Drummer Christopher Parker on the Start of Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour
"I'm just a fucking poet."
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan shows of yesteryear. Some installments are free, some for paid subscribers only. Subscribe here to get them delivered right to your inbox:
Update June 2023: This interview is included along with 40+ others in my new book ‘Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members.’ Buy it now in hardcover, paperback, or ebook!
Christopher Parker was the first-ever drummer of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. For three years starting in 1988, he split his time between the road and his day job in the Saturday Night Live house band, alongside Dylan guitarist G.E. Smith. Parker was seated a few feet behind Dylan for all the formative moments of the Never Ending Tour, playing hundreds of shows before he left at the end of 1990.
I called him recently to discuss how he got involved, his relationship with Dylan, obsessive fans, songs they rehearsed but never played, pranking Bob, and a whole lot more.
Can you walk me through how you joined the band? I know you were on SNL with G.E. Smith in the years leading up to it. Was that the connection?
Yes. G.E. was the band leader, as you know, and said, "Would you be interested in doing this?"
At that time, the bass player on Saturday Night Live was T-Bone Wolk, so the three of us went to Montana Rehearsal Studio, which no longer exists, and started playing with Bob. We probably played 100 tunes or something over a couple of days, a lot of great stuff. Not all Bob's material; other people's material too. It was really fun, and he seemed to dig it.
How did you know G.E.?
I met him at SNL when they called me to be in the house band. That was '86, I guess. Steve Ferrone was the drummer, and he was leaving to go on the road with Duran Duran, so there was an opening. I had done the show over the years as a drummer for guest artists, Quincy Jones, Leo Sayer, Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, and stuff with Joe Cocker and Belushi, but that's just playing in the guest spot. I had never been in the band before.
I was looking at your discography and you're on so many records even before SNL and Bob. Were you primarily a session guy, or were you touring a lot as well?
I was touring a lot with different people. I started with Paul Butterfield's Better Days and toured with Bonnie Raitt for a while. I toured with Ashford & Simpson when I was working on all their records. I was in a band called Stuff and we ended up backing up Joe Cocker on his tours for a while.
Getting back to Bob, you get the call, you go to the rehearsal space. At this point, are you a fan, or do you just know a few hits that everyone knows?
To be honest, I wasn't a fan, but there was an interesting intertwining of lives. In 1970, I auditioned for this band in Woodstock. I answered an ad in Rolling Stone, “Drummer Wanted.” The band was called Holy Moses.
I got the gig and started working up there. I met a girl who eventually became my wife. Her mother was a huge Dylan fan and ended up buying Bob's house on Byrdcliffe. The first time I took this girl home, we went to Byrdcliffe, Bob's [old] house. He wasn't there, but his vibe was certainly there.
People in Woodstock were always talking about Bob. "Well, I saw him… He might be around… He was supposed to come here… He's supposed to…" Everybody was always mentioning him in some context. At that time, I don't think he was currently living there.
But getting to know this girl, this woman who later became my wife, we explored the property and explored the rooms and it was amazing. At that time, I started to listen to the records. I really liked Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding. I wasn't really aware of the poetry at all. I still wasn't a fan.
After rehearsing with him and meeting the guy, listening to him sing and to the poetry, I became an instant fan.
What does that first meeting look like? You show up at the studio, what happens next?
We're introduced. Not much is said. We start playing.
G.E. and T-Bone knew a lot of the songs, and I didn't. They were quoting things; they seem to know whatever he wanted to play. I just fell in, like Colin Allen talks about in your interview with him. [Bob] starts playing something and you fall in. There was never any, "Here's the count off and here's the tempo and this is the kind of feel I want." He didn't tell me, "That's good" or "Don't do that," but looked at me like, "You wouldn't be here if I didn't dig what you were doing, so just keep doing that."
I had the gall at one point to say, "What do you want me to play on this?" Bob said, "I'm just a fucking poet."
It was all very, like Jim Keltner said, like jazz. Feel it and get a groove and don't play the same thing twice. When we played the song that we had played yesterday, it was completely different. We did probably three or four different versions of “Heart of Mine.” A guy who does the archives in Tulsa, he sent me tapes of some of those rehearsals and you can hear all these different versions of “Heart of Mine.” That was fun to listen to.
Wow, that sounds amazing.
Quality is not great, but that was the genesis of the band. T-Bone, who was an amazing musician, not only played bass but played acoustic guitar and played accordion and he sang. He and G.E. were singing backup at some times. Sometimes T-Bone would put down the bass and play accordion, so it was Bob on acoustic, T-Bone on accordion, and me playing brushes or something.
We got a lot of really intimate feels going on, not only his tunes but stuff like “Barbara Allen,” a song that they sang in the Alistair Sims’ version of A Christmas Carol. Bob loved that song. We played that a lot on the road, actually.
There were explorations by everybody. Should I play guitar? Should I play brushes? Should I play accordion? G.E. often played acoustic or just telecaster. Bob sometimes played acoustic with a harmonica around his neck, traditional Bob-style, or he played the Stratocaster. The band could be really, really electric or it could be very intimate and folky. Even jazzy. Tunes would float like a Bill Evans Trio record.
We'd be in the room and he’d say, "I'm trying to write a song here." I don't know what song it was, but he's writing it on a paper towel on the window sill. He's deep in thought. I wonder what song that was.
During all these rehearsals, do you have the gig, or is it a long audition?
It's still very much an audition. I think we did four or five days, one week, and then another three or four days the next week. It was based on the Saturday Night Live schedule. He was very accommodating, because the show was pretty busy with pre-records and guest artists and everything leading up to the Saturday night.
Then one day [Dylan manager] Elliot Roberts showed up. He pulled me aside and said, "He's got something coming up. Would you be interested?” That's when I knew I had a gig, because they were talking about dates, starting at some amphitheater in California. I said yes. That was the beginning.
T-Bone didn't want to do it, because he was committed to Hall & Oates, but they found Kenny Aaronson, who I'd never played with before. He stepped right in.
Obviously in retrospect this is the beginning of Dylan pretty much touring forever, until Covid at least. Is it presented as the start of something big or just like, "We're doing two months on the road."
This was presented as a one-off thing. "Could you do a little summer tour,” six weeks or something. It was definitely not presented as a never-ending tour. Every six weeks or a month would go by, and they would say, "We got another bunch of dates. Can you do it?" I kept saying, "Yes."
Do you have to turn in your notice at SNL at a certain point?
No, no, because G.E. was in the band and he wanted to keep doing this.
So you'd do both?
Luckily for us, we never had to give notice. Bob and Elliot Roberts worked around our schedule. They didn't book gigs on a Saturday night. They didn't book gigs on a Thursday if we were doing pre-records. G.E. and I racked up thousands of miles flying back and forth.
That sounds like an exhausting schedule.
It was exhausting. It was exhausting, but really fun to go from the confines of NBC Studio 8H to wherever it was, New Mexico or Canada. We played all over the place. I found posters yesterday from Turkey and Italy.
That was very fortunate, right up until G.E. decided he didn't want to do it anymore. Then there was this long audition process trying to find another guitar player, which was really painful. By that time Kenny Aaronson had left, so we had Tony Garnier. I was teaching him the tunes or what might be the feel for the tune in the back of the bus after the gigs. He was really thrown into the fire and did great, as he's been doing for 30 years since.
Was there a change in the sound or the vibe when Kenny left and Tony joined?
Yes, the vibe changed and the sound changed. Tony came in playing acoustic bass— He played electric too but it was a different approach. He's a different musician, a great musician, but it definitely disrupted the thing that we had had, which was this flexibility to go in a rock direction or a folky direction or a jazzy direction or reggae. Any direction he wanted to go, we would fall in.
We didn't play the same thing twice. Play something different every night, or play something that is current to that night. That happened a lot, especially on familiar tunes, like “Rainy Day Women”or “Times They Are a-Changin’.” That had a 12/8 kind of feel, but when it got too comfortable in 12/8, he would change it to 4/4. [Bob] would put it in strict eighth notes instead of shuffling.
How is he communicating those changes? As a drummer, something like time signature really affects what you're doing.
He didn't communicate it. I would watch. He was standing directly in front of me and I would watch his body language most of all. That was the only clue. He never gave me four fingers or give me six fingers, or said “shuffle” or “straight eighths” or any of that stuff. That was never spoken at all. It was solely my interpretation of his body language. And a lot of times he didn't like the lights, so it was hard to see him.
Not only that, there were some shows during those years where he's playing in a hoodie with his hood up, which probably made it that much harder to see what he was doing.
Oh yes. There was a very funny moment one Halloween. We were playing in Chicago. He had been in a hoodie for a while, hoodie with a prayer shawl and Ray-Bans and blue jeans. So somebody on the crew gave everybody a hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans, a prayer shawl, and sunglasses.
Bob never came to soundcheck, but he would sometimes after dinner come and check out the stage or something. [So that night when he did,] everybody dressed in a hoodie, a prayer shawl, and blue jeans and sunglasses. When he came on stage, he saw everybody in his exact outfit. There was dead silence for what seemed like 10 minutes, but it was probably 30 seconds or something. Then he smiled a little bit. He got the joke. He didn't say anything, but he got the joke.
There was another backstage event, we were playing this place called Memphis Mud Island, which is an island in the middle of the Mississippi. You take a tram to get out there and everything. There is no dressing room really. There's one room where you can tune up and stuff before you hit the stage. This time of the year, [it’s] probably 110 degrees, and giant mosquitoes everywhere, so everybody was trying to take cover in this room.
For some reason, a member of the Eagles was in the neighborhood and wanted to come and hang. We're sitting in the room, just the band and Bob, silent. Nobody is saying anything. We're just trying to mentally prepare for the evening, but nobody's talking. Then this [Eagles] guy comes in. Silence again. He finally said to Bob, "So Bob, how's your dick?"
There was dead silence. Then after about 10 seconds, Bob had to smile.
Those were rare moments to see him smile and get a kick out of something that happened. Because he's Bob. He's seen everything, played everywhere, knows everybody, nothing fazes him really, but it was great to see a moment like that when he actually smiled.
Speaking of guests, in the first couple shows. Neil Young was in the band, sitting in for a half dozen shows. How did that happen?
We were playing in California and he lived nearby. He would drive up in his Cadillac convertible and pull his Silvertone Amp out of the trunk and his guitar and set it up next to me, left of the drums, and play all night. He was fucking amazing.
Jerry Garcia sat in. In England, George Harrison sat in a bunch of times, which was really beautiful, and Ringo sat in. We played double drums a bunch of times in France. I had enough spare parts on the road to put another kit together. Two sets of drums set up alongside each other, and he was just amazing. We talked a lot before shows, hearing it directly from him about the early days with the lads. Some great conversations, talking about drums and technique and equipment and stuff like that.
Van Morrison sat in in Athens. It was in a soccer stadium and the crowd was throwing M-80s onstage. You know, like a quarter stick of dynamite. They're exploding at Bob's feet and Van Morrison's feet. I'm back on a riser, seeing these flashes and stuff. Didn't faze ‘em. They just kept playing.
There was a woman who had a passport that said Sara Dylan. Had her name changed, I guess. She probably came to hundreds of gigs and always had a roll of nickels. She would throw nickels on the stage. If you hung around after the show— we never did, but my drum tech and different crew guys would pick up these nickels. It's always $5 or $10 worth of nickels.
That is very bizarre on a couple of levels.
Yes. Totally, totally, totally bizarre. She would show up in Helsinki or she would show up on this island in Norway. I mean, how the fuck did she get here?
There was always an entourage, a group of people who wanted to see him, wanted to talk to him, wanted to show him their painting, wanted to show him something they had made for him, wanted to give him a manuscript they had written when they were in Vietnam with Agent Orange exploding above them and how this one song saved their life. Legal pads filled with handwritten stuff, photographs and sculptures, car bumpers from a '49 Mercury. Sometimes you'd get a peek into his dressing room and look at this pile of stuff in manila envelopes. Skulls, steer horns, you never knew what was going to be in his dressing room.
Nobody was throwing the stuff away. It all got cataloged. Especially in LA or New York, people just besieged him.
Are you ever having to deal with that personally?
Yes, by association. I had a house in Kent, Connecticut at the time. When I started working with Bob, it didn't take long. Even after the very first tour, people would pull up the driveway and say, "Can you tell me a little bit about the way it's like to work with Bob?" People in pick-up trucks with shotgun racks and people on bicycles would just show up at the house and knock at the door. Really not a good time. How do you deal with this? Nobody was— I was going to say nobody was crazy, but they're all kind of crazy. They were Bob-obsessed.
Scary. [Note: Yes, I am aware of the irony here.]
Any information they could get from me would be grist for their mill. Some people would show up more than once. "Here's a painting I did. Can you get this to Bob?" or "Here's a letter I wrote. Can you make sure Bob gets this?" I was the conduit to Bob. I said, "I really can't." I'm not going to take this and then give it to Bob, "This is from somebody in Connecticut who's obsessed with you." I drew the line there.
I tried to be polite and dissuade them from coming again, because I'm there with my family. It was weird. There were some weird moments.
Musically, how did the show and the band evolve over the three years? We already talked about Kenny going and Tony coming but otherwise in terms of the sound and in terms of how you all interacted with each other?
We got more comfortable. Over the course of the three years, a lot of things got changed. We played different tunes or tackled different things.
When stuff is getting added late in the tour, covers of obscure songs, when are they getting rehearsed? Do you work a lot at soundchecks or are they things you rehearse before the tour?
Some of the things we had played before the tour. "Oh, yes, I remember playing this," or G.E. and Kenny or Tony would say, "How do you want to do it?" "He likes G, you want to do it in G?" "Let's put it down half a step just in case." Sort of go through it. And I would listen. I wasn't at the drums; this would be backstage or on the bus. I was listening. "Okay, I could do something like this. Maybe this will work.” I’d play it for the first time at night with Bob singing.
His phrasing is the other clue to what I'm going to play, besides the body language. His phrasing is as unique as Frank Sinatra. Back phrasing, waiting for the change to go by before he sings the lyric that goes with that change, or singing the lyric that goes with that change way in front of that change, so that the end of the line is when you hear the change that goes in that spot of the song — to be able to do that is just brilliant. There's no other singers besides Frank Sinatra or maybe Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles. I guess Willie Nelson too. Somebody who's got such command of the song that they can stretch lines, or shrink lines, or truncate lines, scrunch words together or stretch words out however they want the phrases to reflect their mood at the moment, literally at that second. I evolved to really enjoy that as I'm playing with him more and more and more.
Was there any disappointment that at the time he wasn't using his road band for studio stuff? He didn't use G.E. or you or anyone for Oh Mercy or Under the Red Sky.
Yes, kind of a bummer, because we would hear these tunes and be ready to play them. Then we’d see the record come out and [think] "Oh, I could have played on that. Jeez!” Sometimes it was a bummer because the feel we had live was hipper than what they had on the record.
Now that they're releasing all these bootlegs, maybe at some point they'll release stuff from '88 to '92. There were some amazing performances, Bob himself playing acoustic guitar and harmonica. Like Jim Keltner says, it would make you weep.
Speaking of acoustic, it looks like in the acoustic sets for the first chunk was just him and G.E. and then the second chunk you were playing.
That evolved over time. I remember one night they were doing “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” and I was on the side of the stage and I just said, "You know what, this could really use drums." My mics were on and I snuck up to the drums and did this gigantic fill going into the chorus. Bob turned around and smiled.
I didn't do it the next night or subsequent concerts where they played “Knockin’.” He didn't like that. If anything sounded predictable to him or he could tell we were phoning it in, he would change it.
I loved when guitarists would sit in and try to see what chords Bob was playing. He would turn the neck of the guitar towards the back of the stage. They had to use their ears and their instinct and whatever else to fit in. You can't use the Cliff Notes with Bob Dylan.
In that sort of in-between period where G.E. announces he's leaving, there's a whole succession of other guitarists on stage, a new one every night or two. Some of them probably are trying to look at his hands, I'm guessing. That seems like a weird experience for a band member.
It was very tough and it was very painful. It was heartbreaking, really.
There was some very, very awkward moments at the guitar auditions. There were a bunch of guys who would have been great if given a chance, but they made various faux pas, for lack of a better word, by asking Bob for an autograph or by asking Bob if they could get something special. I don't know what they were asking for, but I know for whatever reason, certainly not a musical reason, they didn't get the gig. Until the guitarist he was most comfortable with was the guitar tech, César Diaz, who would tune Bob's guitars and give them to him. He was always at the side of the stage.
And César, God bless him, was not a guitar player. I mean, he could play the guitar, but he wasn't a band member. This was really heartbreaking. He became the de facto guitar player. He was so nervous and not used to being in the spotlight, not used to performing period. That made it really hard to make the band gel.
That was kind of the last straw for me. Plus, I was having my second child and I missed a lot of my first child's early life. It was tearing me apart. I had waited 19 years with this woman who I met, whose mother had bought Byrdcliffe, we'd waited 19 years to have children because we wanted to do it right. We weren't going to make a mistake that we'd seen other people make; we wanted the relationship to be solid.
My first son was born in '88 and I was on the road for the following 18 months. Then my second son was born, and this guitar chair scenario was going down. It was heartbreaking. It was really heartbreaking. I asked Bob to let me go and do what I need to do with my family.
It was a great ride, and so much great music. That's what’s heartbreaking about not being on any of the records, there's no official document of that period. Some interpretations of the tunes were as good as the classic records were, or better, or new and different.
Listening to some of the bootleg recordings, you talk about the versatility and that's definitely there, but one thing that jumps out is just how hard you guys rocked. It's the closest to punk Bob has ever really gotten.
Yes. 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.
I was going to ask you about two or three specific shows, and one of them was actually that West Point one you mentioned. It seemed like it was pretty controversial at the time. Do you remember that media brouhaha, about Bob Dylan playing at a military academy?
Yes, definitely. 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 literally 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.
Clearly, there was a bunch of cadets who dug him and dug his music and wanted to be there. The place was sold out. That was an amazing show.
How about Toad's Place, 1990? Probably the craziest setlist of Dylan's entire career. “Dancing in the Dark,” all these weird covers, his own songs he never played. What was the story with that show? Sort of a rehearsal with an audience?
A rehearsal with an audience, yes. It’s not really a theater, so everybody's on the same level. Drums are on the floor. Guitars are on the floor. Bass is on the floor. There's no proscenium. I don't think we had played anything up to that moment that was with that much audience contact. There's usually a stage and security and fences and whatever else to keep the audience and Bob separated, but this was really the dissolution of the fourth wall. The people were right there. There's somebody watching me play drums three feet away. You could feel the energy. People were into it, screaming tunes. "Play ‘Baby Blue’! Play ‘Highway 61’!"
Had you known going in it would be like this?
No, I thought it was going to be empty and we were just going to rehearse there.
You didn't know there was going to be an audience?
No. I thought the first few people who trickled in, "Oh, they must be friends of the management or owners of the place or something. But people kept trickling in. Pretty soon, it was a full-blown audience.
Of all the Springsteen songs to cover, “Dancing in the Dark” a bizarre choice and it works…not super well. How would an off-the-wall thing like that happen?
He’d just yell it out. [Or] he would start singing something and G.E.’d say, "Oh, okay, well, yes, jump in there.” I’d try to fall in without ever having played it before.
Couple of things he did at rehearsal that I wish we had played live. We did “God Only Knows,” the Beach Boys song, which is really a tough tune. It's got an odd number of beats and an orchestral figure in the interlude. We did - what's it called? - “Father of Time” or something?
“Father of Night”?
“Father of Night,” yes. We did Willie Nelson songs and Hank Williams songs, some of which were great. Woody Guthrie songs.
I've talked to various band members, but you're the first from your era. It seems to fluctuate pretty wildly whether Bob is hanging out, whether he's even talking to the band off stage. What was the vibe there during your years?
The vibe with him was great, unless we were in LA or New York, where as I mentioned before people were just besieging him with requests. "Look at this or here's a painting I did, or here's a photograph of so and so I thought you should have this."
When we played Radio City, the dressing room was full of stars, George Harrison, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez. All these folks are coming by and they're besieging him. What are you going to do? In LA, an insane amount of people. Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell. There were 100 people waiting in line to see or give something to him. I can't imagine dealing with that kind of attention and that kind of neediness being presented to you in some tangible form as an object of this neediness.
[But] if we were out in Oklahoma or New Mexico or Colorado or something, he was a normal guy. He had a fighter named “Mouse” Strauss, an ex-boxer who had been hit so many times he really wasn't all there. He would come and train Bob. They would box together. We would ask later that day, "Hey how was your session with Mouse?" Bob would say, "Oh, I knocked him down” or “He gave me a tumble." We were just normal. We didn't have endless conversations but we certainly conversed. After I had my first son, when I went back on the road with him that was the first thing he said to me. "Hey Chris, how's that baby?"
You said he didn't give you much in the way of instruction in advance. Would you ever get feedback after the fact? "I want it slower tomorrow” or “I liked this thing you did.”
Does that make it difficult to know if what you're doing is working?
No, not any more difficult than playing jazz with somebody. You get a feeling; you get a vibe. If he turned around and smiled, I knew, “Well, I didn't fuck that up.” If he wasn't happy, I didn't know, but maybe the song was different the next night.
I learned from that one moment at a rehearsal, when I said, "What do you want me to play on this?" "I'm just a fucking poet.”
Thanks to Chris for taking the time to talk! His jazz combo The Chris Parker Trio’s new album ‘Tell Me’ will be out this fall; you can watch them performing songs from it on YouTube. Keep tabs on Chris and the upcoming album on his website.
Also FYI, in two days, I’m going to share a rare tour program Chris sent me with paid subscribers. And coming soon, more interviews with people who joined Bob on the first couple years of the Never Ending Tour…
Update June 2023:
"The poet laureate of rock-n-roll, the voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture…" [paid subscribers]
2002-08-15, Erie County Fair, Hamburg, NY
Bob & Bruce at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [free]
1995-09-02, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, OH
This Date in Dylan: September 24 [paid subscribers]
The Hawks debut and Bob takes a flute solo