Former Dylan collaborator Rob Stoner will bring spirit of Rolling Thunder Revue to 2022 BobFest

rob stoner interview

BOB GRUEN

Bob Dylan and Rob Stoner in 1975.

Pat Guadagno has lined up a very special guest for this year’s edition of his BobFest concert, paying tribute to the music of Bob Dylan: Rob Stoner, who was the bassist and bandleader for Dylan’s legendary 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and also played bass on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire. The show, which takes place at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on May 26, will, not coincidentally, focus on the music of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Guadagno, as usual, will also be joined by his Tired Horses band, made up of veteran New Jersey-based musicians such as Rob Paparozzi (on harmonica and vocals) Steve Delopolous (on guitar and vocals). Tickets are available through ticketmaster.com.

Other credits for Stoner — who lives in Nyack, N.Y. — include playing bass and singing backing vocals on Don McLean’s landmark 1971 single “American Pie” (he was credited as Bob Rothstein, his birth name) and touring and/or recording with artists such as Link Wray, Robert Gordon, Roger McGuinn and Kinky Friedman. He is still active as a musician and music teacher. Visit facebook.com/rob.stoner.musician for more on him.

I spoke to him recently by phone.

Q: Tell me first, how did you end up on the Rolling Thunder Revue? How did Dylan find you?

A: I met him a few years before that, because I was a guy on the folk scene. Actually, I was a jack-of-all-trades, playing bass on all kinds of music. I had been playing standards at weddings since I was, like, 14, and then playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands. And eventually I became a studio guy, a hired hand playing for various people. And a lot of the records that I played on happened to be by folk artists such as Pete Seeger and Tim Hardin.

So I was known to Bob Dylan already, before I ever met him. And eventually I ran into him somewhere. We hung out and found out that we got along. And so he said, ‘We’re gonna do something someday!’ Of course, eventually he parted ways with the dudes he was working with, who were called The Band, and I was one of the people he called to be his new accompanist. I was just lucky enough to be somebody who was around and available and that he already knew he had a lot in common with, and got along with, and would be capable of doing the job.

So he hired me to play on Desire, which was a No. 1 album in the mid-’70s. My picture’s on the back of that album! And because I played on that album, he started hiring me to play shows with him. We played a TV special in Chicago. It was a tribute to John Hammond (the record company executive who discovered Dylan). That was our first gig. And I ended up being kind of the guy he designated to be his executive assistant, or musical assistant. There’s a lot of stuff that a guy like him doesn’t want to be bothered with: the nuts and bolts of rehearsing, and getting logistics together, and hiring and firing musicians, all that stuff. So he just chose me as the guy he designated to do that because he saw I was capable of doing that. I sort of did it for him at the Desire album sessions. So when he decided to start this Rolling Thunder Revue project, he put me in charge of that, as musical director. And because he knew that I was a singer-songwriter in my own right, and could front a band, and work a crowd and hold the audience’s attention on my own, he also made me one of the opening acts for the Rolling Thunder Revue.

TOM KASZUBA

ROB STONER

All the guys in the band were singer-songwriters with their own thing going: T Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson from David Bowie’s band, Steve Soles. All kinds of great artists. So we all took turns doing songs while people were finding their seats. The artists started to file out onstage, because it was a variety show with a lot of guest artists like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

Q: When you did the opening set, was it solo?

A: I would be singing and fronting the Rolling Thunder band.

Q: Oh, okay.

A: Yeah, the band is backing me up, and I’m taking a turn at the front mike, singing a song or two.

Q: Were these your own songs?

A: Yeah, I did some of my own songs, one of which I’m going to do at the (Red Bank) show. It’s called, ‘The Situation Was Too Good to Be Wasted (But I’m Too Wasted to Be Any Good).’ I just call it ‘Wasted’ for short. So I would do that song every night, and I would also do a Bob Dylan song that had never been released — which I’m also going to do at the (Red Bank) show. In fact Dylan, because he liked my singing, gave me exclusives on several of his songs. They eventually all became covered by other artists. But I was the first guy to be doing many Dylan songs before they became public, because I heard him working on the songs and I knew about the songs before he had a chance to try and go out and sell them to other artists.

In fact, speaking of selling them to other artists … when I used to work with him, he would hire me to sing on demos of his songs. For instance, if he sent a song to Elvis Presley, he would have me sing it, because I can do an Elvis Presley voice. Presley never did any of his songs, except for a couple of them. So it didn’t really work out. But I was definitely his designated ghost voice, his ghost singer, on his demos. Of course, if you sent out his demos with him singing, they’d sound like Bob Dylan, and also they’d get bootlegged.

So I had this pipeline to Dylan tunes, before anybody.

Q: So what are some of these songs?

A: Well, the one I’m going to do at the (Red Bank) show is a song called “Catfish,” that song about the baseball pitcher, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, who, at the time, in the mid-’70s, was the first ballplayer to ever get a million dollar contract. That was unheard-of, at the time. He was a great pitcher for The Oakland A’s and then later, The Yanks. So anyway, Dylan and Jacques Levy had written a song about the guy, and we did it on the Desire album (sessions), but it didn’t appear on the album. … When we did the Desire album, we did all kinds of songs that didn’t fit on the album and eventually came out as, like, B-sides of Dylan singles, or covers by other people. One of them’s on one of my solo albums. A song called “Seven Days.” It was eventually done by Ron Wood and Joe Cocker. But I was the first guy to have it out on an album, a Rob Stoner album on MCA records, and I had the exclusive on “Seven Days” for a while, until these guys started to get on the bandwagon. So I’m not going to do “Seven Days” at the show, but I am going to do “Catfish.”

Rolling Thunder Revue performers (from left) Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Rob Stoner, Steve Soles, Bob Neuwirth and Ronee Blakley.

There’s another song called “Abandoned Love” (from Dylan’s 1985 Biograph boxed set). That’s a song with me singing harmony with Dylan, and it’s uncredited. I’m not listed as the singer anywhere on it, so people always assume it’s Emmylou Harris or somebody singing with him. No, it’s me.

Q: You mentioned Jacques Levy. He’s kind of a mysterious figure in Dylan’s history …

A: Oh yeah, man! He’s mysterious, and misunderstood, if even acknowledged. The reason being that Dylan likes to present himself, as many artists do, as a total auteur who doesn’t need anybody, which is why guys like me, who really run the show for another guy, often are not credited for the work we do. Because they want people to assume that they came out onstage and did everything themselves. But no, there’s all these guys behind the scenes that have to do things. Jacques was one of these guys. Now Jacques co-wrote most of the songs on the Desire album. And not only that, he was also a Broadway director and playwright who had a hit show called “Oh! Calcutta!” And he worked with Sam Shepard, as the director of Sam Shepard plays. Sam Shepard was another guy who was on the road with us on the Revue. He was he was hired to write dialogue for (the movie) “Renaldo & Clara.”

Q: Was Levy around a lot during the Desire sessions?

A: Yeah, man. Not only was he around, but while we were recording the tunes, Dylan and Levy would consult each other between takes and make little changes in the lyrics. They were constantly tweaking the words. He and Levy would sit around and listen to the previous track and go back and redo the tune with the few minor changes. They kept editing and editing the whole time.

He was not only involved in the lyrics of the tunes, but when we went out on the road with the Rolling Thunder Revue, he was the director of the show. He was the guy who staged it, did all the blocking onstage, and directed traffic — or I should say, designated how the traffic was going to be directed. The traffic was eventually directed by a stage manager. But Jacques was the stage director. He was the guy who decided how many people would be playing or singing on any given tune because … it was a huge ensemble, and people kept drifting on and off the stage throughout the show, which gave it a lot of fluidity, but this had to be done in an organized fashion. And to do that, you gotta have Broadway chops. Just like, in a Broadway show, when people are going on and off the stage, it can’t look like they’re wandering, man. Everybody’s got to know exactly (what to do), from scene to scene. Each song was a scene in the show. So somebody has to decide who’s going to stay, who’s going to go, and it’s got to look professional. So he was the guy who totally did that. He blocked and directed the show and made it look slick. And he worked hard. These people were used to just standing up there and doing their show for the whole set. They weren’t used to being part of a variety show — this kind of vaudeville-type thing we were doing.

BOB GRUEN

Bob Dylan and Rob Stoner.

So, yeah, he was vital to the thing.

There was another thing about him that was really important, too. He had a degree in clinical psychology. Which meant that he was a really good go-between between, say, Dylan and myself, and the other performers. Because a lot of them … they’d get their feelings hurt if the song was cut, that kind of crap. He knew how to handle their egos, because he was a psychologist, so he would mollify them, chill them out, and the show would go on (laughs). You’d see some diva sulking in the corner, man, because her song got cut, and Jacques would go over and make sure she didn’t have an attitude when her turn came.

Q: So what did you think of the Scorsese movie (2019’s “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese”)?

A: Oh, what a bunch of shit, man. It was terrible. They wasted all that screen time on their cute little Spinal Tap jokes and false narratives. I can dig it that they wanted to deviate from the standard rockumentary, straight-ahead, informative format that most of those things adhere to. But the fact that they did all that cutesy stuff detracted from telling the story. The story of this tour didn’t get told, and it’s silly because they worked on that thing ever since “No Direction Home” came out (in 2005). They’d been working on this. This was going to be the sequel to it, because chronologically it is. So Scorsese … sent second unit teams around to the homes and studios of all the principals who were around, who had been in the show, in 2008. He sent a second unit to everybody’s house, including mine, and we were interviewed by Bob’s manager (Jeff Rosen), the same guy who did the interviews of Bob in “No Direction Home.” So they had great documentary footage and factual stuff on video, man.

Actually, it was film: It was very high-tech. And they didn’t utilize anything except … the only contemporary footage it looked like they used was a little bit of Joan (Baez), maybe a snippet of Ronee Blakley. But the rest of us … no, they didn’t use T Bone, they didn’t use me, they didn’t use (David) Mansfield or any of those people who really knew where the bodies were buried and were the real witnesses to what went on. And it was some interesting stuff which has never been shown on screen; we’ve all discussed it in interviews ad nauseam.

The cover of Rob Stoner’s 1980 album, “Patriotic Duty.”

But that’s what I think of the film. It was misinformation. It was entertaining. And the concert footage, obviously, is great, because that’s just verbatim. But there was no backstory. In fact, the backstory was what was misinformative. It was fictitious shit they made up.

Q: I wanted to ask you about … there was one New Jersey stop on the tour. It was at the prison where Hurricane Carter was (the Clinton Institution for Women, which was then holding both men and women, and is now known as the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women). What are your memories of that show?

A: It was interesting because it was not exactly a folk-rock audience. I don’t know whether it was by design or coincidence, but they scheduled the show on a day which was Visitors Day. So the inmates all were busy … if they’d done it on a day when there weren’t visitors, there would have been nothing else to do except go to the thing, but it was very underattended by the inmates, who would have been our captive audience (laughs), because most of them were hanging with their visitors. And they weren’t interested in our music in the first place. I mean, it was all white people music, you know. I mean, we had … Richie Havens was there, and Roberta Flack, and a few people they would have been interested in. But it wasn’t advertised or anything. It was very low-key. It was just a photo op for Hurricane, for Rubin. And it worked out, to that degree. It got a lot of publicity and it was also a promo for the upcoming (Madison Square) Garden gig, which was, like, the next night. Although that was already sold out, it didn’t need any more promo. But it sure got a lot of publicity.

Bob was just trying to draw attention to Hurricane’s plight. And I guess in terms of consciousness and publicity, it accomplished that. But the show itself was just perfunctory. We did an abbreviated version of our act. It was like a three- or four-hour show. But we didn’t do the opening act stuff, and people who used to do three songs did one. That kind of stuff. We really pared it down. And the audience was okay. They weren’t rude or anything. But they weren’t attentive. The people who were there were talking through the whole thing and hanging out. It was just like sort of background music for them. So, it was a weird gig.

Pat Guadagno leads the band for the annual BobFest concerts.

Q: I know you’re giving music lessons now, but are you playing out, at all, in clubs or anything?

A: Not since COVID, bro. I was playing out constantly until COVID, doing all kinds of gigs. I do the same act I’ll be doing in New Jersey: I get up onstage and I can hold a crowd. I can work a room and keep people’s attention for as long as I’m contracted to do so, and I can do it all by myself, just me and a guitar. I’ve been doing it since I was in junior high. I’ve got that down. Sometimes I’ve done it with a band behind me. Sometimes I do it solo. I mean, it’s flexible. I can do it on piano. I can do it on guitar. Anything. ‘Cause it’s really all about singing songs to people. If you can put songs across vocally, then the accompaniment is just kind of a perfunctory thing. I mean, I could go up there and do it a cappella.

Right up until the pandemic I was doing these solo shows around the Tri-State area and also working with bands. Basically, you know, a working musician, just doing whatever gig comes to my telephone.

Q: Well, maybe now that things are starting to come back a little bit, there will be more.

A: I’m hoping so, man. It’s still got a ways to go, from what I see. Attendance is way down. The profit is not what it used to be for the places we play at. All the owners are crying because their attendance is down, so they’re offering less money and the places that I used to be able to fill … I look at my friends who are in the same market I am, and how they do when they play these places. The attendance is down for them, too. It’s because people are reticent to go out still. And I understand their trepidation.

This is, in fact, going to be the first time that I have played in public since January of 2020. That’s how bad it is. People have offered me gigs, but I turn them down, because I’m not going to go and roll the dice. And also, it’s like I say, you can’t make any money right now. So therefore I’m waiting for it to come back, and for it to be safe. That’s one of the reasons it hasn’t come back: because it’s not totally safe.

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