04.25.14 9:45 AM ET
Bob Weir on Drugged-Out Deadheads and Living in Jerry Garcia’s Shadow
Playing sidekick to one of the most iconic figures in rock ’n’ roll could leave a man bitter or arrogant, especially when he is as musically talented and innovative as they come. But Bob Weir, one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, exudes a genuine humility from the moment I meet him when he cups both his hands over mine and thanks me (me?!) for speaking with him.
It’s almost as if he doesn’t realize what a legend he is, despite the chants of “Bobby!” that echoed through the theater before and after the start of The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir premiered Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival (you can watch the trailer below).
Though he never had the mainstream recognition of Jerry Garcia, Weir has been adored by Deadheads for decades. Not for nothing has this eclectic mix of fifty- and sixtysomethings in suits and dreadlocked folks of indiscriminate ages gathered to watch the documentary on the often-overlooked Grateful Dead member.
Immediately prior to the start of The Other One, director Mike Fleiss tells the audience jokingly “Take your tabs now,” but as Weir took the stage for a post-screening performance, it appeared some of them actually had. The crowd collectively grooved out in the wavy interpretive dance-esque style that Deadheads do. It certainly smelled like something other than natural good vibes was fueling the impromptu dancing in the aisles.
Grateful Dead fans are known for being more than a little 420-friendly, and the band has become almost synonymous with marijuana and psychedelic drugs. However, Weir actually eschews the drug tie as a misinterpretation of the band’s legacy. “Drugs—that was beside the point to us,” he tells me. Weir has taken off his shoes and is sitting across from me cross-legged in his socks in a style that’s more Zen master than stoner. “Yeah, there were drugs in our history, but that certainly wasn’t what we were about. But for some people that is what we were about. I think those folks pretty much missed what we were about.”
So, what were the Grateful Dead about? “We were about exploration, adventure—harmonic and rhythmic and melodic and more,” Weir says. “Adventures in storytelling, because any artist of any stripe is first and foremost a storyteller. You do it with your hands, your voice, but you’re doing it with a story.”
It was this desire to tell stories that persuaded Weir to participate in the documentary about him. “I was ambivalent at first. I was dead set against the cult of personality and all that it entails,” he tells me. “On the other hand, Jerry was a storyteller. There were observations he would make that would be edifying to me. I view it kind of as a responsibility. I was gifted with a life that was full of adventure. I’ve always believed if you’re gifted that it’s incumbent not to think about giving something back.”
But the movie is called The Other One for a reason. That’s the title of one of the many songs Weir wrote for the Grateful Dead, and it captures his status as the faithful, earnest “other” to the band’s über-iconic frontman Jerry Garcia. “We were buddies,” he tells me when I ask if there was ever a sense of competition between them. “We needed each other to make that certain magic happen and we knew it real well.”
The Other One follows the evolution of the Grateful Dead through the life of Weir, featuring archival footage, home videos, and interviews with musicians who admired the rhythm guitarist, including Lee Ronaldo of Sonic Youth, Mike Gordon of Phish, and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane.
But Fleiss said the challenge of getting the legendary Weir to talk about his achievement was the hardest part of making the documentary. “He doesn’t like to talk about himself. He doesn’t trust pride and thinks it’s illegitimate. He’s the most humble rock superstar that has ever lived and will ever live.” For Fleiss, a Deadhead better known for creating and producing The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, The Other One’s premiere was bittersweet. “After tonight, it’s back to my stupid fucking day job,” he says.
Fleiss makes the film as a devotee would, depicting Weir in a saintly glow. But it’s hard to begrudge him that, when Weir seems implausibly, genuinely modest, almost sheepish, about his accomplishments and adventures with the Grateful Dead. “Looking back, I guess I’ve lived an unusual life,” Weir says in the film, which elicited raucous laughter from the audience for being so blatantly obvious.
Weir tells me he met Garcia in the fall of 1963 at a “hoot night” (open mic) at a coffee shop in Palo Alto, California, when he was 16. Weir had already become obsessed with music. While Weir struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia, he immediately connected with the guitar when he got his hands on one in high school. “I don’t know if I discovered I had any talent. It was dogged persistence. I had to have the music,” he says in The Other One.
Weir began playing with Garcia, then teaching his music students when he traveled out of state. During the same time, Weir, who was adopted as an infant by an upper-middle-class family in the Palo Alto area, was failing to meet their more conservative expectations and was kicked out of their home. By age 18, he had dropped out of high school and was living in the famous Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury in San Francisco, while sharing a room with Neal Cassady, a leading member of the Beat Generation.
It was in these early days of the Grateful Dead that Weir says he struggled to figure out his role in the band. “Usually, rhythm guitar was played by a guy who was singing who didn’t have time to play lead at the same time, so it was pretty simple stuff,” he says. Out of his desire to complicate the role came the unpredictable, improvised riffs in performances that became a hallmark of Grateful Dead concerts. “Every night, every song. I tried not to repeat myself. I had to keep improvising. It kept my mind real busy. Playing on stage was practicing and learning, as well as performing. You can always bring a sense of adventure. You can always make it more complicated, so that’s what I did.”
As the Grateful Dead developed their unique performance style, the Deadhead legions grew, with many fans devoting themselves to following the band across the country. Interestingly, Weir was skeptical of these most diehard and even surprisingly pragmatic about their lifestyle. In The Other One, he says it’s one thing if a teenager follows the Grateful Dead for the summer, but was hesitant to endorse it “if it holds your life down.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, considering the Grateful Dead’s strong association with drug culture, Weir says “If you’re selling drugs [to get into concerts], I have limited sympathy.”
Weir had even more critical words for some of the Dead fans of the 1980s, when the band hit a peak of mainstream fame with the single “Touch of Grey.” New fans gravitated to the group at that time, but often formed more superficial ties to its emerging cult of personality. Weir says in the movie he felt people were “celebrating us way beyond what seemed reasonable.” And while Garcia had long been revered as the leader of the group, this was when, Weir says, fans “deified Jerry.”
According to the movie, Weir feels that it was around this time that Garcia’s drug abuse worsened in response to the public adulation (and Garcia’s daughter, Trixie, seems to confirm it). Weir admits he was Garcia’s “bagman” at times, carrying his heroin and other drugs for him. That this admission is given so little pushback or focus in The Other One is maybe one of the few problems with such an adoring documentary.
If you’re looking for harsh scrutiny or criticism, you’re not going to find it in The Other One, but there may not be much to be found. It’s hard to find fault with the modest sidekick after watching him onscreen and even more so after spending time with him in person. When my interview with Weir finishes, my Deadhead father who has been (sort of) silently watching thanks Weir for giving him and his friends so much happiness. Weir’s response, “The pleasure is very much mine,” seems saccharine out of context, but when he is gripping your hand and staring into your eyes, it feels pretty damn sincere.