Bassman extraordinaire Tony Garnier has worked with Bob Dylan since 1989; he’s the musician who has played the most shows with Dylan ever. Tony has also worked with artists like Paul Simon, Brian Setzer, Tom Waits, David Johansen, and of course with Robert – from 1979 to ’89. You can hear him on studio albums like ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Are You Gonna Be The One’, as well as on the phenomenal ‘The Humbler’. We managed to track him down for an exclusive interview.
Tony, can you tell us a little about your early career?
The first band I toured and recorded with was ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL. I joined them in 1973 and left in 1978. They were a great band and are still around. We played primarily western swing and country music, but tried all kinds of styles.
How did you get to work with Robert?
I think I was recommended by Bruce Springsteen’s bass player Gary Tallent. I didn’t know Gary at the time but I guess he knew about AATW. I met him later on after I started playing with Robert; he’s quite a musicologist. Anyway, Robert really wanted an upright bassist and there weren’t many around who would or even could play with a fairly loud band. I wasn’t a true rockabilly player but I could play the slap bass style; I had learned that playing bluegrass music. I had done a couple of gigs with Ray Campi in Austin (through drummer Mike Buck of The Fabulous Thunderbirds). I knew a little bit about rockabilly from AATW also.
The first tour that you did with him was the ‘Rockbilly Boogie’ tour in the spring of ’79. What was that like?
It was really a lot of fun and very intense onstage; it seems like we had a great sound right away. I remember Robert wanting to go do a set at a club after the 2nd or 3rd rehearsal. We went and sat in at Max’s Kansas City u0026amp; a couple other clubs. I thought the shows on that tour were amazing; I got lots of blood blisters trying to keep up the intensity. I think at one show I lost so much blood I had to be carried out on a stretcher! The music and that band made you really dig in and play.
The band on that tour consisted of yourself, Bobby Chouinard and Chris Spedding. You all came from very different backgrounds. Did that create any problems?
I think those differences helped created the sound that we had. The only problems were trying to get Chris to speak english we could understand. Bobby Chouinard used to beg me to interpret for him; most of the time I would oblige.
That same summer, the band toured all over Europe together with Ian Dury. I’ve been told by many fans that even though Robert was the warming-up, he often outshone Dury, especially in Spain.
That was a fantastic tour. Ian had his classic Blockheads band and they were really great every night. I don’t remember outshining them but I do know that the fans in Spain and a lot of other places really went crazy for Robert. Chris also had quite a following of fans who showed up at a lot of gigs.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Robert ended the tour prematurely because he was homesick?
I’m not sure why we left that tour early; I think it was a big mistake. Ian Dury was very upset about it; he offered to open the shows if Robert stayed on. (That is I think that’s what he said; we couldn’t understand him either, even Chris!) It was an incredible gesture on his part; he was really a remarkable guy. Unfortunately, we went home.
The first recording sessions you did with Robert were those for the “Bad Boy” album in October 1979. Do you have any memories of those sessions?
It was hard to top the previous record (Rockabilly Boogie). There were so many great songs on that one and BAD BOY wasn’t quite as good but there were good moments. I only played a little on that and I don’t think Bobby is on that record at all. We probably should have recorded some songs with that touring band but it just didn’t happen. I sure liked recording in the Power Station though.
Shortly after that, Robert did a tour with Duke Robillard on leadguitar and Jack de Keyser on rhythm. Did you play bass on those shows?
I did play on that tour. I really like Duke’s guitar playing; I had done a bunch of shows with him when he was in Roomful of Blues and I was with the Wheel.
In November 1980 – January ’81, you did another recording session with Robert, this time with Danny Gatton on leadguitar, Lance Quinn on rhythm, and Shannon Ford on drums. Do you know how that band got assembled? Were there any differences in the way the sessions were done, compared to the ’79 sessions?
I forget why Robert decided to use Danny but it was a great choice. Danny was an incredible guitar player. I had seen him a few times myself at the Childe Harold club in D.C. in the mid 70’s. He brought his drummer, Shannon Ford and I think also recommended Lance Quinn as producer.(Or vice versa). Robert helped put Marshall Crenshaw on the map with that record; he wrote some really good songs. I think our best stuff though was the rockabilly tunes like Drivin’ Wheel. You couldn’t sell many records though doing strictly rockabilly.
In early ’81, you joined Robert again for another tour, with the same band that was used during those sessions. These shows have a legendary status now, partly because of the amazing guitarwork of Danny Gatton. Back then, were you aware of the fact that fans regarded these shows as something very special?
They were really great shows; Danny was amazing and Lance was a great rhythm player and Shannon really swung. That was a lot of fun.
What was Danny like as a person?
He had a great sense of humor and was really easy to be around. He loved cars also; I think he liked roadsters as much as music. We were big jazz fans and also liked many country acts like Lester Roadhog Moran and his Cadillac Cowboys. I was very saddened by his death; it took about a year before I could listen to any of his records.
Was there ever any talk of bringing this band over to Europe?
I think so but it never happened.
At one point, Lee Allan and Lewis Taylor were brought along on tour, to do 5 or 6 songs together with you guys at the end of the shows. That must have been neat.
I think that was some of the coolest music I ever played in my life. Lee Allen was a very rare musician and I felt honored to have been on stage with him. Steve Berlin was the first baritone player, then Lewis. We also used tenor player Bob Malach on some gigs in New York. I really dug having the horns on some songs.
In early ’82, you also did some shows together with Robert, drummer Tommy Price, and a guitarist that Robert vaguely remembers as ‘Warner’. Do you have any recollections of these shows?
I liked playing with Tommy; Warner was pretty good also but I always thought that Chris Spedding gave it a great modern sound mixed in with the rockabilly.
By Robert’s own admission, the mid-80s were a difficult period for him, with no new releases and too much excess. How did you experience that period (while working with him)?
It was tough at times but we kept doing gigs; that is we would do a gig on the way to the after hours clubs. (I always thought it was just enough excess though).
In May 1986, the “Live at the Lone Star” album was recorded during two live shows at that venue. How do you feel about that album?
I always liked playing with Anton Fig; I think the gigs at the Lone Star were generally really good but I don’t think that record is the best document of that. I don’t believe a good recording of Robert at the Lone Star exists. It’s too bad because there were some great shows at that club. I worked with a lot of different acts at that club and saw some really special shows there.
In the spring of ’88, Robert toured Europe again with the same band as in ’79 – including his first London gig in almost 10 years. That must have been exciting.
It sure the hell was.
The band appeared on Italian television, on “D.O.C.”, for almost a week. That footage is just amazing.
I personally think that the D.O.C. show is the best representation of that band. It also is a good overview of some of Robert’s best songs (Editorial note: this show is now available on the DVD “Red Hot Live”).
You also did some Canadian dates together, and Robert appeared on television there for an interview – with a black eye! What’s the story behind that?
I’m not sure if I’ve seen that. I know when we did SCTV that Robert and Dave Thomas had an argument about rockabilly guitarists. Robert thought that Scotty Moore was the best and Dave liked Paul Burlison; they kind of settled it in the hallway.
When was the last time you worked together with Robert?
How do you look back on your association with him?
I don’t. But seriously, I learned how to play rock and roll with those guys. Chris Spedding had a huge influence on my playing, Robert is still a great singer, and I had a lot of fun with those guys. We still stay in and out of touch.