days of New Wave, and even fiddled around with the bass with another collection of over-the-hill rockers when in my forties.  I've played with the 98 Decibel Freaks, the Zen Maniacs, Botch and The Clues, and the Son Five Blues Band.  In the '70's, I was the music director of a small radio station and hosted the six-hour midnight jazz show on weekends.  It was through that radio station that I wound up with this assignment.

There was a band coming to town, sponsored by my station, that had one of the other DJ's and one of the engineers rather excited.  I tended to ignore their excitements as they usually ran to things like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Iron City beer, and this time was no exception as it had to do with a band for which I never had that much use.  A particular musician needed a ride from the airport and had made an unusual stipulation.  Despite that the DJ and the engineer would have willingly killed the other for the chance to be the musician's driver, the station manager asked me to do so.

Not relishing spending three hours in the radio station's Chevy Malibu, half of that time with some acid casualty [I didn't have much regard for musicians outside of their performances; what they thought about life, politics, The War, etc. interested me about as much as similar "deep thoughts" do these days when opined by Hollywood people] I tried to beg off, but he sweetened the deal by giving me the next weekend off and an extra $20, so I agreed.

"Why, exactly, do you want me to do this?  The other guys are a lot more interested."
"His only request was that the driver not be a Deadhead.  At this place, that's only you."

It was true; I wasn't a Deadhead.  For those who don't know, Deadheads are the die-hard fans of the venerable rock group The Grateful Dead, the progenitor of what became known as "acid rock".  My fare was to be Bob Weir, one of The Grateful Dead's founding members who was fronting another group that was sponsored to perform.  So out-of-touch was I about "The Dead" that I didn't even recognize his name.

So, off I went through the absurd Pittsburgh traffic, much to the disgust of the other DJ and the engineer, both of whom wrote a list of questions for me to ask of Weir that I placed in the glove compartment and forgot.  If Weir wanted to be left alone and spend at least ninety minutes without having to recount the history of The Dead or interpret the lyrics in one of their impenetrable songs, that seemed reasonable.  I decided that, other than asking to which hotel he wanted to go [there were only two in our town: a Holiday Inn and a motor inn that catered to the anglers and deer hunters, so I probably didn't even need to ask that much] we would ride in silence, save for those moments when I was muttering at the Iron City-impaired Western Pennsylvania drivers.

As one could wait at the gate in those days, I stood at his plane's exit ramp holding up a piece of cardboard with his hastily scribbled name on it, and found myself standing before someone I wasn't quite prepared to meet.  Instead of some scruffy, mildly odoriferous, impaired, and unkempt rock guitarist, here was a guy who looked like one of my younger professors and possessed a disarming nature and smile.  After having worked with too many musicians at that point, Weir was a pleasant departure.

Instead of riding home in silence, and mostly at his urging, we spent the next hour and a half speaking of higher education, the expectations of college audiences, the poetry of Rimbaud, and the recent death of Steven Biko in South Africa; anything but The Grateful Dead and the answers to the questions locked, perhaps still, in the Chevy's glove compartment.

What was interesting was that Weir was really interested in ideas and the confluence of creative expression.  He knew art, literature, all forms of music, and, given some of his comments, had some true business savvy.  Despite the pose affected by many of the musicians of the '60's and '70's, that they were deeply spiritual and intellectual people, those whom I met during those years tended to be near-custodial in their intellect, save for their remarkable ability to score drugs in the middle of nowhere and be of mating interest to the college-age daughters of Pennsylvania dentists, bankers, and CPA's.

Weir was born in 1947, he would have been a mere thirty when we met, but was already regarded as one of the "old men" of rock and roll by that time, having been one of the founding members of The Grateful Dead.  Naturally, he was from San Francisco, what was once a city of lush artistic creativity. One night, while prowling about the city with another teenager, he happened upon Jerry Garcia at a music store waiting for his banjo students to show up.  I'm guessing that Garcia was somewhat impaired at the time as it was a holiday and none of his students were going to arrive.  At any rate, Weir and Garcia met, played together for a bit, realized that they should form a band like those fellows from Liverpool who had just been on TV, and began to make history.  It was New Year's Eve, 1963.

They went through various incarnations and styles of music, eventually developing their sound and final, most famous, band name.  The rest, as they say, is history.  However, there was one incident in 1968 that lead Weir to his particular place in the Olympus of pop music musicians.  After a few years, the band began to argue about this and that, as bands do, with most of the aggravation centering on Weir's guitar-playing, which was deemed not good enough for the evolving Dead.  Weir was summarily "laid off" from the ensemble.

To reclaim his role, Weir began consciously to work on his guitar technique, no longer trying to satisfy what he was taught as a teenager, but to develop his own "voice" on the instrument.   This lead to a style of playing that is now legendary, as it combined elements of slide guitar with rich chord progression.  Weir was permitted to rejoin the band and, with this new technique, make them a near-permanent fixture in the rock pantheon.

However, given that experience, he never again wanted to be wholly dependent on the whims of one band, one known for its occasional poor decisions, so Weir developed his own series of bands, with different names and styles, to fill the weeks when The Dead weren't on tour.  Ever the syncretist, Weir would work in influences from John Coltrane to Igor Stravinsky.

Through these bands and nowadays via his own, high-tech recording studio, Weir continues to influence contemporary music.  Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, and celebrating the 50th anniversary this summer of The Grateful Dead in what is to be their final series of concerts, he is a quiet, but familiar and active, voice from American pop culture's most expansive period.

For me, though, he made the dull drive from Pittsburgh all the more interesting, and reminded me of how foolish it is to apply too fixed of a label to people.