Shot of Dylan, part 2: Chuck Plotkin on producing Bob Dylan’s "Shot of Love."

When we left off yesterday, the great record producer and mixer Chuck Plotkin kickstarts Bob Dylan’s next album by inviting him to record at his own Hollywood studio, with no contracts, no deadlines and no expectations beyond recording a few demos to make sure they catch the spirit of Dylan’s latest batch of songs. And the story continues…

It hadn’t happened like that, he might not have gone into the studio. Not because he had doubts about me, but he wasn’t ready to commit. And I could tell we needed to commit just enough to get it down before it flew away.

“The Groom’s Still Waiting athe Altar” came really early, right in that first batch of songs. And the reason it didn’t get on the (first pressing of the record) was because we cut it too slow. Once he got the words right he said he didn’t want to sing it again. So the track was too slow, and didn’t feel right.  But we needed a b-side for the first single, so I went back to the track to see what I could do I had a way of speeding up the tempo without changing the pitch of his voice. It’s a kind of complicated process — I had to do it a track at a time – kick drum; then snares, then cymbals, then the bass track, and  etc. It wasn’t easy then — now it is — but then it was a task, and I didn’t know if he’d tolerate it if he were actually  in the studio. So I just went in and did it alone. And when it came time to discuss the b-side of the first single I said, ‘how about Groom?’ He said, ‘well, it was too slow.’ And I said, ‘Well, I dunno. It sounds great now! I don’t know what we were thinking! Just check it out!” So we listened together and he really liked it.”

The thing with some artists is If they want to be non-compliant, and they’re compulsively that way, you can’t give them something not to like,  because then they won’t, and what they actually hear won’t make any difference.

But just think about what it must be like to actually be Bob Dylan. When we were about to get started I got a call from him an hour after the first session was supposed to start. He was in Minnesota, so there wasn’t going to be a session after all.  Now, it’s nice that he did call. But he knew he wasn’t gonna be there the day before, and he didn’t call then. He was late to sessions all the time. He’d come in two, three hours late and say, ‘I took the wrong turn off the freeway and ended up in East LA!” I’d have to calm the musicians down, say, ‘Hey! It’s Bob Dylan! I couldn’t write one line that interests me as much as the worst line he’s ever written interests me. And if anyone wants to step up and be Bob, we can whine and grouse about it. I don’t know what it takes to BE Bob. Do you?

Jim Keltner is one of the great drummers in the biz, maybe the best of his generation. And he’d come out of sessions looking pale. Said something like, ‘Hey man, Bob’s standing there glowering at me! He’s glowering at me!’ I said, ‘I think what’s happening is that he wants to play against the grain. He wants to play triplets, or a shuffle, against the straight time. Or if you’re playing a shuffle he wants to play straight. Because that rub feels good to him. But you’re going with him. Don’t follow him – just close your eyes and play! You’re a great musician; close your eyes,  play and don’t worry. And if he starts doing that, don’t yield. Hold fast, or else you’re fucking him up. He can’t mess with the feel if you’re following him.” 

I ended up playing drums on one song. I’m not a good musician, but if there’s a drum kit around I usually sit down and play, just keeping a beat. Anyway,  Ringo had come in to play, Keltner was still playing, and Ron Wood was there, too. A big session, and everyone was there on time. Except for Bob, who was six hours late. Six hours. We just played music til he got there. Anyway, Bob had botched one song, and we needed to play it again. They were having trouble getting the feel down, so I just sat down at Ringo’s kit and started to play what I thought the feel should be. Wanted the feel in the room. Ringo comes back and says – “There! That! That’s the feel of this song! So you stay there and I’ll play the other ones!”

Now, I’ve never played drums on a recording session. And now this is Dylan, in my funky little studio in Hollywood. I’m sitting at Ringo’s kit, playing the hi-hat, kick drum and snare, and e’s playing toms and cymbals. And right over here is Jim Keltner, also playing drums. Bob isn’t paying attention but the feel is working. We get a take.

A couple of months later I came out on the road to check in on the tour. This was in Cincinnatti or something. And when I got to the show I saw that they had two drum sets on the stage. I wasn’t sure why, but didn’t give it much thought. But then Bob came over and insisted  I sit down and play a song with them. “If you can play with Ringo  you can do this!”

So what was I going to do? When the song came up I sat at the second kit and tried to keep the beat. All you can do is play the song. 

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