Rob Stoner's Guide to Guam

1975-11-09, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH

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L-R: Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Rob Stoner, Steve Soles, Bob Neuwirth, Ronee Blakely

Listening to all these Rolling Thunder shows, it struck me just how good the backing band is. Even if you took Dylan himself out of the equation, these would have been great shows. Whether backing Baez, Ramblin’ Jack, Joni, or each other, this large and ramshackle group delivers. Bob Neuwirth christened them Guam, since he thought it evoked a tropical paradise.

So I wanted to give Guam their due, and who better to offer inside scoop than the bandleader himself, bassist Rob Stoner? I called him up to get his thoughts on every band member, as well as a few of the other tour principles: Joan, Joni, Jack, etc. (If you missed our conversation from earlier this year with more of the basics - how he met Bob, etc - catch up here).

Here’s what I’m calling Rob Stoner’s Guide to Guam:

Joan Baez

She's a goddess, man. Really, she was such a pro, a pleasure to work with. Loose, a great sense of humor, a great musician. She was able to improvise and change stuff up and come up with interesting ideas. It was just great working with such a consummate professional who was a true star.

It's interesting how, culturally, they tried to recreate the whole 1960s thing, like Bob-back-to-his-roots, by the people he was associated with early in his career like Ramblin' Jack, and Joan. They were trying to play up that [Bob & Joan reunited] crap just to sell tickets. I could see it was a bunch of hocus. Whatever people would be interested in - "Oh, look you're back together again," after all the people who thought, "Oh, he screwed Joan over for Sara," or whatever. They want to look at the soap opera aspect of it. I'm sure that appealed to some people.

Ronee Blakely

She was in the Robert Altman movie Nashville. At the time that they were putting Rolling Thunder together, I believe it was still a hit. They were planning to do this movie, so I'm sure they thought, "The more actual professional actors we can have around…” That's why we had Harry Dean Stanton hanging around and other people who actually had movie experience. She was an up-and-coming Hollywood actress who also happened to be a singer-songwriter.

She had been one of the people who was at the Other End when Bob and Neuwirth were casting around looking for people who could be part of this Revue they had in mind. Bob heard her sing and said, "Okay, we'll have you up there." That's how she got the job. She was in the right place at the right time.

She just came out to do her one tune, and then she'd come back out at the end to sing back-up on a couple of tunes.

T-Bone Burnett

He was an up-and-coming producer of weird regional shit from Fort Worth, where he's from. The guy's a competent guitar player, and he knew how to put a song across. To his credit, the first time I ever heard of Warren Zevon, it's because T-Bone used to do his tunes in Rolling Thunder. I was really impressed with that.

Unfortunately for him, the guy was an okay lead-guitar player, but you got Mick Ronson sitting there. T-Bone was dissatisfied with the fact that he didn't get to play any lead guitar. I'd keep saying to him, "Look, man, we got Mick Ronson here. We got to put our best foot forward." I felt like a guy who's managing a baseball team, and the guy who hasn't had a lot of at-bats wants to come up and hit for your best hitter. Why? The best hitter's up there, and he's healthy. T-Bone was always lobbying, "Let me play, let me play." Sometimes he'd go over my head and go to Bob directly.

By the way, it's a little top-heavy with the guitar shit. There's so many fucking guitar players, and a preponderance of them seem to be playing acoustic guitar. You got Neuwirth. You got Steven Soles. You got Dylan on a lot of them. You got T-Bone. Of course, Ronson only played electric. I mean, it looked cool to have this army of guitar players but it was tough sonically. Fortunately, a lot of them were playing redundant parts. Neuwirth's guitar wasn't even plugged in. Guitar players who knew a little piano were wise to stop playing the fucking guitar and go over and play the piano so there was a little variety of texture there.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

I’d known him from the folk scene. About a year before Rolling Thunder, he started calling me to come and play bass with him when he was in New York City. He was part of the re-creation of the pre-rock-and-roll Bob era. Real authentic cowboy singer, the oldest guy on the tour, I'd say, and went back the furthest. Before Baez and Dylan came along, he was already a folk star. That was a little bit of a historical context for all these people who were looking for the recreation of the ‘60s Greenwich Village ethos. Great guy, great singer, great songwriter.

David Mansfield

David Mansfield was our ace in the hole. He was our utility guy. A child-prodigy multi-instrumentalist, he played everything. He had been in a group with Tony Bennett's kids called Quacky Duck. I remember them from Max's Kansas City when my band was playing in the early ‘70s.

Great versatile, all-around player. His subsequent career bears out my description. He became a movie and TV composer and he's a sought-after studio guy.

Roger McGuinn

Great guy, great guitar player, great personality. He was basically there, like Ramblin' Jack and Joan, to do his act, to make it part of the variety show. He'd do 20 minutes each night. He'd do his most recent hit, “Chestnut Mare,” which he'd co-written with Jacques Levy way before Jacques hooked up with Bob. He’d do a few of The Byrds hits.

He was out there just being part of the variety show. Whenever you like 15 or 20 minutes, a whole new band appears on stage basically. It means that it never flags for a minute. The audience shared in this too, you could see that they're so excited-- "Oh my God, as if we hadn't heard enough already, here's the lead singer of The Byrds doing their greatest hits with Mick Ronson on guitar!” Very, very cool. That was one of the things that kept it from being monotonous, because it was a four-hour show sometimes.

Joni Mitchell

She'd come out and do like 10-15 minutes. She refused to do her hits. She'd be trying her new stuff out. She'd do a couple of songs by herself, but she did a bunch of tunes with the rhythm section too. Sometimes we would do “Coyote”with her. We did this other song called “Don't Interrupt the Sorrow,” which had a pretty good ensemble arrangement.

She seemed a very serious singer-songwriter, a professional artist. We got along great. I think she hit it off with Sam Shepard. They had a thing going. That kept her around. That's who she wrote “Coyote” to.

Bob Neuwirth

I couldn't really understand what his function was in the band. In fact, he really wasn't a member of the band. He was more like an MC or a ringmaster is how Bob and Jacques Levy envisioned him. If I had my say, I wouldn't have had him up there because, as a musician, he was useless. The guy's one of these dudes who knows three chords and brags about the fact that he can get by with three chords. His singing is certainly nothing to write home about.

It seemed to me to be like a payback for his years of faithful service to Bob Dylan; that was really why it was there. Jacques, who had I guess the clearest, most dispassionate view of what was going on for the entire show, didn't want to come out and say, "What the fuck is this guy doing on the stage?"

Neuwirth was originally designated as the bandleader of the thing. I think the reason was because he had recruited most of the people in the band before we even had a rehearsal. He lined up Mansfield. He ran into Ronson in a bar. He already knew T-Bone Burnett and Steven Soles. The contractor and bandleader sometimes go together in terms of personnel. Of course, this didn't turn out too well, because the guy knows nothing about music and can't play. Whoever's idea this was, it definitely wasn't very practical, and therefore the idea washed out within one day of rehearsal. The bandleader task quickly fell to me.

That version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” which opens Renaldo & Clara featuring them as a duet, it's obviously meant in jest. They're wearing funny masks and they're clowning around a lot, but the singing is abysmal. Oh my God, Neuwirth cannot fucking find his notes. He's just singing flat all over the place. It’s really unlistenable. He makes Bob look really bad. That's the only song that they really sang as a duet together. The rest of the time Neuwirth is up there, when he's on the songs such as “Hard Rain,” he appears to be singing into the mic, but the guy really can't sing. What the audience hears is all these great harmonies coming from myself and Ronson and T-Bone and Soles, all the competent singers who were standing behind them. [But] the shot is usually Neuwirth. It gives the illusion that Neuwirth is singing these parts but, in fact, Neuwirth cannot sing. I hate to put the guy down but I don't know what the fuck he was doing there.

Scarlet Rivera

She really made an impression. She's got this amazing visual appeal that really spoke to the public, and they dug it, they responded to her. She got this mysterioso type of thing going on for herself. There was a really cool dramatic interplay between her and Bob.

She didn't sing; she's just silently and mysteriously playing this haunting violin with a lot of vibrato. She tended to play pentatonic blues figures a lot. The kind of things that a lead-guitar player would play. In fact, if you listen to Desire, you'll notice that the absence of electric guitar, the vacuum there, is taken up by the fact that Scarlet is playing the exact kind of thing that an electric guitar player would play. The same kind of bluesy scales, and the sustain of the violin, and her tones, sounds not unlike, say, Mick Ronson playing those lines.

When we went out and did the Desire tunes, nobody had ever heard them, and nobody had ever heard of her. Every time we'd start to play this [plays the beginning of “Oh, Sister”], the place would go nuts, even though they'd never heard the song. They thought it was the beginning of, "If you're traveling the north country fair…” It was so funny, man, because they would go nuts over the song they'd never even heard. Which points to a problem with Bob Dylan's music. He falls back on the same clichéd outros and guitar figures and stuff because he's not that technical of a guitar player. I would constantly be guarding against putting songs that are too similar next to each other. They're all the same four keys. I was always struggling to find ways to make these tunes sound like sound like there was some variety to them.

Luther Rix

Luther was a professional New York City player a little older than me. He had been in this group called Ten Wheel Drive with Genya Ravan, which was a rock and roll big band with a horn section. Very respected New York group. He spent most of his career playing on Broadway. I think he went on Leonard Cohen tours. All kinds of amazing, cool folk-rock gigs. Every so often I'd go to hear a friend of mine and Luther would be the drummer. That's how I met him.

When Jacques told me, "Hey, we want to get a percussionist too, to beef up the band," I thought, "Oh, this is great. This means that I can move Howie over to the piano for some tunes, gives me more flexibility." I immediately thought of Luther because he was an older cat, a real pro, used to playing in a Broadway pit, played with a zillion cool folk artists already.

He's on stage the whole [show]. When you have the camera-view looking at the stage, he is to the right of Howie behind me. He's not always lit; that's why it's hard to see him. Every so often you'll see a tambourine flash or his congas. He’s the conga player on “Hurricane,” man. One great place where he got as a good cameo in the [Scorsese] movie, there's a scene where Bob is doing “Simple Twist of Fate.” It's him and a drummer in front of a bunch of middle-aged ladies at the hotel we were staying at. Luther is the drummer and he's right in the shot, behind Bob on the piano.

Nobody knows Luther Rix, man. Nobody ever talks about him. The guy is my neighbor. He lives a couple of miles from me. We still do projects together.

Mick Ronson

He definitely had the most chops there of anybody. Maybe Mansfield, technically, was his match, but Mick having being a star guitar player already, he really knew how to sell a guitar part. He had that whole English guitar hero look going on, right out of Spinal Tap. He was the real deal.

He was the go-to lead-guitar player. He really knew how to sell a fucking guitar solo. It’s a lot more than just playing it. All that physical stuff that Mick does, the way he moves around and poses. It's much more compelling to watch and therefore listen to than just a guy standing there and playing the same exact shit.

I used to hire him to play in my trio with Howie Wyeth. We did a lot of gigs just me, Ronson, and Wyeth, capitalizing on all the notoriety we'd gotten from Rolling Thunder. It was really easy for us to book dates. We went around as a trio for quite some time.

We also had this group with Roger McGuinn called Thunderbyrd. We did this one album that actually came out, not as Thunderbyrd, but as a Roger McGuinn solo album. The group was going to be Thunderbyrd, and we were going to tour with it. Nothing came of it, but the album came out, and it did include Mansfield, myself, Ronson, and Wyeth. It's called Cardiff Rose. I'd say the best cut, the first one you want to listen to is called “Dreamland.” It's a Joni Mitchell tune.

Steve Soles

Good rhythm-guitar player, but his real strength, to me, was that the guy could find missing third parts in the duet stuff I was doing with Dylan. Whenever Dylan and I would sing vocal duets, such as the bridge of “Oh, Sister” – “We grew up together from the cradle to the grave," that part - Bob and I would sing that as a duet. Then we'd do a duet at the end of “Isis.”There were a few places in the show where Bob and I would sing just the two of us, but there were a lot of places where Steve Soles would find a third part in between. The guy was a master at finding really cool harmonies in between me and Bob to really flesh it out. You can hear that on almost all the ensemble singing. But it looks like Bob Neuwirth is doing it because that's who is on camera with Bob.

Levon made a similar complaint about the Last Waltz. Robbie, as you know, did not sing in The Band. All those great harmonies you hear were the three guys who were the lead singers. Robbie would go up there for show, just to maybe add a little part, but he has a very weak little voice. Richard Manuel would be singing, and [Scorsese’s cameras] would be showing Robbie Robertson, who is basically just lip-syncing, just mouthing the words. So people got the impression that Robbie Robertson was a singer in The Band.

It was the same thing with Neuwirth. You hear me and Soles, maybe T-Bone, whoever, chiming and doing great harmonies, and the camera is on Neuwirth, so everybody thinks that those harmonies are coming from him, when, in fact, it's the opposite. His mic is off. I told the sound man, "Do not put this guy in the mix, man. He can't sing in tune."

Howie Wyeth

The first time I ever met Howie Wyeth was at a gig at Max's Kansas City that I was playing with John Herald, the lead singer of a group called The Greenbriar Boys who were a popular bluegrass group in the late ‘50s. We didn't usually use the drummer, but one time in Max's Kansas City we figured, because it was a rock and roll club, we'd get a drummer. Howie Wyeth showed up just with a snare drum and a hi-hat. Right away I was blown away by the guy's musicality. It really swung.

I started hiring him for my jobs. Every time I would do a Rockin’ Rob Stoner show, I made Howie my drummer. When I got sessions and was asked to contract the drummer, I would always recommend him. I think Billboard said we were the best rhythm section in rock and roll at the time. Howie and I played like one guy. We just had an amazing unity of rhythm going on with our timekeeping.

He died young. Every time he was available, if I needed a drummer, I would call the guy. We did a bunch of other projects together. We did some Roger McGuinn albums together. I hired him for the first Robert Gordon / Link Wray records in the late ‘70s. He was my go-to drummer because he always made me look good. I worked with him right until he died. Amazing guy, sweetest guy you ever want to meet.

Thanks to Rob Stoner! Rob teaches guitar, bass, and voice lessons over Zoom. You can find out more about that at his website or by emailing rob@robstoner.com. He’s also newly on Cameo, where for $30 he’ll record a video message for you or a friend (maybe you can get him to play a few bars of your favorite Desire song too…)

Rolling Thunder VIII: Durham

The Venue

From the University of Vermont to the University of New Hampshire! I can't find a whole lot else about the venue. The fact that tour chronicler Larry "Ratso" Sloman skipped this show makes such scene-setting info a little scarce.

Show/Setlist Changes

None in Dylan's set, but this is the first time McGuinn gets two songs: "Eight Miles High" and "Chestnut Mare." It's odd that Joan and Ramblin' Jack each got 20-30 minute solo sets, but McGuinn, one of the biggest stars there, performed so little each night.

Onstage Comments

Joan Baez tries out a tight-five comedy routine during her set, doing hackneyed impressions of Edith Bunker, Lily Tomlin's character Ernestine, and, I guess, an Irish person. I can’t understand why Saturday Night Live didn't come running…

This bit leads into the extremely bleak song "Long Black Veil," which seems an especially odd choice. As does the audience enthusiastically trying to clap along.

Contemporary Reviews

I can't find any newspaper reviews, but that's made up for by Sam Shepard, who writes more about this Durham show in his Rolling Thunder Logbook than he does any other. He seems really taken with it. Here's some of it:

Neuwirth’s street-gang punk band is tighter than ever. Steve Soles’s “Don’t Blame Me,” T-Bone’s “Foreign Love,” and Stoner’s “Wasted.” How many bands carry this many jewels of songwriting all coming from separate sources? It’s like each guy on his own is a whole band… As I’m watching this heel of his and seeing the precision of it and hearing the way it resonates clear down through the floor, up through his body, through the song, into the microphone, and out into the hall, it suddenly flashes on me that this thing is way beyond pop music. This thing is ancient ritual.

What'd they do before the show?

Dylan reportedly wrote the liner notes to Desire either today or the day after. He also took a pre-show snooze backstage with a dog:

This particular dog is not Bob’s new beagle puppy Peggy, who at this moment may have been off pooping backstage, as she was apparently wont to do. In Shepard's book, he quotes a janitor at some show cursing Dylan as he carries a shovel full of dog shit outside: “Who in the goddamn hell do these people think they are anyway? Just bring the goddamn dog in here and let [her] crap all over everything. We never had people like this in here before, I’ll tell ya that much. We always had well-behaved folks here. Never nothin’ like this.”

What's on the tape?

Missing the first Dylan set - and all of Guam’s opening, unfortunately. Check out the Providence evening show for a great Guam set.

1975-11-09, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH

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