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 part twelve: David Kemper.
You can read the previous five transcripts by clicking on the side panel (right) and all of the exclusive online series in the Uncut Special features archive by clicking here.
Only one more to go in our exclusive online series; Check back on Monday (October 27)!
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In the Jerry Garcia Band for over a decade, Kemper signed on as drummer in Dylan’s road band in 1996 and stayed until 2001. “And I’m sorry not to be in it today. I miss Bob and I miss that band.”
The first time I met Bob was in 1978. I was playing in T-Bone Burnett’s band, and we had just cut the Truth Decay album. And we were going round Los Angeles playing clubs. And at the second or third show, there was a knock on the door, and I opened the door, and a hand came in and said, “David, I’m Bob.” And it was Bob Dylan. And I thought, “God, blue eyes!” I was shocked by blue eyes somehow. And he introduced me to Clydie King. Then he went on to say how he liked the performance. I mean it was a great, great band with great songs.
Then I saw him when I was in the Jerry Garcia Band, 10 years later. He would come to shows. He and Jerry were friends. And he would come and sit on the couch with Bill Graham on one side, and Jerry on the other, and we’d sit there for 45 minutes before showtime. And he would talk. He and Jerry and Bill.
He’d seen me play his songs before, with the Garcia band. In fact, I heard a story from the sound mixer of the Jerry Garcia Band. They were releasing a live performance tape, and he sent a copy to Bob, just because Bob was a fan of the band. Jerry had died two years before, and he sent him this copy, and Bob called him back right away, and said, “Do you know Kemper’s number?” He gave it to Bob, and then he called me immediately and said: “You’re gonna get a nice phone call.” About a half hour later, Bob didn’t call, but his manager did. And he said Bob would like you to join his band. He would like you to commit to being a member for years. Not just a tour. And would I be interested. I said, of course, but what are you going to do for material? No… just kidding. I knew he had the greatest songs. I had seen Bob when he was at his peak, and I knew that he was in a slump. I felt, still, he can change things. I don’t want to toot my horn, but, man, as soon as I joined the band, his attitude changed. He started accepting dates that he felt like playing, and it really took off from there. That was 1996.
I suppose, if you worked as much as he working back in those days, you deserve a break. He told me that he tried taking a break, and he realised that he was happiest when he was working. And I know that when I joined the band, I was gone for a little over five years. It was non-stop touring, and on breaks we’d record. I think I did 600 shows in 5 years, and two albums, and that song that was in the Wonder Boys, “Things Have Changed”, as well.
I had four days to learn 200 songs. Nobody said you better learn these songs – I just felt, I’m in Bob’s band, I better get a lay of the land. And we all know Bob Dylan songs. But it’s funny, there are things that escape you. There are songs that I didn’t remember. And others that I didn’t realise how amazing they were, or had a different meaning. So I went out and bought every album that I didn’t already have in my collection, and I laid on my bed for four days and just played his music.
The only thing that I thought was worth remembering was the lyrics. And I tried to remember the lyrics or at least the emotional intent of the songs. Because he nailed the recording of them – almost all the best version of all his songs is his recorded version. I mean, how do you beat “Like A Woman”, or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – how do you make that any better? And to me, they were all that way. And I thought, I bet we’re not going to go out and recreate these records. And of course, the first rehearsal we had – you may as well forget the arrangements of all of those songs because they had very little to do with what we were going to do.
I don’t think he ever told me what to play, or what not to play. But I think he guided me, just by what he would play, or what he wouldn’t play. Or maybe by how much he forgot about himself on stage. I think he had enough years to realise that you can’t live on a myth. As an artist, it’s not enough. Garcia was that way. Of course, that band was an improvisational band. We’d start a song and we’d crack it open in the middle. And you could play anything in the Jerry Garcia Band. There’d be times when Jerry would just stop, and it would be like he would just lay on his back and watch the clouds float over. Then he’d get back to the song and we’d take off and finish the song. All these things were possible in Jerry’s band. Bob wasn’t quite that – he didn’t have the musicianship to pull that off, and that wasn’t the intention of the band. He tried to do it different as much as he could. Some nights would be a shuffle beat. Other nights he’d have a straight eight feel, depending on how he would count it off on his guitar.
His amp was right next to me, and you could just tell how he felt. And he’d play a couple of strums, and go, “One, two…” and you felt that little bit of swing in it, and off we’d go. I don’t know if he intentionally knew he would do this, or if it was just how he felt it.
We had the advantage of years on the road together. After the first six months of me being in the band, he’d eliminated a couple of players, and replaced them with Larry Campbell, who’s an amazing guitar player, and Charlie Sexton. And that band remained the same up until the day I departed, so we had four and a half years. We would have sound checks every day. Most of them Bob would be a part of, but not always. Before each tour, if we’d do a six week tour, we’d have four days somewhere where go in the studio, and we’d play. Like, if we’re going to do a South American tour, we’d go to Miami, because that would be the jumping off place to South America. If we went to England, it would be New York: that’s where we’d take off from, so the band would assemble in New York for four days, and we’d play music. Sometimes, it would be trying to figure out a song we were having trouble with. But more than that it was just to play music. A couple of four day periods I remember, we would play Dean Martin songs. “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime”. We would work it up just like a record. And then we would put all of that music away, and we never would revisit it. We would never play it again.
I didn’t realise we were actually headed somewhere. I wasn’t smart enough to realise: you are in the School of Bob. But when we went in to record Love And Theft, I realised then, because the influences were really so old on that record. It comes from really early Americana, way back at the turn of the century, and the 1920s. And not everybody in the band was familiar with that style of playing. And I know that the songs that he would bring in would be these amazing examples of early Americana. Nobody that I know, knows as much about American music as Bob Dylan. He has spent so much time trying to understand, and collecting these songs – it was like a never stopping resource. He was always coming up with these songs or artists that I had never heard of. And then when we went in and recorded Love And Theft it was like, oh my God, he’s been teaching us this music – not literally these songs, but these styles. And as a band, we’re familiar with every one of these. That’s why we could cut a song a day for 13 days and the album was done.
Malcolm Burn said Bob’s favourite singer was Al Jolson? I’m sure he meant it. But Bob was like, “You know when you’re hair gets all greasy and matty?” Yeah. “I love my hair when it gets like that.” You know when he’s taking the piss out. He’s very funny. He could easily have been a comedian. He has great timing and he’s very funny.
Time Out Of Mind. When Bob hired me, I said, yeah, I’ll sign on for years. I’ll sign on for decades. We recorded at Criteria studio, where “Layla” was recorded, where “I Feel Good” by James Brown was recorded. It was Atlantic Studios, South, but it said Criteria on the door. And Daniel (Lanois) had brought the recording console that he wanted to record into. He brought microphones, he brought instruments, he brought drum set, that he wanted me to play, he brought guitars that he wanted guitar players to play. He brought everything in this big truck. It took a few days to get set up, and once it was set up. Bob appeared. And three days have gone by. And we started recording, and I remember Bob wouldn’t sing at first, which was really strange. And Dan was saying “Don’t play anything you’ve ever played before.” Ok, but these are pretty simple songs.
We played “Mississippi”, and cut a version of it, and Bob sang, and it sounded good. And then I got a call from Dan back at home, saying “You can’t play pedestrian, we gotta play strange.” So I said, well then you gotta get out from behind the box and pick up your guitar, and show us. Lead us in that direction. Because all I can do, if I hear Bob intending something, I’m gonna naturally follow him. That’s what I do, I support singers. So I said, come on out.
So he did come out and he tried that. And things didn’t change really, too much. But we got one song called “Cold Irons Bound”. Then the next day I had to leave, and they brought in a whole other crew of people. So that was the end of my involvement on that record. I recorded eight songs, but only one of them, “Cold Irons Bound” was used. And that won a Grammy.
That was a weird thing. I had come in early that day, and going through Miami Beach, it’s all this Cuban influence. And I heard this disco record with a Cuban beat, and when I got to the studio, I sat back at the drums and I slowed the beat down, and turned it upside down, and I was just playing, and there was nobody there. No one was expected for a half hour. So I was playing this drum beat, and then Bob snuck up behind me and said, “What are you playing?” I said Hey Bob, how are you today? He said “No, don’t stop, keep playing, what are you playing?” I said It’s a beat, I’m just writing it right now. “Don’t stop it. Keep doing it.” And he went and got a yellow pad of paper and sat next to the drums, and he just started writing. And he wrote for maybe ten minutes, and then he said “Will you remember that?” And I said, yeah, I got it. And then he said, all right, everybody come on in, I want to put this down.
Well I got it in my head, and by then everyone had arrived and tuned up. And take one, he stepped up to the microphone, and “I’m beginning to hear voices, and there’s no one around.” And I think we did two takes, and then he said, all right, let’s move on to something else. I remember Daniel Lanois wasn’t happy; he didn’t like it. It was one of his guitar breaking incidents. He said to Tony and I: “The world doesn’t want another two-note melody from Bob.” And he smashed a guitar. So I thought, well, there goes my chance of being on this record. Next time I saw Daniel was at the Academy Awards, [Grammys..?] because we had performed that night, and all of a sudden, Male Vocal Performance of the Year, came from that song – the one that Dan was adamant wouldn’t get on the record. So even he’s capable of making mistakes.
Then we went about our touring way, and we had a day off in New York, a year or two later. And Bob said, tomorrow let’s go in the studio, I got a song I want to record. We went in and he played “Things Have Changed”. And we did it with only an engineer in New York. It has the biggest room in New York supposedly. And we just set up our band with an engineer, and Bob produced it. We did two takes. The first was kind of a New Orleans thing, and the second take was what you hear. And then Bob went back in, and he wanted to replace one word, I think, that he felt the enunciation wasn’t clean enough. And when you do a punch-in with Bob, that means the band all plays the song, and then when they get to the point where he wants to replace one word, the engineer pushes it in record on that one word, and then out of record. You’re recording Bob’s vocal, plus all the leakage of the guitars and the drums in the vocal mike. So when you hear it back, you don’t hear any change. All of a sudden the voice doesn’t become clean.
So in Love And Theft there’d be a couple of occasions where he’d slur the word, or didn’t get it sharp enough, and we would do the same thing. We’d all start near the place where we were going to punch in, and everybody would play the parts. The cymbals would ring over and you’d continue playing and he’d continue singing, and the engineer would punch in and punch out, then just stop tape. And you’d listen back, and I never heard one punch-in.
We were doing everything live, and maybe there’d be a second guitar part or a percussion part. On “Things Have Changed” I put a shaker on it, and Charlie had a guitar fix he wanted to do. We did that, and Bob mixed it right there: How does it sound? “Well, I like it.” All right, that’s it. Done. So in about five hours, we learned it, recorded it, mixed it. And that was it.
Was there friction between Dylan and Lanois on Time Out Of Mind? I don’t think so. They had worked together before, and they’re both very good at what they do, and they’re each capable of making the wrong decision. And they know that. But what was evident was that when we cut “Things Have Changed”, Bob realised he could do it himself. We had an engineer we’d met that morning and Bob produced it himself. He said to me, I think I could produce myself. When Love And Theft came, that’s what we did. We used the studio we had produced “Things Have Changed” in. We got the very engineer that worked with us that day. And although it says Jack Frost, it’s really Bob Dylan producing.
I never saw an un-confident side to Bob. He’d left that behind. And I think things really changed at the time I joined the band – not because of me. He found Larry, and things took off, and Charlie was what we needed to have a great band. And it was a really great band. And I’m sorry not to be in it today. I miss Bob and I miss that band.
He doesn’t overdub the lyrics to a track. It’s all integrated from the very first rehearsal all the way to the end. And the vocal you hear is the one we hear as we’re recording the track. He never overdubbed a line, or swapped a phrase. I don’t think he could do that. But the words are everything. He is the author of my generation, and not just mine. He’s the guy. I don’t know anybody who could write ‘It’s all right, ma, I’m only bleeding.’ You listen to that and it just can’t be done.
I know of two versions of “Mississippi”. We thought we were done with Love And Theft, and then a friend of Bob’s passed him a note, and he said, oh, yeah, I forgot about this: “Mississippi”. And then he made a comment, did you guys ever bring the version we did down at the Lanois sessions. And they said, yeah, we have it right here. And he said let’s listen to it. So they put it up on the big speakers, and I said, damn – release it! But it was just me and Tony, and Larry wasn’t on it, and Charlie wasn’t on it. And so we all just said, wait a minute. And Daniel is producer on it. Let’s re-record it. So we did our version of it.