One Gig Is Worth 10 Rehearsals: On Ray Padgett’s “Pledging My Time”

By Tim RileyDecember 17, 2023

One Gig Is Worth 10 Rehearsals: On Ray Padgett’s “Pledging My Time”

Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members by Ray Padgett

EVER SINCE 1978 with the release of Street-Legal, an earnest bellyflop, Bob Dylan’s career has bounced between wayward extremes. Devotees relied more on his touring schedule to track his stuttering progress as he entered his doomed Reagan decade, which only reversed itself once his catalog recycled through a revealing official Bootleg Series of alternate arrangements, unreleased numbers, and live material beginning in 1991. That Street-Legal tour zigged as it zagged through the live album Bob Dylan at Budokan set the next year, interrupted by three gospel albums and then a long patch of musical doldrums. If his early career anchored itself around his touring outfit from 1966, which later released its own albums as the Band, Dylan’s later bands can seem as haphazard as his albums, constantly shifting, with intriguing notes often lost in the haze.

But where he seemed to grasp the volatile chemistry he had with that group on a triumphal 1974 tour, now regarded as his live peak (on Before the Flood, from that year), he has not gathered a stable ensemble around him since. Traveling under the catchall “Never Ending Tour” since 1988, he still plays over 100 shows a year and sprinkles his set lists with curios. Getting Dylan’s nod pretty much makes your reputation as a musician. And it all feeds the beast: Budokan comes out soon as an expanded deluxe box set. (In its first appearance, the title echoed 1978’s Cheap Trick at Budokan, with its breakout oldie, Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”)

Dylan’s longevity plays off his epic inconsistency, and his everyday erraticism. Like the Deadheads before them, “Bobheads” follow him around for a dozen shows just for one memorable night. He forces players to sync with his private whims, and most rotate out after the prestige wears thin against the daily grind. Bassist Tony Garnier now serves as his longest-running player; he joined in 1989. Garnier anchors the rhythm section beside Charlie Sexton on lead guitar (since 1999) and Donny Herron on lap steel, banjo, and fiddle (since 2005). Many, many other fine players have wandered through.

Yet as many different lineups as he has “led,” Dylan has never claimed much skill as a bandleader or arranger à la James Brown, Chrissie Hynde, or Bruce Springsteen. He often chooses the most recent handshake to hire last-minute subs. So, even before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, or belittled his peers in last year’s sour little screed, The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan’s stature barely keeps pace with his ego.

All of which works like compost for the ambitious author. Ray Padgett’s teeming new book Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members compiles interviews from musicians who have played alongside Dylan over the past 60 years. Most give off frothy comic detail on how he taunts players onstage by calling surprise key changes, errant tempos, and impulsive song choices. “He makes an effort to fit into what he hears,” Jerry Garcia once said of Dylan. “But he doesn’t have a conception about two things that are very important in music: starting and ending a song. [Laughs.] Really. The middle of the song is great; the beginning and ending are nowhere.”

Padgett tracks down players both prominent (Rolling Thunder Revue tour’s bassist Rob Stoner) and incidental (Dharma & Greg Dylan cameo’s organist John Fields), many of whom barely auditioned, let alone surrendered themselves to a tour. Besides insider color, these stories stress how Dylan prizes accidents over flair. If you have any weakness for what’s great about Dylan, it all makes for compulsive reading. Even that stray wacko, Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy, who photobombed the 1998 Grammy Awards performance of “Love Sick,” chimes in.

Most of these testimonies follow a similar arc: some loose association or random encounter catches Dylan’s notice, he reaches out through his manager, and a musician shows up for a rehearsal, which can last anywhere from three hours to three days to three weeks. Then an indefinite period of time passes, and they wake up with flight details to the next gig. Thrills ensue as Dylan pulls surprise classics from his catalog, only to sour gradually at the player’s contributions. Guitarist Duke Robillard’s entry prompts exasperation; he finally departs the 2013 tour (after having played on 1997’s Time Out of Mind) without knowing why he lost Dylan’s favor.

Many musicians report the excitement of diving into a number they’ve heard their whole lives but never played. Extended rehearsals often yield little but then explode in the live arena. Winston Watson joined the entourage suddenly in 1992 to play shows like Woodstock ’94 and MTV Unplugged, as one of Dylan’s long-running drummers. He remembers the practice sessions as worthless:

I can honestly say, on the last night we packed up rehearsal, he wasn’t convinced we could do anything. He wasn’t happy until we started the first show at this venue across the street, the Point Depot. We lit the joint up and burned it down. Because there was nothing to lose. I played like a man being chased by wolves.

They say, “one gig is worth ten rehearsals.” Abso-fucking-lutely. It was ragged but glorious. There was nothing perfect about it. It wasn’t like a Steely Dan song. It was rock and roll.

Even in Dylan’s earliest duets, you could hear Joan Baez’s efforts to stay in sync with him on numbers like “When the Ship Comes In,” at the March on Washington in 1963, and “Paths of Victory.” Dylan takes pleasure in keeping his players off guard, and likes hearing the sound of them scrambling. Traveling Wilburys drummer Jim Keltner, a renowned session player, hears all this as something more than gamesmanship. “There’s a fearlessness from some artists that translates to the musicians playing,” Keltner says.

When that happens, you get the best from the musicians, because the musicians are not worried about tempo or about whether they’re rushing or they’re dragging or whether they’re not in the pocket. It’s not about finding a pocket. It’s more about searching for the vibe, searching for the thing that makes the song have life.

One of Dylan’s more high-profile turns came in 1988 with the Traveling Wilburys, a superstar band featuring Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty. At one point, Keltner marveled when Orbison said about the project, “‘This is really fun, isn’t it Jim?’ I said, ‘Man, it’s incredible. You know, Roy, the guys are all here only because of you, really. They all just want to hear you sing.’” Then Orbison gave his opinion of Dylan:

He said, “Well, I’m the only real singer in the band. The other boys are all stylists.”

I had to suppress a laugh. It was so true, but it was just so funny the way he said it. Just matter of factly. The first freaking thing I did when I got a chance was tell George. He cracked up and then I told all the guys. “I’m the only real singer in the band. The other boys are all stylists.” It’s absolutely true.

Keltner spills other secrets you only wished were true: “George Harrison was Bob Dylan’s biggest fan in the world. There wasn’t anybody that I’ve ever known that was a bigger Bob Dylan fan. He knew the lyrics to every Bob Dylan song, old and new.” Meanwhile, Billy Cross, the Budokan lead guitarist, talks about how leaping into the unknown in front of a crowd tunes up your skills: “I love that. I absolutely adore that. We have a word in Danish, it’s so perfect for it, befriende. It means that it frees you up, it allows air under your wings. When somebody in front of 22,000 people has the confidence and the will to just start a song and the trust in his band to do it.”

Padgett gets many of these figures to talk unguardedly, knowing that detail only enhances Dylan’s myth. Keyboardist Alan Pasqua compares Dylan favorably to Miles Davis; Willy DeVille’s guitarist Freddy Koella remembers Dylan telling him, “Freddy, you know what? Just don’t learn the songs.” A long story from the Plugz’s Tony Marsico tells of rehearsing for months at Dylan’s Malibu home in 1984 and wondering if anything would ever come of it. Then they got a call to go to New York to play The David Letterman Show. Dylan didn’t tell them which songs to play until 10 seconds before taping (he just said “Sonny Boy in E,” which meant a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’”). When Paul Shaffer tried to jam with them during the soundcheck, Dylan squawked, “Lose the clown on the keyboard.”

So why does Dylan still tour? the average listener might ask. Most theories revolve around his core psychological need to inhabit his songs onstage, to be what musicians call a “pure performer.” For whatever reason, the rare chance of landing on a spontaneous moment in the live arena keeps Dylan going, even if sometimes it seems he’d prefer to be somewhere else. His manic yet passive-aggressive leadership style relies on a crack staff to keep the machine going and on a core audience that forgives many potholes. Musicians like Dylan exist most fully when singing songs to an audience, and the time in between gigs grows more and more unfulfilling. He spends far more time on tour than he ever has in any studio, even if his revolving-door players can make him look stranded on his own stage.

For the faithful fan, Dylan’s inconsistencies simply tilt quixotic. At one point, Cross tells his boss, “‘Bob, it could sound better, man.’ He said, ‘Billy, my records are my music played by me and the people with whom I’m playing in that room on that day. That’s what my music is.’ I thought that was a pretty cool way to look at it.”

LARB Contributor

Author Tim Riley writes the riley rock report on Substack.


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