Plugz Bassist Talks Backing Bob Dylan in Raucous Letterman Performance
Months of rehearsals led to one of the most unusual, and memorable, performances of Dylan's career
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan concerts throughout history. Some installments are free, some for paid subscribers only. Sign up here:
On today’s date in 1984, Bob Dylan gave one of the most memorable performances of his career. He appeared on David Letterman’s fairly-new late night TV show backed by a fairly-new band: The Plugz. It would be the only time he’d play with this young Latino punk group – publicly, at least. They had been quietly rehearsing for months at Dylan’s Malibu house. All for three songs on national TV: the Sonny Boy Williamson blues tune “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” (the only time Bob’s ever played that one) followed by two cuts from his recently-released Infidels: “License to Kill” and “Jokerman.”
It’s about as direct an intersection as Bob ever had with punk rock. The sound was raw and ragged, in contrast to the far slicker Infidels. Very ragged, in the case of “Jokerman,” which featured an unplanned instrumental interlude while Bob fumbled around finding the right harmonica.
To this day, this Letterman appearance is remembered by fans as a classic. One performance from the show, “License to Kill,” was included on the recent Springtime in New York box set. There’s also a little Plugz display at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. An impressive legacy for just three songs.
The band technically comprised just two of The Plugz – bassist Tony Marsico and drummer Charlie Quintana – alongside their friend JJ Holiday on guitar. I called Marsico up last week to find out how it all went down.
How did you first get connected to Dylan? Do you even know how he discovered or heard you?
Our drummer Charlie's girlfriend, Vanilla, was doing secretarial work for a guy named Gary Shafner who was working for Dylan. Word was out that Dylan needed some musicians for his “Sweetheart Like You” video. So Vanilla said, “You know, my boyfriend's a drummer.” They pieced together the band.
You’re not involved yet right? They're not asking for a bass player for the video?
No. It was a good-looking band they put together. They got a guy that looked really cool with long dreads, Carla Olson from the Textones with long blonde hair, and Charlie had his look. But I was on the outside. I was just hearing the stories from Charlie once in a while.
So how do you get on the inside?
Charlie brought all different musicians up there to jam with Bob.
Where is “there”?
Malibu, at Bob's house. He had a rehearsal studio on his grounds at Point Dume.
Charlie would go up there and bring different units. Different bass players, different guitar players. It was kind of odd how I didn't go from the beginning, but whatever, everybody was busy doing their own thing at the time. I was just happy that Charlie was going up there and doing stuff.
Then one day Charlie said, "Hey, you should come up.” So we went up there the first time and I guess it clicked.
By the time you were there, was anyone still auditioning or showing up? or were you kind of the last piece of the puzzle?
Once I went up, it was solidified. Not because I'm so great. Maybe Bob just got sick of fucking auditioning people.
You must have been good if he'd been rejecting bassists left and right.
It's not so much that I was good, it's just I was familiar. Charlie and I had played together for a couple years. You get a certain feel with a rhythm section that's used to playing with one another. Me and Charlie had been playing together already for a solid two years, so we were pretty locked in. Bob liked it.
Were the other Plugz ever miffed that they were not in the mix on this stuff?
Steven Hufsteter did go up to the house to play, but it didn't stick with Bob.
That first day, what happens when you arrive?
The first time I saw him, he came walking up through the weeds on his property with his dog and a walking stick. Like, holy shit, that's Bob Dylan. Just like you see him on the records, you know, it's the same guy.
So the first time you meet him is a little intimidating, but it went away super fast, I mean, we were kinda coming from a whole different place. We were pretty young, early 20s. As fascinated as we were that it was Bob Dylan, it wasn't like we were playing with The Clash or somebody who we really were into at the time.
Things kind of clicked, and we just kept getting invited back. We’d get a call: “Come up Wednesday,” “Come up Thursday.” Some of them would go all day, like eight hours with lunch and coffee breaks in between.
A tape has leaked from one of these jam sessions. The audio quality is rough, but some parts are still cool to listen to. Like this cover they worked on quite a bit of Hank Williams’ “Lost on the River,” a song Bob’s never played publicly (though many years earlier he borrowed the title for his own composition called "Lost on the River #12," which was put to music by Elvis Costello in 2014):
Did you have a sense early on of what the point of all this was? He's putting together a band to tour, he's thinking of a record…
No. We were told he just wanted to jam with some younger guys. It was never like he's putting together a band for a tour or an album. We didn't think much of it really at the time.
The word we're using is “jamming,” but can you talk about what specifically that means? What are you actually doing for eight hours a day?
We wouldn't really talk about what we were doing. We would just we go in the room. Bob would take out the guitar and just start strumming a couple chords. We all just fall in and jam on something.
Is he singing or is this mostly instrumental?
It was mostly instrumental, though he would mumble under stuff. Not really sing words.
Some of these are songs, some are things I think he's working on in his head. We recognize a few of the older songs, but it was a lot of just getting a groove and a vibe.
So we would just play on a song for 15, 20 minutes, looking out over the Pacific. It was a whole different experience in what we were used to. We didn't do that in our punk bands, where the songs were two minutes long.
Is it musically satisfying, or are you looking at your watch by minute 15 of the same song?
Totally satisfying. Are you kidding? There was none of that “we're working” vibe. We're making music and it feels good.
So how long does this go on?
It went on and off for over a year, broken up into different sections. You know, just whenever they'd call. We were still doing Plugz gigs, so a lot of times we’d be kind of burnt out from the night before. We took a break for the holidays [at the end of 1983], and we thought that was it, then we got called back for more.
And you're not getting impatient at some point, like what are we doing here?
You got to realize we're kids with no money. So we're just like, he's paying us to come up there, we're working for Dylan and getting to play music. So yeah, we always loved going up there because it was so different from what we're used to. We're used to playing in the shittiest of rehearsal rooms. To go up there and play in this beautiful rehearsal house overlooking the ocean, it was another world. We were like, how the hell did we go from that to this?
Talk me through this cheat sheet. That’s such a fun artifact. What was the context in which you're jotting down all these notes and song titles and stuff?
That's like a second generation cheat sheet. The first would just be a quick scribble. When we were starting jams, I would stop playing and jot stuff down, because we didn't really talk. I’d make notes what songs were like, just to refresh my memory of the feel of the song. I haven't looked at that in a long time, but I did look when you sent it to me and I see the word “Stones” on there, to remind me it sounded like the Rolling Stones.
And then after a bunch of times, I started putting two and two together and putting some titles to these songs. So I guess that was the master cheat sheet you sent me. Some of the song titles are still really wrong I think. I just tried to piece it all together so I'd have a master list of what we were doing.
And that was just a fraction of it really. 'Cause a lot of times we would jam on songs that would definitely have no titles. Just some kind of weird jams, you know?
Here’s one of those title-less weird jams:
But that's my scribbling. It only makes sense to me, because I don't write music per se. So when you see music notes and stuff, it's all totally wrong and embarrassing. If any musician would look at that, they’d go, "What the hell is this?” It’s just chicken scratch, but it was enough to trigger something when we would start a song. I would look at it and go "okay it's that song.”
It's hard for me to imagine Bob Dylan doing "Gimme Some Lovin'"
I know, it's crazy right? He loved playing that one too. He was rocking out.
And it's not just the four of you, I gather. Clydie King [Dylan’s regular backing singer and duet partner then] is there at least part of the time.
Oh yeah, Clydie showed up a lot. Having her around was mind-blowing. She would just sing along with us. What a sound. They had quite a connection together. You could see the musical history between them.
You can hear Clydie on this bit of rehearsal tape, playing what Bob dubs the “Riff Song.” Perhaps a new composition he was working on; the only words appear to be an enthusiastically belted “whoa-oh-oh.” At the end of the clip, you can hear him instruct someone (one of the band members, I’m guessing) to go listen to ‘Shot of Love.’ He talks about different versions of “Heart of Mine” they recorded, saying he knows he didn’t choose the best version for the album, he just wanted to use the one Ringo played on.
You look at this cheat sheet, and maybe a third or a quarter of the songs are his, and they're all fairly obscure. "Heart of Mine,” “Watered Down Love,” “Saved.” Do you know any of these songs?
No, I didn't recognize any of them.
Did you ever do like any of the famous ones you might have known?
No, we never did the obvious ones, ever. It was always obscure stuff. Since I wasn't a fan at the time, I didn't know what was a Dylan song and what wasn't, so I would just write titles down. If it appears on those cheat sheets that I didn't know much about Dylan, it’s true, I didn't.
Once during rehearsals the cops showed up right?
The neighbors used to complain. As far away as the houses were next to Bob — which was quite far, the property was pretty large — sound travels. We played loud. We’d been told before to turn it down.
That one day [when the cops came], Bob hightailed it into the back room. He just said, “Tell them you’re playing with Waylon Jennings.”
Yeah, we did. Charlie went out and said it, but they know it's Bob Dylan. You could see them all trying to peek in the door. I think they were just there to see Bob, not really scold him so much.
Amazingly, you can hear this all happening on the tape:
And I gather both you and Dylan to some degree are taping these rehearsals. How is that working?
I always used to bring a boombox with me to every Plugz rehearsals, and later in The Cruzados when we changed our name. I liked to record stuff and go home and listen, see what works and what doesn't. People said, “Bob let you tape stuff?” I was so young and naive, I didn't think to ask. He probably really didn't want me recording this stuff, but I never thought twice about it.
Bob had this big reel-to-reel tape machine. He liked to record the stuff and listen to it later too, but Bob didn't know how to work the reel-to-reel. Every time he tried to use it, the reels would just go flying and spinning. It was a clusterfuck. So it came to him asking me, “Hey Tony, did you get that song on tape?” It was just me pushing the buttons randomly. I'd push them in the middle of songs.
So would you copy tapes for him?
No, we never really sat around listening to anything, honestly. I would listen back at home to try put a title on something if it was possible, just so I wouldn't come in half-assed. I'd know what songs are what.
There's one of these tapes that circulates. Is that one of yours?
That's one my cassette tapes. They sound terrible. It was a boombox, you know. It wasn't set up for sound. It was set up just so I could learn some songs.
You probably had a lot of cassettes by the end. Did you hang on to the others?
Unfortunately I don't have any of them anymore. The disappeared over the years. I don't really save much stuff anymore. When the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa opened this May, they asked me if I had any my cassette tapes for the museum. I said I don't.
One more enjoyable cut from the rehearsal tape, a cover of “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me).” It’s one of Tony’s favorite tunes they worked on. Dylan performed it a few times later on in the ‘80s:
How are you spending the downtime at Dylan’s place when you're not playing music?
JJ, our guitar player, he would make the coffee all the time. Bob loved JJ’s coffee. We’d just sit around and bullshit. Talk about what was going on in the news at the time. We talked about music a little bit. MTV was hot at the time; Bob was asking questions about it. It's like your buddies do when you're sitting around at rehearsal.
So, how does this transition from an amorphous year of on-and-off jamming into knowing that you're going to be playing on Letterman's show?
Bob had mentioned, "Hey, we might go to Hawaii and play something for a record convention.” That never happened. And then one day he came in and asked us, “Did you ever hear of David Letterman?” I don't think he knew about him at the time. It was like MTV; he was real new.
So we're like, “Hell yeah, we know that show.” I thought he was the funniest comedian. That show was really wacky back when it first came on. So he asked us if we want to go to New York and do the show.
So what happens next?
We got together for a couple hours in New York the day before the show, just to jam a little. Bob stopped in a little bit, but we pretty much went cold to Letterman. We never knew until the minute we walked out on stage which songs we were gonna play.
So if it sounds rough and ready, scattered and crude– I try not to read stuff, but over the years you hear, “Oh those guys sucked.” “That was really crude.” Well yeah, it was. We didn't really rehearse. We never did like other bands do, go rehearse your set. It's not like that with Bob. We just came out jamming in a room and next thing you know, we're on TV playing these songs, not knowing what key the songs are in, not knowing the songs really, and then Bob not telling us anything until like about ten seconds before we walked out on stage.
For what it's worth my sense is that such criticism would be a minority opinion in the Dylan fan world. The only thing I see that's negative is people wish that there had been more.
Well, that's nice to hear. After the show was over, we weren't so sure. It was hard to watch and even listen to it, because it's pretty raw. It’s not a polished show by any means.
The only part that sounds really bad is not because of any of you. It's the harmonica 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 you'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.
One thing I'd never noticed until rewatching it last night is how on the previous song, “License to Kill,” there's no one-two-three-four count. Dylan just starts singing, and the band is not even playing yet. Then halfway through the first line you stagger in.
It's very hard to come into a song without a count. Advice to young musicians: Watch the singer at all times. Don't take your eye off him. Especially if you're playing in front of millions of people on TV. You don't want to screw up too bad.
We later found out he's kind of notorious for keeping things loose, but at the time we didn't know that. It’s just get up there and play and hope you get through it.
It's funny that it was still so loose, because you guys have had way more rehearsal than a lot of bands would have. You've been woodshedding for months.
Yeah, but very informal. I mean, had we known what songs we were going to do it, we could have gotten it a lot tighter and more focused. Had he said, “Why don't you guys focus on these five songs and learn these really good?” But it was never like that.
We didn't know what we were going to play. If it sounds raw, that's why it's raw. I figured we'd play at least one from Infidels, but when we were walking out on stage, he just said, “Sonny Boy in E.” It was like, oh, shit, here we go.
And that's the first song too, which is funny because he's ostensibly there to be pushing this record. Dave has just held up the cover of Infidels, and then Bob does an old Sonny Boy Williamson song.
I never thought about that. It’s like, “Aren't you here to promote your record?” Weird.
There's a video out there from the show soundcheck. Most of the tunes are totally different. You do "My Guy," you do "Treat Her Right.”
I know, what the hell? He was real loose at soundcheck. He was just having fun.
Paul Shaffer tried to jam along with us at soundcheck. It didn't go well for Paul. Bob told Bill Graham, “Lose the clown on the keyboard.”
You know, I felt bad. He did get axed from that gig, but I read about a year ago, there was some list of Paul Shaffer’s favorite performances, and the Dylan one was his favorite.
Did you have any interaction with Dave while you were there?
No, he was surly from the get-go. I've been on a lot of TV shows. He's one of my least favorite guys to be around.
Oh wait, I did have one interaction with Dave. This was before I was on Letterman. I was waiting on him in a store and he yelled at me. So that was my initial meeting with Dave, as an unsatisfied customer.
Yelled at you about what?
I was working in an art store. Something wasn't framed right or something, and he started going off and being a jerk. Then when he got kind of semi-famous, he was on daytime TV, I was like, “Oh, that's that guy that reamed me at the store the other day.” Before you know it, I'm on a show. I did think he was funny, but he was not the friendliest guy to bands. He was probably excited Bob was on there, but he didn't really give a shit about us. He looked at us like we were threatening to him or something, out of corner of his eye.
We did have interaction with the other guest. We hung out in the green room with Liberace which was a real treat.
What do you talk about with Liberace in the green room?
Not much, other than to tell him, “You're one of my mom's favorites.” What am I gonna say to Liberace? I asked for an autograph and he was out of pictures, so he said, "You're definitely going to get one.” Sure enough, it came in the mail a couple weeks later.
He was with his boyfriend at the time, the guy who was the infamous boyfriend in the Liberace movie. He wore a full length fur down to the ground.
It was a very surreal evening. Liberace did a cooking segment, and then we played with Dylan. Like a weird fucking dream.
So what happens right after? You finish “Jokerman” on a weird note with the harmonica, you walk off, how does the evening end?
It's kind of a blur at this point. I think we went out to a bar, just me and the band. Dylan split. He went to a Knicks game.
I'm not sure of the chronology here, but your one other bit of overlap is there’s a Cruzados song called “Rising Sun” that Dylan plays harmonica on. Is that later?
Yeah, maybe six months or so.
At the time when we were with Dylan, we were called The Plugz. But the music was changing, so not much after Letterman we changed our name to The Cruzados. We got signed to some subsidiary of EMI Records and they were gonna put out a record we recorded in West Hollywood at Cherokee Studios. Which never came out, by the way; the subsidiary folded. But we asked Bob to come down and play on this song "Rising Sun.” It was actually one of my songs early on called “Some Kind of Bad;” we'd rewritten it with all four members. It was one of our real raucous, fun songs that we liked to play.
So we asked him to come down if he wanted to blow some harmonica on it. He just dropped into Cherokee Studios one afternoon, you know. It wasn't a long session. He came in, he blew some harmonica, we said hello and thanked him.
Are you all playing together or do you have the track and he's overdubbing it?
He just overdubbed to the track. He did a bunch of takes. Just kind of let the tape roll, the way he does. It was kind of loosey-goosey.
It never came out, but things work out for a reason. Later, we re-recorded that whole record and some other songs for Arista. We didn't have Bob, but we had Paul Butterfield playing harmonica on that version.
I haven't seen Bob since.
Was there any disappointment when you do these three songs on TV and then don't get another call? All those months leading up to Letterman, than nothing after except that one harmonica guest spot.
Well, there was some disappointment, but not really because we had a lot of really good offers coming in at the time, and we were really excited. We got signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis. David Byrne wanted to work with us. He brought us a cassette one day; he wanted us to do one of his songs. We didn't do it at the time, but Tito from our band would record that song for his movie True Stories later on.
So it wasn't like we didn't have anything else going on to fill the void of “damn, we didn't get to go to Europe.” I thought about it for a second maybe, like it would be nice to go to Europe [for the summer 1984 tour that became Real Live], but I was so excited about putting out our debut album on Arista. It was kind of good the way it all worked out. Our buddy Gregg Sutton got the bass gig on the tour.
A few years ago someone covered the entire Infidels album in the style of the Plugz. Did you hear that?
I did. I'm fascinated how someone has so much time on their hands. It was really weird, but I was very impressed by it. I thought it was us, but it sounded way better than us. It was as if we had practiced. [laughs]
Thanks Tony! As he noted, The Plugz became The Cruzados – and The Cruzados are back. The band kicks off an extensive European tour on April 27. They also released their first album in over thirty years, She’s Automatic, in 2022 and have another EP on the way. Find out more at thecruzados.net. Tony also has a book out called, appropriately enough, Late Nights with Bob Dylan.
PS. If you liked this interview, I should mention I have an entire book of interviews I’ve done with Dylan bandmembers coming out this summer. More info and preorder here.
Want more interviews and essays about notable Bob Dylan performances? Subscribe to get ‘em sent straight to your inbox!
That was fantastic. Thanks for putting this together. When the Bootleg session came out I could stop listening to License to Kill and then the YouTube clips were on repeat too. Great to get the inside story. Nice work.
Where did guitarist JJ come from if he wasn't a member of the Plugz?
Interesting to see that between soundcheck and show Bob and JJ switched instruments...