The Grateful Dead had an interesting relationship with mainstream success. Although they remain inarguably one of the most famous and influential American bands of all time, that notoriety didn’t exactly translate to record sales and chart hits. It famously took two full decades for the Dead to land their first (and only) top ten album with 1987’s In the Dark, largely thanks to their first (and only) top ten single ‘Touch of Grey’. As Mickey Hart joked in the documentary Long Strange Trip, the Dead weren’t in the mainstream – they made their own stream.
But album sales and chart numbers aren’t the only methods for measuring success. The Dead were one of the biggest live music draws in the world, and with their travelling stage show of scaffolding and speakers that required multiple trucks, the band almost single-handedly revolutionised the world of rock touring in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were able to string together successful tours of Europe and reach markets in America that hadn’t been visited before them, and thanks to their rapidly growing freakishly devoted fanbase, the Dead were easily one of the most recognisable names in rock for the better part of three decades.
While most of the public attention was focused on singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia, there was another member of the band who acted in the same role and got to see the same wide of success: Bob Weir. Although not as prolific as Garcia in the earliest days of the band, Weir quickly carved out his own niche as co-lead vocalist and innovative rhythm guitarist who not only played off of Garcia but the entire Dead ensemble as well. Songs like ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Truckin’, and ‘Hell in a Bucket’ ensured that Weir got just as much time in the spotlight as Garcia did.
While talking with Rolling Stone magazine back in 2016, Weir explained how the attention focused on the Dead had its benefits, but also its drawbacks. “When you become successful, people become willing to work with you and open up their world to you,” Weir explained. “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.”
Weir had to learn early on that people treated you differently when they saw you as a famous figure rather than a normal human being. “As we were walking through this throng of kids, they started pulling out my hair for souvenirs,” Weir remembered. “I was still in my teens. I learned the trappings of fame are not all they’re cracked up to be.”
With increasing fame also came increasing attention from the cops. The Dead were notorious for their freewheeling lifestyle, the likes of which frequently included drugs and the presence of Hell’s Angels, and that kind of heat meant that feds across the country were looking to make an example out of the Dead. There have been a couple of famous busts in their history, from a raid on their 710 Haight-Ashbury house to the New Orleans bust that inspired the writing of ‘Truckin’.
Weir joked in the same interview that, when he was first busted for marijuana possession in the mid-’60s, he had a lawyer who tried to talk some sense into him. “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.”