He Was Bob Dylan's Violin Player…For One Song

1987-10-14, Wembley Arena, London, UK

Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Dylan shows of yesteryear. If you found this article online or someone forwarded you the email, subscribe here to get a new entry delivered to your inbox every week:

When I was working on my two 1987 “Temples in Flames” tour posts last month, a footnote caught my eye. It appeared in the setlist for a show 33 years ago today, the first of a Wembley Arena run Dylan did to cap off his long run with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It came attached to the eighth song of the setlist, “Lenny Bruce.” It read, simply, “8 Bobby C. Valento (violin).”

I’d never heard of him, and a violin player sitting in with Bob is pretty unusual. A quick glance confirmed he’d never appeared with Bob before or since (also, that his last name is actually Valentino). I dug up a video of the song in question, albeit one taken from a terrible angle, which I put on YouTube. You can’t see Bobby, but you can hear him.

I called Bobby Valentino up to find out how he ended up playing violin on a single song with Dylan one night in 1987. We talked about Bob and also about Petty and the Heartbreakers, with whom he had a much longer relationship. Here’s our conversation:

Ray: I gather you'd never heard that recording until I sent it to you a week or two ago. What were your first thoughts?

Bobby: I was aware it existed but I've never heard it. I could have done better but it wasn't too bad. Had I known the song, it would have been nicer! [laughs]

Ray: Do you remember how you ended up doing that song? “Lenny Bruce” is an odd choice.

Bobby: I have no idea. I’d never heard it before. I wouldn't say I'm a Bob Dylan completist. I mostly know the singles and a few famous albums, and that's about it.

I played with Tom Petty on and off ever since I'd done the Damn the Torpedoes tour. The Fabulous Poodles, we were a support act on that tour and we got on really well. I ended up doing odd guest bits with Tom in Europe quite a lot. He said, "Oh, come along and do the Wembley shows." I was playing with Tom Petty each night. I think “Louisiana Rain” was one night and “Stories We Could Tell.”

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.

Ray: Did you have any inclination why or how? Had Bob seen you with Tom earlier that night?

Bobby: 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 a song, totally making it up as I went along, in front of 9,000 people, which I'm quite happy to do.

Ray: Did you interact with Bob either before or after that one song?

Bobby: Not very much. He seemed pretty shy to me. I think I said, "Oh, that was fun.” We chatted a bit in a bar afterwards at the Mayfair Hotel. I can't remember what we said. It was pretty bland.

Then, on the last night, I recall George Harrison was there, Jeff Lynne, Ringo, and whoever he was with at the time. Afterwards, they all piled into Bob Dylan's dressing room afterwards for a bit of a party. I went to Tom Petty's dressing room because I wasn't really in the same league as these people. Tom came to get me. He said, "Hey, come on to Bob's dressing room." I think the main reason was because we all used to smoke in those days and I had some very good black hash with me. About the only other thing that Bob said to me was, "Roll up a joint, Bobby."

Ray: If you were in that dressing room with Tom, Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, that's like a proto-Traveling Wilburys.

Bobby: In fact, George Harrison gave me a plectrum with “Traveling Wilburys written on it. Nobody had heard of the Wilburys at the time. I think they were possibly doing odd bits of it in George Harrison's studio in Weybridge during the days.

Ray: You mentioned getting along with Petty when your band opened the Damn the Torpedoes tour. What were your interactions after that?

Bobby: I don't think I did a sit-in after that tour until they [returned to] the UK. Tom Petty did a TV show called Rock Goes to College, which was basically bands being filmed in colleges. He phoned me up, said, "Do you want to come play at some college in Oxford?" which I did.

I didn’t play a very good solo that night. I did it about two nights later at Wembley. I did a much better solo and that's the one on Pack Up the Plantation.

Ray: How did you get on on that initial tour? What about it made you and Tom get closer?

Bobby: I'd absolutely loved Tom Petty's first and second album. They were quite big in the UK before they were big in America. The Poodles, we had a manager called Brian Lane. He knew Tony Dimitriades or whoever was managing Petty at the time and got us the job of the support act.

They were a bit nervous with us because we were thought of as an English punk band, even though we weren't really a punk band. They'd had some problems touring with punk bands in Britain. Then they found out we were quite funny. We grabbed a lot of promotional photos from Tom Petty's tour manager, drew mustaches and beard and stuff on them, and sent them back to them. They thought it was hilarious and did the same to us. We started getting on really well. You wouldn’t know who'd be in whose bus in the morning. We'd get out of the hotel, they'd pour into our bus, and we'd pour into their bus.

Ray: Other than Tom himself, were there any of the Heartbreakers that you got along with particularly well?

Bobby: All of them. Stan was a good laugh. Benmont was a fantastic musician and so was Mike Campbell. Mike Campbell, the melodicness of his guitar playing is just gorgeous. I remember at one point, I actually learned how to do the end of “American Girl” on the violin.

Ray: Did you show Mike that?

Bobby: Yes. He went, "You bloody bastard!" It's actually a lot easier on the violin than it is on the guitar. The speed stuff on the violin is very easy. It's much easier to play a violin fast than it is to play it slowly. You've got to be very accurate and very smooth when it's slow.

Ray: People don't sit in with Bob Dylan that often. He's not someone who is constantly inviting people in.

Bobby: Had I had a run-through or something, I could have done a lot better job. I'm not bad at winging things. There's an awful lot of session stuff that I've done that is, literally, they recorded the run-through and just used that. I've usually had somebody shouting chords at me.

Ray: Like in this case, you said Tom Petty was just shouting the “Lenny Bruce” chords at you mid-song.

Bobby: Yes. On stage, he was just shouting at me. He's like, "C, F, A minor." I can't remember what key it was in. I think it was in C.

Ray: Did you ever go back and listen to the original song “Lenny Bruce”?

Bobby: No. I should check it out but I never have. [chuckles] There's not enough time in the world. The singles, I would have had no trouble with at all. Once you hear it on the radio a couple of times, it's in there, as it were.

I remember one of the nice bits was Bob didn't like lights coming straight at him. I don't blame him; it can be really painful on the eyes to have these bright lights at you. He wasn't lit from the front, which made being on stage very pleasant. You could see out to the audience.

Ray: Did you go to all four of the Wembley shows?

Bobby: Yes. In fact, one thing I also remember is we had a storm of the century on one of those nights. I can't remember which night it was, but we pretty nearly much had a hurricane. There's a town called Sevenoaks in Kent and ‘round the green, literally had seven oaks. At the end of that night, it was three oaks.

The night before the storm, we all ended up in [Petty’s manager] Tony Dimitriades's brother's restaurant in Soho Square. That night, about three o'clock in the morning, after we'd all gone home, a tree fell down in Soho Square and went straight through the restaurant.

Ray: Is there anything else about this sit-in, about Dylan, about your time with Petty, or anything else I didn't ask about that I should have?

Bobby: There probably are, but I can't remember any of them now. He seemed a nice chap. Like I said, I thought he was a bit shy. He must be so used to people trying to bother him. I'm not surprised that he's not ebullient.

Many thanks to Bobby for taking the time to talk! Find out more about him and his many projects at his website. Here’s the full show:

1987-10-14, Wembley Arena, London, UK

Find the index to all shows covered so far in this newsletter here.

Bloomsbury | Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes and Noble | Bookshop

*** More info on the book here… ***