This week, Sony releases the latest Official Bootleg Series set, Trouble No More, focusing on the Gospel years, 1979-1981, and comprising more than a hundred previously unreleased performances on the 8CD and 1 DVD deluxe set.
To accompany the special feature on The Arts Desk, which features an interview with the guitarist on all the Gospel tours, Fred Tackett, here is the full text of my interview with Fred, done by phone between London and Topanga Canyon. He’s a good storyteller, and I hope you will enjoy what he’s got to say about working with Gospel Bob during those three extraordinary years.
How did you start working with Dylan?
It was after Lowell George died. I’d come off the road, I was in a session, and my wife said, Bob Dylan’s office called, and they want you to come down and jam with them. So for three weeks I’d drive down to Rundown Studios in the middle of Santa Monica, a funky little place upstairs, and I started jamming with Tim Drummond, Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham and Terry Young – who was an amazing gospel piano player – and Mona Lisa Young [her voice graces BA’s famous “Flower Duet” commercial] as well as the gospel singers. I remember grousing to myself, thinking, man it’s been three weeks. Are we gonna go on the road? Then I started thinking, there’s about 50 thousand guitar players who would die to do this, what are you bitching about? [laughter]
Eventually, Bob called me on the phone, days before the were going on Saturday Night Live. “We’re doing this tour, this TV show, can you make it?” And I said, sure man, have your manager give me a call. He says, “I don’t have a manager.” Okay. So the next day I went in to the rehearsal and after that he told me to come in to his little office, and said what’s the story. And I said, well Bob – and he put a finger up to his lips and pointed to his ear. So I put my face right up against his ear and said, you know Bob, I get uuh double scale, which is $600 a day for a six-hour session. So that’s seven days a week for three weeks…And he’d listen to me then pull back as if saying, you kiddin’ me? And stick his face right back in my face. Just playing with me, that’s all he was doing. He has a great sense of humour. Very dry. That’s how it all went down. He called me the next day and said, that’s cool. There wasn’t any negotiation about it. He just went through that whole little thing, which I thought was hysterical. I think he thought it was hysterical too. [laughter] Otherwise he wouldn’t have been doing it.
So we played all the songs from Slow Train Coming and the new songs from Saved, then we went on the road, which was a first for me, playing songs that hadn’t been recorded yet. It was only after we’d been on the road for I don’t know how long that we drove into Muscle Shoals, got off the bus, went in to the studio, recorded for about three days, got back on the bus and went to the next gig. And that was Saved.
The Toronto recordings [which feature on the deluxe set and on the Trouble In Mind film] were spread over several days, with three cameras. It was a big thing that we were going to do this, and then no one heard anything more about it. They sat on a shelf for years, and now they’ve put it out. They have really done a good job editing it, and it’s just fantastic, the sound and the close-ups are really good.
What was the feeling in the band – were members of the band partaking of the spirit of it?
Everyone was into the spirit of it. I grew up playing sacred and secular music, so it wasn’t unusual for me, and I was glad to have the opportunity to play sacred music. We used to have a kind of prayer grouping every night, with all the girl singers and all the guys in the band before we went on stage, and even though I wasn’t an evangelical born-again Christian I would participate, because the idea of doing it was fine with me. We did that every night. I understand the power of faith, but I didn’t have it. Some of the guys in the band did. Most of the singers were pretty much Gospel all the way.
But it was a really good gig, I just love Dylan. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so if he wants to sing about Jesus, that’s great, go ahead… And I love everything that Jesus said. The problems I have are with organised religions. Organised religion seems to be like a bad charity, and not an efficient one.
How did it go down when you did Saturday Night Live?
That was our first show! Everyone was extremely respectful, everyone was blown away that Bob was showing up. Because Bob wouldn’t be a part of any of the skits, they got Al Franken, who is now a senator, to dress up as Dylan, and he came over to us and was so humiliated. “I want you to know that I don’t want to do this, please don’t hold it against me…” It was the first night Bill Murray was in the cast, and it was the first show without Belushi and Ackroyd, and they called up Jim Keltner to wish us all good luck. Everyone was really excited about us being on the show, and it went down great.
How much antagonism did you face at the first run of gigs at the Warfield in San Francisco?
The reviews were terrible. That was a whole drama. We had Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, protesting. There was a guy walking up and down outside with a giant cross. It was a whole theatre going down on the street. One of my subsequent friends who I met at that time was making good money busking old Bob Dylan songs, because you couldn’t hear them inside. [laughter] The best thing I saw was a guy in the front row with a sign that said, ‘Jesus loves your old songs’, which I thought was a good point.
At the same time, people were digging it, and we had everyone in San Francisco there, from Jerry Garcia to Maria Muldaur and Mike Bloomfield, all these people came and sat in with us. It was exciting being in the same spot for a couple of weeks. But the newspapers – one review was headlined, God-Awful Dylan. Most of the press was so bad, Bob told me once he called up one of the reviewers, got his number, and called him on the phone, and when his wife answered and he could hear the sound of children in the background, he was so shocked that this dude would have a wife and family that he was speechless and hung up. [laughter] Like, what in the world are you writing about me, man, and then thinking, my God this guy’s got a wife and kids… I don’t even know what to say.
The reviewers hated us, but the audiences, they were pretty enthusiastic. I have tapes of all those shows. There were hecklers, but not so much in San Francisco as in other cities. I remember in Arizona he had people turn on the lights, like, let’s see who these people are. Some funny stuff. I remember him saying, I was telling these people about Jesus and they were going boo, and he was making this weird sound [a long, low-pitched boooooo], like he’d never heard anyone say ‘boo’ before. He thought that was so strange.
Does that kind of adversity fire up a band or hobble it?
Well, it was exciting because it was controversial. I really enjoyed it when we played the old songs, but the concerts by then were like a really good concert. The first ones, Bob was on a mission, and we felt like our job was to fulfil the musical vision that he wanted to put out. We tried to make it as good as possible so that people couldn’t deny it. It was undeniable, you couldn’t say it was horrible. If you did, you looked silly. A lot of times people said, I don’t like what Bob’s doing but the band are good. That was an easy ‘out’. But taken as a whole, it was undeniable what was going down.
There’s a sense of real intensity in 1979 and 1980. Did that change further down the line, and with the older songs in set?
It wasn’t quite as special. It was more like a really great Dylan concert. I mean, the first time we played Like A Rolling Stone at the second residency at the Warfield, that was the first song we played, and when we started the intro to that people just went crazy and this chill went up my spine. It was really, really special. We were still playing some of the Gospel songs, but when we first went out and were playing only those songs, it was definitely passionate and dangerous. People got upset, and also, John Lennon was shot in the winter of 1980 and that concerned everyone, because you thought, my God if someone went after John, why wouldn’t they go after Bob? So we were much more concerned. When we started the European tour everyone had bullet proof vests, and all this kind of stuff, special security guys checking out all the apartment buildings around the venues. That lasted for a little bit. Maybe one concert we wore those bullet proof vests, and then someone said, this sucks, enough of that. But there was a feeling of danger, something that was different from just going out and playing a bunch of good songs.
There are versions of amazing studio songs on this set that took years to come out. What was the experience of working on those in the studio?
We’d rehearse all those songs in Bob’s studio, and Every Grain of Sand was really informal. Everyone had taken a break and gone off, to do whatever they were doing, and Bob and I and Jennifer Warnes were standing around the studio, and Bob started playing guitar. I started playing along with him, and they sang. It was very informal, and it came out really great. Caribbean Wind was a funny incident, I don’t know what versions they have on the boxed set but we got a call from Jimmy Iovine, one of these guys who thought, if I could just get Bob in the studio with the A-team guys, and really do a good basic track, all that stuff. ‘It’ll be huge, it’ll be great’. So he got all of us down early to Studio 55, an old studio that they had redone. An A-team LA pop music studio of 1981. He put me and Dave Mansfield in a room at the back. I had mandolin, Dave was on fiddle, and they had Jim boxed in with baffles and all this stuff, everything separated, everything discrete, and eventually Bob shows up with his guy, whoever was helping him out at the time, running errands and things, and he’s standing there, and they start telling him, Hey Bob this studio is where they cut White Christmas, because Bob loves old studios and is always looking for old studios and mics and stuff, and then they play this track of Caribbean Wind that they want Bob to sing over, and he stands there and listens to it straight-faced, waits until it finishes, and turns to his guy and he says, go get me the music for White Christmas because I can’t cut any of my music in here. [laughter]
And then he goes, Fred, where are you, and I say, I’m back in this back room, and he goes, get your guitar and get out here. So all of a sudden there’s me and Steve Ripley and Keltner and all the baffles are gone, and we’re all sitting in a circle in the same room and we’re all playing live again, and we start going through tunes. We’re doing Groom, and I’m looking down and the mic isn’t even pointed at my amp because someone’s kicked it, so I’m putting it back in front of the amp where it’s supposed to go, and we look up and Jimmy Iovine and his engineer have gone. [laughter] There’s no one in the control room apart from the second engineer.
Is there one gig, session, or song, that stands out for you?
I really love Pressing On, from Saved. That is very funky, one of the funkiest things we ever did. I like that one a lot. Every Grain of Sand is another of my favourites, because it came down so naturally, but then all of them came down pretty naturally. I think we’d played most of the other songs a lot on the road, so they were a little more worked out. That’s always the thing Bob tried to avoid. He wanted to stop people getting a part that they’ll play every night, which tends to happen. You find something that works and you stick with it and the next thing you know you have this set- in-stone arrangement. Pressing On was more spontaneous, because I don’t remember us playing it as much as we did the other songs, like Saved. Now Saved is pretty great, especially when you hear these new live mixes. And Solid Rock, that’s a really good one.
For you, how does it all stand up today, 37 years later?
I have only seen the film, but I was amazed, man, it was so good. Everything was just so good. They picked the very best songs for it. Him and Spooner Oldham playing this harmonica and Hammond organ together at the end of What Can I do for You. Spooner would play these chord substitutions under Bob’s harmonica, and it was just so cool and hip, and Bob is playing so great. They found the best stuff of all that and put it in this movie. Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell is in there, all kinds of great stuff. It is really impressive sounding.
What were the recording sessions like?
We treated each of the songs as an individual. We were knew what the point of a song was, but we were just trying to figure out the best musical arrangement for it, and that was partly down to Bob. ‘Try it this way. Do it as a reggae’ [laughter]. We’d do everything as a reggae once.
He had this really cool thing. When we were working on Saved, we just worked on those tunes. He was writing them and we were learning them before we recorded them. But later on, when we started playing his old songs again, he’d give me a tape of someone else’s song. One time it was Bob Seger’s Night Moves. Another time it was Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. We even did a version of the Muppets song, Rainbow Connection. He’d say, teach the band this song, so I’d write the chord sheets, the guys would come in and I’d teach them Night Moves, Sweet Caroline, and so on, and he would sing it, then he’d send the recording to Bob Sager or Neil Diamond. [laughter]
He never said anything about it, but I always thought he didn’t want us to have these set-in-stone arrangements down. He wanted us to rehearse as a band but without us butchering his tunes over and over again, banging them into the ground. So he gave us these other songs to play. Then we’d go out on stage and play his songs. We’d rehearse them a bit, but not enough to be set in stone or to get our parts down. And I thought that it worked great. It was a great tactic, and I’ve never run across anyone else doing that. It’s a great way to rehearse a band, where you’ve got everyone together playing, without wearing the songs out.
Very much like Miles Davis, perhaps?
Exactly. I think Bob is very much influenced by Miles, He told me one time that when he first started living in the Village he got all his ideas of what was cool from watching Miles Davis. And I can dig that. I understand that. The Carnaby Street shirts, the cool clothes, the ‘don’t tap your foot, tap your heel’. Miles always said don’t flap your foot up and down. Use your heel, it’s much cooler, man. We used to say on the band stand – watch Bob’s heel, man, to keep up with whatever was going down, or what was supposed to be happening – watch his heel. He had really good timing. He is really good musician, and he doesn’t really get the credit from a lot of people who don’t think he is as incredibly unique as he is. He has got a great sense of vocal phrasing. There’s that thing he does where he back-phrases, where he won’t come in right away and plays catch-up with the melody, and at the chord changes he just shows up at the right word. It’s clever, complicated stuff.
I once said to him after a show, man I didn’t think you would ever get to the four chord because you waited so long to come in, and the next night he did the same thing, turned around and looked at me, as if to say, ‘oh yeah?’ [laughter]. He has an amazing sense of phrasing. And he’s invented guitar stylings. There’s certain way he plays rhythm guitar where it goes from a swinging folk thing to being a really straight thing on top of it, and he invented that. No one did that before he did it. He’s just a really good musician.
All images courtesy of Sony Music