Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members
Ray Padgett Interviews Dylan's Musicians
Ramblin' Jack Elliott sums up the consensus of some peoplespeaks to in his book Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members (EWP Press, 2023). Ramblin' Jack, now 92, is a Brooklyn-born Jewish cowboy singer, a former compatriot of Dylan's idol Woody Guthrie. Elliott met Dylan in his earliest days in Greenwich Village.
In 1975, Elliott joined the first leg of the traveling musical carnival known as the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Elliott wanted to play the second leg, too, in 1976, but despite his status in Dylan's cosmology, earned no special treatment from the leader.
"I did want to go on it. I was a glutton for punishment," Elliott said. "I visited Bob at his house and asked if there was any chance of me going along with them on tour . . . He said, "I don't know what the plan is. I heard that Joan Baez is going to be there. And Kinky Friedman." He was, in his own way letting me know that I wasn't going to be on the tour. Kinky Friedman replaced me."
Padgett asks: "Was Bob Dylan the same person you had known in the early '60s then?"
Ramblin' Jack replies: "I don't think Bob has ever been the same person from one day to the next."
This is not meant as a figure of speech. Padgett's thorough preparation and smartly crafted questions asked of around 40 different Dylan accompanists over the last 60 years, elicit similar responses. Dylan is not just a man of mercurial moods. He actually does appear to be a person seems to have been speaking from daily experience when he sang "he not busy being born is busy dying," in "It's Alright, Ma ("I'm Only Bleeding)" in 1965. It seems to be a process he undergoes every day.
That's why Pledging My Time, though all about Bob Dylan, sometimes reads like an anthology of interviews about many different people. It's like one of those fine Paris Review anthologies of Q&As with novelists and poets, that might include Jean Cocteau, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Lillian Hellman. Or the collections of the lengthy and wide-berthed Playboy interviews through the second half of the 20th century, which included long conversations with Miles Davis, Bertrand Russell, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Hoffa, Timothy Leary, Marlon Brando, and Dolly Parton. These interviews were referred to as what people meant when they could (almost) honestly say that they only read Playboy for the stories.
I think Todd Haynes was on to this idea when he directed the daring, very loosely autobiographical 2007 Bob Dylan movie I'm Not There. It was a film of vignettes in which the Dylan character (not often named Bob Dylan) was portrayed by a strange but somehow appropriate range of actors, from Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Christian Bale, to Marcus Carl Franklin as a young black boxcar rider, to a star turn by Cate Blanchett. She was so impressive that she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the Academy Awards, and won the Golden Globe in that category. (The soundtrack is also one of the most underrated collections of Dylan covers.)
Haynes wrote in preliminary press notes for his film that:
Dylan's life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down. And that's why his fan base is so obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes and the answers to him -- things that Dylan will never provide and will only frustrate . . . and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity."
Even so, Padgett brings plenty of substance to make Dylan comprehensible, if no less ethereal. Padgett's book developed out of his expertly written and curated Substack, Flaggin' Down the Double E's, which has been featuring interviews with Dylan band members and associates for the last few years. The title comes from a line in "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," from Highway 61 Revisited.
This is the song the begins with a line that provided the name for the first Steely Dan album: "Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby, Can’t buy a thrill..." The railroad worker observes: Don’t the brakeman look good, mama/Flagging down the “Double E."
This is surely railroad slang, but it is difficult to pin down. Padgett's choice of a name for his Substack seems an act of someone steeped in the ways of his subject, Dylan as trickster. I went down a mole hole in the internet, then floated down into the Dark Web, hacked into some Morse Code audio of early 20th century railroad slang, just to explain what I think "Double E" means. It will require a separate column.
Padgett is an active, close listener, who knows many things that his interview subjects have forgotten, so he can prod recollections. Dylan does have a consistent approach to putting together a band for a tour, but even this is wrapped in enigma.
You're a musician in a certain city. You get a call from a Dylan associate, a manager, or someone already in the band. You are asked if you can come to a studio, or a house, or a building, and play some music that night. You might be sceduled to leave for a tour the next morning with another band, but you go. Sometimes you'll play an assortment of blues, folk, and early rock songs, or just have a loose jam. Sometimes Dylan will be there, or arrive later, or not.
You might be Marshall Crenshaw, who speaks to Padgett about not getting hired for Dylan's band, but with good reason: He's asked to play bass, which is difficult, because Crenshaw is not a bass player by trade, doesn't have that intuitive spine-of-the-band confidence and flexibility required of the pros on the instrument. Still, he has been asked by his friend, the guitarist and Dylan (and former Saturday Night Live) band leader G.E. Smith, to come on down.
Smith tells Crenshaw, "it will be like a Chuck Berry gig." That is universal musician shorthand meaning you won't rehearse, you won't meet the star until the show begins, you won't meet him after, you won't have a setlist, you just watch the leader and try to catch on quickly. Crenshaw, a talented guitarist singer-songwriter and guitar player, did not have that ability on bass guitar, and it was obvious to everyone. After a few days of (untypical) rehearsal, he was replaced by Kenny Aaronson, who was replaced by Tony Garnier, who has been Dylan's touring bass player for around 30 years.
Drummer Christopher Parker, a sidekick of G.E. Smith in both the SNL band and what would become known as the Never Ending Tour group, played around 250 shows with Dylan from 1988-1990.
"Bob starts something and you fall in," Parker said. "There was never any 'here's the count-off and here's the tempo and this is the kind of feel that I want . . . I had the gall at one point to say, 'What do you want me to play on this?' Bob said, 'I'm just a fuckin' poet."
The drummers idolize Jim Keltner, dean of L.A. session players and perhaps the most respected, versatile percussionist of the rock era. He played with Dylan on-and-off for decades, on the road during what Padgett calls the "gospel years" from 1979-1981. (One omission from this book is any discussion about Dylan's Orthodox Jewish phase.) His recordings with Dylan include "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and the Time Out of Mind album. He was also the Traveling Wilburys drummer, with his own sideman nickname: Buster Sidebury.
Keltner was only the most prominent musician to compare accompanying Dylan to the work of a jazz musician.
"It may be this free feeling that you get when you're playing jazz, like you just need to know the song, know the form, and then go for it . . . It's not about finding a pocket. It's more about searching for the vibe, searching for the thing that makes the song have life . . . that's pretty jazz-like," Keltner said.
On some days, especially in other countries, Dylan's daily transformative nature can have some unexpected consequences for unlikely people. A Canadian musician, guitarist Paul James, was little known outside Ontario, and in 1986 Dylan was filming the movie Hearts of Fire in the Toronto area. Dylan caught James playing a gig at the Nag's Head bar there. Dylan had a drink with James at the bar, and then for a set went on stage, identified as "a hitch-hiker from Vancouver," to be Paul James' sideman. Dylan began going to James' gigs, (some of which had James opening for Bo Diddley) just to be in the audience. Or to be an anonymous band member. Then, intermittently, when Dylan played in Canada, he'd call James up to the stage to play on some tunes.
Even stranger is the story of then 22-year-old Xanthe Littlemore, also in 1986, living in Sydney, at the very beginning of her long career as a noted Australian singer and songwriter and band member. Littlemore snuck into the hotel, faked her way into meeting Bob, and he asked her open a show for him in Adelaide, Australia.
She wasn't a groupie; she wanted to talk about songwriting. In a limo to the airport, Dylan asks: "Tell me the first line of one of your songs." She recited a line from one she had just written. "We've got a chance to make things happen" was the opening. Then, bold as she needed to be, Xanthe Littlemore asked Dylan to tell her the first line of one of his songs.
"He leans over—he talks in a whispery sort of voice—and he says, 'There must be some way out of here.' "
And that is the difference between Bob Dylan, whoever he is on any given day, and the rest of us.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please share this with people who might become subscribers. And please consider an elevation to paid.