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Bob Dylan, jailhouse phone calls and a movie from hell: My life with the Rolling Thunder Revue

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Participants in the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review included Allen Ginsberg, second from left; Roger McGuinn, center; Larry “Ratso” Sloman, in sunglasses, seated; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, third from left; Bob Dylan; and, at right, Denise Mercedes.
(Ken Regan)

After graduating from Queens College in 1969, I went to graduate school in Madison, Wis., where I received a master’s in deviance and criminology. The degree came in handy when I returned to New York and started doing music journalism for Rolling Stone.

One day in October of 1974, I was walking down Fifth Avenue when I saw a guy sitting behind the wheel of his parked car. The guy was Bob Dylan. I had recently spied some papers on a publicist’s desk at Columbia Records so I knew that he was in town working on a secret project that would become “Blood on the Tracks.” I asked him if I could preview the album for Rolling Stone. “How do you know about the album?” he said accusingly. His distaste for the press was well known. I immediately switched the subject and told him that Phil Ochs was crashing on my couch. He warmed up and authorized the article.

RELATED: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A user’s guide »

Nine months later, there were Dylan sightings in Manhattan. He was recording a new album and was spearheading impromptu jams at the Other End cafe in the Village. One night after a meal in Chinatown, I convinced Roger McGuinn, one of the founders of the Byrds and a friend of Bob’s, to look into the rumor with me. When we reached the back of the bar, there in a corner, Dylan was surrounded by friends like the folk singer David Blue, theater director Jacques Levy and assorted others. Dylan jumped up and lunged to hug McGuinn, spilling most of the drinks on the table. “Hey Roger, we’re gonna go out on tour. Wanna come with us?” When I reintroduced myself to Bob, he said, “I heard you’re doing an article on Hurricane Carter,” the boxer who had been convicted of murder in New Jersey by an all-white jury. We talked a bit, then he leaned in. “You wanna go on the road with us and cover the tour?” Uh, yeah.

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That was the impromptu way the Rolling Thunder tour coalesced. Dylan assembled the musicians from the band that played on the “Desire” sessions, but then Bob’s old running mate Bob Neuwirth added some wild cards to the mix, like guitarist Mick Ronson. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Woody Guthrie’s pal and a mentor of sorts to Bob, came along. Ronee Blakley, who would soon earn an Oscar nomination for her work in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” signed on. And co-headlining the tour was Dylan’s old flame Joan Baez.

In some ways, the Revue was a reaction to Bob’s 1974 tour with The Band, when he had toured for the first time since 1966, playing hockey arenas across the country. “I got kind of held up on that tour,” Dylan told me. “I wasn’t really in control of the situation. We were just shuffled around from airport to limo to hotel lobby to hockey rinks.” Now, with his old summer camp pal Louie Kemp managing the tour, Bob could enjoy himself on the road again. And he didn’t have to worry about airports and limos. We’d be traveling by bus with Dylan, driving a small camper, in the lead.

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Bob Dylan on 1975's Rolling Thunder Revue.
(Ken Regan)

Review - ‘Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese’ revives 1975 »

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Early on, the tour was playing intimate venues, giving it an old-timey feel. A show would open with songs by Neuwirth, Ramblin’ Jack, Ronee, McGuinn and Ronson. Then Dylan closed the first set. After an intermission, two voices could be heard from behind a curtain. That curtain slowly lifted, revealing the spectacle of Baez and Dylan reunited, a scene that elicited actual gasps from the audience.

But this was not your typical gypsy musical caravan. For one, foremost in Dylan’s mind was the plight of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer imprisoned in New Jersey. Dylan and Jacques Levy had written a powerful song about this injustice called “Hurricane” that Bob played every night. And thanks to the fabled ad man George Lois, who spearheaded a celebrity campaign to free Rubin, the boxer had been moved to a minimum-security prison, where Lois procured him not one but two telephone lines. We called Rubin almost nightly before the show would start; half the time he’d put us on hold while he finished up another call.

Adding to the import of the tour was the presence of Allen Ginsberg, the counterculture’s poet laureate. Allen wrote a daily poem for the tour newsletter, bounded up onstage to play finger cymbals during the finale and provided running commentary for anyone in earshot. I spent many a night with Allen in the stands, listening to the music and hearing sage comments like, “Dylan has the authority of an emperor of sound!” Or, after one particularly blistering set, “It’s the vision of the ’60s becoming real. I’ve been crying.”

As if there wasn’t already enough variety, there was an open spot left in every city so that any musical colleague who came to that show could perform. Joni Mitchell showed up in New Haven, Conn., and stayed for the rest of the tour. “I stayed up three days in a row at one point, wandering around the room, and there was music going and I’d still be dancing,” Joni told me. “I didn’t want to miss anything!”

Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson joined a show, along with Gordon Lightfoot, who performed in his native Toronto. Then there was Leonard Cohen. Bob was anxious to have Leonard come to the Montreal show, so he had me call him from the hotel pay phone while he tugged on my arm. When I picked up Leonard the night of the show and we entered the backstage area, he was immediately greeted by Joni, Neuwirth, Ronee and then Dylan. “Hey Leonard, you gonna sing?” I pleaded. “Let it be known that I alone disdained the obvious support,” Leonard declared. “I’m going to sit out there and watch.”

One visitor who didn’t just sit and watch was Bob’s mom, Beatty Zimmerman. Energetic, brash, silver-haired and outgoing, she joined the tour in Maine and made an impact from hour one. She dispensed Jewish-mother wisdom and chicken soup, as well as song reviews (after hearing “Hurricane” she put her fist to her heart and said, “It leaves you weak”). A few nights later, Beatty joined her son onstage and danced during the finale.

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Bob Dylan, in face paint, in 1975's Rolling Thunder Revue.
(Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, I was having troubles on the road. Louie Kemp had imposed some harsh rules on me. I was now “press” so I couldn’t stay at the same hotel as the group, half of whom I was friends with. I had to make appointments to talk to the performers.

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If that wasn’t enough, I was getting heat from my editors at Rolling Stone. A few weeks into the tour, the Revue started playing larger venues and the ticket price increased by a dollar. My editor wanted to know where all the money was going. “But that’s not what the kids want to read,” I pleaded. “How do you know?” he countered. “I know kids,” I exploded over the phone.

Nevertheless, I woke Dylan up in his hotel room. “They want you to respond to the fact that the first 11 shows grossed $600,000,” I said.

“So what does Elton John charge?” Dylan shot back. “It don’t concern me what those people say. They are the establishment.”

Baez echoed the same sentiment. “Tell them to shove it up their asses,” she fumed. “It makes no difference if we played to 15 people or 15,000.”

As if putting on some of the most incendiary performances of his life every night wasn’t enough, Dylan, along with cinematographer Howard Alk and three small film crews, was shooting footage in every town on the tour for a film that was to become “Renaldo and Clara.” Sam Shepard had been hired to write a script, but Dylan invariably tossed his prepared dialogue and went for improvised scenes. One day Ginsberg came up with the idea of Dylan as an alchemist rediscovering America, so they shot a scene with Dylan in a diner trying to transmute crackers, ketchup, pie, coffee and milk into gold.

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Movie poster for 1978's "Renaldo and Clara," starring Bob Dylan and Joan Baez
(Circuit Films)

When Bob’s wife Sara joined the tour in Niagara, and later when actors Harry Dean Stanton and Helena Kallianiotes came aboard, the emphasis of the film shifted from a documentary format to a more mythic presentation. Dylan relied on intuition to map out the scenes of the film, much to the chagrin of Shepard. Everyone else happily went with the flow. But Dylan didn’t take every idea to heart. Mel Howard, the film’s producer, conveyed an idea from Ginsberg.

“Ginsberg wants to do a scene with you, Bob, acting out one of his fantasies,” Mel said. “He wants to shoot this scene where you and he are waking up together in the morning, this real tender aftermath scene.”

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Dylan just rolled his eyes.

That footage was never shot, but hundreds of hours were. We finished the concerts in Montreal and then drove back to New York, stopping on the way to play for Rubin and his jail mates and then finishing up with a sold-out benefit for him at Madison Square Garden. For most of the musicians, it was the highlight of their careers.

In fact, no one wanted to leave New York after the tour ended. So we went to a succession of parties, including a boring affair at Norman Mailer’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. But mostly, we hung around the Other End, where it all began. Bob, McGuinn and I were sitting at a table in the back, the same one where Bob had invited us on the tour a few months earlier. Everyone was pretty blitzed, so we were content to listen to the jukebox. Until three Byrds songs came on in succession.

“Hey McGuinn, you didn’t do your best songs on this tour, man,” Dylan snarled.

But then, as if by magic, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” came on the jukebox. I looked over at Dylan, and he had pulled his hat over his face and downed another shot.

“Hey, schmuck,” I said. “Listen to this. You didn’t do your best songs on this tour either.”

Dylan wound up releasing “Renaldo and Clara” to very mixed reviews in January 1978. Clocking in at almost four hours long, it was savaged by the critics; one Village Voice reviewer started his review with “I wish Bob Dylan died…” It lasted for a few weeks in the theaters and has rarely been screened since then.

But now we have “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” Using footage from “Renaldo and Clara,” plus tour outtakes and contemporary interviews, Scorsese has hit on the major themes of the tour: the spirit of America just before the bicentennial; the attempt to redress injustice toward Rubin Carter; the conflict between the musical and the mercantile; and the ability of artists to subsume their egos for a greater collective good. For fans of tour documentaries, this is the genre’s apotheosis. It’s Renaldo and Clara without Renaldo and Clara.

The Rolling Thunder Revue did one more leg, but Dylan has never stopped touring. He hinted at that to me after the Madison Square Garden show. “Why tour? I think that’s what I have to do. It’s in my blood. I’ll be available. People can see me in person all over the world. This tour ain’t gonna stop.”

There’s a scroll at the end of the Scorsese film that documents every date that Dylan has played on his Never Ending tour since Rolling Thunder. Suffice it to say, it’s a very, very long scroll.

Larry “Ratso” Sloman is the author of 12 books including his first, “On the Road With Bob Dylan.” His debut album, “Stubborn Heart,” was released in April.


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