The Inside Story Of The Rolling Thunder Revue as told by Rob Stoner: Part 2

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 that were complete fabrications. 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 two.

If you missed part one, you can find it HERE.

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.

Click here to listen to the entire interview with Rob Stoner:


With Desire recorded and ready for release, it was time to hit the road with Rolling Thunder. Rob was more than just the bass player, he was the band leader. But what does that mean? Rob explains.

RS: Every band needs a band leader, and the guy who’s the star of the show, whether it’s Elvis Presley, or Barbara Streisand, or Neil Diamond, whoever you’re talking about, is not the band leader. They are the star of the show. They can’t be bothered with rehearsing and working on arrangements, all these nuts and bolts. Boring daily details, of getting the stuff to the point where the star can come in and sing. Now, you’re aware, that when someone’s shooting a movie, that the star does not come out of his trailer, until stand-ins have been out in the sun, for hours, with the guys getting the shots right, getting the sound right, everything. He’s not going to waste his time out there dissipating his energy. He wants to come out fresh, say his lines, and go back in his trailer.

MD: Yep.

Rob & Bob on the Rolling Thunder Revue

RS: Same thing with every fucking star. Movie stars, recording stars. When they come out on stage, they want everything to be perfect. Everything’s not gonna be perfect, unless people – somebody – has put in a lot of fucking homework. So you designate, like any executive delegates responsibility, you delegate and designate responsibility to a guy you can trust to get all that shit together before you sing a fucking note. So, therefore, somebody has to conduct the rehearsals, sing the songs in his keys, work out the arrangements and shit, so he can just, like, glide in at the last minute, conserve his energy, and it all sounds fucking perfect. It’s not from him sitting there, going over the songs ad nauseam. That’s a waste of energy, and it’s just plain stupid for him. Because he can afford to hire somebody to do it for him. That is the job of the band-leader. A band-leader is to be a stand-in, an alter ego, for the star. And every fucking star has a straw-boss like this. Who does all the slog work, lays all the ground-work, so that he can come in, smelling like a rose, all fresh.

MD: Gotcha.

RS: And so, that’s part of it. It also involves hiring, firing, working on the arrangements, listening to the tapes of every rehearsal and every gig, and taking notes to decide what can be implemented on the very next day to improve any flaws that might’ve been detected by listening to the previous night’s performances. So it involves a lot.

And also, when you’re listening to that, it’s problem-solving. Because you’re listening to a performance – you hear, oh, man, this song needs an ending. Oh, this song needs an intro. Oh, this song sounds all the fuckin’ same. And that was the big problem with Rolling Thunder. Because there was always the same instrumentation, man – a thousand guitars, and a rhythm section. And so – how much can you fuckin’ bury that? Well, not a lot. So therefore, you gotta come up with some other shit. And so I had to come up with all kinds of gimmicks to try and make everything not sound the same. And… there’s a million music tricks, and an experienced arranger, such as myself, can do to try and disguise the sameness of the effort. And that was my job too, was to use all those musical tricks.

MD: So give me an example of what a musical trick is, that helps –

RS:  Okay, an example would be, um, coming up with a musical line that serves as an intro, as a little motif or a theme between verses, having everybody in the band bring the dynamics way, way down for a verse, and way, way up at a designated place – but you know, it has to be decided upon in advance. What verse are we gonna play quietly, what verse are we gonna play loudly. At what point in the song do we have a stop…

…and then take it up again. Are we gonna take it up again? Everybody’s gotta be on the same fucking downbeat. How ‘bout this one, man? How many people play on every song?

Now, you get this army of fucking guitar players. It not only looks the same visually, to have them up there all the fucking time, but it sounds the same. So therefore, how many guys am I gonna leave out of every song? Because they all wanna fucking play.

MD: Sure.

RS: And they’re all on my case – “Hey, I can play, I can play!” They’re all complaining, man. “Hey, lemme play man, I’m not on stage.” Well, Jesus Christ, man! If these guys were all on fucking stage all the time, they’d be like a fucking army. So we would save the army tunes for the army of guitars for just a couple of spots, where we wanted it to look like there was a lot going on. But there’s gotta be some contrast.

Ken Reagan Photographer
Joan Baez, Bob Dylan

I gotta give kudos, man, to Jacques Levy, who was not in the fucking film, cause he was responsible for all that staging shit. Like, who went on and off stage, where and when, which is called blocking in theatre, this guy was very experienced in theatre having been a Broadway and off-Broadway director. Therefore, he knew from directing plays, you can’t have the whole fucking cast on stage all the time. People gotta come and go, it’s gotta be orderly, it’s gotta be organized, so he was like a HUGE fucking help with that. And also, because he was an older chap, and had all this credibility of being a Broadway dude, and because he’d just co-written all these songs on the Desire project with Bob, he had a lot of credentials and also a lot of credibility, so therefore the – all these younger musicians would listen to him. With me – they were sorta like, “Y’know, hey, man…” Hey dude, I’m carrying all of Bob’s authority. Bob has designated me to say this and that to you, and to come up with solutions for this situation. But they would give me a hard fuckin’ time, man, they wouldn’t show up for rehearsals… y’know, they were young guys, partying, they were having fun. I mean, I don’t wanna say that they were irresponsible, but they were – I think the party nature of the thing came through in the film. There was a good time.

Unfortunately, the time was a little detrimental to the hard work needed to make this thing hold up for posterity. Otherwise it would’ve been just a bunch of people strumming the same fucking chords in the same fucking keys on every fucking song. It would’ve been boring as shit. It would’ve been really static. So you gotta fight against this, and Jacques Levy was my ally, in keeping this going.

MD: Fantastic. And, and – you mentioned how young everybody was. I mean, people like David Mansfield and Scarlett Rivera – they were, what, nineteen, twenty years old?

RS: Yeah, yeah – they were young people, man. Amazing how talented they were.

MD: Incredible. So, which of the band members did you kind of – discover and add to the mix?

RS: Yeah, right? Well, Mansfield was my secret weapon. But the people I brought along were my drummer, Howie Wyeth, and my percussionist, Luther Rix, and a lot of the other people were recruited by Bob’s former road manager, Bobby Neuwirth. Yeah.

Scarlett (Rivera) – she was just a hot looking chick who Bob saw walking down the street with a violin case, and he said, hey, can you play that thing? And apparently she could.

MD: Yeah, she could! She’s amazing.

RS: Lucky for both of us, it worked out.

MD: And I remember when I saw the show, Bob Neuwirth came out as kind of the MC of the thing. So…

Musicians Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform the finale of the The Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour headed by Dylan, in Dec. 1975. (AP Photo)

RS: Yeah, thank God we found a fucking job for him. Because he sure couldn’t sing.  He was very gregarious, personable guy. Nice guy. But – and also, I gotta say, he recruited some of the more talented people in the show. Such as T-Bone Burnett was a dude he knew… he was the guy – he was the guy who ran into… actually, Dylan ran into Mick Ronson in a bar in the Village. So I guess Dylan got Ronson.

MD: Yeah, I was gonna ask – I was gonna ask about Ronson, because. Ronson’s kind of the outlier on this. He kinda comes from David Bowie and Mott the Hoople and – amazing guitar player.

RS: Yeah, I know. Thank God we had something to take us out of the fuckin’ folk rock crap, man. Shit was insufferably in a bag, man. And that we had somebody from a different genre was, like, huge in getting the thing together. Anyway. Neuwirth. So Neuwirth, he’s on the frontlines, singing. Well, supposedly singing.  He’s like, bellowing into a microphone. Now, the whole time he’s bellowing into that microphone, you know what you hear on the soundtrack? You hear a guy who you can’t sing – who you can’t see. A guy you can’t see, who you hear, is the guy in the backline, blocked by Neuwirth and the guys in the frontline. A guy you can’t see. Me.

MD: Of course. There you go.

RS: So you hear all these great harmonies, and it appears that they’re coming out of Bob Neuwirth’s mouth. No! Bob Neuwirth’s is just up there shouting. I’m singing all these beautiful harmonies, and very rarely do you see me on camera performing them.

MD: Yeah. Ugh it’s gotta be frustrating.

RS: So, I kinda got a beef with that, man. But that’s just showbiz, man. It’s the same thing in The Last Waltz, man. Another Scorsese debacle. And that was where you have all the guys in The Band are great singers, but two of ‘em are really on the backline, man, namely, the drummer and the piano player, Levon [Helm], and Richard Manuel. Whenever they show the harmonies, do they show the guys in back? No, there’s not even a fucking camera on Richard Manuel. You see Robbie Robertson, who basically sings in a whisper. If you can even fucking call it singing. You see Bobby – you see Robbie Robertson, you see his pretty face up there. You hear the sound of Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, and you’re looking at Robbie Robertson. It’s just typical rock film shit. You can only show one guy in a shot, unless you really got your camera work together. Or just some split-screen or something. And so that’s my beef against – all my beautiful harmonies are visually attributed to another person.

MD: Oh… man. And it must’ve been really tough as a band-leader, when people like Joni Mitchell would suddenly climb on board. And she’s got some pretty intricate tunings and songs of her own that you had to kinda whip into shape.

RS: Well, it was a challenge. And I really enjoyed that challenge, man, when we would get different people up there. We got different people up there all the time. We’d go to – we’d – for instance, we went to Toronto, we got Ronnie Hawkins in the show. We went to Quebec, we got Gordon Lightfoot in the show… I mean, we would pick up cool local people – and I enjoyed that, man. And it was without rehearsal – we would have a meeting before the show, and they’d tell me what keys the tunes were in, I’d maybe write out a quick chart, go over it with a couple of the key guys in the band, and we’d go up on stage and wing it. And there were no train-wrecks, it worked out great. And yeah, Joni, her tunes were very challenging and I really enjoyed working with her. She’s a true genius.

MD: Yeah, absolutely. I was lucky to be at one of the shows that she was at – it was like, whoa, man.

RS: Yeah, right?

MD: Yeah, it was great. So, what was the vibe like – the difference between the initial run of shows, and the second half in 1976?

RS: 1976? Well, you know, the bloom was off the rose by then, man. You know, it’s like anything. Like, first love, or… the first tour was like a shiny toy, and by the time we did the second half, some other shit was going on too, man. For instance, the whole tour – both of those tours – were really a train that was pulled by the energy of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s energy was flagging by the 1976 thing. He was going through this messy divorce with his wife. So he had a lot of personal problems. He – some people – Phil Ochs had died, and uh, he took that very hard, because Phil Ochs had looked up on Rolling Thunder as like his last chance at getting a boost to his failing career, but he just couldn’t get – couldn’t overcome his alcoholism and didn’t do it.

MD: Right.

RS: And we all felt bad about that. Uh, Bob had a lot on his mind, and also I think he was disillusioned. He had spent all his time and money. He didn’t make money on the Rolling Thunder tour. I mean, the places they played were too small. Therefore, he was making up the lost time and lost money, by doing the ’76 tour… [it] was all huge places. The arenas! Sports arenas! Two shows a night! You know, I mean, an afternoon show and an evening show. Because they were 4-hour shows. And therefore, it was – he was sort of falling back into the thing that he didn’t wanna do. Namely, the thing he’d done with The Band in ’74, where they played all big places, and they made a lot of money, but was artistically unfulfilling. So therefore, I don’t think it was it was no longer new and exciting for him, although he was making a lot of money – his… it showed that his original sort of, maybe, naïve plan of doing the first Rolling Thunder tour and playing small places and college gyms, and doing it by surprise, unannounced, that all that stuff although it was a great idea, was impractical! Because it was not a money-maker!

MD: Yeah. Hm. Now…

RS: So the ’76 thing was the disillusionment leg.

MD: Hm. I’m glad I caught the first one.

RS: I’m glad you did.

MD: And throughout the whole thing, I mean, Dylan remains an enigma. I mean, you see him up there playing, he’s amazing, and there’s still something about him that’s mysterious, that’s kinda unknowable.

RS: Yeah, yeah! He’s got that charisma, man, he’s got boatloads of charisma, that guy.

And – we’ll have part 3 for you tomorrow. If you missed part 1, find it HERE.

Marty Duda