Jon Wurster Stole Bob Dylan's Kleenex

The drummer talks about opening for Bob in '91 and other Dylan shows he's seen

Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan shows of yesteryear. Free subscribers get one or two posts a month, paid subscribers get several times that (and can even assign me a show to tackle). If you found this article online or someone forwarded you the email, subscribe here:

To borrow a hashtag he uses on Instagram, Jon Wurster’s Wikipedia page offers some real #rocknrollweirdness.

For indie rock fans, Wurster’s best known as the longtime drummer for Superchunk, the Mountain Goats, and Bob Mould. For comedy fans, he’s best known for The Best Show as a man-of-many-characters alongside Tom Scharpling (three words: Philly. Boy. Roy.) But Wikipedia delivers so many more strange claims to fame. For instance:

Wikipedia knows a lot about Jon Wurster. But you know what it didn’t know? That, before he was indie-rock-slash-alt-comedy-famous, he once opened a show for Bob Dylan.

And stole his Kleenex.

In fact, Wurster’s a huge Dylan fan, as well as an early subscriber to this newsletter (thanks Jon). So when I came up with the idea of having prominent musicians talk about Dylan shows they’ve seen, he was the first person I thought of. I didn’t even know yet that, at one of those shows, his band was on the bill.

We talked about that 1991 show his pre-Superchunk band The Carneys played with Bob, other Dylan shows he’s seen, his professional opinion on Never Ending Tour drummers, and a whole lot more. In fact, at a certain point it ceased really being an interview and just turned into two people shooting the shit about Bob.

Jon’s next album with the Mountain Goats, Dark in Here, comes out June 25 and can be preordered at Bandcamp or Merge Records. The Best Show airs every Tuesday night at thebestshow.net. And if you don’t already follow him on Twitter and Instagram, you’re really missing out. Now, onto our conversation…

So how'd you end up on stage in '91 opening for Dylan?

Well, a little backstory about my entrée into the music of Bob Dylan. It's kind of funny.

I grew up in the farmlands of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It was a Mennonite community, which is like a step hipper than Amish. I didn't come from a very musical family. Nobody played any instruments and we didn't have many records. The only real exposure to music I had was whatever was on AM radio at the time, early to mid-'70s. No exposure to Bob Dylan. It was a name I'd heard.

Then when I got to seventh grade, I had this pretty cool English teacher named Mrs. Byrnd, and she had a little library of paperback books in the back of the room. One was this book from the ‘60s, which [since] I've researched and found out was probably Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story. I loved music and was getting into rock and roll, so I thought, "Well, I got to read this book." I borrowed this book and I would read it and just imagine what he sounded like. I still had never heard his music.

Also around this time, I found a $5 Bob Dylan t-shirt in a used bin in some store. It was a multicolor drawing of him, like super cheap, something you would find at the boardwalk in New Jersey. I just thought, "Oh, it'll be so cool to have this." I wore it to a little league game, and the looks I got were something else. It was so not what kids were into. I wasn't really into him. I still didn't know what his music was.

By this point, I had a drum kit. I wasn't talented, but I was able to bang out a little rhythm. I had a trumpet too and I would make these little boombox recordings where you record the drums on one boombox and then you record your trumpet on the other one and you mix them together on a third one. Super crude overdubbing. Sounded awful.

At this point, I ordered Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits on cassette from the Columbia House Music Club. It arrives finally. First song on it is “Rainy Day Women.” Those first five seconds sounded exactly like my recordings of the trumpet and the drums! I was so shocked I turned it off. I thought somebody had gained access to my tape.

[Eventually] I listened to the whole tape many times and grew to love the music. The next album of his I got, I was on a road trip with my mother and I needed a Bob Dylan album. At Budokan had just come out; she got it for me. It had all the songs you want to hear, but they're all really different versions. For the longest time, I thought that's what his music was like. "Oh yes, he's this guy that plays with this large ensemble with strings and backup singers."

It's funny you say that. One of my first Dylan albums was Budokan too. In my case, this was later and it was because it was cheap for two CDs. Cheap probably because no one else wanted it. So I figured it was a good bargain. More songs per dollar.

I love it. It's not on the record, but they would finish with “Changing of the Guards” and it's like a punk song almost. I love that, where it's just like super rocking and he does his little bow. It's so brilliant. What a wild era that was.

I didn't really buy many of his records after that. I definitely watched him on Letterman that night [with the Plugz in 1984]. It was almost like the Minutemen, just fender amps up to 11 on the treble. I was very into that sort of stuff then. It was such an oddly cool sound to hear on TV.

Then in January of '86, I end up going down to North Carolina to audition for this band called The Right Profile. By this point, I'm fully into Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, hardcore punk. I wasn't really that into roots rock at this point, but I go and I audition. For some reason, they end up hiring me. I guess they saw that I was young enough to be molded. I was 19.

These guys were a few years older than me. They were super into Dylan, but like current Dylan, which I couldn't fathom. We're talking Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded. I just couldn't wrap my head around it at all. But one of them had Biograph, which had just come out, and that was where I really connected. It has a great “Isis” from Montreal and the “Caribbean Wind” outtake. That's when I really started getting into Dylan and really appreciating what he was all about.

Then this band gets signed. We got signed to Arista Records in May or June of '86 by Clive Davis, which was just insane.

Things went downhill pretty quickly after that. Steve [Dubner] ended up leaving the band. We got halfway into a record with Jim Dickinson at Ardent in Memphis in the summer of '87 and ended up getting dropped. We kept going though. We changed our name to The Carneys.

Now it's the Spring of '91. We got this call about opening for Bob Dylan at this brand new venue in Winston-Salem called the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. That's a mouthful. The first event in this giant steel building. Horrible for concerts. I'm sure it sounded just terrible.

My memory of that night is a bit hazy. We didn't have much if any interaction with the band. This would've been John Jackson, Tony [Garnier], and Ian Wallace. I do remember César [Diaz] soundchecking in Bob's place. He played guitar and he sang. That was just exciting to watch. A pro band - what do they do, how do they soundcheck. Does the star soundcheck? No, he doesn't.

I set my drums up right in front of Ian's drum riser. I looked back and Bob's little station is right there on the front of the drum riser, right behind my drum seat. I'm a foot away from his harmonicas. I couldn't believe it. He had a tissue box. I took a tissue. For decades, this tissue was in my copy of Infidels. That was the big souvenir of that night, this tissue. It was very exciting.

Probably good you restrained yourself from taking one of the harmonicas.

Can you imagine? You know there’s probably some local opener who did that.

I don't remember much about our actual show, although [frontman Jeff Foster] told me this, which I was unaware of: Our friend, who was the local rock critic at the Winston-Salem Journal, saw a hooded figure on the side of the stage watching us for a couple of moments. That brings me great pleasure, that it's possible that Bob saw us play for a couple of seconds before wandering backstage. I didn't see it, but that's my story from here on out, that he watched us.

I did watch all of his show from an elevated view off to the side of the stage. That was so cool. It was a period for him that is not that well remembered, probably rightfully so. Under the Red Sky was out at this point, I assume. It might've come out a month or so before. Does that sound right?

Yeah, it came out the end of the previous year.

When was the Grammys? That was around the same time, right?

February, a couple of months before this show.

Okay. He was definitely in that form. He seemed like he was probably in his cups. He had some of that alcohol weight to his face.

At some point, somebody got onstage and did a stage dive. I remember him really liking that. That's what I love about him, that he seems to love these weird moments like this. That's what he seems to live for. Like Live Aid. Only he could get up there in front of the largest audience in history and do what he did.

With a couple of Rolling Stones, no less.

Yes! It was a trainwreck, but do you expect anything less from him in that circumstance? It wouldn't be him if it went off without a hitch. So he seemed to really like this weird stage invasion.

I remember he did this really great version of “Man in a Long Black Coat.” There was some green dramatic light effect that was really cool. He opened with that fabulous version of “New Morning.” I remember being very impressed by that. The band was really good.

I'm trying to remember what else about it. There was a good “Under the Red Sky” that night. We didn't get “Handy Dandy.” Those are my two faves on that record, “Handy Dandy” and the title track. What a weird record.

It seemed decades later that the story behind those songs finally came out, where they were nursery rhymes for his then-unknown daughter. I feel like if that had been known at the time, that album would've been better received. What do you think?

I think so. I was reading about Trans, the Neil Young electronic album that everyone hated, that it turned out was for his son who couldn't communicate. Neil was trying to communicate through electronics with him. But he didn't say that at the time, so everyone just ripped on the album sounding like crap.

That's really interesting. Oh my God, that's crazy.

That's pretty much my memory of that night. It was our last big show too. I ended up joining Superchunk about six months later. My first trip to London with Superchunk. I went straight to the Camden Market to find a copy of a “New Morning” version from that tour.

Were you enough of a fan at this show in '91 that you're recognizing the songs even when they sound totally different?

I'm sure it took a while. I'm sure I didn't know “Seeing the Real You.” That's a book, have you read that?

No, I think I own it, but haven’t read it.

It's trashy, but I'll read anything about him on a personal level because he's so fascinating. I'll buy the Louis Kemp book the day it comes out. Victor's book. I just love that sort of stuff. The stories of him as a human are the ones that I'm really interested in.

That's probably actually the area I've read the fewest books about. For the purposes of my newsletter, it's not really bio-focused. When I'm reading stuff for research, it's more about the work.

It's tough because it's a guy's personal life. How much should we know? This is a guy who changes the air of every room he walks into since he was in his early 20s. It's just an insane life. It's endlessly fascinating to me. There's him and then there's everybody else, I think.

Finish up the Camden Market story. You go there looking for “New Morning,” what happens?

The guy has this wall of bootleg tapes, terrible quality. I went straight to this tape I found. I can't remember what the show was. It was the first song in the set. I just remember the quality of the tape being so poor that I just thought, "You know, I'll never listen to this." I had to wait a long time to hear it again. You and I were talking about the version you sent me, somewhere in Germany--

Stuttgart. That's famous, it's so bad.

That's what I love about him though. There's no way he's not fucking with us by going through each of these harmonicas and blowing this horrible sound. It's obviously the wrong key. Next one, wrong key. Just stumbling around.

I think in some way, his whole life has been this great piece of performance art. He has the balls to do that in front of-- there were probably 5,000 people there that night. To come out and do the “Is this the right harmonica…?” bullshit for that long is just so him. I mean this in the best way possible.

I don't think I saw him again until maybe 2003. The band was great, the show was great, [but] I didn't love it for some reason. On the way out, my ex and I got caught up in his exit. We got in between the two buses somehow. We had this police escort.

Speaking of my ex, Angie, she grew up in Hibbing. She took me out there at least three or four times in the '90s and the early 2000s. We went up for this thing they had called Dylan Days, which is in May. There's this restaurant called Zimmy's. They had an exhibit in the library. It's just so fun that this little town in the middle of nowhere spawned and celebrates this guy. [Angie] had the same Driver's Ed teacher that he had, isn't that amazing? I talked to her the other day just to get her memories of this, and she said, "He would talk about not driving when you have too many Kool-Aids." I wonder if he ever said that to Dylan.

It's funny, you can really feel his presence there. You do pick up on this thing where, "Oh yes, you would have to get out of here to make it." I just love stories like that where someone comes from nothing and ends up changing the world. He's, in my eyes, one of the greatest examples of that.

Going back a minute, do you remember what about the 2003 show didn't grab you? A lot of people would say 2003 was a million times better than 1991.

Oh, it was. I think maybe I still wasn't used to the croak.

I didn't see him again until 2018. I saw him at this cool theater in Durham, North Carolina, and it was incredible. It was so good. To me, it just seemed like he grew into what he always wanted to be. He seems to love this old-world thing and presentation.

When the next round of dates were announced, I just thought, "I got to see as many of these as I can." I found a little block of shows between Mountain Goats and Superchunk tours, and I went to see him in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Virginia.

Are we talking 2019 now?

Yes, 2019, November. Matt [Chamberlain] was on drums, and it was just great. Every show was identical, but it didn't matter. I just felt like, I need to see him as many times as I can before it's over. Even though it was the same set every night, you could tell that it was different. For any musician, even if you're doing the same set every night, it is always different. There are little things that factor in, whether it's the audience or something going on with a band member. You could tell.

There was one show where I snuck up into the second level on the side of the stage so I could really see what his hands were doing, and the little glances, and how Matt was interacting with Tony. I just loved it. I'll watch the band almost as much as I watch him because they're so good, and they play with such sympathy. I could watch them all night.

Did you ever interact with Matt in your own world? I know he's recorded and toured with everyone.

It's funny, I texted him the other week when it was the 25th anniversary of “One Headlight,” which he played on. The great story of that song is that there's no cymbals on it. There's a high hat, but no crashes. So I asked him about that and he was very kind to answer my questions.

You say you listen to all the band, are you especially listening to the drummer? Is there a part of your brain that's like, "I would have done this"?

No, the opposite, where I was like, "Oh, my God. I can't believe he did that." That show that got me hooked in 2018, George [Receli] was the drummer. I watched him most of the night because he was just so good. That's the kind of playing I aspire to. I got real good at rock and roll drumming with Bob Mould and Superchunk and stuff, but I've always admired those people that can really have a sparkly soft-touch with brushes and things. I think George is a real master of that.

David Kemper is incredible. Matt was amazing. The shows I saw each time brought something different to it. Winston Watson was such an interesting choice. My understanding of him is that he was in these new wave, almost new romantic bands in Arizona. He was friends with Charlie [Quintana], and that's how he got into the band. He was a real unknown quantity. He was there for a long time in a very crucial period. MTV Unplugged and that whole scene.

George Receli was always my favorite band member. To what you were saying, I realized that, if for some reason a song wasn't clicking or I'd seen it a million times, I could just focus on what he's doing. It'll always be interesting. I would think, "All right, I'm a little bored, let's listen to George and ignore everyone else." Always interesting.

Yes. He has it. I don't know what the reason was for him leaving. Do you know?

The rumor was some sort of health thing, but as is often the case with Dylan's world, nothing definitive.

Right. What a wild scene that must be. I always wonder, how much interaction do the guys in the band who aren't Tony have with him?

I just interviewed Larry Campbell. Larry actually said that during his era, they were doing hour or two-hour soundchecks with Bob. I didn't know there was even that much interaction other than the 90 minutes they're performing.

Yes, same. I don't know exactly when it was where he was basically auditioning guys at shows? That's a real live nightmare for so many people: “I'm finally getting to play with the greatest songwriter of all time, but it's in front of 3,000 people and I don't know how the songs go.” I'm sure they're just watching Tony to see where his hands are going to go and Tony's watching Bob to see where his hands are going to go. It’s a crazy situation.

Larry said there were plenty of rehearsals, but then he's on stage for the first night and he's like, "Two-thirds of the songs I'd never played before, even though we had a week of rehearsals."

It's like the thing was the Plugz [on Letterman] where they rehearse all these songs, and the first one was completely unknown to them. “Don't Start Me Talkin’.” “Follow me, boys, it’s not one of the 52 songs we were rehearsed for this.” Insanity.

Whenever I listen to his music, I'm always impressed by his melodic hooks. That's something that never really gets talked about with him. There's always something super catchy about it. These basic hooks in “Sweetheart Like You” or “Most Likely You Go Your Way” or even “Spanish Harlem Incident,” there are these ascending and descending chordal things that happened that just take it to almost a pop level that most of his contemporaries don't really approach. I've always thought that's very interesting about him, his ability to write a genuine pop song, even though it's these otherworldly lyrics happening at the same time

Yeah, I feel I'm one of the weird Dylan superfans who spends a lot of time thinking about him and basically ignores the lyrics. I mean, nothing against them, I just don’t spend much time analyzing them. I don't even know them in some cases. The music, the sound, the melody, the performance, all that is way more why I'm into Bob Dylan's than why so many other people are, which is lyrics.

That's so nice to hear. Exactly the same. It's just how it all fits together.

Every now and then, “Like a Rolling Stone” will come up on shuffle. Talk about a performance. There are at least four times in that song where he's really ham-fisted on the guitar, like a wrong note or he's out of time a little bit on his strumming, but who cares? Because it's him and because magic happened in that room, you don't even really notice these fuckups. That adds to the charm of it. I just love that about him. It's all about a performance. It's not about getting it perfect.

Speaking of “Changing of the Guards,” which you mentioned earlier, I love the fact that you can hear that the backing singers were not told the lyrics in advance. Sometimes one of them says something wrong or they just skip one if they didn't hear what he said.

That's so great. Like on that same tip, “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” where you can tell at the end of the second-last verse, Kenny [Buttrey, drummer] thinks the song is over. There's something he does that signals that he's about to go into the very ending of the song. Then it's clear he realizes there is one more verse to go. To a drummer, you can totally hear it. And it stayed because the take was so good. It's worth sacrificing whatever kind of flub you might have had because the overall package is so good.

You mentioned a lot of the Dylan drummers. Are there any particular that you would say, "This person influenced my own playing"?

Yes, all of them. Probably Kenny Buttrey the most, just because with The Mountain Goats, we've gotten to do a lot of recording recently at these old famous studios. I'll just pretend I'm him. I feel I channel George a lot, or I try to. There's songs that require a really steady power beat where I'll think of Winston Watson. They all end up getting in there.

I watched the first two of those Jordan Lake things you guys did. It did feel, now that you say it, a little George Receli. Maybe not as hard as you might play with Superchunk. A little jazzier, a little more subtle.

I like drummers who seem like they float. George is a great example of that. Or Thomas Wydler, who has been the drummer for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds forever. They're floating above it in a way. I really love that. That's the direction I'd love to pursue even further in my own drumming.

Have you ever played on a Dylan cover?

It's funny you say that, because I was thinking of this the other day. Do you remember the band Firehose? It was Mike Watt and George Hurley from the Minutemen. This fan of theirs named Ed Crawford went out to San Pedro and ended up being in this new band that Mike and George had called Firehose.

Fast forward many years, maybe 1995 or so, Ed ends up moving to Chapel Hill. We were roommates for a while and we had a band together called Grand National. We did a straightforward version of “Sweetheart Like You.” Five or six months ago, I heard these rehearsal tapes that The Plugz did with Dylan where they do a revved-up version of “Sweetheart Like You” and it's identical to what we were doing. Is that crazy?

I'm always trying to get a band I play in to do “Watered-Down Love,” but no one ever wants to do it. I love that one.

That is a very deep-cut choice. What about that song jumps out at you?

We were talking about before that pop hook descending/ascending thing. It’s all over that. I just love how it all sounds. My understanding is the album [Shot of Love] is the rough mixes. It sounds like a band playing without a lot of magic sprinkling going on over top.

My favorite version of that song is the live version on Trouble No More from London. That's so good. Where he does the intro that he was doing, "You don't want a love that's pure...you want...a drown love...you want a...watered-down love." And then they kick in. I don't know, it feels like that's a performance too, the intro, you know what I mean? The pauses make it really funny.

I gather it's been a hard sell to get anyone to cover that song.

Well, no one's heard of it, that's the thing.

Thanks to Jon for taking the time to chat! Pre-order the Mountain Goats’ new album ‘Dark in Here’ and listen to The Best Show every Tuesday night.

Once you’re done with that, download the shows Jon attended, starting with the one he opened, below. (There’s no circulating tape of his first 2019 show, outside Pittsburgh.)

1991-05-04, Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Annex, Winston-Salem, NC

2003-05-13, Amphitheatre at Regency Park, Cary, NC

2018-11-02, DPAC, Durham, NC

2019-11-12, UMBC Event Center, Baltimore, MD

2019-11-13, Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA

ICYMI