Today: Guitarist Robben Ford talks about making Under The Red Sky
BOB DYLAN SPECIAL: The Complete Tell Tale Signs
In this month’s issue of Uncut, we celebrate the release of Tell Tale Signs, the Bootleg Series Vol 8, Bob Dylan’s astonishing 2 and 3CD collection of unreleased material from 1989-2006.
We spoke to the musicians, producers and crew who worked with him during this period. And now, here’s your chance to read the full, unedited transcripts of those interviews.
Today, we present guitarist Robben Ford‘s story about the making of Under The Red Sky, while Daniel Lanois, Jim Keltner and others will follow in a further eight parts in the coming month. .
You can read previous transcripts by clicking on the side panel (right).
Next one up Monday (October 13)!
One of the guitarists parachuted in for Under The Red Sky, Ford also worked with Miles Davis and toured in the bands of Joni Mitchell and George Harrison
I had met Dylan a couple of times over the years. I had met him when I was working with Joni Mitchell, and again when I was working with George Harrison. And on both those occasions, I didn’t really meet him. He was there, he was hanging out with Joni, or hanging out with George, but he really avoided all contact with other humans if he could.
On the Under The Red Sky album, the concept was kind of, each day of the sessions, the record would have a different band. The bass and drums remained the same, but beyond that, the players changed every day in the studio. An interesting concept. The day they brought me in, when I got there, I was the first person to arrive, and other people started filing in about an hour later, so it was really kid of loose. Bruce Hornsby was there on that session, playing the piano.
Anyway, finally Bob arrived, and he had on like a sweatshirt with a hood, a baseball cap, these kind of jogging pants. And motorcycle boots. Kind of an odd combination. I found myself in the studio tracking room with him, and it was just him and me for a few moments, so I said, “So, Bob, I met you some years ago, with Joni Mitchell. I was touring with her, and you came on the trip for a little.”
And he hadn’t said a word, and then he just goes, “Awww, Joni, man!”
Nothing else. That was it. Not another word about her.
So, a moment later, I said, “Also, with George Harrison. I was on the road with him on that Dark Horse tour, and you were on the plane there for a couple of days.”
And he goes, “Awww, George, man!”
And that was it. Not another peep. I mean, the guy just *wouldn’t* speak. But he obviously really loved Joni and George, and he liked the fact that there was some connection – but he had nothing to say about it.
Don Was just revered Dylan. You could tell. He was just a God to him. Don was the producer, but Bob Dylan was in control of the session. I’ve worked with Don on a couple of occasions, and he doesn’t say a lot himself in my experience. Don is very influential in things like picking the studio, picking the band, creating the environment for the artist. But then, he’s one of those guys who likes to stay in the background, but is very important there. He just kind of hangs back, lets the artist do his thing. But I remember one moment, Don was just sitting down on the floor and asking Bob: “So, did you ever wonder, *‘Why me?’*” Y’know, why he’s the one who became this huge icon and made all this incredible music. Dylan didn’t say anything, he just didn’t say anything.
When we started recording, Dylan, basically, would just start some kind of a vamp going on the guitar. The whole band was out in the room, in contact with each other, there wasn’t a lot of separation. And Bob has a table in front of him, with pages and pages and pages of lyrics, and he would just start some kind of a thing going on the guitar, and we’d all fall in behind him, and just start jamming. And as soon as he kinda liked what was happening, he’d start picking up lyrics, going through the pages, and just start trying to sing it over whatever we were doing. If he didn’t care for that one after a while, he’d put it down, pick up another page, and start trying something with that. So, literally, we just jammed.
At first, it was very hard to tell what he was thinking, because he just didn’t say a word to anybody. But I got the impression he was happy to be there. And when something would start happening that he liked, he would get very animated. You could tell he was excited. He’d pick up the harmonica and start blowing, and start trying to sing his lyrics, that he’s reading off the pages. And there were literally, pages and pages, loose pages, they weren’t bound or anything. There must have been 40 or 50 pages on the table, and he’d just start fishing through them and start singing them.
There was one piece of music I worked on, “Born In Time”, he’d written it on the piano, and he played it on the piano for Bruce Hornsby, and then Hornsby picked up on that and we all started playing, and Dylan sang the tune. That was a very cool song, I remember everybody liking that. He had a suggestion for the guitar solo on that, and he kind of sang it to me, and I thought it might work if we used a delay – he had these back and forth notes going on, and I thought we might use a delay for the second and fourth notes – and he said, “Okay. We’ll try that.” And so we did that. And then, we’d only been recording for about maybe four hours, and we were all in the control room, and Dylan said to Don Was, “How many takes did we make today, Don?”
How many takes did we make? I thought that was hilarious. But Don said, “I dunno, I think …about five?” And Dylan said, “Okay, well, I guess that’s about it.” And he decided to split.
I remember really not wanting the day to end. There was something about being there with the guy that just had its own power. As I said, he didn’t talk to people. He never really spoke to anyone except for Don, the producer. But, still, there was an aurua to the environment around him, you felt like you were part of something really special. I’ve been around a lot of famous people and played for them – Joni, George Harrison, Miles Davis – but Dylan really was unique.
Years later, in 2000, I did a tour with Phil Lesh, and Bob Dylan was co-billed, so we were out on the road together for like two-and-a-half months. And Dylan wouldn’t allow people near him at all. You just couldn’t go *near* the guy. You couldn’t be in the hallway if he was walking down the hall – like that. That’s how extreme it was, he didn’t even want to *walk by* a person. So that was the last time I saw him.