The Inside Story Of The Rolling Thunder Revue as told by Rob Stoner: Part 1

Last year Martin Scorsese’s film, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, made its debut, briefly in selected cinemas and on Netflix. The film featured stunning live footage of Dylan during the 1975 concerts, but it also included segments, presented as a “documentary” that were complete fabrications, such as a story of how a teen-age Sharon Stone was invited into the Rolling Thunder crew. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda tracked down band leader and bass player Rob Stoner to get the inside story of both the Rolling Thunder Revue – and the making of Scorsese’s film. Here is part one of the interview.

For a quick update…The Rolling Thunder Revue was a series of concerts in late 1975 and early 1976 featuring Bob Dylan and a rag-tag bunch of supporting musicians. These included Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, T Bone Burnett, David Mansfield, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. I was fortunate enough to catch a show, on November 17, 1975, in which Joni Mitchell made a guest appearance.

Many folks who saw Scorsese’s film were either confused or angered by the fabrications presented, including myself. Click here to read the review I published on The 13th Floor after seeing the film.

One of the things that I wondered about was how the other participants in Rolling Thunder felt about the film. It was obvious that Dylan was cool with it, but what about the other musicians? One of the main participants was bass player Rob Stoner, who was hired as the bandleader for the tour, bringing all these musicians together to sound like a cohesive band and to adjust for special guests such as Joni Mitchell.

I had met Rob Stoner back in the mid-80s when he came to Rochester, NY to play with former Rascals guitarist Gene Cornish and we struck up a brief rapport. I thought I would try to make contact with Stoner once more to find out what he thought of Scoreses’s film.  It turns out he had a lot to say about it.

And so, this conversation turned out to be extremely enlightening. Stoner was happy to speak freely about the Rolling Thunder Revue, working with the other musicians and what Dylan had been like. He also had plenty to say about Martin Scorsese. We began our discussion with a question about the new documentary and whether he had been approached to appear in in.

Click here to listen to the interview with Rob Stoner:

RS: Oh, yeah, man. Twelve years ago. Listen to this, dude. “Twelve years ago, Scorsese sent the Second Unit out to interview everybody in the tour. And the interviewer was Jeff Rosen (Dylan’s manager).” You were aware that Jeff Rosen did the interviews in No Direction Home?

MD: Right.

RS: Okay. So it was gonna be like a follow-up to No Direction Home. So, they sent a team – I’m talking like a Second Unit team – like, a ten-man fucking film and sound crew, spending  the entire day… filming all the principals in the tour, getting their stories, with Jeff Rosen doing prepared questions, which were very good questions… and so that was all in the can. And they chose not to use it.

MD: Oh, man. Insane.

RS: Well, they had another agenda, man, that’s all. They didn’t want to do a straight documentary-thing, because they did that last time. And you know, they’re mischievous guys, and they didn’t wanna get pegged to being predictable. So they wanted to do something completely out of the box. So they went [This Is] Spinal Tap on it.

MD: They did indeed. It was mostly Dylan’s doing?

RS: No way of knowing, man. No way of knowing. I’m sure he was the locomotive pulling the train. But I’m sure that Marty was glad to get on board, cause he’s an iconoclast too. You know, he’s got institutions to do shit, definitely. And you know, he also wants to do a little wink-wink things, so for instance, Sharon Stone has been in his movies, so he put Sharon Stone in there. The guy who played the agent is his boss at Warner Brothers. I mean, you know, it goes on and on. So, it was a chance for them to have a little fun with it, and you know at least the documentary part with the actual concert footage is something that can’t be messed with. However, they didn’t give you any background into it, which begs another question, which is an obvious commercial thing.

I don’t know if you picked up on this – but the fact is, if you put out a thing which is – I gotta say, in all fairness, they did not purport that the thing would be – it was not purported to be a documentary. Ever. Only the press called it a documentary. It was called by them a film, a conjuring, a… flights of fancy. Not a documentary. So, if you put this out, people take it to be a documentary, but it doesn’t have the information they want, this poses more questions than it answers. When you do that, the unanswered questions still linger in the public’s mind, it creates even more interest and  this creates a built-in market for a sequel, which would be more factual. So now, they sorta whetted your appetite with this great concert footage, and had fun with creating a sort of Spinal Tap subterfuge action, the market now exists for those who want to know the real story, for the real story to be told! In a sequel!

MD: Makes perfect sense.

RS: That’s my theory!

MD: So do you have any – do you know if this is actually gonna happen?

RS: Well, actually, I tried to goad both Jeff Rosen – who I had a conversation on this subject with, and Martin Scorsese, who I had a conversation on this subject with into giving me an answer. And they both – neither of them would. They’re not gonna cop to it. Well, I mean, all commercial sensibility would point to that being the likely strategy for this.

MD: Well, I certainly hope so. Cause I’m dying to see the rest of the stuff. I mean it – but you’re right, that footage is incredible, the live footage of Dylan.

RS: Yeah, they invested all this time and money in gathering all these interviews. They’re in the can, they might as well use them! Instead of making another project. That’s my opinion.

Stoner’s theory about a sequel is interesting. But let’s go back a bit. Rob Stoner (aka Robert Rothstein) had been a session bassist for a number of years before Rolling Thunder. That’s him playing the remarkable bass lines on Don McLean’s American Pie.  But how did he become Dylan’s right-hand man?

RS: I first met Bob Dylan about four or five years before the Rolling Thunder Revue. And, um, at the time that I met him he came to hear a band I was playing in. And uh, he liked what I was doing in that band. It was a band that had a guy he used to work with in it. That’s how come he came to hear us. And that guy’s name was John Herald – H-E-R-A-L-D.

Rob Stoner recording American Pie

In fact, Bob Dylan used to be this guy’s opening act. The name of this group was the Greenbriar Boys. Anyway, I was working in this Greenbriar Boys’ group – we were a bluegrass group, an American bluegrass group. And Dylan came to see us, and in the show this guy would let me sing a bunch of songs on my own. And so Dylan witnessed this. And so after the show, he said – apparently he was always just looking around, collecting phone numbers and contact info for people that he might be interested in being in touch with in the future for whatever reason. You know, it’s just part of your information-gathering thing, and you’re constantly shifting personnel in your enterprise. So he saw me – I guess, at that time – as being someone that he could… who had not only the pedigree, but to be somebody that he would like to work with, because I was working with the same guy he used to be the opening act for.

So he took me to, back to – he and Kris Kristofferson and I, all went back to a hotel room, and stayed up all night jamming on old songs. And he was auditioning me on that night, sort of informally, by seeing how many old songs… he was trying to play “Stump the band” with me. So we tried this obscure song and that…and I knew them all. Not only did I know the fucking songs, I knew the words, and I knew how to sing harmony on ‘em. So when I did that, and matched him song for song, during this informal jam after this gig… I knew, that I’d made an impression on him. And then, subsequently, over the next few years, I would constantly get messages from mutual friends we had, saying… “Uh, Dylan says hello.” And Dylan would – he would, he told me, on that very night, and subsequent nights, he said, “Y’know, we’re gonna do something someday.” And I thought that was one of his bullshit things that people always say, sort of a glib showbiz thing. Sort of a “Yeah, let’s get together, man, we’ll do something someday.” But in his case, he actually came through.

MD: Huh. Amazing.

RS: He actually meant it. Yeah. So, what happened was, he stopped working with The Band after their big 1974 tour. He needed a new group. He didn’t have one, because The Band had stopped working with him. So the next album he did after he stopped working with The Band was the Desire album. He didn’t have a band to do it with. He was just using pickup musicians. His – he was not succeeding at recording this album. And he got in touch with me and said, “Hey man, come down and see what’s wrong with this album.” And I came down to the studio, saw it was a disaster, and he asked me for some suggestions, I gave him some suggestions, he took me at my word on the suggestions, and after he took my advice, the album got recorded in one night.

MD: Amazing.

RS: That was the Desire album. We’re talking August 1975. So, in other words, that’s the time I officially started working with him. The Desire album, in August 1975. So I knew not only had I aced that audition back in ’71 or so, but when I’d managed – when I was really the guy who created the sound on the Desire album by saying who should be on it and who shouldn’t. And you know, everybody talks about the sparse sound and all that shit. If it’d been up to Bob Dylan and his producer it would’ve been just the stupid cluttered sound. It wasn’t working out. I was the guy who said, look, just you, the violinist, bass and drums. That’s all you need, man. Just the bare, fucking bones minimum. It’ll be the easiest way to record it, and it’ll have the best, most distinctive sound. Sure enough, I was right.

So I knew when I made that call and was vindicated by the success of the thing, and then it went to Number One and became his biggest-selling album to date – fuhgeddaboudit. I knew I’d really won him over, man. So therefore, when it was time for him to put together his next tour, guess who he called as a band leader. Yeah, that’s right. Because I’d already made my bones with him before the Rolling Thunder Revue, by acing this Desire project. In fact, we did another gig before that, man. He called me up to go out to Chicago and do a TV show, a tribute to John Hammond. I’ve seen it a million times, it’s all over the fucking Internet. Anyway, that particular performance was the first time that I’d ever worked with him outside of a studio, in a live, in front of an audience. It was a TV audience – but it was our first live gig. No rehearsal, no nothing – man, we just went to Chicago, played a few tunes, live, with Scarlett Rivera, and Howie [Wyeth] – same group as was on Desire and, I mean, it came off okay. So therefore, I already had quite a bit of experience with this guy, by the time the Rolling Thunder thing came along.


Part 2 can be found HERE.

Marty Duda