Bob Weir's Long, Strange Trip West
The iconic member of The Grateful Dead talks his first solo record in over a decade, fascination with the American West, and how he's still, somehow, searching.
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
As the weathered cowboy adage goes, "always drink upstream from the herd." For a half century, Bob Weir has embodied that iconoclastic wisdom. In that Bay Area honkytonk baritone, he belted lyrics about living on "Vitamin C, reds, and cocaine." In "Me and My Uncle," the rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead boasts, "I'm as honest as a gambling man can be." He reminded us that the greatest heroes are rarely innocent.
Weir was the other one, the McCoy Tyner to Jerry Garcia's Coltrane, the clean-shaven, straw-haired Casanova among bandmates who looked like Blackbeard's lysergic ghost. If Jerry's premature demise led him to being immortalized as the psychedelic diamond-eyed dancing bear skeleton saint, Weir always projected something more tangible and grounded—more Big Boi than Andre, less interested in six-string levitations than ensuring that one more Saturday night went smoothly.
If you scan the Dead's discography, his rollicking brokedown reveries of false reverends, ruined nights in Baja, and West Texas outlaws, rank among the band's most biblical. If Jerry's voice always seemed slightly distant, like an extraterrestrial angel, Weir's was immediate, the slightly unsavory new friend buying you Tequila shots at the bar, whispering bad advice with the best intentions. But he also flashed a love-singed tenderness on "Sugar Magnolia" and "Cassidy"—dedicated to his former roommate, Neal, the protagonist of On the Road, the real-life Dean Moriarty.
Since Garcia's death in 1995, Weir's long strange trip has included excursions with his own band, Ratdog and various permutations of the survivors including The Dead, Furthur, Dead and Company, and the outfit that conquered last summer's Fare Thee Well shows. Through it all, he's never conformed to expectations, save for still wearing shorts well into his seventh decade.
If the Dead's songs are peopled with outsiders: cowboys and gamblers, beatific heathens and those that make the margins more colorful, it's a reflection of their own instincts. Both critical adulation and commercial success came late. They exemplified the virtues of being strange, submerged in the slipstream between genres, neither anachronistic nor futuristic—operating at a different satellite frequency from their peers. That's why they remain timeless.
Over the last year and change, Weir, 69, returned to the studio for Blue Mountain, his first solo album in over a decade. Maybe you'd expect an album of cowboy songs, given his natural barbed wire inclinations and white thicket of facial hair that makes him resemble the cosmic kin of Yosemite Sam or The Lorax. But you wouldn't expect cowboy songs in this vein—produced, written, and performed alongside Josh Ritter, Josh Kaufman, and members of The National—a dozen bittersweet pastoral ballads and western hymns, cousins of the original cowboy folklore that were passed down in untamed territories in the days before radio had full reach.
Weir was somehow there, a kid with a guitar, towed to Squaw Valley in the summers with his family, where the ski resort became a seasonal cattle ranch. Or in Wyoming with his friend and future collaborator John Barlow, absorbing the uncorked advice from his elders. These songs strip the gun smoke black and white mythmaking from the era and instead celebrate the landscape and the vicissitudes of love like a sonic analogue to Ansel Adams.
Weir and his collaborators evoke rolling rivers and dry counties, ghost towns and unmarked graves, cold church basements and pouring whiskey on ashes. It's classic Weir, tumultuous and untethered from time, distilling spirits both chemical and organic. In his own words, "an artist of any stripe, first and foremost is a storyteller." There are few, if any, better than Bob Weir.
Noisey: In your interviews, you've said that the cowboy gunplay in the American West was a myth and that this project aimed to get closer to the way it really was. How do you see Blue Mountain as rendering a more truthful version of the American West?
Bob Weir: It wasn't a conscious decision of ours. For the colors that I was trying to draw from and paint on the record, I just took my experience with the guys that I spent time with as a teenager. They were ranchers; they weren't gunmen. They didn't romanticize anything like that. Their concerns were making sure the ranch operated well and the cattle rolled.
A friend of mine just put out a book on the North American cowboy and he's an anthropologist among other things. He did a great deal of research and came to the conclusion that the notion that cowboys were gun toting roughnecks, was really a fabrication that came up in the late 19th and early 20th century with the pulp fiction novels.
Writers could write anything they wanted because there was no way of fact checking. I didn't know this at the time, but that's where the project took us---towards those more blue-collar kinds of characters, who show up in most of the songs in one way or another.
Do you think the cowboy as the archetype of the rugged individualist outsider has been replaced in the American consciousness?
Yeah. It starts with those late 19th century novels and then there are the movies of the early 20s and 30s and 40s and finally the TV Westerns of the 50s and 60s. By the time those were over, they were done with that guy—the Have Gun Will Travel, Lone Ranger type character.
You guys seemed to embody the idea of the cowboy outsider mentality as far as bands go. Who do think fits into that role in pop culture right now?
As far as pop culture right now, as far as I can tell, those figures aren't as common as it was back in the Grateful Dead's heyday. Digital music has had a lot to do with all the changes in music. The quality of the music isn't there. That will change with higher resolution audio, which is coming soon. It's going to take a little sorting out but when it does arrive and music is once again more pleasing to your brain and nervous system, we'll see music re-assert itself in popular prominent culture.
That's when you'll see the iconoclasts and heroes rising in all the different fields of the arts. People who will earn a lot respect and attention, and you'll know them when you see them.
Who would you say are the rebel figures in modern culture?
In this day and age? Well, I wouldn't necessarily say the "loners," but something like that. It can go in any direction in this age. All options are available.
That rugged can-do kind of cowboy aesthetic and cowboy way—that outlaw mentality? You know, there's a lot of startups that are organizations of those kind of people. Some are successful, some get blown away.
On your new song, "Ki – Yi Bossie," there's a line about "looking for salvation but nothing caught my eye." In your own life, what have been the attempts at failed salvation?
I'm not going to indulge in specifics, but there's any number of new age concepts and therapies that fit in that category.
What have been the things that have offered the promise of legitimate salvation?
Meditation is an essential. If you don't do that, you're missing the boat. Aside from that, meditation will lead you to the conclusion that if you're looking for happiness, you need to do something that you love to do. That's easy for a guy like me to say because I've been involved in a creative line of work but at the same time there are challenges and frustrations inherent in that. It's not as easy as it might look.
You mentioned that you only realized about 10-15 years ago, that all artists are storytellers. When triggered that epiphany?
I used to think of all the aspects of what I do in separate categories—whether it was singing, playing guitar, hitting notes, defining rhymes, etc.
But in all of them, there's still a theme to it, there's still a story, there's a through line down from there. Really, I don't know exactly when the bell went off. It was sometime in the late 90s or early 00s, but it was then that I realized that no matter what I'm doing, I'm spinning a yarn, I'm telling a story. I'm putting all those threads together. And then I realized that it's what everyone else is going. If you're a painter, everything serves the painting. If you're a writer, everything serves the book or the story. For me, everything serves the song.
What stories in fiction, film, or mythology do you identify most with?
It's about situations more than anything—when a character finds himself in a story that's bigger than him. And how one finds their way through that scenario.
What gives you hope about the future?
The fact that we've made it this far—given all the forces of entropy in our culture. I can only speak for our culture, I can't speak to European or Asian culture, but I think I get our culture pretty well. The fact that we've had all these negative influences on our culture and yet we're still pretty functional, it bodes well for us.
What makes you pessimistic about the future?
Those news outlets that specialize in paranoia and bile—who have found an audience who will buy that stuff. There's a working economic system for them and they've been able to ply that. All those folks who are involved in that, and it exists on the political right and left for that matter. It's the same industry; it's just which sides of that fence that they've picked to be on.
They've found an audience of people looking for skullduggery and dirty doings, and the audience delights in this drama given to them by people whose stock and trade is to happily provide endless conspiracies. The people that tell you that a twice-elected President is secretly trying to destroy the country, despite everything he says and his every gesture whenever he's on camera, they figure it's all an act. They really think he's behind the scenes working to destroy America.
What do you think it was that made Jerry Garcia so singular as an artist?
Well, he was really bright. He had a huge heart and was really open. Those are all wonderful qualifications for any artist to have. He was also empathetic and unafraid.
What was your most fond memory from the Europe '72 tour?
Well, that was like going to summer camp except you take all the kids at summer camp and put them smack into the middle of Europe. We were just having a ball over there. Every day, there were different activities between the gigs. It was a lot of fun.
What was your favorite era of the Dead?
Musically speaking, I like the late Brent [Mydland] era (the late 80s). Practice makes perfect and we'd been at it for a long time. Jerry was in good shape and the band had a bright dynamic and we were really getting good, I think at that point we'd taken what we'd done to a unique level of presentation.
It feels somewhat nebulous and hard to point out exactly what made it so special, but that's what it's all about anyway. We just got so good at piecing together a show and including the audience in that.
What do you attribute your recurrent fascination with Texas and the American West?
A lot of it is in the colors. The American west has a feel and it's expressed by the colors in the sky. It's a singular look and if you overlay on top of that, the culture that I found when I first found my way out there…I've said this a number of times, but I found myself in the bunkhouse with a bunch of old guys who had grown up before radio had gotten that far—let alone movies or television.
They didn't read newspapers; they were cowpokes and ranch hands who heard about what was happening from the ranchers who had radio and newspaper. As for their concerns, they'd just pop a cork and start telling stories and singing songs to entertain themselves at night. That was what they did, that's what they lived. They invested a lot in their storytelling, it was all real good. I was really impressed with it as a young kid.
Do you see that type of storytelling as having permanently vanished?
Well, we'll see. Every day things change. There's absolutely no fighting it. But what I'm hoping for—for instance, using modern media to bring this record and this aesthetic back is one way—you just don't find it much anymore. I'm just trying to let this culture that I found, live through me in modern times.
As absurd as a question as it seems, what have you determined to be the things that give your life meaning?
I'll tell you what, it's something that an old friend once told me when someone asked him about the meaning of life. First, he laughed around for a long while, but then he said, "there is no meaning to life, but each of us has meaning."
That's where the line in "Ki Yi Bossie" came from. And that meaning is nothing that you can express in anything but art—there are no words for it, you know it when you see it, you know it when you hear or it or when it's revealed on a page of mathematics or chemical equations. That feeling that we all get whenever we've done something that changes lives.
Adam Mignanelli is a design director at VICE. Follow him on Instagram.