Pianist Alan Pasqua on His Years With Bob Dylan, Eddie Money, Pat Benatar, and Santana
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features pianist Alan Pasqua.
When Bob Dylan entered the recording studio in early 2020 to cut his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul,” he could have phoned up most any pianist on the planet to play on it. But he opted for Alan Pasqua, a professor of jazz studies at USC with a long history of recording credits, including Dylan’s 1978 LP Street Legal and the accompanying 114-date world tour.
“He handed me a stack of lyrics,” Pasqua recalls over Zoom from his home in L.A. “I’m reading through it and he’s talking about Bird [Charlie Parker] and Bud Powell, in addition to everything about JFK. I’m looking at him like, ‘What?’ Then we started playing it and it’s all free time. At a moment like that, I had to be just be focused on his vocal, what he wrote. I don’t want to play the wrong chord. It’s an intuitive process at that point.”
Years of experience working with everyone from jazz greats like Tony Williams and Peter Erskine to pop and rock icons like Eddie Money, Carlos Santana, Rick Springfield, and Pat Benatar prepared him for this moment. “People say to me, ‘How can you play all those different styles of music?” Pasqua says. “The only thing I’m not really good at is playing country music. If you play what’s in front of you, and pay respect to the composer and the tradition of the music, you have a chance to have a lifetime in music.”
Pasqua’s lifetime in music began in Roselle Park, New Jersey, about 20 miles from New York City. His father was a bass player, and he started playing piano at the age of six after watching his older brother Michael take lessons. He first encountered jazz a couple years later when his family took a trip to Atlantic City. “We walked into the Steel Pier and Buddy Rich’s Big Band was playing,” he says. “A big band was like standing in front of a firing squad, and that was the first time I heard anything live. That was my first ‘Oh my God, this is so cool’ moment.”
He began collecting jazz records by Oscar Peterson, and André Previn with Shelly Manne. “The record that pretty much changed my life was the iconic Jazz Track by Miles Davis,” he says. “That’s where I heard [pianist] Bill Evans and [John] Coltrane for the first time. That changed everything.”
At the same time, Pasqua was listening to the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Spooky Tooth, Steppenwolf, and Vanilla Fudge, and he headed into the city as a teen to see Grand Funk Railroad, Three Dog Night, and the Guess Who, deepening his love of rock & roll.
He spent two years at the University of Indiana before a chance encounter with jazz great Jaki Byard at the New England Conservatory of Music changed his plans. “I played two piano rhythm changes with him in his studio,” says Pasqua. “When we were done, he said to me, ‘Why don’t you transfer to Boston and come study with me?'”
Pasqua’s work at the New England Conservatory of Music led to a performance at Carnegie Hall, where he met Tony Williams, who asked him to join his jazz fusion band, the Tony Williams Lifetime. That started him on a path that would take him to Eddie Money, and eventually Bob Dylan.
How did you grow as a musician during your time with the Tony Williams Lifetime?
Tony was amazing in that he never told me ever what to play. He would make suggestions. He was a really great composer and he studied orchestration. He’d say, “Listen to the sound of the band, where the holes are where he’s playing. How can you play the melody with him that’s not not only doubling, but enhancing? How can you orchestrate?”
When I go back and play my students outtakes of Miles’ recording dates, like “Freedom Jazz Dance,” nobody knew what to play at first. Little by little, Miles make these very subtle suggestions to every band member. Boom. And little by little, by take 13, there’s the master. But when they started playing it, they were just trying to figure it out. Tony did not have an agenda. He led by example.
How did you meet Eddie Money?
It was through Bruce Botnick, who produced the Tony Williams record, and who also produced the Doors. He’s a genius, cutting-edge digital engineer. When I moved to Los Angeles, that’s the only phone number I had of anyone that I knew. I called Bruce and told him, “Hey, I moved to L.A.”
One day he called me. He goes, “I’m in Century City.” He was working for Epic Records at the time. They had their offices at the Century Towers. He said, “I’ve got this new artist they just signed. His name is Eddie Money. We’re going to make a record. We need a piano player. Come over, Eddie wants to meet you. I told him all about you.”
I walk in, and there’s Eddie sitting there. The first thing out of his mouth is, “Hey, Al. I don’t want to hear any jazz shit.” [Laughs.] We talked for 10 minutes. Then he sits down at the piano with his knuckle-sandwich piano playing and plays me “Two Tickets to Paradise” and “Baby Hold On.” I’m a quick study. I sat back down and played it back for him. He goes, “OK, man, you got the gig. You’re hired.”
You’re on both those songs?
Yeah. I’m on a lot of his early recordings.
Did it take a lot of takes to get those songs?
It came quickly. [Drummer] Gary Mallaber and [bassist] Lonnie Turner from Steve Miller’s band were the rhythm section. Andy Johns was the engineer. Jimmy Lyon played guitar. It was unbelievable. We did it at Wally Heider’s.
What’s it like to turn on the radio and hear yourself playing on those two songs?
It’s fun. I always enjoy it. I always want to stop people and go, “Hey, that’s me playing piano.” [Laughs.] But I never do.
Tell me more about Eddie. He seemed like such a regular guy for a rock star.
He was kind of a regular knucklehead guy from back East. I related to him since that’s where I grew up. But onstage, he totally turned it on. He knew what to do when he got onstage in front of a microphone.
How was the tour for you? You were pretty young and that was your first real rock tour.
I’d been on tour with Tony prior to that. That was a lot of station wagons and driving through the U.S. and doing a few dates in Europe. This was flights and driving. Two guys to a room. This was bare bones. I was making no bread at all. They offered me the same money that I was making with Tony Williams. I said no. And then they said, “Bill Graham wants to talk to you.” [Laughs.]
I go into Bill’s office. I’m flipping out. I’m like, “Oh, jeez.” He’s like, [gruff and angry] “What’s the problem here?” I told him, “Look, man. I just got off the road.” He offered me $25 more a week. Of course, I took it. He said, “And if I find out you told anyone, I’m going to kill you.” [Laughs.] I said, “OK, Bill. You got my word.”
This is the peak of punk. A lot of critics saw Eddie as lame and passé. They were wrong, though. Those songs are incredible, and he’s such a great singer.
Killer. He was a white soul singer. He loved the Rascals. You could hear it.
Were you a fan of Bob Dylan in the ’60s and early ’70s?
Honestly, no. It’s not that I wasn’t a fan. I just wasn’t…I knew who he was. But I wasn’t aware of his music really at all.
How did you get word about the possibility of the tour you did with him in 1978?
I was rehearsing in New York at SIR, Studio Instrument Rentals. We were on a break. I was standing out in the hallway, and there was this other guy standing out in the hallway. We said “hello” to each other. It turned out to be Rob Stoner, who was Bob’s bass player.
I said, “What are you doing here?” He goes, “I’m rehearsing with this band. Where do you live?” I told him I lived in L.A. He said, “I’m coming out there in a couple of weeks. I’m putting Bob Dylan’s band together for a tour. Give me your phone number. Maybe when I get in town, I’ll call you and we can get together and play.” I was like, “OK, whatever.”
Eddie’s tour was three months. It was absolutely brutal. I get home right before Christmas. I’m sitting at my little place on the couch, just trying to decompress. The phone rings. It was Rob. “Hey, I’m in Santa Monica. Why don’t you come down and we’ll play. I’ll put a tape together for Bob.”
I said, “You know what, Rob? I’m really tired. I’m burned out. Thanks anyway.” And then I hung up [laughs]. I sat there and said, “What the hell did you just do?” I called him back and went, “I don’t know what I was thinking. Will you let me come down?”
I came down. We spent a couple of days just jamming. I guess he put this tape together and played it for Bob. Next thing I knew, he called to say we were going to have rehearsal a couple miles from my house. I walk into [Rundown Studios] on Main Street in Santa Monica. There’s like three drummers, four guitar players, three keyboard players. The whole bit. I’m like, “I don’t know what’s going on here.” Bob was there. He went, “OK, see you tomorrow.” Next day, there’s two of everybody.
This went on for about three or four days. I’m like, “Jeez, I wonder what’s going to happen.” I walked in and I was the only keyboard player. I just didn’t say anything. I was like, “I’m not going to ask if I got the gig because they’ll probably fire me just for asking.” During that rehearsal, Bob looked at me and went, “Do you know ‘Positively 4th Street?'” I looked at him and said, “No, but I’ll learn it.” He started laughing. I thought, “I’m toast. I’m out of here.”
Looking back at it, that might have been the reason I got the gig. I was honest with him. I didn’t try to bullshit him and play it poorly. Through my lifetime, we’ve intersected a number of times. It’s always gone really great.
Did it surprise you that he was assembling a big band with a sax player and background singers? It was so different than all his previous live bands.
Yeah. I didn’t really do a deep dive. But it seemed like a departure. The critics were all over us, calling us a Las Vegas revue. But he taught me a lot. My best memory is that every night he and I would play two duets: “Girl From the North Country” and “I Want You.” I’d play one on piano, and the other on this horrible little Yamaha synthesizer, a dinosaur from the early days of synthesis. I just remember listening to him sing and breathe, his phrasing. It was special. It was different.
It’s a real shame that the only show most people have heard from this tour is Bob Dylan at Budokan. It was literally some of the first shows you guys did on a year-long tour. It was the show in its earliest stage of development.
Yeah. Really early. Before that first show, we’re backstage and there’s a ping-pong table. I like to play ping-pong. There’s this guy wanting to play ping-pong. He’s standing, like, 30 feet behind the table. I’m like, “What are you doing, man?”
He serves and it’s like a fastball. I’m holding on the best I can. I went for this ball and ran smack into a steel beam. It didn’t knock me out, but it knocked me down, and blood started coming down. I cut my scalp pretty bad. Patrick Stansfield, who was our tour manager, took a turban and basically made a tourniquet out of my head, pumped me full of Tylenol, and said, “Get out on stage.”
I lasted through the whole concert, but I remember about two hours when it stated to wear off, all the low notes in the subwoofers just hitting me…it was like, “Oh, my God.”
I finished the show. They put me in a car and took me to some medical facility. I remember it was dark. I’m lying down on a table. This doctor comes in and stands on a friggin’ milk carton. I remember that, still. And he stitched me up. I went back to the hotel. The band was there. One of the background singers, Jo Ann Harris, says, “Here, you need to have some cold sake.”
Do you think that’s the night they captured on the Budokan live record?
I don’t know. That would be interesting to find out. I guess if I listen to my parts, if I was sounding particularly awful, I’d figure maybe it was that night.
I guess the tour got better from there for you.
Yeah. He taught me a lot. We were in Berlin. There were some people in the crowd that were planted, I guess, to cause a bunch of shit. They started throwing shit at the band, like paint and rags. It was ugly. We left. We split. I’m back in my dressing room. We had outfits that we wore. I changed into my street clothes, just kind of hanging out and waiting for someone to say, “OK, let’s get on the bus.”
Bob comes in. He looks at me and goes, “What are you doing?” I go, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “What are you wearing?” I said, “Street clothes.” He says, “Get back in your stage clothes. We’re going back on.” I was like, “What?” He goes, “Alan, I’m just waiting for these people to leave. The rest of the crowd is still there.”
We waited about an hour and a half. We went back on. I mean, he was a hero. It was all those people that paid their money to see them. He didn’t want to let them down.
If you go back and read reviews of that tour, so many of the writers are comparing it unfavorably to Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town tours. It had the misfortune of coming around the same time as two of the best tours in rock history. The critics also just didn’t get it.
Totally. They had no clue. Everyone has an agenda. They have expectations about what it’s going to be like. The mark of a true artist is they walk in their own shoes, and they make their own art how they see it.
It would be so easy for Bob to walk onstage with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica rack, and play “Mr. Tambourine Man” just like it sounds on the record. The audience would go crazy…
And he’d be playing the Morongo Casino in freakin’ Palm Springs. It’s that simple.
Right. You can just do the thing people first love about you forever.
Well, you can, but you won’t grow as an artist doing that.
Bob’s thing has always been about burning the past. And even if you play an old song, there’s no rule it has to sound the old way. Why not play “Tangled Up in Blue” as a torch ballad with a sax solo?
That’s the jazz part of him. That’s why I said that gig was almost like doing a jazz gig.
Tell me about making Street Legal. I know it was done very quickly after the conclusion of the first leg of the tour.
[Laughs.] Yeah. We recorded it in the rehearsal studio. Don DeVito produced it for CBS. There was a remote truck. It was a horrible room to make a record in. There were vinyl floors. Everything was reflective. They put Bob in one of the bathrooms as a vocal booth. I think, if memory serves me correctly, we recorded the first day and then everyone got fired. Fired the whole band. I think that was during the recording of Street Legal, but I could be wrong. It’s been a while.
We definitely were fired at some point early on. Then we got the call that we were re-hired. I think all that happened in the middle of making the record. It was all just a few days. It was like making a Tony Williams record.
Those songs began as piano demos. Did you play that stuff before you recorded?
No. He would just start playing. We would follow along.
You were tracking live?
“Changing of the Guards” is one of my favorite Dylan songs.
Me too. What I didn’t know about him then…life’s regrets. I didn’t know how deeply knowledgeable he was about all kinds of music. He was always on my ass about Augie Meyers. I was like, “Who the hell is Augie Meyers?” “Go listen to him!”
That was probably one of the reasons…well, the whole band was let go. But he wanted more out of me than what I could give him because of my limited knowledge of that earlier music.
Do you recall recording “Señor?” To me, that song is a masterpiece.
It is a masterpiece. That song immediately evokes a mood, instantly. I always tell my students, “Play the song in front of you. It’s not about anything on the page, it’s not about a chord change. It’s about the song in front of you. What’s the feeling? You have to approach it from that emotional moment.” Instantly, that song just captivates you. It’s beautiful.
You’d played 114 shows by the time that tour ended. That’s more shows than he’s done in any other year.
Isn’t that crazy? I didn’t know that.
Did you feel burned out by all the travel?
No. It was great…I remember we went to Japan first. We landed. I wasn’t even off the plane yet. Bob was off with security. That was his first trip to Japan. They rushed him past the media. A fight broke out. It was nuts. They had to protect Bob, since it wasn’t cool what was happening. We went from there to New Zealand and Australia.
Traveling through Europe, we had our own private train cars that were attached to other trains that pulled us through Europe. And then in the United States, we had a beautiful jumbo jet. I used to ride with the pilots every night. It was the coolest thing.
He hadn’t played Europe since 1966. There was so much demand to see him play, especially in England.
We played Earl’s Court for a week. We did a week in Paris. It was just amazing.
On the latter legs, you closed with “Changing of the Guards.” You really speed it up, and he spits it out like fire.
We turned it into an anthem. It was a wild band with [drummer] Ian Wallace and [saxophonist] Steve Douglas and [bassist] Jerry Scheff, who came on after Rob [Stoner] left.
In the final weeks of the tour, Bob starts wearing a cross around his neck and you’re soundchecking songs that would appear on Slow Train Coming. Do you recall that?
That’s interesting. I don’t really recall soundchecking those songs. I know we lost one of our crew members. There was an accident. That kind of seemed to be the turning point.
As far as what?
I think that might have made him want to change directions.
I’ve heard there are very few board tapes of that tour.
There are some board tapes. Arthur Rosato was our head honcho. I remember him telling me there were some board tapes floating around.
I really hope they do a Bootleg Series about it one day. That tour is so much more than Budokan. It was different every night.
Every night was different. It really was like playing a jazz gig.
How did you feel about the gospel stuff he did the following year?
Honestly, I didn’t care for it. I thought it was such an about-face. I didn’t understand the connection there. But I see it now, for sure.
When the tour was done, did you hope that you’d remain in his orbit? Did you sense that was it?
We didn’t know. Nobody ever said to us, “Thank you, it’s over.” It just kind of never started again.
How did you wind up on Santana’s Marathon album the next year?
While I was out on the road with Bob, I ran into him somewhere. Maybe we were on the same bill at a festival or something. He said, “Man, I know you. You played with Tony Williams.” I was like, “Yeah, man. I know you too.” I loved the very first Santana record. That one and Abraxas are probably my favorite. I always love that band because it was a rock band, but there was blowing. There was soloing. He said, “I’d love to play with you.” I said, “So would I.” He said, “Stay in touch. There will be a time in the not-too-distant-future where we’ll make a change with our keyboard player.”
They got ahold of me and asked if I wanted to fly up and play with the band, so I went up to the Bay Area. Next thing I know, they asked me to join.
You co-wrote some songs on Marathon, including “Aqua Marine” and “Hard Times.”
There was always the chance to write in that band. I never liked the R&B sound of that band. I liked the more hard-edged, rock, Afro-Cuban, Latin aspect of that. That’s what drew me to it. I wrote, with some of the other bandmates, an entire album of music that was recorded and in the can. It was basically bringing that band back to its original roots. That would be like asking Miles to play [1963’s] Seven Steps to Heaven after he’s played [1986’s] Tutu. But Carlos was open to input.
Was “Aqua Marine” from that shelved album you cut?
It was, yeah.
How was the tour? Did you have a lot of chances to improv?
Yeah. It was structured, for sure. But there was time to solo. There was room to blow. It was open.
How was Carlos different as a bandleader than Bob?
I guess Bob was more quiet. To me, Bob seemed more direct, though. Carlos, maybe not so much. Honestly, the reason that I left that band — I was actually fired [laughs] — is that I didn’t care for the way the band was being treated in terms of respect. I let him know about it. That’s the kind of person I am. That didn’t sit too well [laughs].
Before that, you also played on Santana’s Zebop! sessions.
Zebop! was great. That was my first meeting with [producer] Keith Olsen, who also taught me so much. He realized the level of musicianship that I had in the band. He was an ally. He relied on me a lot. He took me under his wing and mentored me in a lot of ways.
You’re credited on “Hannibal.”
Yeah. We did all that at the Automatt in San Francisco. Armando Peraza is the bongo player on that. He broke a microphone. I’ll never forget that. He was testing a Neumann mic playing bongos, and the guy was so strong, he hit the bongo like “BAP!” and the microphone diaphragm just died.
As a fan of the early records, it must have been fun to go on tour and play old songs like “Black Magic Woman” and “Evil Ways.”
Totally fun. “Jingo.” Loved it.
How did you wind up on Pat Benatar’s Precious Time?
Well, Keith Olsen. When my stint with Santana ended, I came back to L.A. and had to circle the wagons and figure out how I was going to continue making a life as a musician. And Keith called. He was working at Sound City. He invited me to come up and play piano on that record. That’s where I met Pat and Neil [Giraldo] and [drummer] Myron [Grombacher]. Great people. Iconic studio. I worked there a lot.
How did your Rick Springfield period start?
Keith Olsen. At that point, Keith had built his studio next door to Sound City called Goodnight L.A. I wasn’t on “Jessie’s Girl.” I was on the record following “Jessie’s Girl.” My good friend Tim Pierce was on “Jessie’s Girl.” Many decades since, he’s still out there doing it.
Rick was great. Super, super nice guy. Really, really good at what he does. Had a great dog, Ronnie, who was a pit bull. He was nuts. I remember I was tracking in the control room, not in the playing room, on a Wurlitzer electric piano. I was tapping my foot and it was creating a shadow on the floor. The dog was in there. He saw the shadow and he just bolted, in the middle of the take, for my right foot. It scared the crap out of me. I was like, “Rick, get your dog out of here!”
Are you on “Don’t Talk to Strangers?”
Yes. I’m actually going to see Rick this weekend since my daughter Greta is doing a show at the Village Recorder. Rick and [his wife] Barbie [Porter] are going to come down and cheer her on.
Then you were back to Eddie Money for No Control in 1982. Do you play on “Shakin'”?
I do. That was co-written by Liz Myers. She’s my dear friend. Gary Ferguson plays drums on that and just really made it happen. It’s a great song. That was an absolute magic combination of players and engineers and producers, the whole thing.
It’s really interesting. Songs like that don’t need a lot of help. It’s not like you need an arranger. If you get the right musicians in there and they hear the song and they react to it emotionally, they’re going to play a part that sounds like it was made for that song.
You then co-wrote Christine McVie’s “Keeping Secrets” with Todd Sharp.
You’re digging it all up! I was so sorry to hear of her passing. She was an angel. What a voice.
I met Todd in the studio while working on a record and we kind of hit it off. Back then, I tried to write with as many people as I could. I never only considered myself as a keyboardist or pianist, but as a composer/songwriter as well. I got together with Todd…and I really liked his voice. He had an interesting voice, and a great pop sensibility. He was working with Christine at the time, and he brought that song to her. She liked it, and they cut it.
How did your John Fogerty chapter start?
I got a call from my good friends [bassist] Neil Stubenhaus and [drummer] John Robinson. I had worked with them a lot during that time period. They had just worked on a session with Fogerty. John liked the two of them. He sounded them out about doing a tour. He said, “We need a keyboard player. Who should we get?” They said, “Call Alan.” I got a call from Neil saying, “This thing might happen.” We all met and played and boom! We did a three-month tour. It was incredible.
This is a bold tour. You’re playing zero Creedence songs.
Exactly. He was under that whole thing with Saul Zaentz. I remember we played a song called “Zanz Kant Danz” [later retitled “Vanz Kant Dance”]. It went “Vanz can’t dance, but he’ll steal your money/Watch him or he’ll rob you blind.” [Laughs.]
Did you feel any hostility from audience members who’d come expecting to hear “Proud Mary” and “Fortunate Son?”
I don’t know about hostility. Maybe some disappointment. John was unbelievable, man. That’s the thing. All these guys that we’re talking about, the amount of output that they have night after night after night to bring it to their fans… Nobody phoned it in.
But not relying on your hits, you need to win over the audience in a different way.
Exactly. His voice is so iconic, and his energy. The band was great. It was so much fun for me. I was a big baseball fan, as was John. The tour was set up so that we would play a city, there would be a National or American League ballpark in the city, and the team played either the night before our show or the night after. I probably saw 15 or 20 Major League ballgames in different parks. We went to Cooperstown to see the Hall of Fame. We had a ball.
Then you were with Bruce Willis on his blues album, The Return of Bruno.
[Laughs.] My God. Yeah. I remember walking in. I was like, “What?” Bruce had gotten all the A-team studio guys for that band. There were these giant, inflatable dinosaurs in the studio. I was like, “What the hell is going on here?” That was his present to all of us. He got us each inflatable dinosaurs. To me, that just meant he was nervous as hell [laughs].
How was he as a singer?
He was fine. He was a good guy. I don’t remember too much about the date at all. It reminds me, for some reason, of a time I worked with Johnny Cash. It was for a film. He came in and sang a song. Without a doubt, one of the nicest and most humble guys I’ve ever run across, completely self-effacing. He opened his mouth and it was like, “What?”!”
You play on Starship’s No Protection. What do you remember about that session?
That was Keith Olsen. I was overdubbing at that point. The band had already tracked. Keith brought me in to play on some overdubs.
How did you feel about modern music production at this point? It was a lot of synths and that gated reverb drum sound.
I was always a frustrated guitar player that could never learn how to play guitar. I think the reason I had success in pop music as a keyboardist is because I didn’t approach that music as a keyboardist. I approached it more as a guitar player. I was playing rhythm parts.
Sammy Hagar called me once, late at night, when he was in Van Halen. They were in L.A. recording somewhere. He goes, “You know, man, I think keyboard players suck. But you suck the least.” [Laughs]
It is. He goes, “Can you come down here now to do a keyboard overdub?” I just said, “No, man. I’m going to bed.”
Tell me about forming Giant. Why did you feel it was time to join a proper band and move away from session work?
I kept running into Dan Huff on record dates. [Producer] Richard Landis brought us together early on. We totally hit it off. He’s a brilliant guitarist, really quick learner. He just had it together. We were buddies. We hung out outside of work. We were burned out from studio work. We both wanted to have a band. We started writing together. That’s what started it all.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” was a hit in 1990. Why do you think the band didn’t get bigger from there?
We were too late. If we were five years earlier, we probably would have had more success. I remember when we made the first record, Last of the Runaways. Bob Coburn from KLOS in L.A. broke that record. I just about had a car accident. I was driving and he said, “I’m going to play something now that’s going to blow your mind.”
We were the darling band of KLOS for a short period of time. Mark and Brian were on the air. We did the Christmas show and all that stuff. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” was one station away, one add, from becoming a Top 10 hit, for sure. We were really, really close. But it took too much time getting the adds that we needed. Some of the stations that first added dropped us down in their rotation. The numbers didn’t quite click to get us over the hump, but we got into the Top 20.
Then grunge hits, and bands like Giant stop getting radio play.
Correct. Beavis and Butt-Head…Soundgarden. All those things changed the music. It was time for something else. We were too late.
Did session work dry up in the Nineties once the industry changed?
Yeah. It did. At that point in time, I actually moved to Santa Fe and lived in New Mexico for five years. The band was still together. Our A&R guy left A&M and moved over to Epic. Then we moved over to Epic. We made the second record [Time to Burn]. By that time, half the band moved to Nashville. I was in New Mexico. We just kind of lost our focus, our strength. The second record, I thought, was terrible.
Tell me about writing the CBS Evening News theme song.
That was my good friends John Trivers and Liz Myers. I met John because he was trying to reach somebody else, and I picked up the phone. We started talking. We’re both from New York and New Jersey, so we were like, “Hey, let’s grab some dinner some night.” We went to dinner. I met Liz. We became friends.
She’s a great pianist, a great musician. John is a great bass player. They started bringing me into their fold. They were doing a lot of composing for commercials, radio and television. They got so busy that they said, “We could use an extra hand.” I started writing with them.
One day, John called and said, “We just got a call from CBS. They’re thinking of having music for the first time for the Evening News.” It was always the sound of a ticker tape before that, like during the Walter Cronkite era. They asked us to pitch a theme. And we got together and wrote this theme. We pitched it to them, and lo and behold, we got it. We recorded it with a big orchestra.
It ran for a number of years with Dan Rather. And then Dan Rather went, they brought in a new production team, and our theme went away. But then Scott Pelley came on and said, “I really like that music from Dan’s period.” They appeased Scott and they brought our theme back. Then I got an e-mail from Liz this year. I thought she was kidding around. She said, “Don’t you think the CBS Evening News sounds even better with Norah O’Donnell now that our theme is back?” I was like, “What?” It’s had three lives.
They must pay you a ton in royalties for playing your song on TV that often.
They do. The money has been good in the past. We’ll wait to see what this round is like. I got my fingers crossed. That’s why I tell all my students you have to be composers in addition to great musicians, because you never know.
Later on, you worked on the soundtrack to The Waterboy?
I did. I composed it. It was really cool. Frank Coraci was the director. He did a bunch of other Adam Sandler movies. I did the music for a movie for him [Murdered Innocence] that went straight to video. I was living in Santa Fe at that time. He came to visit while he was working on The Wedding Singer. He went, “When that’s done, I’ll probably get another Adam movie, and I’m going to bring you in and get you a composing gig.” I thought, “Oh, yeah. Sure, sure.” He called me one night and said, “We’re in town and shooting at Gower Studios. Come down and I’ll introduce you to Adam.” Next thing I know, I get green-lighted to be the composer.
How did you wind up writing and recording the background music for Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech in 2017?
[Dylan manager Jeff Rosen] calls me in his typical fashion and goes, “What are you doing?” I go, “What do you want?” He said, “Do you remember The Steve Allen Show? He’d sit around the show, kind of noodle, and interview his guests?” I go, “Yeah.” He said, “We need some music like that.” It was this kind of roundabout thing. I go, “When do you need it?” He goes, “Today.” I was like, “OK.”
At that time, I didn’t ask what it was for. I did say, “How much do you need?” He goes, “About 30 minutes.” I go, “What?! That’s a freakin’ motion picture.” I say, “All right, I’ll give you a few samples.”
I went to the piano and did, like, three 30-second things. He went, “I don’t want it to be jazzy, but it should be sort of bluesy. A little bit jazzy, but sort of rambling.”
I just tried to focus on those words. I gave him three samples. He calls back and goes, “That’s perfect. That’s just what we need.” I said, “OK. Instead of giving you 30 minutes, I’m going to give you six pieces that are five minutes long. You can do whatever the hell you want with them.”
I recorded them. We came to our terms [regarding money], and I sent it in. He goes, “It’s all perfect.” I go, “Jeff, what is this for?” He said, “Bob got the Nobel Prize. He has to give a speech, but he won’t be able to attend in person.” I said, “When is the speech?” He goes, “It’s tomorrow. We wanted to just have an underpinning of piano. What you did was perfect.” I said, “I’m honored. Thank you.”
How did you feel watching it?
I was thrilled. Here I am with Bob again, doing another duet [laughs].
Did you ever speak with Bob after the 1978 tour?
Yeah. I saw him in the studio a few times. I did a recording that [composer] Vince Mendoza arranged of “He’s Funny That Way.” I played piano on that and hung out with him that day in the studio. Then we did the Nobel thing. Then we did “Murder Most Foul.”
Tell me the story of “Murder Most Foul.”
Another call from Jeff. “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m kind of doing this tonight. I’m around over the weekend.” I then hung up and thought, “Oh, let me call him back.” I said, “Jeff, are you looking to do something tonight?” He goes, “Yeah, kinda.” I was like, “All right, let me move things around.” I went out to the studio and just hung out for a while. Benmont [Tench] was there, who I was so happy to see. I think he’s the greatest.
Was Bob there when you arrived?
He was, but he was in the recording studio and we were out, just kind of hanging. We weren’t in there yet. We waited for quite a while. Then it was like, “OK, fellows. Let’s do it.” Bob played what he had recorded already and wanted us to play on top of it. We went in the room and did our parts live.
It’s 17 minutes long.
It is. We did it a number of times.
How was the work divided up between you and Benmont?
He was playing organ. I’m playing piano. Bob is playing guitar. The producer’s name was Blake Mills. Fiona Apple was already on it. She’d already recorded her part…The whole thing is in free time. There’s no tempo or anything. I turned to him and said, “Bob, this like A Love Supreme.” He just kind of looked at me. He didn’t say anything. It was so, so special. If he had [saxophonists] Archie Shepp or Pharoah Sanders come in to play on top of it, it would have totally fit. Even though it wasn’t jazz, all these lines are being blurred big time.
How did you feel when you heard these lyrics and realized the scope of the story he was telling, including the JFK assassination?
I was 11 when he was assassinated. It was a big deal. That whole period of time with Martin Luther King and Bobby [Kennedy]…that was a big weight. A heavy, heavy thing.
Was Bob tracking his vocals live?
Yeah. He was playing guitar and singing live.
How many times do you think you cut it?
Oh man. Five or six?
Did Bob say anything to you that day?
Yeah. I love him. I just think he’s very special. Over the years, I wish I could play with him more. It would be so interesting now. I could probably bring something to the music now I couldn’t bring back then.
The song came out during the first few weeks of Covid in the U.S. Everyone was in lockdown, and suddenly there’s this 17-minute Bob Dylan song. People were stunned.
Yeah. Really incredible, too. It holds, all 17 minutes. There isn’t a hole in that thing.
You’ve done a lot of jazz tours in recent years. That must really keep your chops up.
Yeah. Once I hung up my rock & roll cleats, and was done with studio work in L.A… No more synthesizers… I focused on just playing the piano.
Working as a professor must be fulfilling.
Especially at USC. The level of musicianship they have is extraordinarily high. It’s really kept me in the game. I design my classes so that it was challenging for me every year, so I’d never get in a position where I was tired and wanting to phone it in. The material that we work on every semester, I play that with them. I crash and burn with them if it’s really difficult. It’s no fun if you have a teacher high and mighty. It doesn’t work.
Are your students impressed by your work out of the classroom? Not that many professors are playing on new Dylan tracks with Fiona Apple.
Some of them, probably. They are also so scattered and distracted. Maybe they are.
Why is this your last semester?
I’ve been there for 22 years. What I noticed after a while was, “You guys are the same age, and every year I’m a little bit older.” [Laughs.] It’s not that what I have to offer isn’t valid. If anything, it’s even more valid. I think it’s also valid and important for them to get the information from someone younger who has solid roots in the tradition and the foundation of the music, but also has a more contemporary approach to it.
Now that your schedule is free, what do you hope to accomplish?
I’m going to keep writing. My piano teacher, Jaki Byard, this is the 100th anniversary of his birth. I’m going to try and put together a group of tunes in the essence of Jaki and his spirit. Some will be solo piano. Some might be quartet. I might go to Boston and record with [saxophonist] George Garzone and some of the guys in Boston. I want to recreate the spirit of his music. It needs to be preserved.
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
And never play music again? No. I’ll always play. I play in my sleep. I’m kind of possessed that way. I often ask my students, “Do you guys practice away from your instrument?” They go, “Oh yeah, all the time.” I go, “Oh, good. I thought I was crazy.” I’ll be in the market and thinking about a song or a solo or something.
You don’t seem 70. You look and sound much younger.
I think that has a lot to do with music, and being around really good students. If I was around some not-so-good students, maybe I’d look a lot older [laughs].
I’ll wrap in a second, but I want to say again how much I love Street Legal. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to it. I know every note you play.
That is so cool. I will tell you that I’m very proud of one thing I play on that. It’s before he sings “Changing of the Guards.” I play this little organ riff, just this little cascading part. I tried to sneak in just a little bit of jazz. I love that little sound I made. [Pasqua walks over to his piano and plays the part you hear exactly six seconds into “Changing of the Guards.”] Then he comes in: “Sixteen years!” [Laughs.]
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