ROB STONER ON BASS . . . AND VOCALS, GUITAR, ARRANGEMENTS, AND MORE
DYLAN'S ROLLING THUNDER SIDEMAN TAKES CENTER STAGE: A CONVERSATION
IF you're a music fan, you know the work of Rob Stoner. You might know his name, his bass, and his harmony singing with Bob Dylan's 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Revue, and his playing on Dylan's Desire album from the same period. Stoner also was co-band leader, and with Dylan, the arranger, for the live albums Hard Rain (from RTR, 1976), and Live at Budokan (recorded in 1978, from"The World Tour"). This was the beginning of the process in which Dylan sometimes challenges, sometimes entertains, sometimes baffles his concert audiences, with presentations of songs that were not like the record, and to some, not recognizable.
Stoner had an active career before and after Dylan. In the early 1970s, when singer-songwriters were the Village vogue, you'd look for Rob Rothstein & the Rebels, a tight hard rockabilly band, if you wanted to rock. The name "Stoner" came about when a recording deal with CBS Records Nashville in the early 1970s led the label to suggest he adopt a less "ethnic" name: Stoner is an anagram drawn from his family name. "It had no other meaning, the word (stoner) was not yet in the lexicon," he said during a Zoom interview from his home studio in Rockland County, north of New York City. Immediately before Dylan, he played a number of sessions, including Don McLean's American Pie, the hit and the album, which resulted in more sessions as a bass player.
Since the Dylan years, Stoner played hundreds of sessions, and has been making records, including one with MCA Records in 1980, Patriotic Duty, long sought by vinyl collectors. He toured regularly with rockabilly singer Robert Gordon ("on and off for 46 years," he said), as well as with the guitar legend Link Wray. He has been giving guitar, bass, piano, singing, and any other kind of musical lesson from his home. Since Covid, he's been doing lessons via Zoom, which has greatly increased the potential number of students, since his name is known worldwide. He also performs for fans and friends on Facebook and You Tube, performing a wide range of solo material from his home studio. Sometimes he uses a "guitalele," sometimes a a baritone guitar, other times a bass or standard six string guitar. "I look at my act as a vocal recital with whatever is best to provide my own accompaniment. The song and the voice has to be at the center of that, or it's not going to work."
Bob Dylan (left) and Rob Stoner sing “Isis” with the Rolling Thunder Revue
I happened to catch his videos of solo performances of songs by Elvis Presley ("Viva Las Vegas") and Frank Sinatra ("That’s Life"). Since Presley, Sinatra, and Dylan are my holy trinity, the source of dozens of my pop culture obsessions and hundreds of potential rabbit holes, I got in touch with Stoner. Here are excerpts from our interview, lightly edited for consistency, clarity, and length.
WR: WHERE DID YOUR DIVERSE TASTE IN SONGS, AND THE INTEREST IN FRANK SINATRA AND ELVIS PRESLEY, COME FROM?
ROB: I had an uncle who used to play in wedding bands. When I first became a gigging musician, I quickly found that you could make a lot of extra money if you developed the skills that would enable the older cats to take you to weddings and society stuff like that. So I immediately learned the whole Sinatra book, because that was sustaining that repertoire at the time. I was brought along as something for the kids. They were strictly tuxedo jobs, union jobs, cats in their 30s. This is when I was in high school, I was there with my guitar. I didn't start playing the bass until later. You needed to be as versatile as possible to make as much money as possible. Besides, I love the tunes. Since that generation, they sort of faded out, but they have a whole new life again, they're not part of the wallpaper anymore.
WR: WHY SINATRA AND PRESLEY IN PARTICULAR?
ROB: The songs fit my voice. And I was along to play rock and roll stuff for the younger kids who were dragged to these weddings, all sorts of society, gigs, by their parents. So at the end of the evening when everybody had a bunch of drinks, and the kids were getting restless, so everybody wanted to get up and dance, and expend the energy, I knew the latest dance crazes that put them on the dance floor. But I spent the previous part of the evening playing along with these great standards, the repertoire of the older cats. I developed a love and knowledge of these tunes.
I had my own band then that was strictly a rock and roll band. There were so few bands then, this was before the Beatles, so few white guys playing rock and roll music in bands. White kids, they were playing folk music pretty much. If there was one band in your high school, it was a big deal. So there were also school dances and mixers and private parties, as much work as you can handle. So you got a lot of experience, and I got good really fast.
In the last 20 years, I sprinkle them in with my original tunes, and rock standards, the stuff I know goes over. I call them "Geezer Pleasers." The war horses that work for me. You can't descend to the bar-band level, but there's a certain level of tunes that work for everybody that they're not gonna hear at their local Wagon Wheel, or whatever corner joint, not that those places exist anymore . . . hardly any places have bands anymore.
WR: HOW DID BASS BECOME YOUR MAIN INSTRUMENT?
ROB: Not main instrument, the one I get the most calls for. I've done more recordings as bass player. Early in my career, when I started getting calls as a studio musician, they were for bass. Guitar players were a dime a dozen, but it's always been difficult to find a great bass player. I was listed in the union for all my instruments.
My approach to the bass was always like, a bass guitar, [playing a bass as if it were a guitar] you play counter-melodies. You just listen to J.S. Bach's left hand, it was the textbook for learning the bass: taking the chords and arpeggiating them in different ways, coming up with a counter-melody when appropriate. It seemed like a very logical kind of guitar to play, except lower. I gravitated towards it, and when I did the American Pie album, that really cemented my reputation as bass player, and harmony singer, because that's me on the harmony, the high part, on the choruses.
Before American Pie I played with Tim Hardin as a bass player, Pete Seeger, all kinds of folk people. In "American Pie," the bass is so prominent, nothing on the track except a piano trio with guitar bass and drums, so it got me known.
WR: YOU RECORDED AN ALBUM FOR SUN RECORDS (IF YOU WANT IT ENOUGH, 1983) AND HAVE ALWAYS PLAYED ROCKABILLY. NOT THE TYPICAL STYLE FOR SOMEONE WHO WENT TO SUBURBAN NEW YORK'S NEW ROCHELLE HIGH SCHOOL (CLASS OF 1965), AND COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY (CLASS OF 1969)
ROB: I gravitated to rockabilly when I was in junior high because my voice naturally sounds like Elvis Presley. Without trying, my natural tone, timbre, and range, sounds like a mix between Sinatra and Presley. People have been asking all my life, why are you imitating those guys? I'm not imitating! When I open my mouth and sing, that is the fucking sound that comes out! A freak accident of nature. I've always sounded like those guys, I've always gravitated to their material. It fit me, fortunately, they both had great material, so as singer, I could always get over well.
WR: IT WAS PLAYING WITH DYLAN THAT GOT YOU FAMOUS. COULD WE TALK ABOUT BOB?
ROB: I take that in stride, it's what I'm known for, and I don't mind talking about. Mainly people always get shit wrong. The historical record, people often get things wrong, and legends start to propagate which are not base on facts, and I'm always ready to debunk them. I am one small bulwark against misinformation.
GREAT! SUCH AS?
ROB: What I want to debunk is the fuckin' Scorsese movie. That was obscene, man, and it was being marketed by Netflix as a documentary, so people take it for truth. [ed. it is now listed on Netflix as "Rolling Thunder Revue, a Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese," and described as "an alchemic mix of fact and fiction"] In his defense, Scorsese never called it a documentary . . . But because his previous music things had been documentaries, including the Dylan [No Direction Home], the Stones [Shine a Light] and the Band [The Last Waltz], they were straight-up, people assumed this was gonna be more of the same. And it looks like a documentary, except it's got all these jokes, these false flags in there, which are meant to be entertaining and cutesy, but they take screen times away from what really happened. Which is why Jacques Levy [Dylan's co-writer at the time] is never mentioned once, and he was like the architect of the whole thing. A lot is glossed over.
They sent a second unit team to interview every living member of the Rolling Thunder Revue, in 2008, to get our testimony. So a Scorsese film crew came to my studio and interviewed me all day. I thought it was gonna be like No Direction Home, continued. But somewhere along the way, they decided they were gonna inject this Spinal Tap element into it, with this cutesty shit. [None of the interview was in the movie.]
WR: YOU WERE AN ARRANGER OF THE LIVE ALBUMS AT BUDOKAN AND HARD RAIN, THAT MANY PEOPLE DISLIKED AT THE TIME.
ROB: I co-arranged them. Some my ideas came to pass, others came from Bob and I brainstorming. He and I would jam his tunes, trying some new approaches. This was the beginning of Bob's tunes becoming unrecognizable, from the original versions, that people always used to complain about. But the whole motivation was to make them fresh, give them a new approach, so he wasn't out there doing a jukebox musical. We wanted to make them like new tunes, so it would be interesting. And that's Bob's whole thing man, reinvention.
So we were always trying fresh approaches, adding more chords, leaving out chords, changing the melody . . . and he would take the results of these meetings, we would basically do this after rehearsal. Sometimes these arrangements would occur at sound checks, at rehearsals. Like a lot of front men, Bob didn't want to spend a lot of time at rehearsals. The nuts and bolts job of running the band shouldn't be his job, nor should it be Elvis Presley's, or Frank's, or Dionne Warwick's, or Aretha's . . . they have delegated that responsibility to a band leader or musical director so they can waltz in and everything's done, perfect. A lot of arrangements are from me singing Bob's tunes with whatever band we had at the time, and we'd jam on the tune until we came down with different approaches. We would take these rehearsals, I would record them and play them for Bob that evening, or whenever, sometimes he didn't show up for weeks! We were on salary, so we'd practice every day, man. He'd call me on the phone, and say what songs, or what key he wanted them in, and we'd run through the tunes. I would play him the tapes of the rehearsals, and he'd say, 'that's a good idea. That's not a good idea.' We'd sorted through this shit in various ways.
WR: I SAW THIS AS THE BEGINNING OF THE UNRECOGNIZABLE DYLAN CONCERT TUNES.
ROB: Kind of like a fun game he was taking the audience on.
WR: BUT THE AUDIENCE WASN'T INFORMED, AT LEAST AT THE BEGINNING, AROUND 1980?
ROB: Yeah, but you're paying to see Bob Dylan, he's the Jester, the Jokerman, he's followed because he's interesting, and doesn't always go out and do his stupid hits like every other act. When he does those hits, he does them in a fresh way. The duplicity of these fans, that they would complain about the very thing that they like about the guy! You can't win, there's no placating them. . . You go to Bob Dylan with preconceived notions, you're out of luck. Big mistake. Hard Rain is a punk album, that really ragged sound. Punk was happening at the time. 1976.
WR: DYLAN'S FIRST COLUMBIA ALBUM, RELEASED IN 1962, THE GUITAR PLAYING SOUNDS LIKE THE RAMONES TO ME. IT’S SO RHYTHMIC, SUCH A STRONG ATTACK.
ROB: Exactly, You could tell he had a rock band in high school. The Golden Chords, man. He told me that he only got into the folk thing because he couldn't afford to hire a band! He knew every rock and roll song I did. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and memory of this stuff. And he had the whole Harry thing down.
ROB: Harry Smith. [The Anthology of American Folk Music]. He [Bob] sounded like an old black guy when he was 19. He thought it was a better act for him, and one that he could afford to do. With the harmonica he had the other element. To be a folk singer [in those noisy Village clubs] you had to play very hard, attack with the heavy string, a punk approach, you're right.
WR: DID DYLAN EVER THROW YOU WITH HIS ARRANGEMENTS?
ROB: It was a game with him, Stump the Band. He liked to do that, but that is an old control trick, as long as there have been bandleaders and their sidemen. Namely, its a way to establish it's your band, and if you're not good enough to follow me, you don't belong here. And Miles, Bird, everybody did this. It's a way of re-auditioning the cats you hired, to make sure they're good enough to do this . . . "Follow this!" . . . it's a tried and true method of being territorial: They're my tunes, and if I'm gonna change a key, or change the tempo, or have a stop, in the middle, you better be watching me.
WR: IT MUST HAVE BEEN A LOT OF PRESSURE.
ROB: It was suspense, anxiety, this sense of courting disaster every time he stops. He was really enamored of those stop-and-start endings, especially during Rolling Thunder 2. "Maggie's Farm," "You're a Big Girl Now," "Durango" in 1975. You can listen to "Durango" on the Desire album, in the studio, where he stops, and then starts to sing, and only one instrument comes in on that downbeat. [It's Rob]. And that's the way I nailed that gig down.
WR: WHAT'S YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARDS PLAYING LIVE NOW THAT SOME ARTISTS ARE GOING BACK ON THE ROAD?
ROB: Robert Gordon asked me to tour with him, his fall club tour, and he was a little mad at me . . . I ain't going to that super-spreader shit for nothing, man. No way. I am done until they solve this [Covid], which may be never. I'm not doin' it, unless it's like an outdoor gig, I can't see playing indoors anywhere until this is solved. I don’t care if I never tour again. I'm happy to get my performance jollies for my You Tube and Facebook followers.
WR: WHAT DID YOU MAKE OF SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (2015), FALLEN ANGELS (2016) and TRIPLICATE (2017), DYLAN'S FIVE CDs OF POP STANDARDS, MANY ASSOCIATED WITH SINATRA?
ROB: Dylan's Sinatra CDs were sad, embarrassing and puzzling. Especially when he doubled down on the exercise by releasing multiple albums. Perhaps it was an excursion into the realm of magical thinking where he somehow believed he could pull off that sophisticated degree of vocal art . . . to my ears, he achieved the opposite of his intended result.
WR: I GIVE A LOT OF THOUGHT TO HOW DYLAN MIGHT HAVE RELATED TO ELVIS.
ROB: Dylan was was always miffed Presley didn't do more of his tunes. He sent him demos, that I sang.
WR: WHICH ONES?
ROB: "Forever Young." Perfect fucking Elvis song. Perfect.