Rob Stoner :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Rob Stoner would like to get a few things straight about The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan StoryMartin Scorsese’s fever dream blend of fact, myth, and audacious fiction.

He’d know, because he was there, sharing the stage with Dylan night after night as the performances grew increasingly incantatory and wild. He was on camera for Renaldo and Clara, the sprawling 1978 Bob Dylan film that provides repurposed and recontextualized parts for Scorsese’s film. He was there working alongside people mostly omitted from Scorsese’s finished project, including Jacques Levy, who he says was responsible for the success of the tour “more than any other single individual” and the camera crews responsible for the bulk of the archival footage, led by Howard Alk, David Meyers, and Paul Goldsmith. “They followed us everywhere,” Stoner explains. “Not only are they not mentioned, except about a minute into the crawl…but their work gets attributed to a fictitious character!”

It’s this last point—the invention of the fictional filmmaker Stefan Van Dorp, portrayed on-screen by performance artist Marty von Haselberg—that most bothers Stoner. “It’s sort of a diss to these poor dead guys, man,” he laments. But Stoner is generally used to working in the background, sometimes without proper recognition. Pull a rock & roll legend out of a hat and there’s a good chance he’s played with them, from Dylan (he served as his musical director on a number of tours and played on Desire) to Chuck Berry, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, and dozens more. Stoner’s a consummate professional, always providing what a song needs, whether you’re talking a folk-pop epic like Don McLean’s “American Pie” or rockabilly rave-ups with Link Wray and Robert Gordon.

In Stoner’s eyes, the Netflix film clouds the story in ways that don’t honor the work people did in reality, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t appreciate it, or get what his former boss and Scorcese were after. “They’re both iconoclasts, Bob and Marty, and they like to put people on, tongue-in-cheek,” Stoner says. “They want to show that they’ve got a sense of humor. Maybe they’re big fans of Spinal Tap. A lot of people, when This Is Spinal Tap came out, they thought it was an actual band. There’s nothing to disabuse you of that unless you dig deeper. Who wants to dig deeper, man? Besides, the fantasy scenario is more fun than the actual deal.”

Putting fantasy scenarios aside, Stoner spoke with Aquarium Drunkard to dive into the murky waters of Rolling Thunder, as well as reflect on a life as a journeyman bassist.

Aquarium Drunkard: You spent a lot of time with Bob Dylan. Do you get the sense that The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is in keeping with Bob’s tendency to cloud and obscure facts about his life and work?

Rob Stoner: Totally, man. First of all, he characterizes himself, and always has, as the jokerman. Even has an autobiographical song of that name. In fact, as early as like 1971 when Don McLean recorded “American Pie,” he cast Bob as “the jester.” 

When he’s pressed about what his deal is, Bob says “Oh, I’m just a song and dance man.” He’s always trying to put people on, to put people off his trail. He’s busy throwing shade; he became wary of people putting a mantle on him when they started calling him “the conscience of his generation” and all that crap around the time of “Blowing in the Wind.” Right away, he hit upon a strategy of “Hey, I’m just gonna throw some bullshit out there and keep them guessing.” This is totally in keeping with his constant strategy.

I mean you could even look at that as in his sartorial approach, how he changes his lid every era: started out with a little newsboy hat, a little commie, comrade worker hat, and then he went on to the top hat, then the cowboy hat, then the fucking cab driver hat. It’s all part of him just being a shapeshifter. It’s all intentional, and it’s all in fun. It makes for a more entertaining movie than just another goddamn rock documentary. Also, it’s because it poses more questions than it answers. It sets them up for a sequel.

AD: Do you think that there will be one?

Rob Stoner: Well, they’ve got plenty of performances left in the can, and furthermore, when they set out to begin this project 12 years ago, Scorsese sent a team around to every principal who was alive at the time to do a day’s worth of interviews. They came to my house. Bob’s manager, Jeff Rosen, sat in my studio with me for an entire day, interviewing me. So they have all these interviews in the can. They’ve got enough to do it. This time, if they do it again, hopefully they’ll mention Jacques Levy, Howard Alk, and Paul Goldsmith.

AD: Not to mention the players on stage, people like you and Mick Ronson. Do you remember having a sense of being aware that you guys really were playing some remarkable music during the tour?

Rob Stoner: I could tell that this band was really happening. It wasn’t without a lot of effort. Like any good rock & roll, it should seem effortless, but you gotta pay attention to doing the groundwork, making sure that the tunes have intros and endings…You pay a lot of attention to the pacing. You don’t put two shuffles together, you don’t put two ballads together. I could tell the stuff was good, and also I felt under the gun with that shit as the band leader because I knew that everybody had made such a big deal about Bob’s ability as a performer. His work with the Band was at the time, a vaunted standard of rock & roll excellence. I knew that whatever the fuck Bob did, it was gonna be judged by those standards, and they had set the bar kind of high. The pressure was really on to deliver something that wouldn’t pale in comparison to his former stuff.

I don’t know about the rest of the people, but I was always searching, [thinking] “How can we make this arrangement more exciting?” It was a constant challenge to try and guard against the worst tendencies of Bob’s music. He’s got slow songs, he’s got medium songs, and he’s got shuffles. I was always advocating for him, “Bob, we gotta change it up, man! We gotta like put in a 6/8 tune, we gotta put in a fast funk tune.” But nope. That was not his comfort zone. He was comfortable with these four basic feels that he used over and over again.

In fact, when we started touring, the Desire album was not out yet, so nobody had heard those tunes. Every time we would start “Oh, Sister” in concert, people would go berserk, even though they’d never heard the fucking song. They thought it was gonna be “Girl from the North Country!” This song was not out yet! So I rest my case about that shit, man. So much of his tunes are like in the same bag in terms of feel and key and approach. I lobbied to get some varied approaches rhythmically. In all fairness, when we were working together in 1978, we did that world tour together, we had a 12-piece band at that point and I was able to get him to vary his program and put in some different feels, but at the time of Rolling Thunder, nope. He would run down the tunes one specific way, and I’d say “You know, man, let’s rock this one up!” No, no, no, no. So guarding against his worst tendencies to fall into that trap was a huge challenge for me.

AD: You certainly managed to get him to rock up “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall.”

Rob Stoner: Yeah, people love that kind of shuffle, that ZZ Top-type shuffle.

AD: It’s almost punk-like in its intensity.

Rob Stoner: The Hard Rain live album, which was from the second Rolling Thunder tour, has often been lauded as a prototype of the punk scene. When you listen to the desperation of his singing on a tune like “Idiot Wind” or “Maggie’s Farm”…he was definitely into a punk thing, whether he knew it or not. Obviously, there was no so-called punk music yet, but you go back to Link Wray and Eddie Cochran in the ‘50s and hear that kind of sensibility in other kinds of music.

AD: Had the mood changed during the second Rolling Thunder tour?

Rob Stoner: Well, for one thing, the bloom was off the rose. It was more of a challenge. Bob was beginning to go through some personal upheaval. He was in the middle of his divorce and child custody stuff. Financially, he was in a hole at that point because Rolling Thunder was not a big money-maker because obviously if you do the numbers, when you play little college gyms and tiny downtown theaters with that big an ensemble, you’re gonna lose money. He had lost a lot.

AD: Not long after this era, Dylan went gospel, converting to Christianity. T-Bone Burnett has said that 15 or so folks associated with the Rolling Thunder tour got into church, or back into it. Do you remember a religious vibe going around?

Rob Stoner: No, none whatsoever, man. In fact, that didn’t happen until after the ’78 tour. I think it’s because he had just been through [a lot] in his life. He was searching to be grounded spiritually in some way. As part of his quest for peace of mind, as many people do, he turned to various forms of religion. He’d experimented with other forms of religion too, just looking for something that spoke to him.

AD: You’ve played with very lyrical songwriters, as well as people like Chuck Berry and Link Wray, who are less lauded as lyrical writers. Do you sense a shared poetic sensibility between those guys and someone like Dylan?

Rob Stoner: Chuck Berry’s lyrics were super hip. In fact, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is just basically a rewrite of “Maybelline.” The same beats, the same idea, the same nonstop verbiage. I mean, people did get a little wordier as the form evolved, but I think basically the same principles that worked at the beginning were the ones that people still stick to today. When people try to go beyond the boundaries of what the public will accept, they fall on their face. If the public were hipper, then they would embrace the more ambitious forms of music such as jazz or classical more. But no, they like that three-chord shit, man. That’s what speaks to ‘em, like Hank Williams said, “Three chords and the truth.”

Now, lyrically, of course, there’s always room for expansion, but even if you get a little too high-minded with that, you’ll fall on your face. You look at a lot of people who have tried to do that and failed, and it’s not like John Prine, who was one of the greatest songwriters I ever heard in my life, has had commercial success. It’s not like Roy Harper, who inspired Led Zeppelin, has had commercial success. The landscape is littered with people who tried to expand the genre and have not been successful.

I’m down in the engine room, man. I’m just stoking the fires.

Rob Stoner

AD: How often does the lyrical content of a song influence what you bring to it musically?

Rob Stoner: I’m down in the engine room, man. I’m just stoking the fires. I pay attention to it and I appreciate the fact that certain lyrics create a much hipper song than simple ones, but I think they all require the same basic understandings in order for them to be commercial rock & roll. Which is to have a great beat, to just slam home the guy’s message with a very supportive musical foundation.

AD: You’ve worked with some pretty demanding creators. What it that you have that allows that to work, to facilitate that sort of collaboration?

Rob Stoner: Incredibly good luck and people skills. You have to employ a lot of psychology and tap dancing and tip-toeing around these people’s idiosyncrasies. These idiosyncratic individuals, man, they’re artists. Some of them have acquired their strange quirks and personality by design, some of them are just naturally that way, but either way, you have to accommodate them. It’s all about psychology, really.

AD: And that was just a natural skill set that you possessed?

Rob Stoner: Well, basically, it was a desire to keep the job. Whatever job you got, you want to make the boss happy. If you see that the boss is some nutty artist who has strange expectations of his employees, you want to try and accommodate the guy or girl.

AD: Did you ever work for anybody who was more difficult to please than Dylan?

Rob Stoner: I’m gonna have to save that one for my book, man. [Laughs]

AD: Even a yes or no works. [Laughs]

Rob Stoner: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Whether deservedly so or not. A lot of these artistes, man…they are truly artistes.

AD: Do you consider yourself more of a craftsman, an engine room guy, than an “artiste” yourself?

Rob Stoner: It’s a bit of both. I mean you gotta keep your eye on what your role is. You don’t want to intrude too much on what the person at the helm is doing, but at the same time, you want to be collaborative and maybe make suggestions. Very often, these people are so insular in their environments and so self-assured that they’ll just go off in some crazy direction to which you might say, “Hey, man, this ain’t the best idea.” You want to try and gain their confidence enough that they will listen to your suggestions. Then you might make a suggestion which alters the course of the project, and it not only makes for a better project, but also this person becomes very trusting of you and will delegate even more responsibility and decision-making power to you.

If I can gain the person’s trust by keeping my head down and doing my job, I can not only provide what any anonymous backup guy would do, but I can become a sort of a quasi-collaborator. That’s one of the things that makes me valuable to these people: I can give them insights into their stuff once they begin to trust my musical judgment. Although it’s their name on the project, it’s as if I’m in a group with them. words/j woodbury

Previously: Why Rolling Thunder Revue is a Terrible Documentary But A Great Bob Dylan Film//The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings

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