Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Essay: "By the Time We Got to Mole Lake . . ."

“By the Time We Got to Mole Lake . . .”
Written by Tom Wilmeth
April 21, 2011

An article was recently published by an Assistant Engineer who worked on Bob Dylan’s 1974 masterwork Blood on the Tracks. As a former board operator, I read this piece with great interest. It brought back both fond and frightful memories of laboring in radio studios and over professional recording consoles. I have never worked with or at all close to Dylan, but a couple of people asked me to write-up these memories, believing they might offer some tangential insights into the one true Bob. They don’t, but as I thought about the weekend described below I realized that maybe I did have something worth recounting. So here we go.

I was 22 years old in the summer of 1977, about to start my senior year of college at the University of Northern Iowa at Cedar Falls. I had been working part-time at the school’s radio station KUNI for over three years, longer than a lot of the full time staff. I pulled 30-hour weeks of largely DJ work, most of which was on the weekends. But this was no house-current college station going out to dorm rooms; we were 100,000 watts of clean FM power covering a large chunk of eastern Iowa. It was fairly early in the National Public Radio era. We were still absolutely commercial free and could do as we pleased. There were some underwriters, but nothing obtrusive.

At KUNI we had classical music mornings but were known for specializing in Folk Music. Why? Because Station Manager Doug Vernier liked Folk Music. In fact, each weekday afternoon we had over 3 hours of it! From 2-4 P.M. we aired a record show called Folkways. Later in the day, after All Things Considered and the evening local news, we did another 90 minute show featuring Bluegrass. Then the Black Community would take over for 2 hours of soul and funk on Nationtime, and the night would conclude with several hours of current rock and whatnot on a program called Progression.

The music for these shows was all selected by the announcer, a fact that stuns current radio broadcasters into stupors of envy. I still occasionally come across an errant play list of mine stuck away in some music book – songs that I aired during one of my lengthy late night shows. These weekend shifts did little to help my social life in college, but I didn’t care. I now find these unearthed lists of songs simultaneously humorous, heartbreaking, and usually on-target. At least for their time. I got into radio for one reason – Music. And I was able to play my fill on KUNI from the spring of 1974 to the late fall of 1978. I was lucky to be there at an extremely fertile time.

By 1977 the station was getting some grants for special field recording projects. There was a Folk Festival to be held in upper Wisconsin, and Doug wanted it recorded. My recording partner and I loaded-up the car with a high quality Nagra reel-to-reel machine, some microphones, and blank tape. And off we went, not dreaming that an August weekend in Wisconsin might require something more than shorts and a T-shirt. Turns out, weather would not be our biggest surprise.

We arrived the day before the festival started and had a major culture shock. Never before had I seen such dire poverty. The roads within the Mole Lake Indian Reservation were mere dirt ruts; the houses were tin or cardboard shacks; everything looked abused and broken. In the midst of this community was a large field with a raised stage at one end. There were designated areas in the surrounding woods for both trailer parking and tent camping. I was glad that we would be staying at a hotel off the reservation, some 20 miles away. We needed a getaway from the long and pretty intense days. Although I had been an active camper during my Boy Scout era, this was not the same. Even before we left the festival grounds each night, things were getting loud in the camping areas with alcohol fueled fun and fights.

But the thing that I remember most vividly was that, in the midst of this extremely dire economic situation, the government was putting in concrete sidewalks. SIDEWALKS! When there was no real street for miles around -- only glorified cow paths where cars drove. With just a cursory look, I could have named a dozen things that this reservation needed before sidewalks. “Don’t worry about the government,” says David Byrne, but he wasn’t there.

Despite a location set deep in the Upper Wisconsin Nowhere territory, the festival was to have some known names -- both country and folk. Doc Watson was there, Lester Flatt’s band performed, and several other lesser local groups I can’t recall right now. Most of the big name acts were from the South, and I could tell right away that I was not the only one somewhat irritated by the surprisingly cold nights. Doc Watson played fairly late on the first evening and seemed very aware of the time remaining in his set. He was undoubtedly eager to return to the relative warmth of his tour bus. Still, he put on a solid show and the crowd loved it. I remember late in the set he said, “Well, it’s pretty cold for him tonight, but let’s saddle up that ‘Tennessee Stud,’” and he proceeded to play the song in stellar fashion.

Doc’s son Merle was with him, as usual. I interviewed Merle briefly, but he was more interested in chatting-up the local girls who were inviting him to a party. Still, he answered my questions about record labels and album obligations without haste or hesitation. (Their contract at the time called for one album a year, if you are interested.) The one time I tried to speak to Doc Watson, he told me to go find Merle. That’s fine – Doc needed Merle’s eyes. Merle Watson was killed a few years after this festival, when a tractor ran over him. Doc would later say how he could never have been able to tour had Merle not been there to help with all aspects of the road. Thank you Merle for delivering Doc to us!

Lester Flatt’s band did a full show as headliners the second evening. The steel guitar player noted how holding his instrument’s silver bar “was just like hanging onto a piece of ice all night.” I’m afraid that I didn’t appreciate Lester Flatt’s set as much at that time as I should have. First, I was behind the stage, recording – not able to see the performance – and second, the scales had not yet truly fallen from my eyes about the brilliance of some country music. The next day I was told by several audience members that this had been an exceptionally good night for the veteran performer.

“Why?” I asked.
“Because Lester didn’t once leave the stage during the entire set,” I was told.

I at first thought they were joking, but they weren’t. These were devotees who had already seen the man perform several times that summer. This was during Lester’s later days, when health problems were sidelining him during shows with some regularity. He would often need to go into the wings and rest for a bit as his band played-on. I recall seeing Mrs. Flatt backstage, dressed as if she herself were going to perform – ready for the Opry spotlight – aging elegance incarnate. But I felt badly for her as she looked very concerned all the time her husband was on stage. When I learned of his declining health, I understood. At the other end of the age spectrum that night was a young Marty Stuart, a talented sideman for Flatt in the 1970s.

By the time of this Mole Lake gathering, Folk and Bluegrass Festivals had already been big for over a decade. Even so, I was still enthralled with the whole idea of being at a festival! And being there to record the music made me feel like a useful part of the scene. Woodstock was a full 8 years over and done with, but its shadow remained a long one. The title of this piece bears witness – we must have said that line every three minutes: “By the time we got to Mole Lake, we were half a million strong,” an intentional variation of Joni Mitchell’s tribute to the Woodstock festival.

I don’t recall a lot about the other bands except for one local group opening with a hot, bluegrass take on The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” There were the typical show business elements that are not especially fond memories – self-important organizers chief among them. We had real trouble getting some of the performers to sign-off on broadcast rights for the recordings we were making. Doc Watson consented without hesitation, but some of the lesser names wanted to hear the sound mix on the tapes before signing and really gave us ego-trip troubles. We finally had enough with one guy and said, “Hey! Doc Watson trusts our mix. Are you a bigger star than Doc Watson?” This shamed the guy into signing. I forget who it was, probably with good reason.

Eric Weissberg was also on the bill, still getting bookings from his huge 1973 Top 40 hit “Dueling Banjos,” an instrumental duet with Steve Mandell. The number was featured during an unforgettable scene early in the movie Deliverance. In fact, Weissberg named his backing band Deliverance, although he seemed a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. Prior to his unexpected success with “Dueling Banjos,” Weissberg had largely been a first-call studio musician, recording with performers from Barbra Streisand to Billy Joel. He also occasionally did film soundtrack work. But I didn’t search out Eric Weissberg to talk about Billy Joel or “Dueling Banjos” or soundtracks. I wanted to ask about his work backing Bob Dylan on the Blood on the Tracks album. Weissberg was tolerant, but not enthusiastic about our conversation. {endnote 1}

The afternoon had warmed-up considerably. As we began to talk, a couple of his band members looked-on, bored. I began to ask my questions when he interrupted me: “I have sort of a thing I say to interviewers, and if this doesn’t cover what you want, then we can speak in specifics.” I agreed, of course, and he then recounted his work as a studio cat with occasional film work. He told me that after Deliverance was released he got a phone call from his agent, telling him that “Dueling Banjos” was racing up the chart. Weissberg couldn’t believe it and thought it was a put-on, having been given no idea that it was even being released as a single. He acknowledged the hit as a fluke, but he was understandably making the most of it while he could.

That biographical nutshell was fine and all, but what about Bob Dylan? Why did Bob call you to play on the Blood on the Tracks album, and what’s your connection? “I met Bob in the very early 1960s, when I was at school in Madison and he was en route to New York City for what I think must have been his first trip there. I didn’t think he remembered me, so I was surprised when I got a call to play on a session for him. It was odd from the start. I didn’t know if he wanted just me or if he wanted me to bring my band. So I brought the group along.”

Weissberg’s responses became slower and more thoughtful; I was now entering into non-standard interview territory. I asked him if it was a pleasant, relaxed session or if there was a lot of tension in the room: “I’ll tell you – It was the strangest recording session I have ever worked on. Bob barely ran down the tune to us and then we were off recording it. Then the engineers immediately backed-up the tape so he could hear it. And while they played back the song we had just recorded – loud! – Bob was running down the changes to the next tune to us. At the same time! I had never seen anything like it. Completely unorthodox studio method. I didn’t really enjoy the session, and I can’t imagine that Bob enjoyed it.”

Eric Weissberg & Deliverance appear on one song on the Blood on the Tracks LP, “Meet Me in the Morning.” So when he mentioned chord changes for a second tune, I immediately asked about it: “As I recall, we did two songs -- the one that shows-up on the album and one other one. Seems like it was a blues, but I can’t be sure.” {endnote 2}

I asked him if multiple takes of either or both songs had been recorded: “We did each tune once. That was it. Then we packed-up and it was over.”

With the interview concluded, I thanked Eric Weissberg for his time and he departed. But then, after their boss was well out of ear-shot range, members of the band chimed-in with force: “That session was an absolute joke. Weissberg was being nice about it. Dylan got so drunk that night that Eric had to re-string his guitar for him when Dylan broke a string. And it wasn’t even good stuff. He was getting smashed on his ass on Ripple or some cheap-o crap.”

These guys had been there, and were clearly not impressed. Not fans. Anger in their voices. No one among them was the least bit in awe of Dylan; they sounded disgusted. I don’t know who from the band was making most of the proclamations, but all were in agreement: it was a bizarre night. I tried to question them more about the date, but they had said their peace – everybody hated the experience. {endnote 3}

The All Music Guide lists Deliverance’s personnel for live dates during this era as: Steve Mandell (guitar), Charles Brown (guitar), Tony Brown (bass), and Richard Crooks (drums). Clinton Heylin indicates that Weissberg, C. Brown, T. Brown, and Crooks played on the Blood on the Tracks sessions. But to repeat, I don’t know who made these pointed remarks to me that afternoon. But I do know that the live show Weissberg and these guys gave was as hot as anything that the Mole Lake festival saw that year.

It does seem that Weissberg was taking the high road in our conversation, although he was clearly frustrated when recalling the experience. And let me stress what Eric Weissberg did say that afternoon about the oddness of the Dylan session: He had never seen anything like it – had never been a part of a recording experience run that way. And this assessment from a professional studio musician who had previously played on hundreds of recording dates!

And that was pretty much it. We began our long drive back to Iowa late that night, some festival glamour and mystique having been drained from our consciousness. It had been a good time, often a fun time, but nothing to romanticize. And people hating-on Bob! Go figure.

As we drove through the Northern Wisconsin night we saw in the distance what appeared to be a major forest fire. It was spread over several hilltops, raging some miles away from us but very clear in the distance against the dark sky. I wanted to drive toward it for a closer look but was told that was a stupid idea. True, of course. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fire, even years later, and how beautiful it had appeared that night. Like the dangerous flames which had attracted me, I also escaped largely unscathed from my experience with a music festival. I saw some unpleasant business elements, social problems, and personality quirks up close. But I returned to Cedar Falls largely undaunted -- still the unsinged optimistic concerning the regenerative powers of live performances and of Music itself.

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Endnotes & out-takes:

1 – I use quotation marks throughout my conversation with Eric Weissberg and his band. But since I don’t have the interview tapes for reference, these should be seen as close paraphrases. Having offered this disclaimer, though, I can hear Mr. Weissberg say each of these sentences to me. His words still ring in my ears.

2 – The other tune he mentioned was “Call Letter Blues,” which would finally be released by Columbia in 1991 on the first of The Bootleg Series CDs. And Weissberg’s memory was accurate; it was a blues number they had recorded.

3 – [While the following section is accurate, I removed it from the body of the essay as it seemed to muddy the water as far as who was likely playing with Weissberg that day.]
The drummer’s Anvil cases had the name of the group Fat Mattress stenciled on them. If this was the drummer with Weissberg at that time, it would have been Eric Dillon. But the drums could have been on loan, and Dillon’s presence seems unlikely.

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Silent out-take – [I didn’t want to close the body of the essay with a lament.]

OK -- So what happened to those reels of music and the interview tapes? Most of them were broadcast at least once on KUNI (FM), but after that they seemed to drift away. Which is odd, in retrospect, because I made myself safety copies of just about everything at that time. But not these. Because they were played over the air in a well publicized special, air-check copies from the broadcast could be sitting in somebody’s basement in Iowa on cassette tapes. But where the master reels went, I don’t know. Over the ensuing years, I have asked former and current employees of the station to keep an eye out for these tapes, but they are not to be found. That’s OK – they would be nice to have, but . . . perhaps anticipating their eventual return is even better.

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  1. Really fascinating account, and well-worth its length. What I find surprising is how Weissberg's band was reacting. Yeah, sometimes great artists are, to put it straight, assholes.

    But these folks were engaging BOB DYLAN, the real person of course, and he didn't deserve to be forgiven for his presence or his attitude, or his inebriation, but there is no humility, in any of these guys' testimony, for the fact that they're working with a complicated, fairly dis-humanized genius, whose work seems to always change the world, a little or a lot.
    To hear these losers' negativity - and I mean, who ARE these guys, anyway - it seems to me like hearing complaints from workers at a McDonald's complaining about how Madonna refused them autographs.

  2. Interesting read. I just happened to think about the Mole Lake festival today. I attended it in 1978. I drove from Texas to attend it. I had a friend in one of the booked bands. It was like nothing I had ever seen in the South. The great part, I had a back stage pass. Unlike festivals in the South where fans used to mingle with musicians, a tall fence created a barrier for the musicians from the rowdy crowd. I visited with Bill Monroe went to a improvised birthday party for a 16 year old prodigy Mark O'Connor and had the run of areas which attendees without such a pass couldn't go. It was a memorable week. It ended up being a ten day trip for me. Having just finished a Master's degree and in a transitional phase of my life I was on a road trip to remember When I returned to Texas I started a band and spent the better part of three years playing music before using that degree. Mole Lake might have been a contributing factor. There were many great performers Earl Scruggs' band and John Hartford just to name a couple.