One of the most frustrating elements of mainstream rock culture 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 folksinging prophet, an inscrutable rebel genius, the old man from the mountain, 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 white postwar middle class. I get WHY a writer would wanna traverse this terrain. But, 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 for me 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
Nice piece Lance. There’s also video of Bob and company rehearsing on the set before the final taping of Letterman that day. Probably floating around somewhere on the YouTube. I know one of the rehearsal songs is Roy Head’s Treat Her Right.
But forget the music, I want video of Bob and Liberace chatting it up. Just two boys from the northern Midwest trying to make it in the music biz.
I wanted to include this video in the main text, but I felt like “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” was the cover to go with and it didn’t seem to fit after the Infidels songs. However, with Pedro’s comment above and a similar comment by @somehillbilly on Twitter, I gotta post the soundcheck. Here’s Bob Dylan & The Plugz (and J.J. Holiday) covering “Treat Her Right,” a huge hit for Roy Head And The Traits in 1965. It starts out pretty loose, but quickly locks into a groove when Dylan counts in at the :38 mark.
‘…the ’80s were a fucking tsunami of weak-ass synths and tinny, compressed drums.’ this is going to be my epitaph someday. well said and amen.
This is an interesting reflection on an intriguing musical event. An affinity for certain south-of-the-border ideas or traditions shows up in Bob’s music over the decades: “Spanish Harlem Incident,” “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” “Romance in Durango,” “Senor.” Beyond this, it’s always nice to find out that Bob can be nice to younger musicians, especially given his legendary put-downs. His experience with The Plugz certainly seems more respectful and positive than the awful mess that happened with Los Lobos and Paul Simon.
Great article … every time I see the videos from this show, I wish that Dylan had stuck with this sound for his next album ,,, instead we got more of the 80s production sound on “Empire Burlesque” – which I think sounds worse than Infidels (although it’s been a long time since I listened to it).
Actually, dear friends, I’m quite sure that I’m the one who first made note of all this on FB. I’ve posted it several times, but I’ll be happy to research the date of my first posting. Love ya lots, KJ
Thanks for this, it’s a thoughtful assessment of one of his best TV performances (if not *the* best). One senses this is how he’d liked the tour that year to be, although this band is not really suited to the stadiums he went on to play. And perhaps there was some pressure to play the new songs more like the record, rather than these incredible versions. Of course, he went on to form a similar band and play smaller theatres in ’88, which seems like a decision to play more like he wanted to all along (including the kind of cover songs Columbia persuaded him not to do for the Unplugged show). I think Jokerman is just as good as License To Kill here, the harmonica solo superb (even the search for the right one is entertaining). It’s tempting to imagine how all the Infidels sings – including the ones left off the album – would have sounded in new versions, backed up by The Plugz.
Great article, thanks, lance. I didn’t know that Dylan played with The Plugz, it’s a shame they didn’t do more together. Bob looks like he’s really into it, I like his rock star moves.
Waaa. Thank you! I can go to sleep happy tonight.
The Book Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, edited by John Bauldie, is an anthology of articles from Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, and contains an interview with Charlie Quintana in which he tells his story of meeting and working with Bob.
Thanks Jeff. Talk about an obscurity. I’m definitely gonna have to track that mofo down.
I really love this Letterman performance. Typical Dylan to promote an album with versions of its songs that bear virtually no resemblance to those contained on it. I live in hope that these 3 songs were selected from perhaps a dozen that were rehearsed and that the rehersal recordings are lying somewhere in the Dylan vaults, ready for release one day as part of the Bootleg Series.
DS, totally with you on that. How amazing would it be if there were even a half-dozen or so Dylan cuts with The Plugz? So much fun.
It makes me grind my teeth everytime I see this, how great the eighties could have been if he had stuck to what he liked instead of listening to his rock star entourage… He still had it and wrote it, what made him a genius, but he flushed it down the high class toilet of the synthesized generation of money lovers in those days that started the dark ages we’re still in, though he himself got out of it since World Gone Wrong
Hans, love the fucking passion and apologies for being so tardy in my response. In my defense, I’ve been a little busy (see Love Has Just Found Me Somehow). World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You are both great. World, in fact, is probably the only Dylan album I really, really like after Desire, comps and reissues aside. I think a handful of his albums are good, but I rarely yearn to hear them.
There is pro-shot video of 5 songs rehearsed for this Letterman Show:
1. I Once Knew A Man
2. License To Kill
4. Treat Her Right
5. My Guy
You may be able to obtain a copy from someone at dvdylan.com, where it is part of a DVD called “Letterman, Grammy, and More.”
David, thanks for the heads up and sorry to be so tardy in my response. I love the DylanPlugz and I’m stoked to find out there’s 2 more songs than I initially thought. Sweet! Now if I can get this time machine working, I can make them do an entire album. I know Hans is with me on that haha.