If, as the cliché runs, Blood On The Tracks was Bob Dylan’s divorce album, its follow up Desire seems a record of reconciliation, reunion and re-engagement. From the solitary figure chasing memories and regrets through Blood, it saw Dylan recast himself as leader of a ragged, sprawling and swirling family of musicians, and striking out again into the wide, wild world.
Branded by the distinctive sound of Scarlet Rivera’s violin, and a particular emphasis on storytelling and mystical overtones, Desire is a unique record in Dylan’s career for a number of reasons, not least because it saw him share the writing duties, collaborating on the bulk of the tracks with theatre director Jacques Levy. “I can’t remember who wrote what,” Dylan said in 1975. “He took [a song] someplace else, then I took it someplace else, then he went further, then I went further.”
Crowning Dylan’s surging mid-70s renaissance, the album spawned the now-fabled Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the strange, carefully ramshackle travelling circus of musicians and artists Dylan assembled to roll around the States in the Bicentennial winter of 1975, and which saw him give some of the hungriest live performances of his career.
At Dylan’s side at through it all was Rob Stoner, a veteran face on the scene, who was drafted in by Dylan to play bass on Desire, but very swiftly found himself acting as unofficial band leader, both on that record and the ensuing Rolling Thunder cavalcade. In this interview, conducted in 2016, I ask Stoner about his memories of making the album, and taking it out on the road.
You first met Dylan a few years before Desire, I think, around the early 1970s?
ROB STONER: Yeah, early ’70s. I met him in LA, when I was working with John Herald. John was the leader of The Greenbriar Boys, for whom Bob Dylan used to be the opening act. And so, Bob, every so often, would come and catch their act, as he would many of the people from his past. And at one concert in LA, when he came to hear The Greenbriar Boys, he heard me with them and I made his acquaintance then, and we stayed in touch.
Jumping forward to the summer of 1975 in New York City, then. At that point, having been away from that scene for a while, Dylan was immersing himself in things again, checking out what was going on, turning up in clubs and venues. How did you hook up again there?
RS: Right. Well, he no longer had the services of The Band: they had done their big blowout stadium tour in ’74, and then gone their separate ways, and so he was looking for a new direction. And, to that end, he even found a new writing partner, of course, Jacques Levy, who would take him in a few new directions.
And Bob was beginning to try these tunes out here and there, getting up to sing. It was very much like he was going back to his roots, back to Greenwich Village and the clubs. And I lived about two blocks from the strip where all the clubs were, and so I was a ubiquitous presence on the Greenwich Village folk and rock club scene at that point. I had my own band, Rockin’ Rob & The Rebels, that played a lot of those places. And I was also the accompanist for many of the folk singers and rock singers who would work on the Bleecker Street/ MacDougal Street strip of clubs down there – because I lived so close that, if someone needed somebody at the last minute, they could phone me, and I’d be there within 20 minutes to help them out, because I’m like a utility guy, y’know: I play guitar, bass, piano, sing, whatever needs doing, I can do. So, if somebody needed some last-minute instrumental augmentation, they could always ring me up and I could be right there.
So, I was just kind of always there, and several times, when Bob went to see people playing around the Village, he’d see me on stage. So, he’d already seen me with his old pal John Herald, and when he started hanging out in the clubs again in the Village, he saw me play with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and various others from that scene.
And Bob said, “Hey man. Let’s do something someday.” Which is basically what people in his position say to every musician they meet, y’know. It’s well-intentioned, but very rarely does it ever actually come to fruition. So, I was very surprised when I actually got the phone call, and was asked to come up to the recording studio in the late August of 1975.
You’re a rockabilly guy, that’s your roots, you’re a real aficionado of that period, and you’ve played with guys like Link Wray. Dylan really loves that stuff, too, but it’s not something a lot of people immediately associate him with – although I guess maybe more people got it after he did the Theme Time Radio Hour shows, and he played a bunch of rare 1950s rockabilly and R&B in there. I was wondering, though, if the shared love of that music was something that helped you form a bond while you were working together?
RS: You know, that Theme Time show really was a real window into Bob’s tastes. I can tell you from hanging out with the guy, man: this dude knows as much about rockabilly and old blues and all the early rock’n’roll and the funky music that preceded rock’n’roll as anybody you’ll ever meet. This guy knows every lick to every Buddy Holly song, every Elvis tune, every riff. He can sing you the guitar solo, even if he couldn’t play it, from any of those tunes. Bob said that they should put up statues of Chuck Berry in American parks, y’know. He thought Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson were the greatest lyricists around. He was totally well versed in all of that stuff, even if it wasn’t immediately evident in a lot of his own music, back then. He took energy from that stuff. And actually, one of his proudest achievements at the time that I knew him was that Elvis Presley had recorded one of his tunes, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” It was just like a deep cut on an Elvis movie soundtrack, and Bob was moved.
Getting on to making Desire: How would you describe the scene that greeted you when you arrived for the first Desire session? My understanding is that, for the first session for that album, there were quite a lot of musicians involved – over 20, including Eric Clapton – and it seems fair to say that it wasn’t coming together. Not much came out of that first night.
RS: Right. I came up there, up to the studio, the Columbia Records recording studio facility on East 52nd Street in New York, and when I witnessed the session…whoo. Actually, I first got the phone call from Bob’s producer, Don Devito, and Don was sort of stymied about how to make this record they were trying to do come to pass. And it was a totally confused, out of control situation as I witnessed it when I showed up. Too many chiefs, and no Indians, y’know? Just total chaos.
There were all these superstar players: Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, a British group called Kokomo, which included some of the guys from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band. There were all kinds of people just all hanging around – and every one of them also had their own entourage, or at least a couple of guests. And so, it was more of a social scene than a work environment – in fact, they had to open up some of the adjacent studios to the one they were trying to record in, just for all these other people to hang out in. I mean, they had a buffet table…it was like a backstage reception thing after a gig more than a recording session.
And poor Bob: he was at the centre of all this, trying to do these tunes, which I had already heard, some of them. I’d heard him trying these tunes out in the Village over the previous few weeks, pretty much on his own, and here he was trying to do them with this huge band.
And these guys, I mean, they were doing like take after take, doing it like it was a rock record, y’know, where you spend hours on the drum sound, and then you go and work on this sound and that sound and then do endless run-throughs until you’re looking for that perfect take…Bob doesn’t have the patience for that, and his music doesn’t lend itself to that approach, either. His music is In The Moment. And all you need to get is like one take without mistakes – without terrible mistakes, I should say, because there are plenty of mistakes on Dylan records – and the first take that doesn’t have mistakes on it is very likely to be the keeper. And you’re not going to get that with a large disorganised group.
What do you think the idea was, trying to get so many people in there..?
RS: Well, the problem was that there was no producer. Don Devito was the nominal producer, but Don was more of a record company liaison type of guy than a hands-on producer. Essentially, no one was in charge, that was the problem. Bob wasn’t putting his foot down – that’s not his nature, anyway. And the producer was just sort of letting it all happen, hoping that this would coalesce. But I could see that they were waiting in vain, because this was not going to be a productive method of immortalising these tunes. The only thing on Desire from that night is “Romance In Durango,” – that one has Clapton on it, it’s the only tune on the album that has Clapton, and Vinnie Bell, who was a legendary studio player, is also on there. It was done after we’d sent most of the other people home. After the thing had wound down, y’know, I got to play on one tune that night, along with whoever was left, such as Clapton and Vinnie Bell and Don Cortese, a great accordion player.
Did Don DeVito take any more of a production role as sessions progressed on the album?
RS: No, what happened was, uh…Don asked me! About what to do…When I got the call to come down, it was Don who called me, and he said, “Bob wants you to come to the studio.” Now, I don’t know if it was really him, or both of them, or which of them who wanted me to come, and I didn’t know why, either. Because, y’know, when I got there, there were already too many musicians, and there was no room for me to jump in on any of these tunes. And I didn’t want to jump in on them, anyway, because it was so chaotic. I mean, I wanted no part of this when I saw it going on.
And they took me aside, Bob and Don, each of them individually, and both kind of said, “…What do you think of what’s going on?” I think they just wanted a viewpoint from somebody impartial, who was from outside of the circumstances, and who they knew had experience playing on these kinds of records. Not that they didn’t have experience, of course – I mean, Bob had made plenty of records with accompaniment before. But, for whatever reason, they asked me what I thought, and I boldly proposed that they should just start fresh. I said, “Just forget all this, send everybody home, and come back tomorrow night with just a tiny band, the smallest crew possible – and then you can get through it.” They said, “Well, who would you suggest?” And I said, “Uh, well – Clapton’s good, you could keep him…” y’know. Actually, let’s see, they sent most of the people home, but I do remember saying to them to keep Emmylou, Emmylou Harris, because she was sounding great.
So, we came back with a smaller crew – and then, things just happened right away. We got great results. In fact most of the album – they had been struggling for a couple of nights to immortalise the thing – but most of the album happened in one night once they took that suggestion. So that sort of cemented my reputation there. We did pretty much the whole album, over half of it I’d say, on one night. Then we came back one more night to listen to stuff – just to make sure we hadn’t been dreaming the night before y’know. Because after that night when it all happened, I mean, you couldn’t believe it.
As I was saying: the first take with no mistakes is the keeper. And those were the ones that went on the album from that night. As far as I can recall, they’re all the first complete take. And that’s all you need. Y’know: some of them we had to run through a few times to get ’em, but there was no big thing about working on the drum sound or this sound or that sound. Just go in, record it raw, just like people used to do, since the dawn of recording, before they had overdubs or any of that. And actually, with I think maybe one exception, there are no overdubs on that record; it’s all just totally live in the studio. What you hear is what occurred, which is how Bob Dylan’s music is meant to be heard. It’s a snapshot of the proceedings, a snapshot of that moment.
It’s funny, I was talking to some people who worked on Time Out Of Mind, 20-odd years later – which is also one that had quite a lot of musicians in the studio together – and they were saying something similar to what you said about using the first complete take with no mistakes: their rule there was, if you don’t know what to play, if you can’t figure it out, just don’t play at all, because this might be the take we’re using…
RS: Yeah, right: When In Doubt, Leave It Out. That’s right. Although, of course, when you’ve got a tiny group, there’s no room for that: everybody’s gotta be there. Every single downbeat, so you better commit to…something.
You mentioned that thing about not doing too many takes, this idea about Dylan maybe getting frustrated, or burning out on a song if it goes on for too long. Did you witness anything like that happening on the earlier session?
RS: On that first night? With the big group? Oh, totally, man. It was a nightmare. I felt so bad for Bob watching it. He looked so frustrated, and kind of out of his depth. And I felt bad that DeVito, also, wasn’t there to watch his back, to put his foot down and rein in all this confusion. It was basically, I guess they figured, with all these great people present, since they were all so professional and experienced, it’s bound to coalesce. Well: no. It doesn’t matter how famous they are, or how great musicians they are. Certain principles have to be adhered to if you’re going to get a result.
So, that next night, when it was the stripped down band and it all came together – you basically recorded over half the album in that one night – when did you begin to feel that something was happening?
RS: The very first tune. I mean, Bob had never played with this ensemble before. It was a whole new idea. It was just Bob on guitar and harmonica, Scarlet Rivera on violin, and my drummer, Howie Wyeth. And there was a girl playing percussion, too, her name was Sheena Seidenberg, and at some point later on, we brought in another percussionist, a more experienced guy, Luther Rix. But, that night, Bob had never even met my drummer before.
At first, when Bob decided to try this suggestion, going in with a smaller group, he said, “Well, who can we get for drums?” And Bob thought, “Oh, I’ll get Kenny Buttrey from Nashville,” because he was so great on Blonde On Blonde and the rest he’d done there. So right away he put in a call to Kenny Buttrey, and saw that it wasn’t going to happen because Kenny was already committed to some other project. So I said, “Well, hey, you know that guy who plays with me, you’ve heard him playing with my band, Howie Wyeth.” So Bob said, “Yeah, he sounds okay, get him in.”
So Bob had never played with him, and the first time that we sat down and played a song in the studio that night, the very first song – and I think it was the first complete take again – immediately, we went in and listened to the playback, and he took me aside. And I didn’t know what he was going to say, I was half-prepared for “Hey, man, I dunno about your drummer…” But Bob said, “Man, this sounds great. The drummer’s perfect. This is like the perfect sound, this is working out.” So, I was so relieved, that the suggestion had been taken, and it was working out to his satisfaction. So, yeah, from the very first tune, I knew this was happening. I could hear it, and when Bob concurred, I though, Man: we’re gonna nail this. And so, yeah, we just sat down.
We started at seven in the evening, and we kept going until 7AM the next day. And, in fact, we would’ve kept going, because we knew we were on a roll. And there were no drugs, no drinking, no nothing, man. It was just like everybody was running on pure adrenalin. I’ve seen all these stupid articles about the Desire album, people write that it was “tequila fuelled…” I think people got that because there’s a song that mentions tequila, right? I can vouch, man: that was the straightest session. There was nothing going on there but caffeine and adrenalin. And nicotine, of course, as it was in the day. But that was the soberest session that I had ever been a part of, except for maybe playing on jingles and movie soundtracks.
So, yeah: we just kept going that night. We knew we were on a roll, and it was like there was a magic spell and we didn’t want to break it. So we just kept the continuity going and going. And the only reason we stopped at seven in the morning was because, on that particular street in Manhattan, that’s when they would tow your car. And we didn’t want our cars to get towed, so we stopped at 6:30 AM.
You would have heard some of the songs previously as they were evolving, I guess, when Dylan would sing them in the clubs in the Village. But when it came to the studio, how did he go about presenting these tunes to the musicians?
RS: Oh my god. It was basically how they do it in Nashville, Tennessee. I had worked in Nashville, and in Nashville, Tennessee, when you’re going to record, they run through songs and immortalise them quicker than any other place, because they have this system of numbers, which is looking at the chords numerically, instead of their chord names. And so I knew how to write down the number system, which is essentially like a shorthand method of writing out a chord chart. So, Bob would begin the song, and I would just start writing furiously. And I was the only one who had to worry about chord changes, because Scarlet, the violinist, she’s playing on top of everything. I was the only one who had to land on the same chord as Bob’s playing on his guitar. So, I’m watching his hands, and I would basically write down a few numbers while I’m playing – I’d write with my right hand, while I was playing with my left hand. I can play the bass with one hand, most bass players can play with just the left hand.
So, yeah: I’m playing with my left hand, while I’m writing with my right hand, just enough to give me the solid information. The whole time, of course, I’m watching his hands, and I know which guitar chord he’s playing, and I can anticipate which chord he’s going to go to next, because I watch the hand muscle relax and begin to form the next chord. And, so, between the visual, of watching which chord is going to come next, and, as a working musician, my previous knowledge of which chords work with which other chords, you sort of get an idea of what the “chordal vocabulary” of the tune is going to be. Which is basically called “faking it.” And musicians have to “fake” all the time, as we call it, y’know. In fact, they have these books that we use all the time called “fake books” which are for just playing the bare bones of a tune, just enough so you can play it without making major mistakes.
And that’s basically what I was trying to do, because I didn’t want to be holding up the proceedings, by, y’know…learning the tune. Bob would just start playing, and I would start playing. It was kind of like he was playing Stump The Band. Or, at least, Stump The Bass Player: the drummer, he just had to keep time. The violinist, she’s playing over what was going on, and Scarlet had a really good ear, I’ve worked with her a few times. So, we’re all just faking it, but, because we’re all good at that particular skill, which is what you do on a jam session, we were just… it was like jamming tunes that I’d never heard before, which is something I’ve done many times. Y’know, you see musicians get up onstage in an unrehearsed setting, and they don’t have sheet music or anything, they just watch each other and listen, and so it was those kind of circumstances: just sitting in on some unfamiliar stuff. And it worked out. Oh, and obviously, you watch the foot too: you watch Bob’s foot to see where the beats are.
Was doing an all-night session like that common practice in your experience, or were you more used to doing recording sessions during, y’know, “working hours”?
RS: It depended on the project, really. A lot of the rock bands, if you worked for a band that was a big, popular group, they would book the studio for say a week or something, so they could go in any time of day. So, for those kinds of dates, you could be in there all night long. But most of the work that I did back then, and that existed back then, was pretty much nine-to-five, yeah. By which I mean, 9AM to 5PM, not the other one. But, a lot of people, musicians, their rhythms, you know their circadian rhythms are just attuned to that night thing – I read that Duke Ellington liked to do that, too, and various other people, at least people who had control over their projects. If you’re small potatoes at the record label, of course, you go in whenever they tell you.
I wanted to ask you about a couple of specific musicians on the record. One was Emmylou Harris – how did it work between her and Dylan when she was singing the harmonies, what was the dynamic, and what was the set-up there?
RS: Let’s see. Well, they were kinda winging it. They were changing lyrics…Jacques Levy was there, too, and all the lyrics were pencilled on large yellow legal pads, and sometimes, they would change lyrics like from take to take. Jacques would be out there, writing, it was almost like working on a Broadway show, where they’re constantly tweaking the lyrics and the dialogue, him and Bob were constantly tweaking the words. So, Emmylou, she was a little unnerved by the fact that it was unrehearsed, and she had to follow Bob’s phrasing, which was idiosyncratic. It’s tough to sing harmony with Bob.
In fact Emmylou was only there for a couple of nights, she was there for the big confusing thing, and she was there on the night with the small band, the one that worked out. But then she wasn’t there anymore, because she had another commitment, and so I took over as the harmony singer at that point. And, in fact, there’s a tune from the Desire sessions called “Abandoned Love,” – which, I dunno how it didn’t make it onto the Desire album by the way. But, it came out on the Biograph box set, and I’ve seen reviews where people say, “Oh, Emmylou sounds great on that track…” No, that’s me goddammit. People assume that because it’s from the Desire sessions that it’s Emmylou, but no, she’d gone home by that point, and I took over as the harmony singer.
And, yeah, that’s when I realised how hard it is to sing with Bob. Because, first of all: there’s no rehearsal. Unless it’s like an incomplete take: that could be your only rehearsal. Because, as we’ve said, potentially the first complete run through could end up being the one that they release. I mean, yeah, sometimes we’d get a complete one, and we’d say, “Oh can we do that again, and try and get it better..?” And we’d realise that the earlier one was the best one. But the trouble with the earlier ones for a harmony singer is that you haven’t really refined matching up your phrasing with him. And you can hear on the album that they’re not quite in sync. I mean, in terms of being in tune, she was great, Emmylou’s pitch was amazing. But the phrasing, you can hear her struggling to match…and I know what she’s doing, because I did it subsequently myself, not only on the “Abandoned Love” recording, but I was the harmony singer, along with Steven Soles and T-Bone Burnett and some others, on the Rolling Thunder Revue tours. And so I know from experience that it’s tough to phrase with Bob, because he changes his phrasing all the time, his phrasing is very idiosyncratic, he will break metre, which is a thing that gives him a lot of rhythmic freedom. The best way to do it, is just watch his face, and try and anticipate what he’s gonna do next vocally. And it’s not easy.
So, I know that Emmylou was more used to a more controlled, rehearsed method of singing, from when she was with Gram Parsons, and she was definitely unnerved by Bob’s approach. In fact, she said at one point that evening, “Oh my god, this is so difficult. I hope I’m going to get a chance to go back in and redo it.” And y’know what? Later on, they did give her a chance to go back in a redo it. And she went in to overdub at some later date π and they ended up keeping the original stuff. Because it just had a better feel.
But, when you listen to the album, you can see what Emmylou was concerned about: her phrasing isn’t totally matched up, they don’t begin and end words at the same time. But it works! It’s what we call in music, Wrong But Strong. I made a few mistakes on the album, too. I can listen to it, and maybe nobody else might pick up on them, except a bass player, but there are a couple of places where I play the wrong note. I didn’t stop the take man, I just kept going. Mistakes are part of life and part of music. Audio verité is what we were going for, not perfection. Wrong But Strong. We knew we had something. We knew we were creating something really important, and really different – just because of the quality of the tunes, the quality of Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy’s effort. It was just a unique piece of culture, and it was something that would last.
How about Scarlet Rivera? Desire would have been a very different album without her contribution – her violin is like that record’s signature – but it strikes me that she didn’t have much, if any, experience recording like this before. How do you think she felt going in to that kind of studio environment?
RS: I know that she was really glad to have the opportunity, and she was also gratified that her approach was so appropriate –and yeah, it was like the perfect thing for that particular group of tunes, and it was a whole new instrumentation for Bob. Usually, the lead on his records is something more traditional – a guitar or a keyboard – and, so, to have the violin throughout the record gave it a very unique feel. And she had a lovely approach, lovely vibrato, kind of a funky rock’n’roll thing. To me, she almost sounds like someone playing an electric guitar very loud through a Marshall stack, except at a low volume, if you know what I mean. Lots of sustain, bluesy licks, a lot of bends back and forth to the notes, just like a guitar player would do, and…bluesy, just very, very funky. Most violinists, man, they’re like a little too schooled, but Scarlet had this edge to her playing. And she still has it, too. I mean, she’s got classical chops, but she played to the situation, which was to not sound too schooled, which would have been too formal there.
Do you remember the recording of any particular song – is there one that stands out in your memory?
RS: Yeah: “Abandoned Love” – the one I sang on! Uncredited! Y’know, when they did that Bootleg Series volume of the Rolling Thunder tour, Live 1975, they didn’t put my vocal credit on there, either. In the booklet, it just says Rob Stoner: bass. And I’m the high harmony singer on every goddam song! The record company left my name off as a singer. That’s showbiz.
I wanted to ask about the last night of those sessions. I think that’s when you cut ‘Sara.’
RS: Yeah, when we came back. We came back, basically to listen, actually, and make sure we weren’t delusional over what had happened the night before, y’know. And then to do a few songs he had left, such as “Abandoned Love,” – that was the night we did that, because there was no Emmylou, and so the harmony singing fell to me – and “Sara.” And Sara Dylan was there that night. Bob introduced her to the band, and said, “Look, we’re gonna do a song for her tonight, so be on your best behaviour…” That was a sweet moment. A little more personal than I was used to in recording sessions, which are usually an impersonal type of thing, where the musicians are treated like the hired help. But, suddenly, Bob’s introducing us to his wife, and telling us…y’know…it’s gonna be A Hallmark Moment.
A few months later, you had to re-record “Hurricane,” because there were legal worries over some of the lyrics in the original version you’d taped…
RS: Oh, yeah, right. So that was somewhat different, and here’s why. The Desire album, as we’ve been talking about, was totally unrehearsed, everybody was faking it. By the time we came back to do the re-recording of “Hurricane,” we were already rehearsing for the Rolling Thunder tour – in fact, they interrupted a rehearsal to tell us, “Hey: the core group, the rhythm section is going to be going over to Columbia studios to re-record ‘Hurricane.’” So, by this point, we had already been rehearsing for a while, and so “Hurricane,” the version that came out on the album, is not faked. By which I mean: we actually knew the song! It’s something we’d been rehearsing by the time we went back in to redo it. So we knew the tune. The rest of the tunes on the album, we did not know at the time we recorded them, we were faking it.
And I think that’s the contrast between “Hurricane” and the rest of the tracks on the album: that we were already a band that was rehearsing for the tour across town, at SIR studios. We went back in with the same core band – Howie Wyeth, Scarlet, myself, and this time we had the percussionist Luther Rix playing congas, which added lot to it, it’s the only tune on the album with both congas and trap drums, which gives it that real propulsive rhythm. And Ronee Blakely and I think Steven Soles tagged along, too, so there were more background singers on it, and the rhythm section was slightly larger – and we knew the tune, that was the real contrast with the rest of the tracks on Desire. And, of the two recordings, I actually think I prefer that second one, the one that came out. Because it’s such a complex tune. I haven’t heard the original version since we did it, but my memory is that, because the tune is so complex, Emmylou had a lot of trouble with the harmonies, and I think that there were a few other problems too. I think it was the most ambitious tune on the record, and the least-polished in its original recording. So, I’m glad we re-did, it. And so is the legal department of CBS, who were the instigators.
I’m sure if that first version had come out, it would still have been great. But given the chance to redo it…as a matter of fact, we got a chance to redo all of them live on the tour, of course, and if you listen to the recordings from that tour, you get a chance to hear almost all of those tunes a little more rehearsed. But, y’know what, I think we nailed it the first time, because if you listen to the live Rolling Thunder Revue stuff and the tunes on Desire, we’re basically doing them the same. I think we intuitively found the right parts the first time, and kinda stuck to them.
You pretty much had the bandleader roll on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. What was the hardest part of that job?
RS: Well, let’s see. The hardest thing about it was that it was so…administrative. It was nominally a musical job, but, in fact…do you know that metaphor, “herding cats”? Yeah, well: it was like herding cats, man. I mean, this was kind of a rambling, freewheeling bunch of people, and they liked to party. It was hard to really get them to rehearse and to polish the shows up.
Because, everybody thought…it was sort of the same attitude we were talking about as at that original crowded superstar session for Desire: they thought, “Aw, man, this is great, let’s party…” But no. I kept hearing stuff that could be better, and I knew that we were going to be put under a microscope someday, that this stuff was all going to come out, and meanwhile we’re playing to all of these thousands of people, and I wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be. And it seemed to me that not everybody had as professional an attitude…well, actually, strike that. I’m sure they did have a professional attitude. But they were having too much fun. And so, I’d be in my room, listening to the tapes, making my notes about it, and then passing my notes on to the various people, y’know, Hey you could do this better, or You could do this different…
And the only rehearsal I would often have would be at the soundcheck, which is the way it is with a lot of acts, actually. And so, at the soundcheck, I’d say, ‘Can we try this, can we try that…’ and try and polish it up. I mean, a lot of the tunes, early in the tour, if you listen to them, they don’t have endings, they don’t have intros, there’s sloppy transitions from the verses to the choruses and back, no hooks, everybody’s playing at the same time…it was just like a nightmare, man – musically, I mean, from the point of view of someone who’s nominally the music director. And it kind of surprised me, too, because there were so many other people there who were qualified to do that kind of stuff and knew about arranging. Y’know such as Mick Ronson, who had done it for David Bowie; such as T-Bone Burnett, who has gone on to do it for countless artists as a record producer; David Mansfield, he was a great musician – he was probably the best player in the whole band, and he could’ve done it, too. But he was a young guy, and so he was just kinda keeping his head down, trying not to get in trouble, but he was definitely the most versatile guy on the stage there.
So, all these great players…and yet everybody’s just going out and just like strumming, like it’s no big deal. But the thing was: no one wanted to be the spoilsport bad guy, the disciplinarian. It’s an unpopular role. And so I’d be the one up there playing the bass and conducting at the same time, waving at this person, trying to get this guy’s attention on the other side of the stage.
But hey: I’ll rest on the evidence. If you listen to recordings of the early gigs compared to the later gigs, you can hear all my little touches: so now there’s an ending on this tune, instead of it just dissolving into a bunch of people strumming; now there’s an actual intro on this one; now this one has some dynamics, they go down for the third verse to give it some contrast.
If you listen to some of the early shows from that tour, and compare ’em to the later ones, you will hear a distinct improvement. Because, as the tour progressed, I would call rehearsals – often to no avail. I mean, I’d call rehearsal, and: herding cats. This one would be out horseback riding, and this other one would be on a bender, and this one here would be hungover…If I could get a few people present, I was glad. And the ones who didn’t show up, I’d just give ’em notes. Y’know, every night, everybody’s out partying, and you know what I’m doing every night after every show? I’m in my room, listening to the board tape of the night, and making notes from it about what we’ve got to tighten up for the next show. But somebody’s gotta be the bandleader, man. It’s sad but true.
This interview was conducted around 2016,
and is from my work-in-progress manuscript
Rolling: In The Studio With Bob Dylan,
which I might finish one day.