Saturday, January 13, 2007

Weir Helps Make Magic in a Music Bus

Here's another article by Paul Liberatore, the most prolific Grateful Dead journalist:

Paul Liberatore: Weir helps make magic in a music bus
Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal

When you're at Macworld, you're not only in a different world, you're on another planet entirely. Call it the Planet of the Geeks.
I had ventured into Macworld at Moscone Center in San Francisco this week to interview Marin's Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead singer/guitarist/songwriter, about a recording project he did with high school kids on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus.

Not being much of a techie myself, I was so tense from all the bells and whistles going off around me that I just had to stop for a chair massage at a little bodywork oasis by the escalators.

"This is an oddball group of people," massage therapist Melissa Eller informed me as she pounded a knot of anxiety out of my neck.

"Everyone here's a little bit off kilter," she went on, then added with a giggle, "But in a good way."

Parked in the north wing of the cavernous Moscone convention hall, the bus is a cutting-edge mobile recording and multimedia production studio outfitted with the latest gear, including some very cool musical instruments - MIDI guitars, basses, vocal mikes, a gleaming electronic trap drum kit.

While waiting to interview Weir, I played a little blues shuffle on a guitar hooked up to an Apple Garage Band program and an electronic keyboard, and I miraculously sounded like Alexander's Ragtime Band.

The bus itself is painted a dreamy blue with white clouds and Lennon's familiar caricature of himself on it. It's operated by a bunch of hip young "on-board engineers" in black T-shirts with "Imagine Peace" written across the front.

With the blessing of Yoko Ono, the bus, a nonprofit project funded by corporate grants, travels around the country, stopping at schools, concerts, music festivals and conferences.

Young people are invited aboard to try their hand at songwriting, multitrack recording and multimedia production workshops.

When it was my turn to talk to Weir, I was ushered into the claustrophobic little recording studio in the back of the bus, where he was ensconced, finishing up an interview with a radio reporter.

A longtime supporter of music in the schools, the 59-year-old Rock Hall of Famer had come down from Mill Valley for a couple of days, donating his time to mentor a half-dozen high school students, three of them - Sam Toizer, Cody Zeger and Ten Mowrey - from Redwood High in Larkspur.

"We wrote, recorded and filmed a music video in here yesterday and this morning," he explained. "It was a great deal of fun. And it sounds pretty damn good."

The overarching point of the project, Weir went on, is that "it gives these kids a little taste of what it is to make reasonably professional-grade music. And it helps galvanize their writing abilities and their collective abilities. They have to work with each other. Everybody has to make room for everybody else. Everybody has to listen to everybody else."

Weir insisted that he stayed out of the process as much as possible.

"I didn't even make it yesterday for the beginning of the songwriting," he said.

"I didn't want to influence that in any way. I want them to have to do that themselves. I wait until they get the ball rolling. Then I come in and say, 'What are you guys up to?' I give ideas here and there, I'll give them a line or two of the lyrics, but I try to keep quiet as much as I can."

I wondered what these teenage musicians came up with as the subject of their song. It turns out that they chose the eternal garage band lament.

"We wrote about playing music in the backyard so loud it made the neighbors so mad that they call the cops," said Toizer, a 14-year-old keyboard and guitar player from Kentfield.

"I thought the bus is a novel idea, and Bob Weir was so great and easy to get along with. We're all decent musicians, and he added a guitar solo at the end of our song. It gave me an insight into how musicians are turned out and what their life is like."

For his 15-year-old Redwood classmate Zeger, who was thrilled when Weir let him play his 1956 Fender Telecaster, the experience was his first in a recording studio.

"I had never recorded anything before, so it was amazing to do a real recording in a real recording studio," Zeger said.

"And then to have Bob Weir come in. He helped us write our song, and then standing there singing it right next to someone who's that famous was even more amazing."

I wondered if these kids were Deadheads, or knew much about the Grateful Dead's music.

"For most of them, the Grateful Dead is their parent's music, or their grandfolks," Weir answered with a smile.

What he and I found fascinating is that the youngsters were most interested in the beatniks - Ken Kesey's sidekick, the legendary Neal Cassady, for instance - who influenced Weir and the Grateful Dead and the generation of '60s psychedelic rockers that succeeded the beats.

"Half of them had heard the legends, the urban lore," Weir went on. "Two or three of them had read Kerouac's 'On the Road.' When I read that book, I immediately left home."

The Lennon Bus is the kind of potentially life-changing opportunity that Weir would like to see more young people have.

When I broached the subject of the federal government committing more resources to music education rather than sending young people to war, Weir snapped out of his usual laid-back disposition.

He and the Grateful Dead have connections with liberals like new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and he's hopeful that the benighted political period of the past six years may be ending now that the Democrats are back in power in Congress.

"I'd like to get our government to support stuff like this so we don't come up with yet another generation of idiots," he said, his voice rising.

"I'm gonna wait for a few months while they clean up the mess the last Congress made, then I'm gonna go knock on some doors and pound on some desks in Washington because this needs to be on a national level.

"It's been the attitude for so goddamn long that people who can afford to give their kids a musical education say, 'My kid's OK. We've got money. And to hell with everyone else. People who work in my factory don't need music. They just need gloves.' It angers me so much when I think of that attitude."

The Lennon bus and the activity that went on in it at Macworld was a prototype of what could be commonplace if the country would at long last get its priorities in order.

"If they hadn't known already, the kids discovered yesterday that if they want a career in music, it's there for them," Weir said.

Apparently, that message got across. "He told us some stories about his life, what goes into making a song and being a musician," Zeger told me. "He said we could do whatever we wanted. The main thing was to stick with it and keep going."

By the end of the day, I realized that the folks at Macworld aren't off kilter after all.

Paul Liberatore can be reached at
liberatore@marinij.com


Here's a 2006 article about Bob Weir and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest

Picture from Active Music

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