One of the most frustrating elements of mainstream rock writing is that while musicians like Bob Dylan are rightfully celebrated, it’s with the same handful of narratives over and over again. He’s a bard, he’s a cipher, he’s the old man from the mountain. He’s a folksinging prophet, an inscrutable rebel genius, and the spokesman for a generation. I get it, believe me. Blood On The Tracks is an epic tone poem and one of the greatest albums ever. “Like A Rolling Stone” is a soulful blues howl and the national anthem of America’s postwar middle class. I get WHY a writer would wanna traverse this terrain. But, millions of people have already narrated those highlights. Tell a new story. Dig a new ditch. Gimme a fresh look at how Dylan intersected with popular (or unpopular) culture simply as an exercise in why the hell not?
For example, why did it take an offhand comment by Sean-Michael Yoder on Facebook to realize Bob Dylan hooked up with The Plugz on David Letterman back in March 1984? You may remember The Plugz from my previous post, Death and Renaissance in Smog City: L.A. 1978-85, the love note to SoCal punk that was written by Yoder and edited by me. The Plugz made the list because they were a kickass group of Chicanos in the mostly white, early LA punk scene and they served as a bridge between The Zeros and Los Lobos in the Mexican Rock continuum. That an artist of Dylan’s stature walked out on stage with a couple guys who within the previous couple years played gigs with bands like X and Gun Club at venues like Madame Wong’s and Cathay de Grande boggles my mind. And while Bob’s collaborations with The Band, Grateful Dead, and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers are understandably more high-profile, this one-off with The Plugz deserves examination, too.
Bob Dylan & The Plugz – Don’t Start Me Talkin’
Late Night With David Letterman
March 22, 1984
“Don’t Start Me Talkin'” was an inspired opener, whose arrangement was not too dissimilar from “Highway 61 Revisted” or “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” In fact, it’s a clever allusion to Bob’s agreement to appear as a musical guest, but without an interview segment. (“Don’t start me talkin’, I’ll tell you everything I know”). The song didn’t appear on Infidels, Dylan’s most recent studio effort (released the previous October), and ostensibly the album he was on Letterman to promote. So, leading off with “Talkin'” was basically a high-concept inside joke. Classic Bob. Much has been made of him making up his own lyrics to Sonny Boy Williamson‘s 1955 single, but floating lyrics are fundamental to the blues tradition. Besides, it’s Dylan. The guy didn’t invent making up lyrics, but he sure as shit reinvented that concept. Also in true Dylan fashion, he and the band never rehearsed “Talkin,'” he simply called it out during Dave’s intro. According to bassist Marsico, they didn’t rehearse anything, if by “rehearse” you mean “practice song from start to finish.”
“A year before (the show), Dylan invited Charlie (Quintana, drummer) up to his house to jam. I also started going up there. It was great. I mean this is Dylan, man! He’s always looking around for new, young players. We never rehearsed songs, we just jammed and screwed around for hours. On Letterman we did ‘Jokerman,’ ‘License To Kill,’ and a blues number called ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’.’ We didn’t know we were going to play those songs until we walked out there. Dylan is different. He doesn’t want it prepared. We thought that was fun, because we’re not perfectionists either. But, we know OUR songs tighter than that.”
–Tony Marsico, Plugz bassist, Late Nights With Bob Dylan, 2008
Too bad about no interview because one question I would’ve loved to ask Bob is, “How the hell did you hook up with Charlie Quintana?” If Marsico’s version is accurate, then Quintana was the gateway. Did Bob secretly show up to a Plugz gig and take note of the drummer? Were they introduced by a friend of a friend? He doesn’t have to tell me everything he knows, but that bit of the origin story would be nice. Also, while this performance is typically billed as Dylan with The Plugz, that’s a half-truth. In fact, the Plugz were only represented by Marsico and Quintana. Main Plug, singer/guitarist/songwriter Tito Larriva, and then-new second guitarist, Steven Hufsteter (previously in The Quick and The Dickies) did not play. The guitarist here is J.J. Holiday (aka Justin Jesting, “just ingesting,” get it?), who was neither Plug nor Cruzado, the band who morphed out of The Plugz within a few months of this performance. Holiday was basically in the right place at the right time and I think he acquits himself fairly well, as do Marsico and Quintana.
Bob Dylan & The Plugz – License To Kill
Late Night With David Letterman
March 22, 1984
Well, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
Well, all he believes are his eyes
And his eyes they just tell him lies
But, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as a cold chill
She say who take away his license to kill?
Of the 3 songs included on the Letterman broadcast, I think “License To Kill” is the most fully realized. As with most Dylan anthems it feels timeless, like an old folk-blues tune he retrofitted for modern ears. In terms of the canon, “License” fits in that “Queen Jane Approximately”/”Goin’ To Acapulco”/”Black Diamond Bay” pocket, which, let’s be honest, is a pretty good pocket. Love how the different elements of this performance come together: The call-and-response of Bob’s vocal and Holiday’s bluesy picking, Marsico pulling against the beat, Quintana’s heavy thwack pushing it forward, and Dylan’s harmonica outro. A sterling performance that totally overshadows the version on Infidels mainly because Quintana’s drums sound like fucking drums, not like someone’s bouncing a basketball on tinfoil. But, Bob here sounds truly inspired, definitely one of his high points in the ’80s.
“I cherish this very lucky period of time I was able to spend, at such a young age and with such a great artist as Bob Dylan. We’d done a series of casual and scattered jams over a period of a couple/few months before this one-time appearance. He was more than gracious to me at all times, both as a young guitarist trying to find a style and as a fledgling young human being for that matter, and he was the same to the other guys too, from all I saw. He was really good in that way with younger cats, in the same tradition as were many older Southern blues musicians I myself had sought out at an even younger age, being the huge country-blues fan I was and still am. I put Dylan in the same highly regarded league as all those other other heroes of mine.”
—J.J. Holiday, February 17, 2010
Bob Dylan & The Plugz – Jokerman
Late Night With David Letterman
March 22, 1984
The first 3 minutes of this performance are pretty great. Is it just me or does this arrangement sound like it could easily be a Superchunk song? I like New Wave Bob, the shame is that the band didn’t play a few more times to work out the imperfections. In that sense this is a bizarro “License” because the things that worked in “License” also work here, but when it’s time for the harmonica solo, mixed-up and fairly hilarious confusion ensues.
3:11 – Dylan takes off Strat and walks over to amps to find harmonica.
3:18 – Dylan plays harmonica, but quickly realizes it’s in the wrong key. He walks over to a case of harmonicas, doesn’t see the one he wants, and appears to ask a roadie where his shit is. Roadie scurries away, sweating violently. Keep in mind that Dylan’s back is to the audience this whole time and we’re not just talking the in-studio audience, but the millions watching on TV. Again, classic Bob.
3:43 – Dylan walks up to Holiday to let him know what’s up, same with Quintana, apparently Marsico is on his own.
3:55 – Dylan gets correct harmonica and FINALLY starts his solo, but unlike “License To Kill,” the harp solo here is stunted and clammy. What started out with such promise falls apart and fizzles.
While we’d all love a perfect “Jokerman,” keep in mind that this version is miles ahead of the lite reggae studio cut. Going back to the idea of interviewing Bob, another question I would’ve loved to ask is how he got to nuevo wavo from this:
Bob Dylan – Jokerman excerpt
Infidels is actually a solid B/B+ album and “Jokerman” is a pretty good song, but we just can’t overlook the shitty sound of the record because it doesn’t fit the transcendent wizard narrative. If we learn nothing else from the 1980s, it’s that the production aesthetic of that era — especially for the celebrity class of which co-producers Dylan and to a lesser extent Mark Knopfler were certainly part — was suffocatingly awful. If we’re gonna reward records for sounding good, we have to punish them for sounding bad, and the ’80s were a fucking tsunami of weak-ass synths and tinny, compressed drums. So, to have a writer claim that “Jokerman” is Dylan’s 4th greatest song means a sweetheart like me has to check that shit at the door.
And this brings me back to my original point. Instead of focusing on “Jokerman’s” place in the Dylan pantheon, or making another list of his greatest songs/albums, why not have the intellectual curiosity to shed light on smaller moments in his career? Do I have to do everything? (That’s a rhetorical question. Of course I do.) Fact is, outside of a Chris Morris, the VAST majority of mainstream rock writers and historians, especially the old guard, have no idea about the importance and greatness of The Plugz and give zero shits about the golden age of LA punk. While this Letterman set is flawed, it’s also one of the more engaging and challenging collaborations of Bob’s post-Rolling Thunder career. The only issue from my perspective is that it didn’t continue. If you can’t find value in the one-off, post-punk/new wave Dylan, your loss is my gain. But hey, it’s a free country. As a wise man once wrote:
I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma
If I can’t please him
BONUS LETTERMAN: FULL DYLAN/PLUGZ REHEARSALS + BROADCAST
0:00-2:56 – I Once Knew A Man
3:42-7:01 – Jokerman
8:34-12:26 – License To Kill
13:33-15:59 – Treat Her Right [Roy Head]
16:13-18:04 – unknown vamping
19:24-21:40 – Don’t Start Me Talkin’
22:36-27:18 – License To Kill
28:11-33:00 – Jokerman