This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
When I first watched the Letterman 10th Anniversary Dylan performance I was ready to be sick.
Paul Schaffer's overblown arrangement of "Like A Rolling Stone" never syncs with Dylan and the performance was dreadful.
Dylan hates television and for good reason. He also hates unauthorized videos on the internet and tries to take them down. Who wants to see themselves not at their best?
Late Night With Dave Letterman 10th Anniversary 1992
On February 6, 1992, Dylan was talked into appearing for Dave Letterman's 10th Anniversary show. On a matter of principle he should have insisted on pre-recording the spot with his own band.
Studio bands, with the possible exception of Jimmy Fallon's, almost always kill rock and roll artists who perform live. What the house band doesn't wreck, network sound engineers make worse with anemic mixes.
Was Dylan being unpleasant, blowing the performance on purpose or what? Dylan was singing like a bad imitation of his worst stage voice and never clicked with the band or backup singers. Like never.
Then I watched it again and could see the problem – Paul Schaffer. You can see Paul, the over-energetic, grinning bandleader, pumping the song for all he's worth. The band and singers are following Paul because, well, he's the bandleader. The band and Dylan never get in sync. As Mavis Staples ended on a gospel coda under Schaffer's direction, Dylan just stands there and looks like "What was that?"
Unlike Dylan's normal backup band of 5 guys who are in totally in sync with him we have this all-star group of musicians who forgot for one ugly song what it is to follow the singer not the bandleader.
Dylan refused to play with the big band during rehearsals. "I don't need this band to play my music. Me, I got four pieces. That's all I need. All this other stuff don't make no sense."
Dylan was right but Schaffer and his manager Jeff Kramer talked him into it. Paul Schaffer surrenders the groove to bombast when he gets a chance. He's Mr. Showman out to prove he's cool.
"Like A Rolling Stone" Bob Dylan, Late Night with Dave Letterman
In his book, Schaffer says "Dylan loves me." I doubt that.
Despite the all-star line up of excellent musicians who knew Dylan and many of whom had played with him like Chrissie Hynde, Jim Keltner, Roseanne Cash, and Anton Fig, "Like A Rolling Stone" comes off like a parody.
Here's the 1992 band: "Chrissie Hynde (guitar), Steve Vai (guitar), Carole King (keyboards), Edgar Winter (horn), Jim Keltner (drums), Roseanne Cash, Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Michelle Shocked, Mavis Staples (backup vocals), and the James Brown horn section, Paul Shaffer (keyboards), Sid McGinnis(guitar), Will Lee (bass), Anton Fig (drums), and Doc Severinsen (trumpet)."
Dylan and Letterman 1984
The 1984 Letterman performance of "Jokerman" is miles ahead of the 1992 show.
The band is mostly The Plubz (Justin Poskin, Justin Jesting, Tony Marsico, and Charlie Quintana) who Dylan only picked up a week before to keep it spontaneous. The whole performance cooks along with Dylan's improvised harp solo.
"Jokerman" Bob Dylan, Late Night with Dave Letterman
Letterman and Dylan 1993
A year later in 1993, Dylan came back on Letterman with his own band to ace "Forever Young." This time he appears mainly with his own band in setup like Unplugged – Bucky Baxter, John Jackson, Tony Garnier, and Winston Watson.
Left only with a Hammond organ, Paul Schaffer over-plays the best he can to top Dylan but it does not work this time. Dylan is in control and the performance is priceless.
"Forever Young" Bob Dylan, Late Night with Dave Letterman
Sorry for the video quality but it is the only one online.
If you like Dylan with that style of band, try the excellent DVD Bob Dylan: Unplugged which was recorded in 1994. The songs have great vocal performances from Dylan.
He gets an awesome groove going with the mostly unplugged band. I have enjoyed that performance on both LaserDisc, where it first appeared, and now DVD.
Bob Dylan MTV Unplugged song list
Track list with original release album dates:
1: Tombstone Blues
2: Shooting Star
3: All Along the Watchtower
4: The Times They Are A-Changin'
5: John Brown
6: Desolation Row
7: Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35
8: Love Minus Zero / No Limit
10: Knockin' on Heaven's Door
11: Like a Rolling Stone
12: With God on Our Side
By Stephen Pate, NJN Network