Interview by Jas Obrecht, by permission of author
The co-founder of the Grateful Dead describes the band’s early years, the influence of psychedelic drugs on the San Francisco scene, and the lasting legacy of psychedelic music.
Fillmore West at Van Ness and Market, 1970, with marquee advertising upcoming Grateful Dead shows.
Photo: courtesy Isabel Acuña on Facebook
An Interview with Bob Weir
Bob Weir’s long, strange trip with the Grateful Dead began on New Year’s Eve, 1963, when he followed the sound of a banjo into a Palo Alto music store. There, by chance, he met bluegrass veteran Jerry Garcia, waiting for a student. The 16-year-old Weir played folk guitar, and the two enjoyed a marathon jam session. They decided to form an acoustic band – Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions – with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who doubled on harmonica and drums. Inspired by the Beatles, the musicians switched to electric instruments in 1965, changed their name to the Warlocks, and brought in Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh on drums and bass. The Warlocks served as the house band at the first of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. The late Owsley Stanley, a pioneer in the manufacturing of then-legal LSD, bankrolled the band, which Garcia renamed the Grateful Dead. During the early days, the musicians shared a house in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and, as Weir describes below, accelerated their musical explorations with LSD. By the time they recorded their 1967 debut album, Weir contends, they’d moved past the psychedelic stage.
The Grateful Dead in front The Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street, May 1966.
Photo: Herbie Greene
The Grateful Dead, of course, went on to become the most beloved and enduring of the seminal San Francisco bands. For three decades, they delighted Dead Heads – the most avid and loyal family of fans in rock and roll history – with extended concerts highlighted by inspired improvisation. Along the way, several members had successful side projects. Bob’s first solo release, Ace, came out in 1972 and was the source of the concert fave “Playing in the Band.” As the 1970s rolled on, Weir also toured and recorded with Kingfish and the Bob Weir Band. In 1981 he stepped out again with Bobby and the Midnites, playing alongside legendary fusioneers Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson.
The Grateful Dead’s ride lasted until the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia. For a while, Weir and band mates carried on as The Other Ones. When this disbanded, Bob devoted his musical energy to RatDog; their 2000 album Evening Moods is a good representation of their sound. In 2008 and 2009, Weir and other members of the Grateful Dead reunited to tour as The Dead. Since then, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh have been playing together as Furthur; this band is currently on tour.
In October 1996, I began work on a Guitar Player magazine cover story called Psychedelia. Bob agreed to do an interview to help provide background info. Here is our complete conversation:
I’d like to get your input on the psychedelic scene in San Francisco in the 1960s.
Is it fair to say that within about a six-month period, musicians in San Francisco went from playing folk and jug music to full-blown psychedelic music?
Pretty much, yeah.
What caused that to happen?
Well, number one, the Beatles, followed shortly by the Rolling Stones. Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions started on New Year’s Eve [of 1963]. And I guess it was January or February of ’64 that the Beatles hit. I won’t say this was the death knell for the folk craze, but it certainly co-opted the folk craze. It was not too long before everybody pretty much had converted to electric guitar. Let’s see. The Beatles hit in February, and our jug band, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, was beginning to electrify by November or December of ’64.
And the Warlocks followed soon after?
Yeah. Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions became the Warlocks, pretty much.
Did the Warlocks play what we’d recognize today as psychedelic music?
Yeah. We were still the Warlocks, I think, when we played the first Acid Test or two. And we were taking LSD and playing psychedelicized, so I guess definitively yes.
What inspired you to take LSD?
Adventure. Just the call to adventure.
Did you play the first time you dropped?
Not the first time, no. Our instruments weren’t around. Had they been around, had we been a little more provident – we were expecting to be somewhat incapacitated. We sort of had a little party situation, and we didn’t have the forethought to include our instruments at the time.
But you were with guys who were in the Warlocks?
Yeah. At that time, LSD was being touted as a sort of spiritual or inner-discovery kind of trip. The first couple of times guys from the Grateful Dead got together and took it, it was under that sort of understanding.
Like as a form of communion?
Yeah, or just the inner-journey, inner-exploration. That was how it was being touted back in the early mid-’60s. You had your Alpert and Leary [Ram Dass and Timothy Leary] coming out of Harvard or the Boston area, and that was the kind of press it was getting. So that was what we were going on. Meanwhile, at that point, we had as yet to run into the Kesey scene, and Kesey had a whole other slant on it. It was sort of inward and outward exploration, and they had a way more festive frosting that they put on the cake.
Did your dropping acid cause the music to become more improvisatory?
Well, yeah. When we finally got to the Acid Tests, we’d set up before the whole thing began – wisely so, I think. [Laughs.] And then we’d take acid, and then we’d wait until we could kind of deal with the physical. Back then, God knows who decided what the appropriate doses were gonna be and stuff like that. So there were times where it was a couple of hours, at least, before we could come around and make a stab at trying to play. And oftentimes, the first couple of attempts, we’d get on, we’d pluck around a little, and we’d abandon ship pretty quick. You know, it was hard to relate. We were heavily into hallucination and stuff like that. We got better and better at it as time wore on, so that we could take a pretty massive dose and hang in there after a while.
At what point did playing gigs become what Jerry described as “religious services of the new age”?
[Long pause.] There was that component to it from the start. The first time I dropped acid was on Jerry’s birthday in 1965. Even then, the inner-quest was what it was about for us. And we never dropped that notion, it’s just that we added on other notions of what the whole experience could amount to as we developed our relationship with the Kesey outfit, for instance.
When did you begin turning up the volume?
Pretty quickly. The bent from the start with the Acid Test was faster, looser, louder, and hairier. You know, we were going for a ride. We were gonna see what this baby will do.
Jerry also mentioned that this was a very uncritical playing situation.
Right! That helped. What didn’t help was the fact that we were completely disoriented. So given that, we had to fend for ourselves. We had to improvise because when we were playing songs, we’d come around to what should be a familiar chorus, and it seemed entirely unfamiliar. We adopted a sort of “play the ball as it lies” mentality rather than adopting a bunker mentality and just trying to get this thing right. We were there for the ride, so we improvised.
Did the jams increase the camaraderie among the musicians?
Absolutely! It made us rely on each other a lot. “How are you doin’, man?” “I don’t know – how are you doin’, man?” “Well, I got this,” and you’d play a line. “Okay. I think I can relate to that.” [Laughs.] We had to hang together.
Do you have a sense of who were the first musicians in San Francisco to record psychedelic music?
Um, I don’t know.
Country Joe and The Fish did some stuff really early on, like the “Section 43” EP in ’65.
That could well have been. We, late in ’65, got into the studio. Ah, wait a minute – come to think of it, we played something that was pretty loose. We put down a track – I don’t think it was ever released anywhere – it was called “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks).” Or we just referred to it as “Caution.” That was sort of an ironic name for the tune, because caution was anything but what the tune was about. And it was just, I guess, our loose interpretation of the ride – and THE RIDE in capital letters.
Outside of the Dead, who were your favorite musicians playing that kind of music at that time?
You know, at that time I was listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Paul Butterfield. Playing that kind of music? My feeling is – and if you ask around, I’ll bet you’ll find it’s true – that most of the groups were a little insular in their appreciation of what everyone else was up to in the psychedelic scene. First off, I’m not sure that we were, at the point, real aware of the fact that there was a psychedelic scene happening. It’s just we were all doing the same thing at the same time because that’s sort of what the times presented to us. I know the Grateful Dead were concentrating pretty heavily on what we were up to, and not particularly influenced by other people’s version of that same thing. I think if you asked anyone in any of the groups at that time, they would have felt that they had a leg up on what they were up to, and that to sort of check in with what other people and what other groups were up to would be at least a half a step back for them.
So you weren’t one to go check out Moby Grape or Sons of Champlin?
Well, that was a little later on. Actually, in ’66 and ’67, we were into running around and seeing what other people were up to – more for sport or for fun than anything else, because I think we all nurtured the notion that if we stuck to what we were up to, then we would have our own definitive sounds.
Poster for shows in September, 1966.
Were you edging toward psychedelic playing before Jorma Kaukonen?
Um, I don’t know what the chronology is there, because I lost track of Jorma as he was beginning to electrify. This was for about six months after he disappeared from the folk circuit. We had heard that he was playing up in the city with this band Jefferson something or other, but we didn’t get a chance to see him. It was a treat to check back in with him when we finally did and see what he was up to. If there was anyone that I was listening to or who was influencing me – or us – at that point, it was Jorma, because we all had a pretty heady respect for him.
People have written that sometimes the Dead needed a long period of time to tune up.
Was that more due to the instruments back then, or the drugs or lack of tuners . . . .
A sense of perfectionism. You know, we really wanted to be in tune. And I think we were probably a little better in tune than most bands were. But I don’t know if it was noticeable to anyone other than perhaps the musicians. We were finicky about that, and we were also a little self-indulgent on that regard. If we’d had tuners back then, it would have been real handy, especially when we were ripped.
Ralph Gleason wrote that he thought the important thing about San Francisco rock was that the bands were here to sing and play live rather than for recording, and that there was a different sound at the dances than you’d get on the records. It was harder and more direct.
Right. I don’t think we ever overcame that – the Grateful Dead, at least. We were primarily a dance band. We were there to swing. And in the studio, it was too sterile of an environment for us because there was nobody there to swing with us – just a bunch of microphones.
Of your released recordings, it seems that “Viola Lee Blues” is the first one to edge into psychedelic music.
Well, like I say, there was “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” earlier on. And, to be fair, none of that stuff was done – we never did drop acid in the studio back in those early days. And I’m not entirely sure why not.
It probably would have been unproductive.
Yeah, it probably would have been unproductive, and it didn’t seem like a business-like thing to do. Back then, when you went into the studio, you had – I mean, our first Warner Brothers record, we recorded in two or three days. And to blow a whole day on dropping LSD and then the next day be sort of down for the count anyway, which is pretty much what happened – we didn’t feel we could afford that.
Was the acid different back then?
[Long pause.] I haven’t taken it all that recently. I know that the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, was quite different back then.
Is there any particular Dead album you’d point to as being the most psychedelic?
[Long pause.] You know, by the time we got into recording a lot, I think we had sort of moved beyond our psychedelic era. Our psychedelic era was 1965, ’66, early ’67. By the time we were in the studio and recording, we’d kind of moved past that. We had a new focus. We were rehearsing a lot and playing a lot. We had gotten to a point of diminishing returns with taking acid after a couple of years, and we didn’t get into the studio and start making records until a year or so after that.
By “point of diminishing returns,” do you mean you’d learned what you needed to learn?
Yeah! We started going back to the same places, and so it seemed, “Okay, well, we got what we could out of that.” We didn’t turn our backs on it so much as started looking in other directions. We weren’t about to hang our hat on anything – LSD or anything else.
Would it be fair to call the Fillmore the center of the scene back then?
Ah, yeah. Easy. Though I gotta say, during the week the Matrix was also pretty hoppin’.
When Bill Graham started booking blues and jazz acts and when the Butterfield band came through, did that up the ante musically?
Yeah! Considerably, as well. We were focused on what we were up to and just forging ourselves as a rock and roll band – you know, finding our fingers, finding out what our instruments were all about, these new electric instruments with amplifiers and P.A.’s and stuff like that. About the time that we had garnered some notion of what it is we were up to, Bill Graham started bringing around Paul Butterfield, B.B. King, a number of English acts, Count Basie, Ravi Shankar, and musicians like that. At that point we started concentrating on musical sources, and less on finding out what we could do by ourselves when we popped a little acid and hammered.
Butterfield had much more of a straight blues band.
Yeah, those guys drank.
It seems like the blues was the underlying basis for most of the psychedelic bands.
Right. Well, we’d all come up through the folk circuit, and the blues was a staple there.
Why did the scene flower in San Francisco more than anywhere else?
I’ve been asked that a number of times. I think San Francisco had a real liberal bent to it, sort of an anything-goes atmosphere that goes way back to the Barbary Coast. And so that developed the Bohemian scene that started, I guess, back in the ’30s and came to really flower during the late ’40s and ’50s. And then we were direct descendants of that. There was a permissiveness here. And also San Francisco has its raging ethnicity. San Francisco is a city not unlike New York, only a smaller version. If you were walking in any one direction, you’d go through one neighborhood and then another neighborhood and then another neighborhood. Every time you’d gone a few blocks, the signs were all in a different language. The atmosphere in San Francisco was such that people were more willing to put up with diversity – and even embrace it. And that wasn’t what you would find everywhere you went in America in those days.
Grateful Dead posing at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, 1966.
Photo by Herbie Greene
What were the major influences that caused the scene to start to crash?
I think bathtub methedrine, particularly.
By ’67 or ’68?
By ’67, for sure. By the time the press had found San Francisco and declared the “Summer of Love,” the scene was over for those of us who’d grown up in it. We got out.
Did you know musicians who went into methedrine?
Yeah, plenty of them. They lost their teeth, they lost their sense of humor, and a lot of them turned to crime. It did a nasty number on a lot of people.
Was that a stepping stone toward heroin for some?
I’m pretty sure, yeah. Because methedrine had a nasty comedown, and the best way to deal with that, I guess, was the heroin.
Who were the most innovative players to some out of the first generation of San Francisco bands?
Well, certainly Jorma. Jorma was just a horse of a different color in every regard. His major influences on the guitar were mostly pianists [laughs], something that I guess I sort of inadvertently adopted from him, though they were different pianists, but nonetheless. He had such an interesting take on what guitar was all about.
Plus he had the influences of Blind Blake and Rev. Gary Davis.
Right. He was pretty much our guitarist scholar, as well as having a unique slant on what guitar amounted to as an interpretive instrument. And then – let’s see. Jerry Miller. I don’t know if he’s to be considered among the first wave, because Moby Grape came in a little later. I’m gonna forget some folks here, and I’m gonna have to apologize to them right now. Jerry Miller was awfully good.
Miller sounded to me like a guy who’d spent a long time playing in clubs and knew a lot about American guitar styles. For instance, he could play honky-tonk beautifully.
Bob Mosley and Skip Spence sounded purely psychedelic, whereas Miller sounded more schooled.
What was Moby Grape like live?
They had good nights and off nights, but on a good night they could stretch a song for quite a way, and they sounded fab. And there was a lot of good interaction happening.
That three-guitar approach must have been fairly unusual at the time.
Right. And then, of course, there was John Cipollina [of Quicksilver Messenger Service] – you can’t forget him. He had a definitive sound, and he never abandoned that. He stuck to his guns and just kept developing his sound and his whole presentation.
He was a very sweet human being, too.
Yeah. He was wonderful.
He once wrote me a letter thanking me for spelling his name correctly in an article.
Grateful Dead in the middle of the road in the Haight-Ashbury, 1966.
Photo: Herbie Greene
What were your feelings when Jimi Hendrix came along?
When I first heard him, I was pretty blown away, but he was followed right quickly by Eric Clapton. So I got the feeling that these guys coming from the London side had taken a completely different course.
Were the Yardbirds at all influential?
Yeah, they were. They were early on, too. They were one of the bands that Bill Graham brought over that we went down and caught and were profoundly influenced by.
Was that with Jeff Beck?
Yeah. But that was when we were beginning to move out of our psychedelic phase, because we didn’t perceive these guys as psychedelic bands. We saw these guys as London bands or English bands.
Did you regard these British bands as being psychedelic innovators, or did they seem like they were attempting to cash in on what was happening in San Francisco?
Well, not so much an attempt to cash in. As we saw it – and I think we were kind of right about this, as well – these guys were established bands. The Yardbirds went back a ways. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones went back a ways. And they went through their psychedelic phases. But they were established bands. They were British bands. And then they went through their psychedelic phases. As a rock and roll band, we [the Grateful Dead] were born right in the full fray of our psychedelic phase.
Big Brother was like that as well.
What about the Doors?
Um, the Doors weren’t a great fit in San Francisco. Their outreach was somewhat extra-musical. It was more into showmanship, and they had that sort of methedrine edge around them as well. They were a little on the hard-edged side for San Francisco.
How about the Byrds?
The Byrds were pretty cool as far as we were concerned. We went and caught them every chance we could.
Did psychedelic music make lasting contributions to the way people play guitar or approach music today?
Let me think about that for a minute. [Long pause.] Well, it sure as hell contributed to an openness, to a willingness to listen to other musical forms and to try to beg, borrow, or steal from them. It’s the stuff that we found, that we stumbled over, during our psychedelic period that stuck with us. Like, we stumbled over electric blues during that period. And that stuck with us, and it stuck with everybody. That’s a cornerstone of everybody’s musical vocabulary at this point.
Did it liberate people from the musical past?
I won’t say that, no. Well, it did liberate people from the absurdities of what rock and roll was heading for in the early ’60s – the formatted pop stuff. I don’t want to mention any names, because I hate to, but there was some pretty silly, pretty insipid stuff that was doing rather well in popular music. And it liberated us from that whole trend – right away. That stuff really seemed flyweight.
Did it mess things up when people started to see musicians as prophets and holy men instead of, like, one of us?
Well, that all happened around the time that audiences sat down and started gluing their eyes on the stage. And that happened in 1968. It became conscious and less dances. At the Fillmore Auditorium, at the Avalon, at the Carousel in San Francisco, people stopped dancing and started watching the stage and sitting down. And at that point, personalities started to emerge. I think that was part and parcel because people had been wandering around reading. The alternative press and to some degree the mainstream press, they were interviewing these musicians, who were beginning to emerge as personalities. And, of course, the star maker machinery was more than happy to lend its weight there. And so rather than going to a concert to dance and hit on girls and stuff like that, people went to check out these personalities that they’d been hearing about. For instance, the press was more than happy to make Garcia into a demigod. And Garcia at first was more than happy to talk. You know, he loved to rave. He was verbose. And then it wasn’t too long before he started to realize, “Hey, this is getting out of hand.” And it stayed out of hand, as far as he was concerned.
I have to say it’s a testament to the Grateful Dead’s strength and vision to be able to keep that dance-hall vibe alive throughout its career.
Well, that was where we were the most comfortable, and why go anywhere else? I mean, when we got the place rocking and everybody was having fun, you could fuckin’ feel it. And that was our whole purpose for being there, because that’s the best there is, as far as I’m concerned.
Bob Weir at the Frost Amphitheatre at Stanford, 1985.
Photo: Rob Cohn