When I was prepping for my interview with Rob Stoner, I brought his biography to a co-worker. There were only two words he could find to respond with: “Holy shit.”
Stoner (born Rothstein), started his career as an in-demand session musician in New York City after graduating from Columbia College in 1969. Before he even left school, he was being sought out by songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who are responsible for songs including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Kansas City.”
From there he played bass, piano and sang on songs like Don McLean’s “American Pie” and went on to work with musicians including Chuck Berry, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Carl Perkins, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Carlos Santana, Mick Ronson, T-Bone Burnett, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Stevie Ray Vaughn and just a few (dozen) others.
Stoner also played with a band called the Greenbriar Boys and, in 1970, a musician that used to open for the group back in 1959 came to visit with the members. That musician just happened to be Bob Dylan. Dylan told Stoner right then that they would stay in touch and he’d give Stoner a call someday so they could work together.
In 1975, he did.
Stoner became the bandleader of the Rolling Thunder Revue and worked with Dylan from 1975 to 1978. Stoner will join other local musicians to celebrate his former boss’ 70th birthday at the Palace Theatre, 2384 James St., on Monday, May 16 at 7 p.m. Other musicians include Professor Louie and the Crowmatix (with former Dylan drummer Gary Burke), Todd Hobin, Loren Barrigar, Mark Nanni, Mark Hoffmann and Colin Aberdeen. Admission is $29 and the performance will be recorded live by SubCat Studios. For tickets, call (800) 838-8006.
I managed to snag a phone interview with the walking encyclopedia of rock a few weeks before the show and dug inside the head of a man who’s not only met, but worked with, some of the most respectable players in the game.
Q: Tell me how your career started.
A: I was born in New York City and I had a band and when I was in junior high school. This was before the Beatles when you really didn’t have a lot of young kids playing in bands. If there was one band at your high school it was a big deal. But it was a lot of work for a teenage band back there. So we got plenty of experience, learning on the job about how to be entertainers and musicians. We worked all the time.
Q: Did you play through college?
A: My college band was very popular in downtown New York on the village scene and that lead to me becoming a session player and playing on a lot of different artists’ records. I played on Don McLean’s “American Pie,” and I played on a lot of folk artists’ records and that’s how I eventually met Bob Dylan.
Q: How was that first meeting?
A: Oh, it was great. I first met him many years before I started to work with him. I was playing with the Greenbriar Boys, who Bob Dylan used to be the opening act for in 1959. So I met him in 1970. At that time Bob said, “I’m gonna call you for a job some day, we’ll stay in touch,” and he did stay in touch over the years until eventually he called me to work with him--true to his word.
Q: What was that call like?
A: That was just amazing. At the time he called me he was having problems with his band. He was having a lot of trouble recording what would become the Desire album. He actually consulted me about what he could do to solve the problems he was having. So I was quite shocked that Bob Dylan would consult me, who he hardly knew, for advice. And then he took my advice and it worked. So, he ended up trusting me to be in charge of his operation for the next four or five years.
Q: What did you tell him to help solve the problems?
A: I told him that the group he was using to record the album with was too large and he should get back to basics and go in with the smallest possible band. When you listen to the Desire album, you hear that it’s just three or four instruments basically, very simple band. He was originally trying to record it with this large all-star ensemble and it just wasn’t working out. So I was the guy to break it to him, like, “Look, for all your great intentions and having all these famous musicians here, it’s just not sounding good.” I said we should come back the next night and let me choose the musicians and see if you like it. So he took me up on my dare and ended up doing the entire album in basically one or two nights. He had been struggling with it for a week with this other format, so I sort of won his trust that night. That was in 1975.
Q: That won you a spot with him?
A: Yeah, he said, “Well, this guy knows what he’s doing. I’ll put him in charge.” He had just stopped working with The Band at that point who were his longtime backing group with Robbie Robertson as the leader. He needed a new backup group and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Q: What were your duties as bandleader?
A: I had to hire and fire the musicians. I had to come up with arrangements. Of course I didn’t do it alone--I did it in conjunction with Bob. He had a lot of input and say about all these things. But he was also busy with a lot of other projects all the time. He needed somebody he could count on to run the band for him.
Q: That’s pretty incredible you were Bob Dylan’s go-to guy.
A: Yeah, it was great. But, of course, you can’t always make the right guesses.
Q: What happened when you didn’t make the right decisions?
A: Well, that’s tough. It’s like with any boss. You’re working for somebody and you try and resolve the situation the way you hope they would do it, but if they’re not there to tell you, you just have to use your own judgment and hope that it works out. Then he would have to get involved and tell me what to do.
Q: You’ve worked with so many incredible musicians. How does Dylan compare?
A: He’s the greatest. He is just one of a kind. You can’t compare him to anybody. He’s just a singular figure in American culture, in world culture. In songwriting and performing, just a ground-breaking, amazing guy. You can’t compare him to anybody. Very lucky to have worked with somebody who’s just had such a momentous impact on American culture.
Q: What is it about his music that makes it so timeless?
A: His use of language and imagery. Also the fact that he has a very unusual voice. It’s very compelling. He’s had several unusual voices throughout his career and he has a different sound now. He’s learned to embrace the limitations of his current voice and utilize it in a unique way.
Q: Do you like the film about Dylan, I’m Not There?
A: Oh yeah, what a great movie!
Q: It makes me curious to know a little bit more about how it was working with him as a person. He’s depicted as so many different characters in that movie.
A: I think that’s accurate. He’s a very mercurial individual. Hard to pin down. He’s got a lot going on. He’s got an amazing fast mind--it’s all over the place all the time. I’ve never met anybody like him, such a multi-faceted personality. So I think I’m Not There was definitely a good attempt to depict that. It’s a really brilliant movie, way underrated.
Q: In the movie he mocks a journalist who’s trying to interview him. I actually think it’s refreshing that he fought back…
A: That is based on an actual incident. He’s confronted by some guy who’s just asking stock questions, so he sort of mocks him. He can definitely be very sarcastic. He’s never been one for playing the game. You never see him on the red carpet, you don’t read about him in the gossip magazines. He’s a singular guy. I like him.
Q: How did Dylan challenge you?
A: He constantly challenged me. It was always a challenge. He would talk about music in non-technical terms. He would use colors to try and describe what he wanted sometimes, to get the vibe of what he’s trying to convey. He’s also a painter. He would talk about music in terms of abstract expressionism sometimes and I’d struggle. I mean, music is supposed to be something that is finite. And you supposedly can put it down on a piece of white paper with a bunch of notes and write exactly what you want. But Bob was never one to be limited by such means of inscribing music and he would use much more general types of imagery to try and convey what he was looking for. Standard notation of music, for instance, a classical musician can look at a piece of standard notation and they play it exactly the way it’s written. Bob Dylan never does his songs the same way twice. He’s always looking, the way a jazz musician would improvise. His prose sort of bears that out too. The free imagery of his words is something that he tries to complement musically and this always presented a great challenge for me. Sometimes we would rehearse something one way and then he’d get up on stage that night and do it an entirely different way in a different key. It’s a real struggle for some of the musicians. But we got through it, through the challenge. And nobody could get away with that but him.
Q: Favorite Dylan song?
A: No, there are too many. There are so many hundreds of songs and so many of them are so great. And no one song is the same song. He’ll do one song so many different ways. It can end up having many, many, many different incarnations which are barely recognizable from one to another. The only thing that would be consistent sometimes might be just the lyric--and sometimes he’d change those too.
Q: You were fortunate to come up during great time and place in music. Is that same opportunity available to musicians today? How is it the same/different?
A: Well, yes and no. The problem is that there are so many competing forms of entertainment now besides going to listen to a band. I mean, you can go home and entertain yourself. And there’s less incentive for people to go out and hear music. When I was younger, going out and hearing music was one of the major forms of entertainment so there was a lot more opportunity for musicians to go out and get jobs. Nowadays, if you have a band, you’re lucky if you can find a place to play one set. When I was young, you could get a job in a bar and be playing five sets a night, five, six nights a week, and you could really learn your instrument. But the thing that is better about the industry now is the fact that with the Internet anybody can put out their music to the public. Whereas before it was you had to get a record deal, you had to make a record, get signed, get the record distributed and promote it. Nowadays, people can directly reach the fans. Through the internet it’s a much better situation, more egalitarian.
Q: But at the same time, that process of getting a label and the like did help to eliminate some artists and uplift others.
A: That’s true. Now you can choose from anybody. But it’s a lot fairer. Just because someone was on the radio didn’t mean they were the best person. And some of the best musicians I ever heard were people that never left their hometown. But to become somebody who’s nationally known, first you had to leave your hometown, go to a national center of the recording industry such as New York, Nashville, L.A. If you weren’t there, it was very difficult for somebody to break through. And now you can do it from anywhere.
Q: Speaking of great local musicians, when you come up you’re going to be sharing the stage with other local musicians. How is that going to work?
A: I’m bringing my own band with me. We’re supposed to be the last people to play. I have a drummer who backs me up and another fellow who plays guitar and bass, we switch off. We’re gonna really rock it.
Q: How did you hook up with Tom Honan, the producer, to do this event?
A: I don’t know. He heard me playing at a club down state here a couple years ago and said he was gonna call me for something and here it is.
Q: That seems to be a trend with you. Someone sees you, says he’ll give you a call, little while later, they give you a call. Dylan did it, Tom did it…
A: That’s one of the things that has never changed--word of mouth or actually witnessing something. It’s always been like that. Somebody hears you, you take their phone number or now you get their website and stay in touch with them. And man, I’ve always done that. Wherever I am, whenever I hear a musician who catches my ear, I always make sure I leave with their contact information. And sometimes, even years and years later, I’d be going through my list of people in my book and I’d say, “Oh, I’ll give this guy a call,” and it’s as if you heard them play yesterday, 10 years later. So I’m glad Tom kept me in mind when he heard me play.
Q: How do you feel about the crisis facing music education and arts education in general?
A: Unfortunately, it’s under-funded. The arts are always the first thing to go when the economy sours and so unfortunately, there’s not enough attention being paid to it. Music education is so important. And whether somebody aspires to go into music or not--it’s a great way to organize your thinking, to learn music. Studies have proven that people who study music do better in their other fields of endeavor because it teaches you to be organized and disciplined and you end up with a great result--playing music. And also interacting with other people--in any kind of ensemble, it teaches you great principles of human interaction of how to cooperate and lay back and take the center when you need to. As embodied in any kind of musical group, it’s always a beautiful thing to watch and that’s why bands are so popular. Music has always been great entertainment because people love to watch that interaction between musicians.
Q: Nothing like seeing it live.
A: Music is a great metaphor for the rest of life and teaches you skills that apply to all other kinds of human endeavor. People always ask me, “Should I take guitar lessons? I have no musical talent.” Well, that’s not true. Even if you don’t have any “musical talent,” you can still learn to operate a musical instrument, not necessarily play it with any kind of great artistry, but if you can at least learn to operate it, you can make a nice sound with an instrument and have a great hobby.
Q: Do you have anything else to add?
A: Just that I’m really looking forward to this concert. It’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m really glad that we’re going to be honoring Bob Dylan on this momentous occasion of his 70th birthday.
Q: Seventy and still going. What a champ!
A: Right? Still going, still out there on the road. Many, many, many months a year. He really likes to do it. He just got back from China. So he deserves a tribute concert. As one of his original back up guys, I’m glad to be participating. I’m excited to be there.