Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield.
David Mansfield was just 19 years old when he joined the Rolling Thunder Revue in the fall of 1975 as a fiddle player and pedal-steel guitarist, so young that Bob Dylan credited him as “The Son” in his road movie Renaldo and Clara, and Martin Scorsese billed him as “The Innocent” in his 2019 Rolling Thunder film. But Mansfield made contacts on that tour that would benefit him for the next five decades, helping land him jobs with Johnny Cash, Bruce Hornsby, Lucinda Williams, and Sting along with work scoring movies as varied as Heaven’s Gate, The Apostle, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
We called up Mansfield at Hobo Sound studios in Weehawken, New Jersey, to chat about his early life growing up in New York, his wild experiences on the road and in the studio with Bob Dylan from 1975 to 1978, and everything that’s happened in his life since Dylan went Christian and dumped his old band forever.
Are you staying busy during the pandemic?
Yeah, but largely by my own devices. I had Covid in March, early on. When I was under house arrest, I just started practicing classical violin and enjoying the isolation. When that was over, I started a live concert series streaming from my house. That was in the summer. I’ve probably done 15 of them. It became a lifeline for me and my friends, mostly musicians who live nearby like Richard Thompson, who lives in the next town over, and lots of people that are local to New York and New Jersey.
Everybody was so anxious to play. We do something with two or three musician live in a room, no do-overs. There’s an audience out there even though we can’t see them. We just had a blast. My last one was with Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur. Before that, it was Amy Helm. She droves all the way down from Woodstock to do it. Marshall Crenshaw came down from Rhinebeck, [New York]. People really want to play.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. What was the first music you heard as a child that really reached you?
From what I remember and from what i’ve been told, I got fixated on Stravinsky’s Petrushka when I was a little baby. My parents were both classical musicians. That I recall, walking around banging pans to Petrushka. And probably Broadway show tunes as a baby.
How about pop music?
I’m 64. I was probably the perfect age for the Beatles. I was eight when they came to America. It was all over for me after that, like most of my fellow … I don’t know if we’re baby boomers or the next generation. Whatever we are, they sunk us all with one blow across the channel.
Did you see any concerts when you were young that really stayed with you?
Yeah. Actually, for a while they were doing concerts in what was then called Philharmonic Hall. I guess it’s David Geffen Hall now. I guess every few years some millionaire does a renovation and they rename it. I remember seeing a double bill with the Doors and the Lovin’ Spoonful. I was a big Lovin’ Spoonful fan and everyone was a Doors fan.
I remember going to see the original Mothers of Invention at Central Park. Freak Out! sort of saved my life as well. Another one I remember at the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park was the Who [on August 7th, 1968].
That must have been mind-blowing.
It was. One thing I remember is [Roger] Daltrey’s famous mic-swinging technique that he had. He got the mic caught up on the overhang of the stage and had to yank it down. They were amazing, and of course, they closed with “My Generation” and smoke bombs and Keith Moon kicking over the drums and all that stuff.
How old were you when you started to play an instrument?
As soon as I heard the Beatles. Maybe it was before that. My aunt, who was closer to my age than my father’s age, was a folkie. I would listen to her Peter, Paul, and Mary records. Probably the first thing I did was steal a toy guitar from my brother and teach myself “If I Had a Hammer.” I was fascinated as soon as I heard anything about the guitar. I was studying violin as a little kid, but as soon as I heard the guitar, I immediately was won over. When the Beatles came to the States and played Ed Sullivan, it was the only thing I could see from then on.
I still kept up with the classical violin through my teenage years, but I was obsessed with the electric guitar. I don’t know how old I was when I got my first one, maybe nine.
When did music start to seem like a viable career for you?
Well, according to me, right then. According to my father, after I started writing for orchestras and doing film scores. Even after I went out with Dylan, he was trying to get me to go to college and quit. And Bob once said that he was going to charge my dad for a college education.
How was your career progressing before you landed the Dylan tour?
A lot was happening. I left a band [Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends] I’d been in since I was 15 to do the Dylan tour, kind of sadly because we had made a record for Warner Bros. and played Max’s Kansas City. A big formative week for me in my young life was when we opened for Gram Parsons at his GP tour at Max’s. In those days, you would play for four nights. It was young Emmylou [Harris] and N. D. Smart on drums and Jock Bartley on guitar and Neil Flanz on steel.
It was a hot, little road band. We were such big fans of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo that it felt like we had died and gone to heaven. And they were all so sweet. They took us under their wing. Their steel player, Neil, came over to Jersey and gave me a lesson and then helped me get the Sho-Bud steel guitar that I played on Rolling Thunder because he worked there part time. He picked it off the assembly line for me.
How old were you when you played Max’s?
I guess I was 17. I was too young to play there legally, so I would have to hide up there in the office between sets. We were this hot North Jersey band. The same time that Springsteen’s band was hot in the Jersey Shore, we were hot in North Jersey. We played the Bitter End and Max’s. And then finally in 1973, we signed to Warner Bros. and made a record.
How did it do?
Straight into the toilet. But critics loved it. We somehow weren’t able to get our act together with the booking agencies and get on the road and hook up with a tour. The radio stations, all over the place, played it like crazy for the first couple of weeks. We were on heavy rotation on WNEW. But then we couldn’t support it, so it just died on the vine before it had the chance to chart or sell. But the first week, Warner said we were getting more adds [on radio] than any group since the Beach Boys. That was a heavy two weeks and then it was over.
Were you a big Bob Dylan fan before that chapter of your life started?
No. I was a big Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys fan. Of course, I loved the hits that Dylan had, especially the ones that were more rock-oriented, “Like a Rolling Stone” and all those things, because I liked the music. But I wasn’t really aware of his body of work. I didn’t really know how cool a writer he was. I was aware of everything from “Blowin’ in the Wind” on that hit the airwaves. But I didn’t buy his records, really.
How did you wind up on Rolling Thunder?
Well, I did a lot of recording sessions in my late teens in New York because there was so much work at that time. I think maybe the spring before the Dylan thing came together, I had been doing live dates with Eric Andersen. He had this amazing band with Arlen Roth on guitar and the late Richard Bell on piano. It was a fantastic band.
I got involved with the Dylan thing totally on a fluke. Really, the Rolling Thunder Revue was honestly the brainchild of Bobby Neuwirth. Bobby was doing a Bitter End gig. At the time, they couldn’t call it the Bitter End. They had a dispute over the owning of the name and had to call it the Other End for a few years. But Bobby Neuwirth was playing for four or five nights at the Other End and all these people were sitting in.
My girlfriend at the time was working at the then newly opened Bottom Line, which was just a stone’s throw away. She and her girlfriend stopped by the Bitter End to see what was going on there. Mick Ronson was sitting in and maybe [Roger] McGuinn. It just seemed like a free-for-all to her. And she noticed the one thing they didn’t have was a violinist-fiddler. She basically dragged me down there and waltzed me to the toilet of a dressing room and walked me up to Bobby Neuwirth and said, “Hey, my boyfriend plays the fiddle.”
He just said, “Well, open up the case and play me something.” Somehow, while dying from embarrassment, I managed to, and he invited me onstage. I stayed for the rest of the week. That’s where I met my bandmates T Bone Burnett and [guitarist] Steven Soles. They were at that gig too.
When it was over, a few months later, I got a call from Bobby where he said, “I can’t tell you what’s going on. Just keep your fall open.”
And so it became the Rolling Thunder Revue. I was ostensibly hired to be in Neuwirth’s band. But when we actually started rehearsals, everything was everything. Neuwirth’s “band” became more like the house band.
Tell me about first meeting Bob.
It had to be at our first rehearsal at SIR. I had been around famous people before and so I knew the main thing was to play it very cool. I probably tried not to notice. But also, it was kind of chaotic. Everyone was sort of noodling and meandering, and every once in a while, Bob would strap on a guitar and just start a song. We’d all fall in. It wasn’t a rehearsal where somebody calls tunes or somebody has chord charts or any of that kind of stuff.
And there were cameras around me. Bob was shooting it and wanted to make this movie of the tour, his “art film” Renaldo and Clara. And so you really had to keep cool because there might be a handheld camera down your neck. I don’t remember it too specifically. I’m sure we didn’t talk, but we immediately played music.
His previous tour was at arenas and was sold out months in advance, just a huge event. This really aimed to be the complete opposite.
They would send a couple of guys with handbills and distribute them in the center of town. It was like Willy Wonka.
Were you overwhelmed to suddenly be around these icons like Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Mick Ronson? You were a kid just thrown into this world.
Well, yes and no. The folk world was so legendary, but I was just learning about it. I wasn’t a Dylan fanatic. I loved songs I knew, but I didn’t know much of anything about Joan or [Ramblin’] Jack [Elliott]. Jack would sing these songs, like [traditional English folk song] “The Butcher’s Boy,” and they were all new to me. I probably wasn’t intimidated, but if I had been, it would have been by McGuinn or Joni Mitchell.
The other thing about it is their attitudes were so amazing. I was the kid on the tour, which I gathered rankled Bob a little since he used to be the kid. But everybody treated me with respect. Nobody looked down on me. Everybody encouraged me. I think people were watching out for me. Nobody was trying to get me to go along to drug-addled parties or anything like that. Joan was quite maternal. She was so sweet. And Neuwirth was sort of like my little guardian angel.
You played a bunch of instruments since they had a violin player, Scarlet Rivera.
The idea was that Scarlet would play violin with Bob on the Desire stuff, of which we were doing tons since they had just cut it. It wasn’t even out yet. By the time it came out, I had become close with Allen Ginsberg and he wrote about me on the back cover even though I’m not even on it. But Scarlet was Bob’s violinist. When I played violin, it was with someone else, like Jack Elliott or Neuwirth or whoever else needed a violinist.
I’ve talked to other people who have toured with Bob. They told me the key is to watch his hands since you never know what he’s going to do. Did you do that?
Yeah. I know some people that have played with him have complained about that, like [bassist] Rob [Stoner]. But I found it an exciting challenge. The other thing is, he was doing something like Jack Elliott always did where his phrase lengths were really unpredictable. It’s an old folk song where sometimes you’re playing a 4/4 and there might be a bar of five or a bar of three. Instead of a phrase length of eight bars, it might be seven or seven and a half. It’s that old, squirrelly, strange folk music thing that you find in the Harry Smith Anthology. Dylan was doing more of that then than when he was out with the Band doing the same thing every night.
Yeah. The singing on Rolling Thunder is totally different. He’s much more passionate and emotive. He was clearly feeling the music in ways he wasn’t at the arenas in 1974.
Yeah. He was totally on fire. I got that when Scorsese made that documentary [Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story] and used all that footage Bob had shot for the movie, all the concert footage. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was every bit as exciting as I remembered it. There are amazing performances on his part and a lot of people’s parts.
I spoke to Joan Baez a couple of years ago. She said the 1975 tour was a lot of fun, but the 1976 tour had a different vibe and wasn’t nearly as fun. Was the your experience?
Well, it was all great for me. But I knew that Bob kind of had a black cloud over his head during that  tour and that infected everything. By that time, there was a large entourage and a lot of us were close friends. It wasn’t dependent on Bob being in a good mood all the time. I’ve had lots of other friends that worked with him later and he didn’t throw temper tantrums or anything like that.
When you say “black cloud,” you mean because his marriage was ending?
I assume so. On the other hand, when he called me back in 1978 and his marriage was over, he just wanted to play and just feel better. The difference was black and white. He was hanging out with the band, chatty onstage, joking and going to the bar with the band. He never did that on that second Rolling Thunder tour.
When the tour ended, you played on Roger McGuinn’s Cardiff Rose. That’s a really underrated album.
Glad you like it. We were all really proud of it. After Rolling Thunder, everyone was trying to figure out what the next project was. One thing that we did was that [Rob] Stoner, [Howie] Wyeth, Ronson, and McGuinn were all going to form a band. We did a bunch of rehearsing at Howie’s place on 19th Street. It was a co-op apartment building where Randy Brecker lived upstairs and Michael Brecker lived downstairs. It was like a musicians building.
But it never jelled. It just sounded like a band backing up Rob Stoner or a band backing up Mick Ronson or a band backing up Roger McGuinn. It never turned into a real band, but Roger had to deliver an album to Columbia. He asked us to do that with him. That’s how Cardiff Rose came to be. It was where we put our frustrated energies into after the band didn’t come together.
But we kind of did it very much like a band. We were all throwing in arranging and production ideas. One night, Roger was too drunk to play the banjo on “Pretty Polly,” so I played it. It was very much a band record.
How was your experience on the Joan Baez record Blowin’ Away?
I just did sessions on it. It was great to play on it, but as opposed to the thing with Roger where we’re all in the studio every day for however long it took, a couple months or something, with Joan I came in and did sessions and then I went home. I was very happy to be asked.
How did you get contacted about the 1978 Dylan tour?
I don’t remember, but he pretty much had the same organization. T Bone and Steven and I had the Alpha Band in the intervening years. We were easy to find, so i don’t recall who called me from where. His crew was basically the same.
Out of the whole previous band, he just wanted you, Rob Stoner, and Steven Soles to come back.
The thing with Rob didn’t fit. He was replaced by [bassist] Jerry Scheff after Japan.
When you showed up at rehearsals, were you surprised that this was a very different experience with backup singers and horns and whatnot?
Yeah. It also was something where we rehearsed endlessly. There was something that was akin to an audition process at this place called Rundown Studios. It was in an old gun factory on Main Street in Santa Monica. I think we played for months there. We recorded Street-Legal there with a remote truck, but the process of finding a drummer was very long.
We tried all the greatest drummers. Jim Gordon [of Derek and the Dominos] came down and played with us. Denny Seiwell from Wings came. That would have probably worked out, but he was entangled in that pot bust of McCartney’s and couldn’t tour overseas. It was months before they went through everyone in town and settled on Ian Wallace.
What was Bob trying to achieve? People compared this group to Elvis Presley’s band or Neil Diamond’s band. I don’t think that’s quite right, but it was a radical departure from Rolling Thunder and all his previous tours.
I don’t know what he had in his mind. I can just judge by his actions. People called it Vegas-y. It wasn’t. He just wanted the big-band thing, the wall of sound. We got a lot of crap for the saxophone solo sounding like Clarence Clemons. But it was Steve Douglas, who Clarence was imitating.
I love the tour. I think it gets a lot of crap since you released Budokan as a live album and those were the very first shows you did.
That was such a misstep. If we could have recorded a live album after being on the road for a year, it would have been killer.
Yeah. Beyond Budokan, there’s just audience tapes from later in the tour. Even on those, I can tell how amazing things got.
It was a fantastic band. Every musician in that band was a total ace. It was the same with the singers. I mean, [Dylan’s future wife] Carolyn Dennis, her mom [Madlyn Quebec] was a Raelette.
To take a song like “Tangled Up in Blue” and do it as a torch ballad was brilliant. I love how he took the songs, twisted them up, and made them totally unique and different.
I just think that he was just in the mood to enjoy performing because of what he’d been through. I think it was that simple. That’s just my guess. He had a manager, Jerry Weintraub. I don’t know whose idea it was, but all of a sudden, we were getting fitted for band uniforms. [Laughs]
You did 114 shows in one year. Even for Bob, that’s a lot.
Yeah. A lot of people in the band, they got home after that year of touring and found that all their session gigs had dried up because their contractors had gone on to other players. Jerry Scheff didn’t get a gig after that tour since he’d been away for so long.
I’m in a minority of Dylan fans who feel like Street-Legal is one of his best albums. It’s nuts you guys made it in four days.
It was basically done live. The only thing that I regret about that album … I think it’s great too. There’s a lot of great songs. It was fun to play. We love playing “Changing of the Guard” and “New Pony” and all of those songs. But the way it was recorded, the engineer and producer got us all into position and sounding pretty good. And then Bob just decided he hated it and told everyone to pull their chairs into a circle. We just started playing and they scrambled to place mics, so that was the end of separation or optimal mic placement or any of that kind of stuff. That was unfortunate since it could have sounded better.
Right. Then they botched the mix on top of that.
I haven’t heard it, but I heard it was redone later on. Maybe it’s better.
Yeah. Don DeVito fixed it before he died. But even with the old, crappy mix, the genius of “Changing of the Guard” still came through.
I love that song. It’s anthemic. And it was a great year for me also. I became very close with a bunch of people in the band, some of who are no longer with us, like Ian. In the aftermath of that tour, I was in a local L.A. band with Ian called the Teabags. I was an honorary Teabag since I was the only non-Brit in it. We had Jackie Lomax from the Undertakers. They were an Apple band that started as a competitor to the Beatles. There was also Graham Bell from Bell and Arc and Peter Banks from Yes. We all became very, very close.
At the end of the Dylan ’78 tour, he begins soundchecking songs that appeared on Slow Train Coming. At the last gig, he even did “Do Right to Me Baby” in the show. Were you aware that Bob’s religion was changing?
No. Nobody had a clue, really. Everyone in the band was just pink-slipped one day and Bob canceled whatever tours that Weintraub had penciled in. He spent a few months in a discipleship class. And then when he came back, he didn’t want to use anybody from the old days. He just wanted a clean slate.
He had some frustrations with some of the Christian-period bands at one points and wanted to shake them up, so he brought me into rehearsal. But he didn’t ask me to join the band, or anything. I can’t remember. It’s very vague. I think it was just one day. Part of the thing with Bob is that he’s not verbal with that kind of stuff. When he’s frustrated and can’t get what he wants, his thing is to change horses and hope that’ll fix it.
To flash forward a bit, how did you wind up on the Johnny Cash record Johnny 99?
Well, I don’t know who pulled me in on that one. I had done some work at that same studio earlier. Jerry Scheff was on the gig too. It could have been either they called me in or Jerry suggested me. That was a thrill. It was the only time I ever played with Hal Blaine.
What was Johnny like?
He was great, but [producer] Brian [Ahern] and Johnny just did not get along. It was tense. I didn’t see it, but I heard that Johnny keyed one of Brian’s prized guitars. But, on the other hand, the music was great. In between songs, when we’d finish one and get ready to do another, Johnny would start doing some rockabilly, he’d start rubber-legging. For two seconds, it was the Sun Sessions. It was staggering.
I love how Johnny took the Springsteen songs and made them his own.
I think that the whole Rick Rubin thing, I think Ahern was an earlier version of trying to do that. He wanted to reinvent him. He was also throwing the old folk thing at him, like “Joshua Gone Barbados” and things like that. He was doing a little “let’s reinvent Johnny” thing.
How did you wind up in Bruce Hornsby and the Range?
I think I was buying some yogurt at Ralph’s. And a musician I knew from film scoring said, “Oh, a musician I know named Bruce Hornsby needs somebody that does what you do, the Appalachian-type stuff and the string stuff, the mandolin and the violin. Do you want to met him?”
We all met and hit it off and rehearsed in his garage for quite a long time. Everybody in the band, that original Range, was all doing other gigs at the time. I was still doing film scoring. Then a lot of people passed on Hornsby, but RCA took a chance on him. We made that record [The Way It Is].
RCA America put it out and it started to fizzle. They put out “Every Little Kiss” and I heard it on the radio, but it was going up and then heading back down. We all thought, “That was a short ride.” And then that freakish thing started happening in England. I don’t know who it was that started playing it, but “The Way It Is” started getting all these requests and it took off. It became a massive hit over there and RCA had to play catch up and rush it out over here. All of a sudden, things exploded with Bruce.
And then I felt I had to bow out, which sometimes I still regret because they are such a great bunch of guys and Bruce is a wonderful guy and a great musician, but I didn’t want to be on the road and unavailable for film scoring. At that point, that’s what I thought my career was mostly going to be.
Do you recall first hearing “The Way It Is” and making that song?
Yeah. I remember all those songs. They all knocked me out.
Did that one strike you as a special one?
No. None of us picked it out as, “This is the single. This is a hit song.” In fact, we would have picked ones that were more conventional, like the one [“Down the Road Tonight”] that Huey Lewis played harmonica on. I loved all of his stuff, all of his writing, but none of us really had any inkling that that song might get that kind of reaction.
Do you get any royalties from it?
No. That’s a writer’s thing and it’s Bruce’s tune. He actually was generous to people that stayed in the band. He did some sort of publishing pool to reward them for the success of his writing.
Did you do any gigs or promotional shows for that album?
I didn’t do any touring. It was so quickly a big hit that Bruce and the guys just hit the road and didn’t come back. I saw them a year later and he looked green from the stress. You wait your whole life for that break and then you can’t say no. I did videos though.
You were involved in the Spinal Tap reunion album in 1992. Can you tell me about that?
That was a T Bone gig. He was producing. I love comedy. He threw me … I don’t remember if it was one tracks or two tracks. The one I still remember because he threw me a parody of a Beatles psychedelic number called “Rainy Day Sun.” It was as good as anything the Rutles ever did. I had fun writing all my faux George Martin string charts. It was a blast.
You’re on Avenue B by Iggy Pop.
What happened was Johnny Depp directed a movie called The Brave. I think he wrote it, too. It was one of Marlon Brando’s last performances. Johnny Depp, being who he was, wanted Iggy to do the score. The music supervisor, Stephan Goldman, who I’d worked with other features on, wanted to have somebody along that knew about film scoring, but was also in the rock & roll world, to help him. But I didn’t have to do any babysitting. He had an unorthodox way of working, but he did what he was going to do and did it well.
It was such a strange film and Johnny was such a strange guy, as far as I could tell. The score just kind of had endless overdubs and got quite amorphous. I don’t even know what really came of it. Possibly what I’m credited on [on Avenue B] could be stuff that came out of those sessions because they were endless.
And Iggy was great. He was really cheerful and humble and just wanted to do a good job. Really nice.
He’s so wildly different from his public perception as this deranged lunatic who cuts his own chest.
I remember driving around with him. He was like, “Don’t get those smoothies, man. They’re just full of sugar. They’re bad for you.” He was totally a health nut. I’ve had gigs with a bunch of people that have reputations for being tough, including Dylan with some bands, and I had the best time.
I did a tour with Sting for a project, If on a Winter’s Night. And from start to finish, from overdubbing on the record to touring, he was so great, so happy and supportive. It was a dream gig. There were none of the horror stories you heard from the Police reunion tour. There was not the slightest hint of that. I think partially because it wasn’t on his shoulders. There was a music director named Robert Sadin who took a lot of the weight off of him.
I was also on a tour once with the Irish poet Paul Muldoon. We had this house band where he writes song lyrics and we’d do songs of his as part of the show. At the last show we did, the last night in Belfast, unannounced, Van Morrison did a few songs. It was my job to listen to the records and write the charts and make sure the band was ready for him, having heard all the horror stories.
Once again, he showed up and he was like a living doll. He was so happy to be playing. He loved the band and put on a great performance. I don’t know what it is with these stories about these people, but sometimes they’re wrong.
You played on Essence by Lucinda Williams.
Yeah. I knew Lucinda from the first time she showed up in L.A. after she did her folkie records. This is before she even hooked up with Gurf [Morlix].
I bet even then, her talent was apparent.
Oh, yeah. In those days, she was a talent in the rough. She’d get rattled and it would affect her singing. She didn’t have the command yet. But she did as a writer. God, in the early days, we did a little acoustic trio. I played acoustic guitar, we had an upright bassist, and she’d play guitar. We played the little clubs around L.A. It was so wonderful.
You play on “Blue” from Essence, one of my favorite songs of hers.
I’d have to listen to it. It’s been so long. But I love what she does and I’m very fond of her, and I’m still very fond of Gurf. The two of them haven’t worked together for many years, but he’s fantastic also.
Tell me about touring and recording with Bobby McFerrin.
That was one of the best gigs of my life. He made a record that was a tribute to his dad, who was the first black singer to be signed to the Metropolitan Opera, but Robert McFerrin Sr. was singing African-American spirituals. He made a tribute record to his dad called Spirityouall. I didn’t play on it. Larry Campbell did all the rootsy stuff. But Larry didn’t want to go on the road, so he suggested me and we toured it for a few years.
I don’t know what to say. Bobby is brilliant. The unpredictable thing that I first went into the deep water with Dylan [on] is on a whole other level with Bobby. For a while, we’d start a show by having someone walk onstage, start a motif, and then we’d join in by improvising. When the whole band had something that sounded interesting to Bobby, he’ll come out and join it. That’s how we started the show.
Also, I was learning so much. All the other guys in the band were jazz heavies, like [pianist] Gil Goldstein, who produced the record. There also guitarist Armand Hirsch and Louis Cato, whose gig right now is the Jon Batiste band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Louis is a wunderkind. He’s a pure singer, but also tuba, bass, guitar. It’s ridiculous.
We’d be doing these spirituals that Gil had arranged and some of them were quite sophisticated. I think he won a Grammy for an arrangement of one song. But then Bobby would throw in an a [Thelonious] Monk tune or some bebop standards. I had to go to school. I was practicing in my hotel room every day. It was so exciting. I learned so much.
And his most famous song, he just doesn’t play, right?
At the very end sometimes, he’d do something like make someone from the audience do it or do some strange modal version of it with different harmonies. But basically, no, with a couple of exceptions that were just tricking with the audience.
The thing is, he’s so entertaining that the audiences don’t care. Even when they are yelling out for it, he will uplift an audience in such an amazing way that nobody forces the issue, ever.
Tell me about playing on Jakob Dylan’s 2011 solo record Women and Country.
T-Bone called me in on that. He was producing. Really wonderful experience. I did a couple of live shows with him. Really fun. I remember the last show I did, might have been Town Hall. We were playing, and all of a sudden, he did this little pivot thing where he turned. He moved just like his dad and it flipped me out.
He’s really nice. We hung out a lot. When we first met, we traded stories about Rolling Thunder. I had just turned 19, but he was, like, six. He had the Sunburst Tele that Bob was playing on that tour with him. We did some catching up and it was really, really sweet. I didn’t spend much time with him, really just on that record and a few times later, but he’s so talented.
When’s the last time you spoke to Bob?
Haven’t seen or spoken to him for a long, long, long time. A couple of years ago, I saw him [July 8th, 2016] at Forest Hills Stadium [in Queens]. It was such a scene about going to see him that I just didn’t try. On the other hand, years ago, my oldest daughter was turning 21, or something, and she wanted to see Dylan. I called up his office to see if they could make that happen. They not only made it happen and got her passes, but she went backstage and Bob went, “Kelly! How are you?” He was a good dad. Go figure.
What did you think of the Forest Hills show?
It was all standards, or 99 percent standards. Personally, that isn’t quite my thing. The thing I enjoy the most about that stuff is when he does his curatorial thing, more than the actual performances, just for me. The audience just loved it to death. He’s got a really good band. I’m a big Charlie Sexton fan going back to when he was a teenager in Austin.
Let’s talk about some movies you helped make over the years. When you were in Renaldo and Clara, you were credited as “The Son.” Did you understand the movie or your role in it as it was happening?
Well, short answer is “no.” I was “The Son” because … I don’t know what process was with Bob and Neuwirth since I wasn’t hanging out with them until the wee hours. But one of them would come up with an idea, grab a camera crew and be like, “Let’s do this thing.”
One of these scenes was a bordello scene. Allen Ginsberg brings his son to learn the ways of women. I was his son. It’s hard to gather from the bits and how they’re cut in the films. But when were … and I’m using this word very loosely, but when we “acted” in the scene, there was a logic to it. I was the son. We went to Madam Joan Baez’s bordello.
How did you feel when you watched the finished version of that movie for the first time?
Well, as I recall, I was also still a kid when it came out. I was in my early twenties when it was finally finished. But I guess I just sort of felt like it was an amazing home movie for the people that were there. I don’t know if anyone else is going to want to watch it. And that hidden deep in the bowels of this thing is an amazing concert film.
How did you feel in 2019 when you saw the Scorsese documentary?
I could have done without the dramatic parts. The music was amazing. All the made-up stuff they did, like the guy who is supposedly the director, the guy who is supposedly the promoter, the Sharon Stone stuff, all the made-up stuff, it didn’t bother me as much as it bothered some of my old colleagues. I figured it was Marty or Dylan or both going for a kind of I’m Not There approach.
But on the other hand, every time that stuff happened, it took you out of the film. There was an incredible two-and-a-half–hour concert film in there.
I saw people involved in the movie say that “small lies can add up to a larger truth.”
Well, I think that was the idea of the Todd Haynes film [I’m Not There]. So, I’m good with that. I was thrilled just to see it. And they got me good. I was watching the thing and it opens up with this director talking about the camera crew. I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t remember that guy. I knew everyone on that crew. I don’t even recognize him. Could I be that out of it? I wasn’t taking drugs.”
And then there was the guy saying saying he was the promoter. I was like, “Wasn’t Barry Imhoff the promoter?” He was pulling my chain until a third of the way through. And then Dylan said, “Yeah. Even David Mansfield wanted to sing with me. I got a lot of flack on that one.”
He said you wanted to sing a song. Was that even true?
No. I can’t sing. And even if he said “writing,” no. Never. The closest I ever got to writing with him was in 1978 when we were rehearsing. He started doing this reggae thing at the piano and he asked me to help him. It never went anywhere.
So his one mention of you in the movie is a complete lie?
In Heaven’s Gate you’re not just the musical director, but you also play the fiddle in one scene while flying around on roller-skates. How did you learn how to do that?
Well, I grew up skating. Also, Heaven’s Gate … not including the shoot of the prologue and epilogue, just the main shoot of the movie, was half a year. And I thought I was going to be up there for a couple weeks. And so I had months to practice that. We used to call it Camp Cimino [after director Michael Cimino]. Rollerskating from 10 o’clock to 12 o’clock and buckboard riding from 12 o’clock to 2 o’clock. Shooting from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock and then letter writing and dinner.
It’s a famous box-office bomb, but it’s developed a cult following. How do you see it now?
It’s a brilliant film, one of his best. I was involved as a musician on camera. They gave me lines, so ostensibly I acted in it. I wouldn’t call what I did acting. But then to get the job to score the film, which started a year-long partnership with him, was just as crazy a thing as hooking up with Dylan.
Both Heaven’s Gate and Rolling Thunder were these crazy adventures that kept going in ways nobody could have anticipated.
They were. And Heaven’s Gate, because it took so long, I had a long time to learn the craft. And then afterwards, because it was such a bomb, I couldn’t get arrested for a few years. I had lots of time to hone my skill. The next film that I did, Year of the Dragon, was also with Michael. By that time, I was writing for an 80-piece orchestra.
Working on a movie must give you a different kind of satisfaction than working on a song or an album.
Totally. For one thing, you’re solitary. It’s me in a room by myself 90 percent of the time. The only performance thing that happens is, for a film like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, where the music that I wrote for the film is orchestral, so the recording session when you’re up on the podium, that’s the only time you perform it. It’s so much fun, but it’s just once at the end.
There are so many scoring processes. I also work as a musician. When I did [the 1984 Win Wenders movie] Paris, Texas, I worked with Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks was playing keyboards. David Lindley and I were covering all the string instruments. Ry would look at the film and write these themes on slide guitar and we’d play along with him. There were charts, but it wasn’t at all a process that I had been used to. It was a lot more extemporaneous.
What’s keeping you busy now?
A few things. I was supposed to be getting ready to go up on a musical that T Bone is composing. It’s about the life of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. It’s called Accidental Heroes. It was originally called Happy Trails, but it’s been changed. We were supposed to open in Atlanta in a couple of months before a Broadway run. And Covid happened. It’s all been pushed back to the misty future. It’ll happen.
When Atlanta finally canceled us … they hadn’t started making sets yet, but people were in place. There was a lot of work that was already done. Luckily, none of it was wasted. Whenever we can get another booking at another theater and things are back up and running, it’ll happen relatively quickly. T Bone has written some wonderful, wonderful songs. I’ll be arranging and orchestrating and I co-wrote some songs with him. I was sort of his boots on the ground.
Whenever that happens, it’ll be really exciting. And meanwhile, I’m making recordings here at my studio. I got a couple of sides with Laura Cantrell, who is a good, old friend, and Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur. I’ve continued to do my concert thing. There’s stuff going on.
One thing coming up later this summer is a scripted podcast. It’s this whole new thing, like radio. There’s a number of television shows now that started out as scripted podcasts with a score and sound effects and a large cast. It’s kind of amazing.
This project is about the blacklist and it’s written by my friend John Mankiewicz and I’m really excited about it.
To wrap up here, the Rolling Thunder tour is really well-documented on official live albums. I hope they do something bigger than Budokan for the 1978 tour at some point.
I don’t know if there’s any multi-tracks.
I think they lost most of the tapes, but a few may be sitting around. They could throw in the Street-Legal sessions, too.
That would be fun. I’d like to see that happen. As I recall, one of the members of Bob’s crew, Arthur Rosato, who was with him for many years, they had an Otari 8-track. It was Arthur’s job to make recordings on that at rehearsal. He made a lot of them, but I don’t know where they are or how good they are, but are probably a crapload of 8-tracks on one-inch tape.
I hate to end on a dark questions, but when your obituary is written decades from now and it says “Bob Dylan Musician” as the headline, do you mind?
I have no problem with that. I’m proud of it. It’s unbelievable to me that my involvement with it, especially in Rolling Thunder, has loomed larger over the years rather than gotten smaller. Man, I’ll just be forever grateful. He opened so many doors.
I got Heaven’s Gate because of Dylan. The producer saw me play on that  tour at Madison Square Garden. Bob would throw me the solo on “All Along the Watchtower,” which he’d dedicate to Jimi Hendrix to up the pressure. I’d then take an electric-violin solo and it always used to get a big hand. The producer saw me doing that and he wrote down in his notebook, “Fiddle player for the Heaven’s Gate band.”
If that’s what someone wants to write, and if anyone still wants to write about me when I die in 40 years [laughs], or 10 years, no problems.