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 guitarist Shane Fontayne.
Bruce Springsteen just happened to be in the market for a new guitarist when he tuned in to Saturday Night Live on December 28th, 1991. The show was on break for the holidays, so they ran a 1986 Christmas episode with host William Shatner and musical act Lone Justice. The country-rock band had just started working with guitarist Shane Fontayne at the time of the taping, and he pulled off a killer solo near the end of their then-new single, “Shelter.”
“Bruce phoned up [Lone Justice producer] Jimmy Iovine,” says Fontayne. “He said to him, ‘Who is that guitar player?’ Fortunately for me …”
It was a call that changed Fontayne’s life forever. Springsteen made him the lead guitarist for his 1992–93 Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, significantly upping his profile and opening the door for future stints with Sting, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Joe Cocker, and too many others to mention. Fontayne has spent the past five years since the breakup of CSN touring and recording with Graham Nash.
Right now, he’s at his house in the San Fernando Valley in California, waiting for the pandemic to end so he can get back on the road with Nash. He phoned up Rolling Stone to share memories from his 50-year career in music.
Do you live in California full time?
Yes, I do. I’ve lived out here for many years. It’s my second stint on the West Coast. I moved back out here in 1997. I never thought it would be home, but it is, very much.
My last show prior to the pandemic was seeing you and Graham in Tarrytown, New York, on March 5th. You closed with “Teach Your Children.” God knows when I’ll ever hear another song live.
There’s been many nights in my life where I’ve wondered, “Could this be the last time?” When I worked with Springsteen, I used to think, “Is the last time I’ll hear him do ‘Thunder Road’ live in this setting?” It’s the same thing with Graham and “Teach Your Children.” You never know when you’re hearing a swan song.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. How old were you when you first fell in love with music?
I would say probably eight years old in terms of falling in love with rock & roll. I was born in 1954, so this was starting to hear Buddy Holly and from there it was everything that was in the charts around 1961, 1962. In England, there was Cliff Richard and the Shadows, an incredible instrumental band. Their guitarist Hank Marvin had this incredible sound and he played a Stratocaster and had horn-rimmed glasses, just like Buddy Holly.
I also loved Chuck Berry. Just the other day, I heard “Johnny B. Goode” and I found that every molecule was vibrating faster in my body. I can feel that same electricity I felt as a kid.
What inspired you to start playing guitar yourself?
I got my first guitar on my ninth birthday in 1963 and it was all over for me at that point. And I was very fortunate to grow up around a friend of my brother, a man named Robin Sylvester, who’s been playing with Bob Weir for a long time now. He was four years older than me. He was a pure musician at that age, 12 or 13. He could hear a song once and show it to me on the guitar. That is such a gift.
Growing up in England in the Sixties, did you see the Beatles? The Stones? The Who?
Yes. I saw all of those. I saw the Kinks and the Hollies, too. I saw the Beatles twice. The Beatles was my first concert. I went with my mother and brother.
Where and when?
January 2nd, 1964. My brother still has the ticket stub for it. It was the Christmas 1963 stint at the Finsbury Park Astoria. A few months later, I saw Graham [Nash] with the Hollies and the Kinks on the same bill as the Dave Clark Five, but I’d gone to see the Hollies.
I bet you never thought that over 50 years later, you’d be playing “Bus Stop” alongside Graham Nash every night.
Exactly. The only way that it is explicable to me is that it was like planting a seed. There are so many seeds like this that I can see throughout my life, like a record I’ve just been in love with. Then I have actually encountered and played with that artist, whether it was for one night or longer. Nobody knows how long it takes these seeds to germinate.
To flash forward a bit, how old were you when you came to America?
I was 21. I’d been in a band in England called Byzantium with my school friends. It came to a halt at the end of 1975. Our very last show was at a venue called the Roundhouse in London, a really iconic venue. After that last show, there were these incredibly contrasting emotions and this profound sadness. At the same time, Robin was telling me, “You should go to America. You’d do well over there.”
How did you hook up with Mick Ronson?
Well, I met Mick in London through Robin through [English actress-singer] Dana Gillespie, who was managed by [David Bowie manager] Tony Defries. When I made my way to New York, I contacted Mick and [his wife] Suzy. It just happened to be the perfect time. He was putting a band together. He had Jay Davis on bass and Bobby Chen on drums. I went in and played with him at SIR. It was great. It was magic. A couple of days later, David Cassidy and [Beach Boys/Rutles drummer] Ricky Fataar came down to sit in. I was like, “This is amazing!”
Ronson was coming off the whole Bowie period and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour. He had so much momentum, so why do you think he never got much traction for his own stuff? He was so talented.
I think, ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Mick, as much as anything, was a great sideman. And he was a wonderful bandleader and one of the sweetest persons I’d ever met or that anyone could ever meet. He would sing, but he wasn’t a singer as such. He was being managed by Barry Imhoff and Frampton Comes Alive! was huge at that time. That was the kind of the go-to aspiration of what to make someone into at that moment. “Can they be another ride-along on this Frampton thing?”
What happened to the music you made together?
We recorded and we did a few shows and [Atlantic Records president] Ahmet Ertegun came to check us out. It didn’t gain traction. Soon enough into 1977, Mick started to take on more producing projects. The momentum had kind of taken a bit of a detour at that point. We all stayed up at Woodstock, but the band didn’t really exist anymore.
How did you wind up in the New Mamas and the Papas in the early Eighties?
Through Mick Ronson. John Phillips had asked Mick to record. And when Mick and I recorded together, I feel like I was able to coerce him into doing what he did best. I think he felt more secure taking me with him to the Mamas and Papas session rather than being there on his own and having to fulfill whatever was the expectation of him. I think he felt he could play with me and we could play off each other. John Phillips wanted Mick to go on the road, but he didn’t want to. He said, “Take him.”
How was the experience?
Incredible. “Monday, Monday” is one of those records, growing up in England, that was golden. I remember the feeling of listening to various records throughout my life and “Monday, Monday” is one of them. I should interject that Mackenzie [Phillips, John’s daughter and a singer in the group at the time] and I have a child together.
So that tour really changed your life.
Yes, it did. But as with any incarnation of anything, there are peaks and valleys. The valley of that time with the Mamas and Papas was going to Vegas. The first time was great. We went to the Sands and it was great. Then we went back again and again. At that point for me I was like, “I can’t keep doing this.” I knew that it wasn’t in my best interest.
John was a brilliant singer and songwriter, but you didn’t exactly catch him at a great time in his life. Was it hard to work with someone battling so many addictions?
Well, obviously, Mackenzie was too, but yes. John was the definition of a charismatic individual. He was always lovely to be around and play with. He loved to play music. It was him that was always telling me, “I’ve got to get you and Mick Taylor together.” He’d cut stuff with Mick Taylor and Keith Richards. That was part of their whole heroin experience too.
My dealings with John on a musical level were always good. In terms of being being a father-in-law … [laughs] it was a slightly different level. But it was because of where he physically was when our son Shane was born.
Tell me about your time in Lone Justice.
It was huge for me. I could say that for just about every gig I’ve had, but doing the Lone Justice gig introduced me to Bono and Edge and Jimmy Iovine and Steve Van Zandt, who produced the album I did with them. But I wasn’t in the best shape at that time. My Eighties experience in L.A. was as much as an L.A. Eighties experience as many musicians’.
You toured with Mick Taylor not long after that. Being a Stones fan, playing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” with him every night must have been a lot of fun.
Yes. I was such a fan of his and I love Sticky Fingers and Goat’s Head Soup. That record is off a lot of people’s radar, but the Stones never sounded better than that incarnation to me. I was still a little bit glammed up when I toured with Mick Taylor. I was probably still wearing makeup onstage. But like with Ronson, the playing style was so different between me and him that it worked for him stylistically. At the same time, I was able to play with [keyboardist] Max Middleton, [bassist] Wilbur Bascomb, and [drummer] Bernard Purdie.
You’re basically playing Keith Richards to his, well, Mick Taylor.
I never quite looked at it that way. [Laughs] But it’s funny. Max had this joke when we’d play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and he’d give one of those fisted rock salutes. But playing with Mick was a joy. We were both probably still using this or that at the time, but he was somebody who could just plug in and it just sounded like him. He had this tone that was unique.
How familiar were you with Springsteen’s catalog before you got the job with him?
I wasn’t. It was funny because I don’t think that [drummer] Zack Alford or [bassist] Tommy Sims were that familiar with his catalog either. I’d heard the obvious hits, but I wasn’t familiar with him as an artist. I had heard the legend of him onstage, but I wasn’t that familiar with his catalog.
You learned about the job through Jimmy Iovine?
Yeah. Jimmy called me. He basically said, “A friend of mine wants to know if you’re interested in going on the road.” I said, “Who is your friend?” He says, “Springsteen.” I was in the latter stages of a stint with a couple of friends of mine. We called ourselves Merchants of Venus. After Lone Justice, I kind of needed to feel some autonomy. We had one record out on Elektra. This was 1991–92.
By the time that Jimmy called me, it was probably February 1992. I told him, “I’ve got this band …” He’s going, “Well, OK. If that’s what you wanna do.” I hung up the phone and I thought about it for maybe 15 minutes. I called him back and said, “I should probably check this out.” Time passed. It must have been about a month or six weeks later before I was called up for an audition.
Did you realize how daunting this was at the time? In his whole professional life, he’d really only toured with Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in that position.
No. I suppose ignorance is some kind of bliss at that point. I knew how huge he was. Essentially, it was him and Michael Jackson at that time, broadly. But I went in to do the audition and the man who took care of him, Terry Magovern, had told me at the door when I walked in, “Just relax. He’s going to make you feel so comfortable. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
What was it like when you started playing together?
As soon as I started playing with Bruce, it was electric. It felt like sparks flew, all of those dynamic analogies. We were set up in a circular situation. Roy Bittan was there. Zack Alford was there. But there was a different bass player. Zack was being called back again and Bruce had been auditioning drummers and bass players up to this point. I was the first guitar player to get in there as far as I know.
We played and we sweated for 20 minutes or half an hour and just jammed. We were at Roy Bittan’s studio and I think Jon Landau was there too. I walked back to the control room with Bruce and Roy and Bruce goes, “Man, that’s a lot of twang.” I said, “Too much?” He and Roy looked at each other and said, “No.”
They invited me down again the next night. I loved the stripped-down–ness of the first few rehearsals before everything got bigger and you realized that everything was getting more serious or something. In a way, I probably felt my best when I felt leaned on the hardest. If I feel like I’m not feeling crucial, then my confidence tended to wane at those times.
How was it doing Saturday Night Live before the tour even began? You were just sort of thrown into the fire there.
It was great. Because of doing the Lone Justice one, he asked my opinion, as it were, about doing it. He had never done live network TV before as far as I’m aware. He asked me what my experience of doing it had been in the past. Doing something like that was visceral. To know that this is going out to the world live and this is what it is, it’s live. It’s not lip-synched. Maybe they can fix stuff for the West Coast broadcast three hours later, but for New York and the heart of the country on Eastern Standard Time, it’s going out live.
I can’t say I wasn’t scared, but I don’t feel like I was. Bruce was one of those guys who you didn’t have to feel scared around. He wanted to share whatever spotlight there was to share. He taught me things about the energy drain after playing a couple of shows in a row. We only ever played two shows in a row before taking one or two days off.
We started the tour in Europe. I remember waking up in Milan after the first time we maybe played two shows in a row. My mind wanted to get up, but my body wouldn’t move. I remember him talking to me about the extraction of the energy flow from the audience and the stage.
I know there was some early talk of Steve Van Zandt being on the tour. Had he done it, that would have been a really different experience for you.
Steve came by when we had taken rehearsals from a smaller sound space onto the actual stage that we would be using. It was like being in an airplane hangar. It’s interesting because I had history with Steven through the Lone Justice thing. But Bruce was wanting to lean more on the Human Touch/Lucky Town catalog. And Steven was telling him, “You gotta do ‘Prove It All Night.’ You gotta do ‘Badlands,'” and whatever. That was one of one or two times I ever saw Bruce potentially second-guess himself.
Steve sat in with us on the rehearsals for one day. When it was floated that he might come on board, I know that for the rest of us new guys in the band, it was a strange feeling. My experiences with Steven had been so incredibly positive, but at the same time, obviously, there was a certain possessiveness in wanting to … It felt like, “Were we being doubted? Steven is coming on board. Does that mean that we aren’t trusted or that I’m not trusted?” Or it was like, “Is he missing his foil, Steven or Clarence?”
Crystal Taliefero kind of took up that mantle to some extent onstage. Whatever it was, Bruce opted to stay with things as they were. It’s interesting because maybe a year later, Bruce had invited me to his birthday party at his home in New Jersey and Steven was there. He was kind of in the doldrums. There was nothing going on. The Disciples of Soul wasn’t happening. And then within a little while, The Sopranos came for him and his whole trajectory seemed to take off again.
During the American leg of the tour, did you ever get a sense from the audience that as much as they liked the show …
… they missed the old band?
[Huge laughter] Let me think about that for a moment … Yes! You didn’t necessarily feel it being out on the stage. And I didn’t feel it in the hotel being around the fans that were always around, either. But you knew that there was … Yes, I was aware of that. It was hard not to be. And particularly, I was aware of it on a personal level. I knew that between my physicality or my hair at the time, whatever it was …It’s funny. I can look back now and look at video and be like, “OK, that’s where I was then. I would approach it differently now because I’m in a different place.”
But Bruce never second-guessed us. I remember when we played Detroit. That was maybe the first house that we played that was not full. This was an arena. It was noticeable. Then we played in Seattle and there was some kind of blue-collar strike and it impacted the venue, but Bruce decided to do the show anyway. I remember walking to the stage with him. He’d been listening to tapes of the show. He said to me, “I just want you to know you’re the best. You sound great. You’re the best I’ve ever had.”
I remember telling that to Roy Bittan and he said, “Yeah, at that position.” [Laughs] Fair enough. What Bruce was saying in that moment was, obviously … If anyone needed cheering up, he could do that. I felt like I got to watch a great show every night onstage, just being up there with him.
When the tour ended, you went into the studio with him to work on the famous drum-loop album nobody has ever heard. What can you tell me about that?
“Streets of Philadelphia” had come in between. I had been kind of devastated. I had gotten the call to play on either the Grammys or the Oscars. And soon enough I got another call saying, “Forget it. There’s no guitar on the song.”
When Bruce went in to record, I was living in Northeast Pennsylvania. He called and asked if I could come and record. I was obviously so delighted. It was kind of hip-hop based with whatever loops, like how “Streets of Philadelphia” had been. And I think that Tommy Sims had been important to that process.
Tommy had been in the band with him and had gone on to co-write “Change the World” for [Eric] Clapton. Tommy was probably the best pure musician in that band. He was a huge Stevie Wonder fan and had that touch. I remember him playing piano one time and going, “Wow! He’s great.”
I went to Bruce’s house in Los Angeles. [Producer] Chuck Plotkin was there. They had already moved the process pretty far down the line and I was overdubbing. Whatever he was looking for, he was obviously looking for another element. I believe that he was going to title the record Waiting on the End of the World.
I probably spent a week or 10 days there recording with him. And then, as far as I know, he was planning on releasing that. What I subsequently heard, and it may have even been through Bruce, was that Jon Landau felt that lyrically it wasn’t there. I feel like he had it sequenced and everything in his mind. But Jon wasn’t … he was probably the only person that held that sway.
It’s become this legendary thing in the fan community.
When I would speak to him in subsequent years, he would always refer to it, at least the three or four times I encountered him subsequently. He would say, “I’m still considering releasing that or setting that free from the vaults.” Once that didn’t make it out and Blood Brothers was released next, which was the reconstitution of the E Street Band, that was the bookend. I did encounter him in a few other situations, like the Kennedy Center and his MusiCares event.
To flash forward again, what’s it like to play with Rod Stewart on a beach in Rio in front of 4 million people?
[Laughs] It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records [as the biggest concert audience of all time]. I think the only way they can really justify that is that there were a lot of people out on New Year’s Eve in Rio on Copacabana Beach. It’s the only gig I ever did with Rod. I can’t say that I interacted with him that much. We did a little bit in rehearsal and I remember relaxing with him the day after the show at the hotel in Rio.
There was a moment after that where, the next year, there was a possibility of touring either with Rod or touring with Bruce. Neither one happened. The Rod camp actually kind of ushered in an experience for me with Johnny Hallyday in France.
But playing with Rod was great. I did that one show and it was neglected to let me know that the band sits down for “Have I Told You Lately” on the corner of the drum riser. Nobody mentioned that to me. It was little things like that.
How did you wind up playing with Shania Twain?
That was a one-off through Mutt Lange. Mutt and Bryan Adams had seen the MTV Springsteen Plugged show and asked me to record with Bryan in Paris. I had met Mutt and he’s one of the sweetest people, like Ronson. Mutt was an incredible singer. He would demo and he’d co-write with all his artists. He would demo the songs and he’s such a stickler for perfection whether it was Def Leppard … I mean, Shania Twain was really Def Leppard country. But I did just a Tonight Show with Shania.
I love the Sting tour you did in 2005. It was a small, tight band and the set list was packed with Police songs.
That was fun. I met Sting through Chris Botti, who I’d worked with for a number of years. He had played with Sting and opened for him. Sting had called me, another one of those great phone calls, and he told me that he felt “jaundiced” by being locked to clicks and machines and sequencing for so many years onstage. He wanted to cut loose from that. He wanted to seek whatever was the most uncomfortable way to challenge himself to do something different. This was that and obviously was a precursor to the Police reunion.
Playing with Sting was an amazing education. The band — him, [guitarist] Dominic [Miller], and [drummer] Josh [Freese] — I found a way to fit in with that, whether I was playing some harmonica on “Demolition Man” or whatever it was. My stint there was brief and wonderful. When I’ve encountered Sting subsequently, at the Kennedy Center, he was beautiful and welcoming and called me his brother. I’m so grateful for that experience.
Tell me about playing Obama’s inauguration concert on the National Mall. It’s hard to think of a more high-profile gig than that.
Let me give you a brief gateway into that. My son had discovered a record by Panic! at the Disco that he loved and it was produced by this guy Rob Mathes. I said, “I know Rob.” I had worked with him. He brought me in to do Bono’s MusiCares in 2001 or so. I wrote to Rob and said, “My son has just told me about this record. That’s great.”
He wrote back and said, “You know what? I may have something for you soon.” That was the first Kennedy Center Honors I did, which was in December 2008. That just preceded the We Are One Lincoln Memorial concert that you’re talking about.
I was welcomed into this family of musicians. It was essentially the Kennedy Center band that had been used. A lot of them have been there for subsequent years. For myself and [drummer] Kenny Aronoff, it was our first year.
We went to D.C. in January to prepare for this. I finally had one of my ultimate dreams to play a song with Stevie Wonder. Obviously, to be there … I’ve got a couple of photos of looking out onto the mall. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump kind of thing, or MLK or whatever, looking out onto the mall from the steps of Lincoln Memorial from my vantage point. The artists were up a tier above and behind us.
I remember that it was a frigid day.
It was freezing cold. In rehearsals, you could only physically be outdoors for maybe 15 minutes. Even Nathan East was playing the bass with gloves on during rehearsals. We had hand warmers and whatever. We rehearsed in a tent with heaters, but then we’d go out and it was beyond frigid.
By the day of the show, it had warmed up to a balmy 23 degrees or something. That was a lot warmer than what it had been. Afterwards, I remember Barack and Michelle coming by. Everyone was crowding around with their phones and everything. It was such a moment in time that spoke of something more than a decade ago … I suppose there was a great hope for something to transpire.
Moving ahead a bit, the Kennedy Center gave you a chance to play the “Stairway to Heaven” solo with Ann and Nancy Wilson and Jason Bonham in front of the Obamas and Led Zeppelin. That is insane.
Again, it’s like playing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” with Mick Taylor or playing with Bruce. It’s so iconic and precious to so many people. Fortunately, I wasn’t that aware until later about the whole thing with the “Stairway” solo. There had been talk of bringing someone in for that event to play the solo. For me, it’s one of my proudest performances.
The camera kept panning to Robert Plant. It’s no secret he doesn’t love hearing that song these days, but even he seemed caught up in the moment.
Yes. I actually met Jimmy that night after the show for a few minutes. I got to ask him about his session player days. “Did you play on ‘You Really Got Me’?” Seeing him and how great he looked, I was like, “Fuck it. I’m not going to color my hair anymore.” That was the moment since Jimmy looked so great with his white hair. And I was playing with Crosby and Nash, so it was probably time to join the band.
I just spoke to Joe Vitale. He said he loved working with CSN, but having three bosses was challenging at times. Did you ever find that?
[Roaring laughter] Where there times it wasn’t difficult? My first experience was Crosby/Nash. David and Graham had seen me play with Marc Cohn, who I worked with for a dozen years. Another fantastic bandleader.
The Crosby/Nash tour I did in Europe, replacing Dean Parks of all people in the fall of 2011, was probably the best band tour, for me, that I’ve ever done. Musically, it was stellar. Every night the music was incredible. Crosby was singing “Laughing” [from his 1971 solo LP If I Could Only Remember My Name] for the first time in his career. I talked to James Raymond, David’s son who was playing keyboards. I said, “We should do a Hollies song.” And we convinced Graham to try “Bus Stop.” And then [Hollies singer] Allan Clarke came onstage at the Royal Albert Hall.
Towards the end of the tour, they were talking about doing a CSN tour the next year. I was like, “Please, God, take me with you.” But Stephen [Stills] needed convincing because David and Graham wanted to take that band, which meant that Joe wouldn’t be going because Stevie DiStanislao was playing drums. He was working with David Gilmour, as was David and Graham.
It meant a different drummer and adding a guitar player. Having a guitar player for Stephen had always been … if it wasn’t Neil, it was questionable, at best. The first day of rehearsal was very much that. [Laughs] The next day, our tour manager said, “Oh, you came back?” [Laughs]
The first song we started to play at rehearsals was “Carry On.” Graham wasn’t there because he’d gotten stuck in Hawaii because of a flood. It was Crosby, Stills, and a bare microphone. Part of my thing in Crosby/Nash was that I wanted to play Stephen’s parts as verbatim as possible as they sounded on record.
We play “Carry On” and it comes to one of the first places where the’s a guitar break. Stephen is just vamping and so I’m playing what he’s playing on the record. And he stops the band, turns to me and beckons me over, but there’s nowhere for me to move because I’m boxed in because there’s so many of us onstage. He walks over to me and kind of reads me the riot act for a moment. “You can do that when you’re with those guys! I’m the lead guitar player here!”
The next day when Graham arrived he said, “I’m the lead harmonica player!” [Laughs] But Stephen and I actually struck up a lovely relationship over time. And the three of them … it’s too bad that the three of them have this fractious relationship.
The last tour was Europe in 2015. They were playing concerts, but not really speaking to each other. What was it like being in the middle of all that?
It was difficult. There were three buses. There was a bus for David, a bus for Stephen, and a bus for Graham. And the band members would split up. I was always on Graham’s bus, so I was always privy to him. There were different frustrations and Graham’s marriage was falling apart, which led to the record that I did with him.
I’m trying to be, I suppose, diplomatic. But it was hard. On that tour, Steve DiStanislao wasn’t around because he was playing drums with David Gilmour. And Russ Kunkel came out. This was another incredible experience for me, to be able to play with Russ.
Us guys in the band stuck together and just hoped the vibe would be good that day. Some days it was and some days it wasn’t. And really, at that time, there was more tension with David and Graham.
The final show was in Norway. Any memories of that?
It was the last show of the tour. There wasn’t anything beyond that. There was certainly no expectation, as far as I’m aware, that that was the end of CSN. Obviously, they needed a break from each other. For me, it had always been a shame that there wasn’t another Crosby/Nash band tour. But by that point, all three of them had started doing their own tours. I toured with David on his own. I toured with Graham on his own. Stephen was touring on his own.
I think they were all getting comfortable with being able to have a viable solo career where they could support the crew because Crosby and Nash were sharing the crew. Stephen would maybe use one or two of those guys and he had some other guys. It was adapting schedules and whatever.
That last show, I don’t remember their being anything monumental like, “This is it, forever.” You knew that there was going to be downtime. You knew there was going to be solo ventures coming up. Everyone was hoping to do more.
Are you hopeful there might be any sort of reconciliation in the future?
You know, it’s hard for me to imagine that. I think both people are, unfortunately, entrenched. I think the only thing that I would surmise could be the one catalyst would be Neil. That would make it hugely viable.
The money would be huge.
Exactly. That makes all the difference. There’s an exponential difference from Crosby/Nash to Crosby, Stills, and Nash to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I didn’t have any experience with CSNY. It’s been touted a number of times in the press that David was trying to make his apologies for whatever he felt he wanted to apologize for. My only encounter with Neil was him playing tambourine behind a drum riser at the Springsteen MusiCares event. I don’t know Neil apart from that. But evidently he very much marches to his own tune to the point where Stephen never knew what he’d be doing, whether he would cancel a tour or whatnot.
The good news for you is that you’re still with Graham and you play a larger role in his show than you did with CSN. I’ve seen the show a few times and it’s really fantastic.
Thank you. It’s been a wonderfully evolving relationship. We’ve been doing some recording in these past few months, remotely of course. Graham has been writing on his own and I’ve been doing a little collaboration with him as well. I’m so grateful for him, for this person that I saw onstage in 1964, whose trust I feel I have and whose generosity I’m the recipient of.
Graham and McCartney, they’re both born in 1942. They are 78 years old. How much longer? God knows. How much longer can an artist continue? The thing about Graham is that he’s got his voice and he still sings in original keys for the most part. It’s kind of uncanny.
What was it like being on the road in early March as COVID-19 was starting to shut everything down?
It was just the last couple of days. For those of us playing with Graham and the crew, we wanted to keep out there. We wanted to keep working. It was March 13th when we came home. It was only in the last couple of days where it started to be talked about. There was a gig in Pennsylvania that was maybe going to be canceled because it was a 1,000-seater and it was sold out and they were capping things under a thousand. It was like, “OK, that’s one show. So we’ll drive straight down to Atlanta …”
But then it happened with this incredible acceleration that all of a sudden it was like, “We’re going home.” I could see that Graham was feeling too iffy about the uncertainty of everything. Graham was doing meet-and-greets in the middle of the show. During the last few shows, he stopped shaking hands. That was only the last couple of days. But essentially in one afternoon it was like, “We’re not just taking the day off. We’re off. We’re done.”
Then we were all hoping we’d be back in Europe in the summertime. And then, of course, all those dominos toppled. It’s so hard to have this taken away from everybody on the performing side of things, whether it’s working the venues or being on the road.
It really messes with your psychology. One has to try and find a way to stabilize. At this point, we’re six months down the road with it. You see stories about young people feeling so distraught and suicidal. What can bolster them or be their psychological or spiritual foundation? It’s hard because one doesn’t know how long this is going to carry on.
You’ve played with so many people over the year. Does it ever bother you that the shorthand for you is often “former Bruce Springsteen guitar player?” It’s less than two years of your career.
If that’s the shorthand of my career, that’s fine with me, though I’m not sure it is. But I have zero expectation that people will be familiar with anything I’ve ever done. I’ve had the good fortune to stand next to Bruce or stand next to Graham or Sting or Jackson Browne and just play my part.
I’ve had my moments of autonomy, whether it’s with Merchants of Venus or doing my own album in 2002. But if I can evoke Jerry Garcia’s steel guitar, if I can, on “Teach Your Children,” that’s great. If I can create that for the audience so not only are they hearing the song, but they are hearing elements from these songs that are part of their DNA, too, that speaks to me. It’s sharing a thing that is in me as well.