Bob Dylan’s Shadow: An Extended Interview With Joel Gilbert
Film: Rolling Thunder And The Gospel Years
By Evan Schlansky | October 26, 2009
If you’ve got a question about Bob Dylan, you should probably ask Joel Gilbert. Gilbert’s the man behind several exhaustive documentaries (the latest is Never Ending Tour Diaries: Drummer Winston Watson’s Incredible Journey) and fronts the Highway 61 Revisited Band, which often includes Dylan touring alumni Rob Stoner and Scarlet Rivera. In this extended interview, we delve deeper into his all-abiding passions, and discuss I’m Not There, controversial Dylanologist AJ Webberman, and compliments received from Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.
Where were you born and raised? Where do you live now?
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee at six years old. My upbringing was characterized by the beautiful outdoors of East Tennessee at the foot of the Great Smokey Mountains. Musical influences of my youth included all the great country music legends, as well as Elvis Presley and bluegrass music. I now live in the Los Angeles area.
When did you first get into Dylan? Did you get into him passionately, or did that come later? Was he your first musical idol?
I was aware of Bob Dylan growing up, but was not really much of a Dylan fan. I simply liked some of his songs like Like A Rolling Stone and other hits. I had discovered Neil Young in High School, having heard “Hey Hey, My My” on the King Biscuit Flower Hour, and tried to learn his songs on acoustic guitar during snow days home from school. I had purchased Young’s Decade and After The Gold Rushalbums, but owned no Dylan albums until a friend gave me Blood on the Tracks in my final year of High School. When I was studying at the University in London, I bought Neil Young bootleg tapes on weekends at the Camden Lock Market in Camden Town from time to time, and found it fascinating to hear live versions of Neil Young’s songs. In my third year of study, I had a small black and white TV in my room at my residence hall in Tavistock Square and I happened to find the BBC 2 broadcasting Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. In the film, Dylan’s performance of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” absolutely mesmerized me. I was so transfixed with the power and majesty of Dylan’s performances in Don’t Look Back that I was driven to feel it within myself by recreating it. I also noticed that Dylan’s speaking voice was similar to mine – so I thought “if I talked like Dylan, maybe I could sing like him too?” So back I went to the Camden Lock Market, now purchasing every Dylan bootleg tape I could find. As I learned song after song, I realized I could feel the same magic I felt watching Dylan. This joyous feeling still exists for me, even some 500 shows later of performing with my Dylan tribute band, Highway 61 Revisited. Though I don’t really believe in such things, someone told me once that Dylan and I were “channeling from the same cosmic source”.
Is Bob Dylan the reason you became a musician? Did you learn how to play guitar and sing before you got into him?
Bob Dylan is the reason I became a professional musician. I did have an interest in playing guitar, but it was my passion for Dylan’s music that drove me to perform. In fact, I learned how to play guitar from listening to Bob Dylan. From the standpoint of advancing one’s musicianship, that’s not necessarily a good thing! Dylan used extra bars, turned the time around, and varied his volume to accentuate the lyrics with pulsating rhythms.
Not to mention that I had no clue on how to play harmonica. I tried very hard to play harmonica and emulate Dylan’s style without much success. One day I was working on the harmonica part for “Mr. Tambourine Man”, listening to the live 1966 version. After struggling mightily as usual, I relaxed and just let it flow, and then suddenly from that day on I could emulate Dylan’s harmonica work! It was like a sudden explosion. One day I could not play harmonica, and the next moment I could.
Was their a particular album or period that blew you away, when you were first getting into him?
Having just discovered Bob Dylan in the mid-’80s, I had the luxury of approaching Dylan’s music is a chronological study. I started with Dylan’s first album, Bob Dylan, learning songs like “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Song To Woody”. Next were the albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, then “The Times They Are A Changing”, and so on. Every one of his albums blew me away in a different way, whether it was the lyrics, the passion, or the music. The pulsating guitar rhythms and the way Dylan used the dynamics of his guitar work to accentuate the vocals and lyrics I found most intriguing and awesome. This is what I immediately sought to emulate and what I felt was the key to Dylan’s early talent.
Why are you so fascinated with Bob Dylan? Would you say you’re obsessed? Do your friends and family understand your passion?
At first, Dylan fascinated me because of his music. Later as I learned more, I also became fascinated with his life and musical journey. Still later, as a documentarian investigating Dylan’s life history, I became acutely aware of Dylan as a person with deep flaws who went through incredible struggles, and sometimes overcame them and sometimes did not. Learning even more personal and musical history that was not necessarily “fit to print” in any of my films from those closest to Dylan gave me a very different perspective of him than reading Bob Dylan biographies.
From the beginning, my “Dylan time” has been allocated to recreating the music and enjoying exploring different versions of the same songs from different live concert eras, versus the album versions. This resulted in my book, The Acoustic Bob Dylan: His Music Styles and Guitar Techniques, that I wrote in 1991. I am not an obsessive fan. I don’t listen to Dylan music all the time, I don’t talk about Dylan with friends, I don’t buy or wear Dylan T-shirts, nor do I collect Dylan-related items. I go to see Dylan in concert only if he comes to my area to study what his latest approach is to the songs. So, I’m not a “fan” in the typical sense, for me its about recreation of the music. Most of my friends and family admire the way I’ve specialized in this niche of popular music.
Were you interested in making films before you started making Bob Dylan documentaries?
Yes, I had been involved in some film productions as an assistant accountant on films like A Man Called Sarge (I even had a cameo), and Iron Eagle II. I worked at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood as a financial analyst. During that time, I wrote a fictional action-adventure film and tried to sell the film script, but nothing came of it.
How and when did you learn to make films?
My band was performing at an American Cancer Society event in Simi Valley, California in 2000. During sound check we noticed that Bob Dylan 1966 Band drummer Mickey Jones was listed as a celebrity MC, slated to speak after our performance. I asked the event organizers to send Mickey up on stage if he arrived early. He did so and I excused my drummer, of course! Mickey played “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” with my band – a truly exciting experience, his drumming style was so unique and hard hitting, I felt I was onstage at a 1966 Bob Dylan performance! We became friends after the show, and Mickey invited me to his home to view his unseen home movies of the 1966 Dylan tour. I immediately suggested making a documentary film for release on video and DVD. Based on my knowledge of Dylan fan interest from selling the book I had written 10 years earlier, The Acoustic Bob Dylan: His Music Styles and Guitar Techniques, I felt confident it would be well received and Dylan fans would buy it.
I did not actually know how to shoot or edit a film at that time. I bought a Mac G8, and the Final Cut Pro film editing software and forced myself to actually read the entire instruction manual, some 500 pages, before doing any editing. Then I just made the film and am to this day very proud of the result. After one successful documentary, I had a distributor and an audience, so it justified producing another, then another, and so on. As time went on I advanced my techniques as you can see in my later films, and hired graphic artists, research assistants, and assistant editors as needed. These are the Dylan documentaries I’ve produced: Bob Dylan 1966 World Tour, The Home Movies: Through the Camera of Mickey Jones, Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1974: Through the Camera of Barry Feinstein, Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, Inside Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years: Busy Being Born… Again!, and Bob Dylan Never Ending Tour Diaries: Drummer Winston Watson’s Incredible Journey.
Are you familiar with the other Bob Dylan video documentaries? Were you trying to make videos different from theirs?
The only Dylan documentary that existed when I made my first film was Donn Pennebaker’s film, Don’t Look Back. I noticed that as I’ve come out with more films, a few others started popping up out of the UK covering the time period I had already covered, and they were largely fan interviews with the filmmakers themselves talking about how they were fans of Dylan. My films have all been revelatory, giving in depth and previously undisclosed information through interviews of actual persons involved with Dylan like Mickey Jones, Barry Feinstein, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, Scarlet Rivera, Rob Stoner, Jerry Wexler, Regina McCrary and so on. I’m proud of the quality and revelatory nature of everything I’ve produced. If you look away for even a few seconds, you are going to miss something new and interesting!
My documentaries are the only ones, including the Dylan authorized efforts No Direction Home and even I’m Not There, that offer any real insight other than information that is already publicly known. After seeing my films, Dylan fans have much greater insight into Dylan, his music, and his personal trials and tribulations that inspired the music. Did anyone learn anything they didn’t already know fromNo Direction Home? You had to sit through four hours to try to find a tidbit or two – and the ending was not even accurate. Dylan did not say “Play F-ing Loud” at the end of the Manchester Free Trade Hall concert that ends this film. As Mickey Jones, the Band drummer chronicles in the documentary I made with him, it was one of the stagehands. Dylan was not on mike, he was leaning over saying something to Robbie and facing Mickey, his lips movements don’t even match, and there is no microphone near him. Mickey explained it was one of the stagehand trying to be encouraging and you can tell its an English accent if you listen to it a few times. I think most people went to see I’m Not There to learn something or get an insight into Dylan. I don’t know anyone who walked away satisfied. I was actually up for one of the parts, I was in touch with the agent for the filmmaker for a few years, but in the end they gave my part to Richard Gere, saying that they decided to go with all established actors since Gere had expressed an interest. I told the agent that the whole point of casting me was to create something new and interesting, that I didn’t think any Richard Gere fans would come see the film. My argument fell on deaf ears.
What’s your opinion in general of the unauthorized DVD bios of bands that on the market? Yours are great.
They can contribute something if filmmakers have good access and know what questions to ask. This is rarely the case, unfortunately.
Did you meet much resistance, tracking down and interviewing all the key players in his life? Were they hard to track down? Are people resistant to talk about Dylan for fear it will get back to him, or can they just open up?
Everyone I approached was willing to speak with me, except the major figures at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, which included founding Pastors Kenn Gulliksen, Bill Dwyer, and Larry Myers. For four months, I worked on these potential interview subjects, but encountered resistance because of a policy in the late seventies to protect Dylan’s privacy so he could grow in his faith without press intrusion. I found these pastors were still playing the same role in protecting Dylan’s privacy – there had been no reason for them to change that approach despite the passage of years. It was only by assuring them that my project sought to explain the history and context of Dylan’s religious music vis a vis the times, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church, the evangelical movement in the late 70’s, the born again experiences, Jews for Jesus, and so on that Pastor Bill Dwyer agreed to open up on the subject for the first time. Pastor Dwyer explained that Dylan (who was a student in his Bible class), to his amazement, learned the Bible very quickly, and that his lyrics in “Slow Train Coming” displayed a fantastic grasp of the messages of the Bible.
The boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was someone difficult to locate, he had several layers of gatekeepers to go through. But once I made contact we hit it off nicely. I flew him to New York City where he attended my band’s performance at BB Kings in Manhattan and then interviewed him the next day. He was very kind, he said in the interview that listening to me sing and articulate “Hurricane,” that he finally understood the words!
My being a musician, understanding the material, and asking good questions, I believe I put my subjects at ease. In fact, several subjects were so forthcoming that I had to actually not include some comments due to my fear that it would make them look bad!
Did you have any prior journalistic experience before you started interviewing all these people?
I’d written various articles and edited and edited an autobiography and was a researcher for the major biography on Vladamir Jabotinsky. The key to my films is familiarity with the material. I do my homework. One reviewer wrote like I knew the answers to most questions before I even asked them, and its true to some extent. Everyone remembers Ed Bradley’s 60 Minutes interview with Bob Dylan when he asked him questions like “What’s it like to be Bob Dylan?”
What’s AJ Weberman like? Did he and Dylan really get into a fist fight?
AJ Weberman is an iconic figure in his own right. I like to think of him as an obsessive Dylan fan, but on steroids. His life history includes being a radical sixties anti-war revolutionary, a marijuana legalization advocate, a researcher and writer about the Kennedy assassination, one of the early rock journalists, and essentially a professional “gadfly”. He’s the father of “garbology”, the study of garbage to research someone’s life, and claims the CIA copied his techniques. In my film, Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1974, AJ recounts his story of first being threatened by Dylan who warned him to stop going through his garbage. According to AJ, Dylan had threatened to “kick his ass personally” if he did it again, and AJ promised not to continue. However, AJ could not resist the temptation, apparently, and it resulted in Dylan jumping him on Elizabeth Street in the Bowery and pummeling him. Some people ran over to help him out and asked “what did he get?” thinking AJ had been robbed. AJ replied, “nothing you idiots, that was Bob Dylan just kicking my ass, he’s Bob Dylan, he doesn’t have to roll hippies in the Bowery for money!”
Despite what negatives some people might think, AJ is an original thinker, is the single most knowledgeable source on the planet about Bob Dylan, and is a great writer and investigative journalistic in his own right.
When did you realize you could play Bob Dylan songs well enough to form a Bob Dylan cover band? Can you talk about the evolution of the Highway 61 Band?
I had managed an alternative rock band in LA called Low Angels starting in 1992 while I was working at Paramount Pictures. I made a lot of contacts at the best clubs and learned how to maneuver in the music and record business. After getting very close to a record deal, the band broke up after a few years. I really missed the live performance venues and thought to start doing my own show.
I started by performing at open mic nights in 1994. Upon arrival in LA, I actually met Jakob Dylan while performing at The Beverly Café in Hollywood. After doing it for about a year, I started opening for a Beatles tribute band called Imagine. The larger audiences really appreciated my performances and I dug the larger crowds. I was friendly with the “George Harrison” from the Beatles tribute band. A few weeks later, he was fired by “John Lennon,” so I suggested to him that he come along with me to start the world’s only Bob Dylan tribute band. We quickly assembled a group of world class musicians from the pool of talent in the LA area. Using my earlier connections, I was able to get the band bookings at the world famous Whisky A-Go Go, as well as the prestigious House of Blues and other desirable venues. And “the rest is history” as they say…
30Is it a head trip to “be” “Bob Dylan” in a band with Winston Watson, Rob Stoner, Scarlet Rivera for example? How did you get them into the band?
I’m often asked these questions. I’d had guest performers in the band like drummer Mickey Jones and guitarist Bruce Langhorne of Dylan fame. Scarlet and Rob joined the band after I interviewed them for my film Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years. I simply asked them “how’d you like to come play a few gigs with my band?” The answer was simply “yeah man!”.
Winston became involved just prior to our 30th anniversary “Rolling Thunder Revisited Tour” of the UK. I met Winston by coincidence. I was in the Beverly Center shopping mall in Beverly Hills, California looking for some gig shirts at a trendy store called Traffic when I was recognized by one of the sales staff, whose name was Jason. Apparently he had seen my band at a recent House of Blues show in Los Angeles. He introduced himself and told me he was a friend of Dylan’s former drummer, Winston Watson, whom I had seen perform with Dylan several times in the early 1990s. I recalled Winston’s energetic performance on Dylan’s 1994 MTV Unplugged video. Jason asked if he could make the connection for me to meet Winston, but my reaction was “no, thanks, I wouldn’t want to bother the guy.” However, within a few weeks, my band’s drummer was having some scheduling issues, so it occurred to me to ring Jason at the store and get a contact number for Winston. I did this and Winston and I met a few days later at a café on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. We had an instant rapport. I immediately sensed he was a very sincere and humble guy with a great sense of humor. While just sitting next to him I could feel he was oozing with artistic talent! Winston told me he hadn’t played music for almost two years, but was willing to come to a rehearsal with my band and consider joining for the UK tour. A few days on, we rehearsed at Sound Arena studios in Van Nuys, California with my full band, including violinist Scarlet Rivera. It went very well, there was a real joy in the air as we rehearsed – Winston literally lifted up the entire room. He quickly taught us introductions and endings on “I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman” that he’d performed with Dylan. Lucky for me, Winston has performed with my band ever since! Winston’s joyful energy on stage has been a profound addition to the group. He is a show within a show and his dynamics are unsurpassed. In an instant, he can rock the house or bring it down and take the breath out of an entire concert hall.
It is quit a thrill to have these former Dylan players in my band. It obviously adds authenticity. Dylan fans often have tears in their eyes when we perform “One More Cup of Coffee” with Scarlet wailing away on the violin. Rob Stoner’s classic background vocals and bass work is amazing. I look around the stage often and always feel very blessed to have them there with me.
What do they get out of being in the Highway 61 Band? I liked Winston’s answer in the documentary.
They get a lot of joy being able to perform Dylan songs for fans that they have not been able to perform since being in Dylan’s band. Its not like there are any other bands performing “One More Cup of Coffee,” “Isis,” “Hurricane,” and “Joey!” They also get to connect with Dylan fans who come to see them specifically, often bringing Desire albums to sign. Another way to look at is that, like for any musician nowadays, its just good to have any gig!
Did you always know all the lyrics to those songs you perform, or did you have to memorize them? If so, was it hard to do?
As a listener, I knew a lot of the lyrics, but recalling them properly while performing in front of thousands of people is a different matter of course. I did have to commit songs to memory, but once I did they stuck. Its been an ongoing process since the beginning as we are always adding “new” Bob Dylan songs to the set. You never know when in the cheap seats someone is going to yell out “Tweeter and the Monkey Man!”
Name a couple of your favorite Dylan tunes.
With Dylan, a “tune” can be defined differently, depending on whether you are thinking of only the lyrics, an album version, a live performance in some place, a particular key, with a certain band, or if I am performing it myself of course! Truth be told, whatever the “newest” song the band is performing becomes my favorite to perform as we constantly add songs. We are up to about 150 now. Some of my all time favorites are “Visions of Johanna,” “She’s Your Lover Now,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” and “Up to Me” – but I could go on an on!
However, this is a very complex question for me. I honestly can’t judge one Dylan songs as favorites for unique reasons. Whenever I learn new Dylan songs and perform them with my band over and over, I achieve a deeper understanding of the songs and music than I had previously. For example, as a listener the song “Jokerman” is a fun song with somewhat of a chorus, but very wordy. However, knowing the song word for word and performing it over and over, I become acquainted with the words and music on a much higher level. The autobiographical nature of Jokerman reveals itself clearly with memorization, and becomes much more meaningful. This, combined with my knowledge of “behind the scenes” information from Dylan’s former band mates who are now in my band, makes my appreciation of “Jokerman” much greater than that of the average listener. Another example – “One More Cup of Coffee” was a song I liked. After singing it 200 times with violinist Scarlet Rivera and bassist Rob Stoner standing next to me, watching and hearing Scarlet’s passionate violin work on stage, and seeing tears flow from Dylan fans in the audience, the song becomes immortal and profound for me, as I now know what the song is really about.
“In the Garden” transformed for me from a somewhat obscure religious ballad to a “bring the house down” rocker as my band performs the Hard to Handle version complete with female background singers. I love all of Dylan’s work, and I look forward to learning and understanding his songs on a higher level each time I perform them.
What’s your favorite book about Dylan?
I’ve enjoyed readying a lot of them. I wrote one called The Acoustic Bob Dylan, His Music Styles and Guitar Techniques back in 1992. It includes instructions for playing Dylan songs in different versions as Dylan had done – album, early tour, recent tour, etc. I also added some commentary on each song. My favorite part was an interview I did with William Zantzinger where he reveals an entirely different story than Dylan’s song. Essentially Zantzinger was drunk at a party and was rude to guests, and tapped the barmaid Hattie Carroll with a cane while demanding a drink. She complained to her boss about the rude guest. Later that night she went home and died of heart attack due to a pre-existing condition of an enlarged heart. The judge ruled that Zantzinger had exacerbated her condition with his behavior, and he got six months in jail and a $50,000 fine. Dylan’s song depicts a racist white kid slamming a black waitress over the head and her dying instantly. Though its an epic tale of class and racial injustice, the song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is not factually accurate.
All that being said, the Robert Shelton biography is a wonderful factual chronology. However, the Bob Spitz biography, while some consider the style to be mean-spirited, is a more revelatory work. I consider all my films visual biographies that accomplish more in terms of understanding Dylan’s life and music than any written work.
Are you one of those fans who appreciates everything he does, or do you take umbrage with some of his artistic choices and periods? Do you think he “gets away with stuff” because of his reputation as a genius?
I feel Dylan’s 1980’s material is underrated – this was an era when the press was dismissing him largely as a “journeyman” and someone trying to hang on to his past glory. Meanwhile, his 90’s material has been generally overrated due to his achieving “icon” status with the advance of time. Honestly, his live show today hasn’t changed much in 15 years. The hey day of the “Never Ending Tour” was when Winston Watson was in the group, it was simply the greatest bar band in history! While I believe Dylan maintains his unsurpassed performing skill and charisma, I don’t think he’s chosen his band well recently, resulting in repetitive and let’s be honest, boring shows. Typical Bob Dylan fan comments at my gigs are “I saw Dylan recently and it was so boring, I didn’t recognize the songs and was very disappointed. I loved your show because I could understand the words and enjoyed the songs.”
Have you ever met Bob Dylan? If so, what was it like. If not, would you want to?
Sometimes Bob calls me and says “hey Joel, can you remind me of how I used that.” Just kidding. I would be happy to meet Dylan, but he is very busy touring and is not known to reach out to anyone. Most interesting is that anyone who ever played with Dylan describes the experience as among the greatest experiences of their lives. Initially, I assumed that musicians who played with Dylan would say something along the lines of “I thought he was some giant, but once you get to know him he’s just a regular guy.” But its quite the opposite, those who’ve played with Dylan are even more in awe of him than fans who idolize Dylan and his music.
It was interesting to hear Watson speak about the emotional ups and downs of being in the band. It sounded like he had a good rapport with Dylan, and yet he felt he was always on egg shells. What do you make of that?
I think Dylan is a very demanding boss, and its Dylan’s style to keep his employees on edge to get the best out of them. Winston does a great job in the film of conveying Dylan’s unique way of communicating to the band through various means. This included everything from piercing glances to “calls on the carpet” to simply not communicating. Winston said, “Bob could make you feel like you were on top of the world, but he could also make you feel like you belonged in the bottom of a bilge tank too.” The most effective thing was that the band considered themselves to be warriors in Bob Dylan’s personal army, and the last thing they ever wanted to do was let him down in any way.
What have you learned about the filmmaking and marketing process since you first started putting out Dylan docs?
I’ve improved my production techniques with every film. However, my style of wall to wall content I believe remains the same – you literally can’t take your eyes and ears off of the film for even a second or you’ll miss a great story or great piece of video footage! I’ve since branched off to produce a Middle East documentary called Farewell Israel: Bush, Iran and The Revolt of Islam. I’ve had a wonderful distributor, Music Video Distributors, who have marketed my films in the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, Australia, and South America.
Do you write songs as well? Are they Dylanesque? What are they like?
I’ve written about 150 songs and have recorded many of these originals as demos. But, you guessed it, I’ve been told they are “too Dylanesque” for general consumption. However, maybe I’ll just redo them as country songs one day? I did sneak one into the soundtrack of the Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years DVD. If you check the soundtrack, its called “Shadow Comin’ Down the Highway.”