Bob Dylan's Bandmates Recall the Best Song They Ever Played with Him
A 'Pledging My Time' playlist
When I was putting together my book earlier this year (Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members, as if I haven’t mentioned it on here enough already), I enjoyed the moments that got granular, where a musician would recall a specific song or performance they gave with Dylan. Sometimes these people had played hundreds of shows with Dylan, often decades ago, but one song on one night stayed with them all these years later. And they told me why.
I thought all those songs they talked about would make a great playlist. Then things got busy, and I didn’t do it.
So, belatedly (and just in time for the holiday season hint hint), I’ve made that playlist. I went back through the book and pulled out some of my favorite moments of musicians talking about specific songs or shows with Bob. And next to those short excerpts, I’ve embedded audio of the performances in question. You can read their story while you listen to what they’re talking about. (PS. I’ll make a playlist version on our private Plex streaming service too for paid subscribers who want to just let it play through).
There are plenty of behind-the-scenes type stories in the book, but, ultimately, the reason we all care is the music itself. And these snippets are all about just that. Bob and the people he invites in, making the music we hear on stage and on record. So listen to the embeds as you read. And, to quote the man himself, “Play it f***ing loud.”
Oh wait, before we start, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note again: Pledging My Time in stores now!
Okay, on to the playlist…
Allman Brother, sat in at numerous shows
Song: “Ramblin’ Man,” Tampa 1995
Bob wanted do “Ramblin’ Man.” I said, “You don’t know the words to that, do you?” He said, “I know all the words to ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ I shoulda wrote that song myself.” I said, “Okay, let’s check. If you don’t know, just make shit up, and you’ll do well.” So we sang “Ramblin’ Man.” He sang every word exactly the way I wrote it.
Wow, he knew it.
I mean, he knew it! And he sang it better than it’s ever been sung before. [Dickey busts into Dylan impression:] “I’m on my way down to New Or-leans this morning.” He was talking and singing at the same time. It was great.
You’ve got a pretty good Dylan impression.
[Dickey’s really belting now] “I’m on my WAY down to New OrLEANS this MORNING. I’m LEAV-ing out of NASH-ville”… He’d just go, and the words meant so much the way he sang it.
Rolling Thunder 1976 percussionist
Song: “Tangled Up in Blue,” Hard Rain
We were staying at the Stanley Hotel, another old historic hotel about a half hour into the woods from Boulder. At the last minute we heard, “Bob wants to rehearse. Get down to the ballroom.” They were scrambling to get gear set up.
Howie [Wyeth] didn’t make it. He was under the weather, and they were concerned that I would have to do the whole show on drums, which I hadn’t done before. I knew the material, but from the perspective of playing percussion. Most of it, Howie was playing drums.
I remember all we did was we played “Tangled Up in Blue” for about two hours! Because there’s a lot of stops in it and things like that; it’s an involved arrangement. He wanted us to stop here, start here, stop here. Then he gets on stage the next day and he takes it off in a whole new direction. It was like we didn’t even spend any time on it the night before. I’m just hanging on for my life.
Never Ending Tour guitarist, 1997-2004
Song: “Girl from the North Country,” 2004
I wanted to ask you about arranging songs. Even his own songs could sound pretty different. Near the end of your tenure, I was learning guitar myself and I found this site that tabbed out a cool fingerpicking thing you created for “Girl of the North Country” — which, by the way, took me like two years to learn. For something like that, are you coming up with a part and suggesting it to the band? Is he giving instructions: “I want the guitar to sound like X, figure something out”?
It’s all that. He would maybe suggest a riff for certain songs. He’d play like a three-note riff, which I would grab, or Bucky [Baxter], or Charlie when he eventually joined the band, and then embellish on it — or not. With certain songs he would say, “Let’s play this riff every time after every verse.” We would play that riff note for note.
In case of something like “North Country,” he would just strum his guitar and then I would play along once I knew where the verses were going and in a style that I felt would enhance what he was doing. Then [drummers] David Kemper or George Receli, they’d start with a groove. Bob may ask them to change it, or try something different, or keep this but change that. Everybody was throwing in with their own ideas, but we would also honor what he was able to explain. Very often he didn’t even know what he was trying to get out of it. He just wanted it to land in a place that felt good to him. We’d kick each one of these songs around until it felt right.
British folksinger, accompanied Dylan on his first London visit in 1962
Song: “Ballad of the Gliding Swan,” BBC Madhouse on Castle Street
What do you remember about that play? The recording that aired on TV with Dylan in it seems to have been lost.
The BBC deleted it. Stupid bastards. They had a big clear-out at one point, and one of the plays that was cleared out was this.
I read you were there for the filming of some of that play.
I was, oh yes. I’d go in regularly. I found the songs that he was singing hilarious. One song he had to sing [“Ballad of the Gliding Swan”], he changed the words: “Lady Margaret’s belly is wet with tears / Nobody’s been on it for 27 years.”
Guitarist, 1978 tour
Song: “Tangled Up in Blue”
I think my favorite song is one I didn’t play on. [laughs] It was the way they did “Tangled Up in Blue,” I thought that was unbelievable. I had goosebumps every time he did it. It was just Bob and Steve [Douglas, sax] and Alan[Pasqua, keys] and it was remarkable. He always sounds best when there’s the least amount of music behind him. He’s such an unbelievably great singer that hearing him by himself sometimes is even more powerful than hearing him with a band.
In Tua Nua singer, opened and sat in (with Bono and Van Morrison) at 1984 Slane Castle tour finale
Song: “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Slane 1984
He said, “I love your band. I think you’re amazing. Could you come and join us for one of the songs in the encore?” I was thinking, great. “Blowin’ in the Wind” or something that we’ll know. He says, “I’d like you to join us on a song called ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,’” which I’d never heard of, truthful to say.
I remember being on stage standing beside Bono. I said to him, “I don’t know the words.” He said, “Just sing ‘nah nah nah nah nah.’” I mean, there were so many people on the stage. It was all a flurry.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Village folksinger and later Rolling Thunder tourmate
Pick: “Acne,” Riverside Church 1961
It was a goofy song. I think it was something he wrote [some sources say was written by Eric Von Schmidt]. Bob was singing the words, and I was just doing the “doo-wah, doo-wah” in the background. I’m not a “doo-wah” singer.
Rolling Thunder ‘76 performer, among other interactions
Song: “Sold American,” Chabad telethon 1991
They asked us to do it. Bob had his yarmulke on his head. He was insisting on doing “Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso.” Which probably would’ve had a bigger bang for the buck, I think. But we did “Sold American.”
Why didn’t you do “Asshole”? Your choice or the network’s?
It was my worry that it would in some way not be cool for me and Bob to do. It would’ve worked out; Bob was right on that one: “Go on and do the damn thing.” But I didn’t. It was just like the Jesus coat. Once you’ve made a spiritual error, it’s very hard to get it back.
Was the plan at one point for Bob to sing? There’s a microphone set up in front of him, but he never goes near it. It’s mostly random guitar licks.
If you notice, his performance was spotty, but it was funny as hell, actually. Most of the crowd was fervent Orthodox Jews, so they wouldn’t have known if Bob were playing the ukulele. I wish we had done “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and a few like that, that may have gotten through to the audience a little more.
Played keyboards at Newport ‘65, produced each other later
Pick: “Like a Rolling Stone,” Newport Folk Festival 1965
When I listened to the tapes that were recorded at the time, I felt that “Like A Rolling Stone” came out pretty good. I thought that Bob’s vocals were really spirited. That thing came together.
How did you feel about the other two songs?
Emotionally, it really didn’t get me off that much. It was a go-for-it kind of thing, like a jam. “Maggie’s Farm” was pretty much running wild, although people really liked that. Some people. “Like A Rolling Stone” had more passion and emotion to it and feeling.
Sat in extensively with Dylan (and once Dylan sat in with him)
Song: “Tangled Up in Blue,” Oshawa 2008
Something like “Tangled up in Blue,” it was a totally different arrangement. I guess he was just waiting for me to start and he went like [plays riff] on the harmonica. I do the song now and I do that same riff. I remembered it later, the exact thing that he did. I made up a harmonica solo at the beginning based on that riff he played.
Drummer across many years/eras, including the 1979-1981 gospel run
Song: “Solid Rock,” Seattle 1979
We had a night in Seattle that I will never forget. It was a good concert, everything was going well, hitting on all cylinders. We got to the song “Solid Rock,” which I loved playing because it was fast and it had a ferociousness to it. Bob was on fire that night, and the words were hitting hard. At the end of the song, there was applause like you’d expect, but it went on for— I think I clocked it at almost five minutes. That can be proven; I have a copy of a board tape. That was an extraordinary event for somebody playing in a band. I can’t imagine what it was like for Bob. Five minutes standing ovation for one song that wasn’t at the end of the concert. There were moments like that.
Childhood friend, Rolling Thunder tour producer
Show: Mahjong tournament, Falmouth, MA
We were looking for a place outside New York City to do the final rehearsals before we opened in Plymouth, Mass. I said to Barry, “Find a place up in the Cape area where we can get away from the city and not have those distractions.” He comes back and says he found us this resort. He said, “They’re out of season, so we can rent the whole resort at a good price. There’s only one thing, though. They booked a mahjong tournament for that week we’re going to be up there, and they said they can’t cancel it. We’ll have 90% of the resort, but the mahjong ladies will be there.” It was really a good deal, so I said, “We can live with that.”
In the room next to the rehearsal space, there was a room where all these older Jewish ladies were doing their mahjong. They were very animated, doing their thing. We got the idea that it might be fun if we did something with the mahjong ladies, because we had this camera crew that was always looking for non-concert type footage. We came up with the idea that we would send Allen Ginsberg and Bob in there. We got a hold of the guy who runs the resort. We said, “We wanted to have two of our people go in and entertain the ladies a little bit.” “Oh. Okay.” He didn’t even know what was going on.
He goes in there and he says, “We have a treat for you ladies today. We’ve arranged for a couple entertainers to entertain.” The ladies look up from their mahjong. He says, “We have a poet here who’s going to read you some of his poetry. We have a singer. He’s going to sing you a song or two.” I can’t remember what he called him. We didn’t use his real name.
It’s hard to tell in the footage if they even recognized him.
We didn’t identify that it was Bob Dylan, so I don’t think they did. Some of them got into it, and others were just polite.
Drummer, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Song: “Lay Lady Lay,” Hartford 1986
We’re playing a big gig. Bob turns to me he says, “Hey, Stan, what do you want to play tonight?” I’m thinking, “Uh, loaded question?” But I took it right at face value and I went, “Well, how about ‘Lay Lady Lay’?” Because we’d never done it. I wanted to do that cool beat that’s on the record, that beautiful mandolin swing. It just feels like mandolins are bashing into the wall. I really wanted to try that rhythm live.
That’s how fearless you are. It didn’t even occur to me that that might not be a good idea, to pick a song we’d never played before. He says, “What key?” You never ask a drummer what key! I see Mike [Campbell] in the corner going, “A! A! A!” I go, “How about A?” Everybody has a big sigh of relief. Then Bob walks up to the microphone and proceeds to play a song I can’t even recognize. Like, if this is “Lay Lady Lay,” I have no fucking idea, but it was fun as shit. It was the Ramones doing “Lay Lady Lay.”
The band was a little horrified maybe, but I was only horrified for about a second. I realized, “We’re really going with this!” We went with four minutes of “Lay Lady Lay” as a punk song, replete with the Queens of Rhythm all trying to find their way in. It was fantastic, but it was absolute anarchy.
Rolling Thunder and 1978 multi-instrumentalist
Song: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” 1975
This was the mid-'70s and everybody was using an effects pedal called a phase shifter. We had a lot of them. I mean, [Mick] Ronson was using one and T Bone [Burnett] was using one. I had an early phase shifter that just had three switches on it. If you pressed all three of them, it would go very fast and it’d sound sort of like an organ. I put that effect on my pedal steel and a lot of times would play way up high, which is sort of a tremolo-y kind of sound.
That was another song where, again, it’s like Dylan was like spitting out the words. It was so filled with passion and vitriol that it was very exciting every night to play it. Just to be along for the ride.
Plugz bassist for Letterman ‘84 performance
Song: “Jokerman,” Late Night with David Letterman
The only part that sounds really bad is not because of any of you. It’s his endless harmonica search on “Jokerman.”
Yeah, that was a tough spot. We just kind of freewheeled it and kept going and just waited to see what the hell was gonna happen. On live TV! Just don’t stop. Same old thing you always learn when you’re in a band: Something goes wrong, never stop. Just plow ahead.
What’s going through your mind?
What’s going through our mind is “What the fuck?” And if you see Bob’s face, you could read his mind, and he’s thinking the same thing. So we just looked at each other and kind of laughed. Like, here we go, now we’re really flying by the seat of our pants. Hold on. If things were raw and bad before, we don’t know where this is going. But it’s live, so just go with it, and that’s what we did.
Gospel-era backup singer, 1979-81
Song: “Mary of the Wild Moor”
There’s a duet you did with him, the folk song “Mary of the Wild Moor,” where you were playing autoharp. Was that the only song you performed an instrument on?
Other than tambourine, yes. He taught me the autoharp. He taught me the chords. I didn’t know nothing about it.
I enjoyed doing that one. I had heard him do that song by himself and then he decided, “Regina, I want you to learn this song.” I was like, “Okay.” The challenge was to learn the lyrics and turn around after learning the lyrics to learn the autoharp. “Mary of the Wild Moor” has so many verses to it, it ain’t funny.
Gospel-era keyboard player
Song: “What Can I Do for You?”
He’d play harmonica after singing the song and I’d be on the organ. He and I would just improvise the instrumental section. It’d be different every night. It kept getting longer and longer, because we were having fun.
First Never Ending Tour drummer, 1988-1990
Song: “Masters of War,” West Point Military Academy
I remember some great takes on certain tunes. We were playing at West Point Academy and he played “Masters of War” and that was killing. That was like The Clash doing Bob Dylan.
It seemed like West Point was pretty controversial at the time. Do you remember that media brouhaha, about Bob Dylan playing at a military academy?
It was a tension-filled night. We’re getting off the bus. We’d been on the road for, I don’t know, three or four months. To interface with the cadets and the structure of this place and the militaristic vibe was very anxiety-provoking. Nobody knew what the show was going to be like. Are the cadets going to boo us? Are they going to throw stuff at us? We didn’t know what was going to happen.
Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy
Song: “Love Sick,” Grammy Awards 1998
Why do you think they let you stay on as long as they did? Were you surprised?
I was very surprised it went on so long! I thought it would last all of about three seconds. We only had one rehearsal earlier that day, so I heard later that the guys in the control booth genuinely didn’t know if it was part of the act or not. That’s why they didn’t send anyone out sooner to stop me.
If Bob and the band had just stopped performing entirely, what would you have done?
To be honest, that was the most frightening thought to me, that Bob would just stop the band and turn to me and calmly ask, “Hey man, what’s this all about?” I was much more prepared to be beaten to the ground than to have to answer that question.
Rolling Thunder violinist
Show: John Hammond PBS tribute, 1975
After you finished the Desire sessions, do you think, that’s it? At what point did you find out you were going on tour?
Before the tour, I got a call from Bob asking me to go to Chicago with him to do a special event. That special event turned out to be the tribute to the man who signed him, John Hammond. Talk about trial by fire! This was live television in front of every major CBS executive and John Hammond. That was a huge amount of belief that I was going to pull that off. It was quite nerve-wracking. As I look closely at my face during [the video of] that tribute, I look a bit petrified.
Show: Warfield, San Francisco, 1980
Jerry Garcia sat in also at that second run at the Warfield.
That was a funny night. Bob called him out on the second song that we played. Jerry told us later that he was high, man. He was noodling up in the upper register of the guitar, like all the time. When Bob was singing, he’s playing doodle-doodle-ooo, noodling around and doing all kinds of stuff. Bob’s looking over at me like, “What the fuck is going on?”
We got off the stage and got in the van. Bob’s going, “That’s it, I’m not having people sit in with us anymore.” I said, “Bob, you gotta bring ‘em on the encore. You can’t bring someone out on the second song, because they’re going to stay there all night.”
Keyboard player, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Song: “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” Gothenburg 1987
He and I were walking next to each other when the band got onstage. For small talk, I said, “What do you want to do for a slow song?” He said, “Do you know ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Let’s do that, just you and me and maybe Mike.” When the time came, he started playing “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” with just me and Mike. It was Gothenburg, Sweden, and it was 20,000 people. We had never played it with him before, or with each other. It was transcendent.
Singer-songwriter, accompanied Dylan at Seville guitar festival 1991
Show: Leyendas de la Guitarra, Sevilla Spain, 1991
What do you remember from the actual performance?
A lot of feedback. I mean, literal feedback from the monitors. The monitors were way too loud and feeding back quite badly from time to time. I’m trying to get in tune somewhere between the dressing room and the stage, but I think both our guitars had gone out of tune, so I spent the first number trying to tune up to Bob, really.
There’s a moment in the video, in between the first two songs, where it looks like you’re frantically trying to tune and Dylan’s not waiting. He’s just barreling ahead.
Yeah. It was a little out of tune, to say the least. That was a little distracting.
‘60s folk singer, recorded duets with Dylan for Greatest Hits II
Song: “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” Broadside session
At one point at that session, Bob called me out into the hallway. He had this sheath of typewritten papers in his hand. He said, “Would you sing this song?” It was “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” I don’t know why he didn’t want to sing it. We rehearsed it for a few minutes in the hallway and put the words on the music stand. It was the first time I ever sang anything in a professional recording studio by myself.
This wasn’t a song that you had heard him do in Gerde’s or something?
I had not heard this one before that day. He sang it for me. We rehearsed it a couple of times, and then we went in and did it.
The reason it was so meaningful for me to do that song: A little over a year before, I did time in the New York City prison system for refusing to take shelter in a compulsory air raid drill. I was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 30 days in the workhouse. I always thought that this is the reason that Bob wanted me to sing it. That’s a song about not taking shelter, not going underground. I sang that, and he backed me up on guitar, and harmony on the chorus.
Violinist, sat in at Wembley 1987
Song: “Lenny Bruce”
One of the nights [after Tom’s set], I was sitting quietly in the VIP section next to the stage watching the Heartbreakers deal with the strangeness that is Bob Dylan. Suddenly, a guitar tech turned up and said, “Bob wants you. Get down on stage now.” I got down there and plugged the violin in. Tom Petty was shouting the chords at me as we went through it.
Did you have any inclination why or how? Had Bob seen you with Tom earlier that night?
I have no idea. Maybe Tom said, “Oh, get him up because he can wing anything.” I’m pretty good at winging things. I’m quite quick about figuring out how it all goes. Often, I just don’t play for the first verse. “Oh, that’s how it goes. All right.” It was quite lovely. All of a sudden, play along with a song, totally making it up as I went along, in front of 9,000 people, which I’m quite happy to do.
Never Ending Tour drummer, 1993-1993
Song: “Restless Farewell,” Sinatra birthday tribute, 1995
We rehearsed a couple other songs. “This Was My Love,” I think. But I think Frank liked “Restless Farewell” a lot. I could hear him saying “When’s that Dylan kid going on?” When you watch it, you can see the genuine affection that both of them have for each other.
Anyone you could imagine was there, like Don Rickles, all the Rat Pack, anybody that was like a Soprano or whatever, they’re all there. Our table was really fun. I sat next to Bob. There was Frank and Barbara Marx, his wife. Clayton Cameron, who plays with Tony Bennett, was sitting on the other side of me. So the two of us were sitting next to Bob, and on the other side of him was Danny Aiello and Rickles. Then the table next to us, there was Patrick Swayze and Roseanne Barr and Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. It was like we were in one of those Hirschfeld drawings, caricatures of people decorating a room in a Hollywood event like you’d see in a New Yorker magazine.
Did you see just the way that they showed the crowd, watching us as we did the song? It was reverent. Everyone was moved by it. At one point when they cut to the audience, no one is saying a word, no one’s talking. These are people that I’ve been seeing my whole life in one medium or another, and there they are looking at us. You can see the solemnity as they do the wide pan stuff. It meant that musically, we had done our job.
If you want to hear some of these stories in the people’s own voices (and some different ones too), I put together a few audio medleys for YouTube. Here’s the most relevant one: