An exclusive interview with
David Mansfield

Conducted by Larry Jaffee


David Mansfield is regarded in Dylan circles as amongst the most accomplished musicians with whom Dylan’s ever played. What’s most remarkable about Mansfield’s mid-to-late 1970s stint with Dylan is that he was a mere babe in the woods. His youthfulness became something of an in-joke on the memorable Rolling Thunder Revue tour, as well as in Dylan’s subsequent film Renaldo & Clara, in which he played a particularly memorable segment/vignette as Allen Ginsberg’s curly-haired innocent son who gains "experience" after his "father" takes him to a brothel. It was that appearance that helped to launch his nearly 20-year career as a film composer, most notably as the scorer of Heaven’s Gate, whose soundtrack recently finally made it to CD, thanks to Rykodisc. He also provided the music for the 1998 critically acclaimed film, The Apostle. Mansfield’s brief association with Dylan also gave birth to the late 1970s Alpha Band, founded with his Rolling Thunder cohorts T-Bone Burnett and Steven Soles. Besides his film work, Mansfield continues to be a multi-instrument session/live gig musician in demand, playing most recently for the likes of Lucinda Williams and Loudon Wainwright III. This interview took place in February 1999 at Mansfield’s Manhattan studio.

 

You’ve always been regarded as a musician’s musician–an instrumentalist who gives the song a certain feeling that it might not have otherwise.

Thanks.

You’ve done so many things over the course of your career. Was that by design? For example, you started out in a band–The Quacky Duck. Did you think you would be in bands for the rest of your career?

I think probably at first I figured my main career would be in pop music one way or the other. The ‘70s were an awfully good time for recording sidemen. Session work sort of seemed like a glamorous gravy train that a lot of people thought would never end.

While we are in the ‘70s we might as well talk a little bit about how you got hooked up with the Rolling Thunder Revue.

I think at the time I was still in that band, Quacky Duck, which was in a limbo period because we were without a recording contract and trying to hang tough playing the college circuit. I got involved with the Rolling Thunder Revue through the infamous Bobby Neuwirth gig at the Bitter End.

So you were invited to play with Bobby Neuwirth?

Well not exactly invited. My girlfriend at the time was working as a waitress at the Bottom Line and she heard about this almost free-for-all jam session for Bobby’s gig over at the Bitter End. There were a lot of people sitting in. Some of them were well known, some of them weren’t. But each night it was growing by leaps and bounds. She dragged me down there by my ear and said, "They don’t have a fiddle player. You should go and sit in with these guys." She was the one that actually pushed her way backstage and said, "My boyfriend is a really great violin player." [Neuwirth] said something like "Make me cry," or something equally ridiculous and profound. Whatever it was, I just went right on stage with the next set and joined the fray.

At what point did you realize that Dylan was part of the proceedings?

I didn’t at that point, I don’t think. It’s hard to remember because it was so long ago. Certain things stand out and the rest of it is so hazy that I’m not sure.

Somebody was talking about Dylan hanging out with Neuwirth. I didn’t know what was going on. I don’t think I was all that aware of it. It was enough [for me being involved with] Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn and just the exotic nature of some of the other people he invited down–like T-Bone Burnett from Texas, who was a young man at the time and looked like a drawling Big Bird with a Les Paul guitar.

I’ve read some accounts of what happened that night and how it was…

I don’t know how many nights it was but usually in those days when you played the Bitter End or Max’s Kansas City you usually played for four nights or something like that. It wasn’t a one-night gig. It was a week.

Dylan was obviously inspired to take this caravan on the road.

I’m not sure how it was at the time because it was only in hindsight that I knew all the pieces of the puzzle and realized those guys had been carousing all night and hanging out. I can only imagine how it came about. I don’t know whether Dylan had the idea for doing something like this or whether it was a matter of hanging out with Bobby in their sort of drunken reveries after the gigs, or whatever. But the atmosphere at the Bitter End was such that it wouldn’t take much to say, "Hey, this would be great. Let’s just take this out on the road and we’ll make it like a revue and when we get tired we’ll get somebody else to take over for us." That was the original concept actually–that it would be a self-perpetuating thing and when Dylan, or whoever, got tired of it someone else of similar stature would take it on and keep it going.

But that actually never happened. You all went your separate ways, I guess.

I recalled hearing at the time that that was one of the hopes for it–one of the more exotic, less practical hopes.

So once it was determined it would be a road tour type of thing were there rehearsals to get into shape for specific sets?

Yeah, there were rehearsals at SIR [Studio Instrumental Rentals] here in New York. I don’t remember how long they lasted. They could have lasted a week. Then there were more rehearsals up near where we started the first gig in Plymouth, Mass. We were holed up in a hotel at the beginning of the cape and we rehearsed in a dress rehearsal kind of way so they could get the sound and lights up and stuff like that. The SIR rehearsals was a bunch of [musicians plugged into] small amps in a room playing songs. Nothing like a dress rehearsal for a show.

Were you involved in the recording of Desire before the tour?

No, I wasn’t actually. As I understand, I’m not sure about this, but it seemed to me that Bob was coming to these rehearsals with the Desire band of his intact which was Stoner, Wyeth and Rivera and some other people who were involved with the tour, like Steven Soles. That rhythm section and Scarlett [Rivera] was sort of like his band. I think originally the idea was that Bob was going to do his segments of the show either solo or with Joan. But if he had a band, he was basically going to play with this little core group that he had cut this record with.

In practice it got fuzzy as time went along. There were certain songs that he did with this small quartet but the majority of them had the entire cast of Rolling Thunder, I don’t know what it was, a 12-piece band or whatever it turned into.

How many guitars were there, six or seven?

A few too many.

Could you hear?

People were using small amps. I don’t recall the stage levels being deafening. I mean like later on when I played with Bob in ‘78, stage levels got quite ear-splitting which was typical for touring acts at that time. I don’t recall it being very loud like that on Rolling Thunder. It just was at times very busy, at times very cacophonous and all of a sudden it’d break down into smaller groups, various subsets. It was a pretty good amount of variety that way. So some things sounded, in terms of purely musical technical level, wonderful. Some things were completely chaotic. But even the things that were completely chaotic–with four or five electric guitars playing all at once–on the good nights, had an incredible energy to them that was more important than the arrangement or even the quality of playing. And Bob was certainly electric for most of those two tours.

When I saw the Night of the Hurricane at Madison Square Garden, I was in a frenzy. It was really the greatest music.

The arrangements were pretty ragged but also eccentric and different, and over the top of this...Bob’s singing, really almost yelling. But it made it a highly dramatic performance. It was real exciting.

When I interviewed Jacques Levy a while back, he explained that as far as the stage presentation went, he’d visualized the Rolling Thunder Revue almost as a stage play right from the very beginning with the curtain. I was wondering if the musicians had that structure to play with because Dylan has this reputation of being highly unpredictable mid-course in a song. I was just curious if you witnessed any of that?

That was definitely–musically–a big part of that tour. You had to be ready to follow him like a hawk and keep your eyes glued for any body language or lip movement that was going to tell you that he was going to zig instead of zag. For the most part it wasn’t like he changed the chords. In practical terms or in technical terms, he would change phrase lengths on a whim. So you might think there were four more beats to go in that phrase and all of a sudden there would be three or one and then he’d be off and running on the next phrase.

How did everyone deal with that?

They all sort of had their various techniques to deal with it. Some musicians would do it by hanging back and playing things that were innocuous or visceral enough so they wouldn’t get caught playing the wrong note at the wrong time. Other people like Rob Stoner just kept on his toes the entire time. I think I did, as well as some of the other members of the band. We just watched this guy–trying to pickup any keys from him, [trying] to stick on him like glue, to follow the chord changes and the phrase lengths.

One of the people in that category was Baez because she was in all those duets with him. It almost seemed like he was playing some sort of little game to trip her up and catch her in the middle of a phrase or something. They would be facing each other every night primarily because they were sharing one microphone but also, I’m sure, Joan had her eyes on his lips just trying to accompany this guy. I don’t know if I’m making this up, but I seem to recall one night he was being mischievous about it when they were doing one of their duet things and she gave him a Charlie Chaplin boot in the pants after one particularly mischievous turn in the phrase.

In the ‘78 tour he really had for the first time introduced radical re-arrangements of his repertoire.

The ‘78 tour was not so improvisational as Rolling Thunder. It was much more rehearsed in the traditional sense of rehearsal. Although Bob took some of the songs and completely put new music to the lyrics and he changed the "feel"–radically–of some of the material. But once he decided on a feel, and the arrangement was worked out, it would pretty much stay that way for weeks. It wasn’t like he would play something that was a shuffle one night and a waltz the next.

That was a pretty long tour, right?

It was a series of tours. It seemed like it was most of ‘78. It was a Far East tour, a European tour and an American tour.

I guess you hung with T-Bone.

Well there were various groups when the tour ended. The thing I did with T-Bone and the Alpha Band, I don’t think it was the first thing we did. I am trying to remember now. Before the second [leg of the Rolling Thunder] tour and before the Alpha Band we put this little band together that was me, Howie, Rob, Mick and McGuinn. We did a bunch of rehearsing over at Howie’s place. We ended up making a Roger McGuinn album, Cardiff Rose. It was a great album.

That record had a real sea-shanty appeal to it.

Roger was writing with Jacques Levy at that point. McGuinn is a real aficionado of whaling songs and all that kind of stuff. He loves that stuff backwards and forwards. That was what he was trying to do with the title song to that record–write a pop version of one of those old folk songs that he loved.

So as far as the Alpha Band, what was the thinking behind the formation of the group, or was it musical ideas that brought the three of you together?

I think Steven [Soles] and T-Bone sort of connected at a certain point during those tours. I’m not sure exactly what went on between them but somewhere along the line they decided they were going to do something together. They both had solo careers up to that point. I sort of had a feeling that at the end of that tour there was a bit of friendly rivalry, in a joking kind of way, like "Who’s going to get Mansfield when the tour’s over?"

Who else do you think was vying for your services?

Joan was making cracks about it. That’s the one specific thing I remember. I mean I was very young. I was a teenager. Bob was used to being the kid but he was approaching middle age. He was like in his mid-30s or something. So then I was the baby of the tour.

I wish they would put Renaldo & Clara out on video. In fact I had a conversation with D.A. Pennebaker’s son about the prospects of trying to get it out on DVD and he said "Don’t hold your breath."

Bob owns it lock, stock and barrel. He distributed it himself, I think with his brother’s help. It played on the BBC and some other places so there are tapes floating around, like air check tapes.

I think he was proud of the film, although it received mixed reviews.

At the time he was very proud. I’m just supposing, but I think he was really looking at it as a new career.


You’ve just read an excerpt of the interview with David Mansfield. The complete interview appears in On the Tracks issue #17 and is available from Rolling Tomes.









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