The Last Word: Bob Weir on Grateful Dead’s Legacy, Adele, Fame’s Downside
Last month, Bob Weir unveiled his first solo LP of all-original material in 30 years: Blue Mountain, an album of rustic songs inspired by his adolescent experience working as a cowboy in Wyoming. In a wide-ranging conversation with Rolling Stone, the singer-guitarist looked back on that formative time and shared insight into the Grateful Dead's legacy, his other early inspirations, the pros and cons of success, and more.
What rules do you live by?
Be as in touch with your dreams as you can be. My old pal Jerry had a place he used to talk about, a place of peace. He described it as "going down to the river …" After they cremated him, people were wondering what to do with his ashes, because there was nothing in his will about that. I had a dream in which it was revealed that he wanted to go "down to the river" and that river was the Ganges. So that's where we took him. I take my dreams quite seriously.
Your new album, Blue Mountain, is packed with cowboy imagery. Was that inspired by the time you spent as a kid on your friend John Perry Barlow's ranch in Wyoming?
I thought being a cowboy would be a terribly romantic thing to do. But it wasn't. I shoveled a lot of stalls. It was a bit of a bait-and-switch.
Who are your heroes?
[Author and mythologist] Joseph Campbell, for his true openness and sensitivity to … I don't know what you'd call it – the profound fabric of the universe. He was a great guy. Drank me under the table a few times.
What about Ramblin' Jack Elliott? He's also on your new album.
He's been a hero of mine, Christ, since I was 16. He's uncompromising in his dreams and romantic notions. He was a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn who learned to be a bronc rider. And somewhere along the way he picked up a guitar and became a troubadour.
What do you wish someone had told you about the music business when you first started?
When we started out, there was so much cash involved that it attracted an element you'd rather not do business with. Back then, the business was not that different from professional wrestling, in terms of decency. That's why our road manager carried a gun.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What fascinated me was the journey down the Mississippi River. There was something about that journey I related to.
Other than Garcia, how often do you think about other Dead members who aren't with us, like Pigpen and Brent Mydland?
All the time. I probably miss the mighty Pig the most. He was a formative character in my life, and he was full of contradictions and juxtapositions. He was nothing like how he looked.
You've been dealing with shoulder issues for years. What's your physical regimen like?
I like to swing things around, like hammers. It's an ancient practice. The Sanskrit word is gada. It really strengthens all the muscles in your shoulder.
What aspects of your lifestyle have you had to give up?
Oh, you know, I can't drink like I used to.
"I'm not as serious about drinking as I used to be."
Was that a problem?
Well, depends on who you talk to. Some of the writing Barlow and I did, in particular, there was liquor involved. But I'm not as serious about drinking as I used to be. When I was more concerned with knocking 'em back, I wasn't focusing on the delights a good glass of wine has to offer.
You have two daughters. Have they exposed you to new music?
Both my kids like Adele, and I gotta say the girl can sing. And she has some good writers as well.
What are the best and the worst parts of success?
When you become successful, people become willing to work with you and open up their world to you. But with fame comes a set of expectations that aren't what you were going for. Back in the Sixties, before we were truly famous, we went to Canada. A radio station in Vancouver had done a big promotion and there was a crowd of kids at the airport screaming, Beatlemania-style. As we were walking through this throng of kids, they started pulling out my hair for souvenirs. I was still in my teens, and I learned the trappings of fame are not all they're cracked up to be.
What's the best advice you ever received?
It was from a judge in a juvenile court when I was up on pot charges, which was a big deal back in the Sixties. He advised me to watch the company I keep. Directly after that time, I was keeping the company of what basically became the Dead. I followed his advice, but I don't think he would have thought that at the time.
Has Phil Lesh ever commented to you on Dead & Company?
He hasn't weighed in, and I'm not sure what he would make of it. He has a different approach to the music than we've developed. I'm not entirely sure he could just plug into Dead & Company seamlessly.
Has playing with John Mayer in Dead & Company made you think about what will happen to the Dead's music when the original members are gone?
There was a moment on our first tour when we were feeling our way into the next tune, "Scarlet Begonias." I had a flash, and it was 20 years later. I looked to my right and John's hair had turned to gray. I looked back on the drum riser and there were two kids back there. All holding forth and serving the music. Then the flash was over. But it made me realize that if we serve this legacy, it'll go on and people will teach this in music school in 200 or 300 years. I saw that trajectory.