Monday, March 4, 2019

A Rewarding Visit with Writer-Musician Jeff Slate, Author of the Liner Notes for More Blood More Tracks

"I think hustle is highly underrated. If you work really, really hard, good things will come to you."--Jeff Slate

Jeff Slate. Photo: Rachel Naomi.
Last fall was a pretty dramatic time here in Minnesota Dylan circles. The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood More Tracks was almost here. Rumors of this vindication for the Minnesota musicians who contributed to half the songs on Blood on the Tracks, via detailed session notes and corrected credits, were about to be validated. I must have heard rumblings since early spring, always with the accompanying whisper, “Don’t put it on your blog yet.”

In October, by the time I saw Jeff Slate’s article in The New Yorker, I’d already pre-ordered my copy, like every other Dylan fan, no doubt. Slate’s piece, titled Bob Dylan’s First Day with “Tangled Up in Blue,” did what it was supposed to do: It whet the appetite.

Slate, who had been tapped to write the liner notes for More Blood, More Tracks, was the perfect choice to write this Culture Desk intro to Dylan’s latest Bootleg Series set. This wasn’t Slate’s first high level byline, though. He’s been producing strong copy for Esquire, the Wall Street Journal and other high profile publications for quite some time. As a musician himself—selected to appear at Tulsa’s Bob Dylan Symposium in June—he also has an insider’s edge in writing about the music scene.

This past week I caught up with Jeff in order to learn more about his story. For young people with a passion and a dream, there are some real takeaways here.

EN: Every fan has an entry point into Dylan. What was yours?

Jeff Slate: My brother-in-law was a jazz musician, and a Dylan fan, too. I inherited a number of records from my brother and sister, and him. He had the Great White Wonder and a lot of the lesser known work, but he gave up on Dylan around Slow Train Coming, so I ended up with his collection. I was 12. I didn’t come to Slow Train with any baggage, and I loved it, along with everything else. At that age you’re listening to the record more than the words. At that same time I was discovering The Clash, Small Faces and The Who, I was discovering Dylan. It was an amazing time and a real education.

Photo: Rachel Naomi.
EN: When did you see Dylan for the first time?

JS: In the mid-80s I was in school in New York City and Bob was coming through with Tom Petty. I couldn’t get anyone to go with me so I went by myself; scalped tickets. So the first time seeing him was July 1986. When he performed alone with an acoustic guitar it felt like you could hear a pin drop, and it was like he was speaking directly to me.

This was something completely different for me. So I poured through the used record bins and picked up everything I didn’t have.

EN: What sets Dylan apart from everyone else?

JS: Dylan was one of the people who more than any other people – outside Lennon – seems to be an endless well of inspiration. But I don’t care about the details of his biography. I am a real believer in accepting the person that he wants to present to us. That character is such a unique and special artistic creation. The depth of those characters… he’s ever changing, ever morphing. In 200 years all the other contemporaries will be forgotten, except Dylan and The Beatles. We have had the rare opportunity to have this first-hand experience.

When the 90s came along, the Bootleg Series and the explosion of CD and DVD bootlegs made it possible for us all to have this endless treasure trove of inspiration. That wealth of information has set him apart, too, and he stands apart from almost all the other icons of the past 100 years. This isn’t like some small cultural character. His music speaks to everyone, from my kids to my mom.

EN: Do you have any favorite Dylan albums?

JS: I go through spurts where I might be listening to everything by The Clash or Cream. But if you listen to Dylan, in different eras it’s as though he’s a different artist. From the start Dylan re-created himself in all these different eras. John Wesley Harding is extremely timely in 2019. It is an album that resonates right now in this crazy political world. But it’s also completely unlike anything he did before or after. He’s gone through so many characters and evolutions. Then he re-created himself as a torch singer in this decade. Any artist would give their right lung to be able to reinterpret someone else’s music in that way.

EN: What are you listening to now?

JS: I’ve been listening to bootlegs from the Never Ending Tour, but mostly 1988-2003. Some fans deride the early days of the Never Ending Tour, but there’s a lot that is worth digging into. I have a theory that when Bob plays with a really great band, he lays back a bit, and when the band isn’t great, Bob really is.

Earl Slick (L) from Bowie's band, who played with Lennon.
Jeff Slate in the red light district. Photo: Joe Del Tufo
EN: You’re both a writer and a musician yourself. How do these two passions play out?

JS: It’s a challenge, only because they’re parallel lives in many respects. But I don’t work on assignment. So I am interviewing people that I’m passionate about because I’m interested. So selfishly it deepens my own knowledge of the artists I interview and often gives me inspiration. Also, as a musician, I think I bring something different to the conversation than other journalists.

EN: When did you begin writing?

JS: When I was teenager I would write for our high school newspaper. I would call artists coming through town (New London CT) – like The Clash and the Kinks – and interview them. I later went to NYU where I continued writing, but then I took a long break from writing.

Around the time the bottom dropped out of the music business, I needed other income. I always loved writing, so I dug into my Rolodex and started interviewing musicians that I’d crossed paths with. I called publications that would potentially print me. I had a good agent who helped get me on the right track, too.

(On one occasion) I wrote a review for The New York Times that was not used. I was able to get it into Esquire. Then they asked, “What else have you got?” I replied, “How about interview with Ringo?” My Ringo connection opened doors.

I have to say that I do work 24/7, whether it’s on my own music or writing about music. I think hustle is highly underrated. If you work really, really hard, good things will come to you.

Once you get to a certain level of competence and are hustling you can make your own opportunities, one of them being my relationship with Dylan’s team, which came from a few reviews. I got on the radar and, when I had coffee with the team, we hit it off. If we didn’t like each the rest would not have happened.

EN: Let’s talk about the liner notes for More Blood, More Tracks.

With (L) Mark Bosch, of Ian Hunter's Rant Band &
Mott the Hoople. Photo: Rachel Naomi.
JS: Very early on everyone on the Sony team and the Dylan team made it clear that they wanted to get it accurate. It was also important to get this story right for history, because as part of the Bootleg Series the narrative becomes Dylan’s official story.

By and large I was allowed to write whatever I wanted to. Bob’s team was very supportive. I was driven by a desire to tell the story as completely and empathetically as able.

They (the Minnesota musicians) have always been denigrated as an afterthought. That needed to be rectified. It was a passion of Kevin’s (Odegard) to get the story right, too, and I felt it was important to tell the story that he wanted to tell. Also, the New York story is an interesting one. Ratso Sloman interviewed the NY musicians right around the time of the sessions and they were happy to be a part of them. It only became sour grapes later, over time… They felt they never got their due, so over many years a narrative developed, I think, based on a lot of hurt feelings.

Everyone loves to give their viewpoint on Bob Dylan, especially people who have played with him. But Dylan’s mission is to create his art… After listening to the Cutting Edge box set, and the Blood On The Tacks sessions, it’s clear, I think, that when Bob is in the studio, he’s not lackadaisical. He is focused. He is fully there.

EN: Can you share a little about your own band?

Photo: Rachel Naomi
JS: In the 80s, I co-founded a punky band, the Mindless Thinkers. Then I worked solo, and did some work that Pete Townshend helped with. Then, in the late-90s, I founded the band The Badge… I’ve released a bunch of records, both solo and with The Badge.

I dug back into music around 2010. After returning, I took it more seriously. I used connections, licensed music for TV, film, advertising, and own it all. Though not super lucrative, I’m very lucky to have a small, loyal following.

It’s incredibly humbling to go out to Tulsa and see the archives and perform as an artist because of my connection writing the liner notes. I can’t believe I’ve monetized my obsessions.

* * * *

Jeff offered up some additional advice for musicians. He spoke of quality and reliability as critical. He also warned against trying to be the next Neil Young or Bob Dylan. “It’s not necessarily about being great. It’s about being good and reliable. If you commit yourself to doing it all the time, if you do it 24/7, you will be able to make a living at it.”

“Spend time after the show with the people,” he added.

Thanks, Jeff. Keep it going.

Related Links
Jeff Slate HQ
The World of Bob Dylan Symposium
First Thoughts on More Blood More Tracks
Slick & Slate

Articles by Jeff Slate
The Music in Ken Burns' The Vietnam War Is Remarkable. Here's How It Was Chosen. (Esquire)
When Bob Dylan Saw God (Esquire)
The Best Rock Album You've Never Heard (Esquire)
Bob Dylan Is the Greatest American Singer of All Time (Esquire)

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