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Ronee Blakley Talks Rolling Thunder, Joni Mitchell, and Performing at a Prison
1975-12-07, Correctional Institute, Clinton, NJ
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Update June 2023: This interview is included along with 40+ others in my new book ‘Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members.’ Buy it in hardcover, paperback, or ebook here!
Well, folks, we’re nearing the end. Only two more shows of our look back at Rolling Thunder ‘75. And, as I mentioned in the last one, we’re ending with a trio of interviews. We already heard from the tour’s producer Louie Kemp, and today Ronee Blakley looks back at her time on Rolling Thunder.
In fall of 1975, Blakley was riding high on her success in Robert Altman’s movie Nashville, which had just been released a few months prior (she’d be nominated for an Academy Award shortly after Rolling Thunder ended). So she posed a double threat to the tour: Not only a singer who’d already released a couple albums, but the only professional actress of the bunch - perfect given that Bob was attempting to make a movie on the tour. She got on the phone a couple weeks ago to tell me all about it.
How did you first get connected with Bob?
I got connected with Bob because I went down to The Other End to hear David Blue's show. Paul Colby, the club owner, had shut down the club to the public and the show had emptied out, and musicians and friends were coming in. I was introduced to Bob by Bobby Neuwirth. Then we started jamming. Bob got up on stage and started playing the piano and singing. I got up on stage with him. I don't remember anybody else being on stage at that point, but I got up there and we started singing and playing four-handed piano.
After the Other End jam, everybody went back to the Gramercy Park Hotel to party and hang out. He asked me to join the tour, and I told him I could not go. They all said, "Nobody says no to Bob Dylan!" [laughs] But I had a flight to catch the next morning to Muscle Shoals to meet with my band because my second album, Welcome, had just come out and I was doing a tour to support the record. Some of the Muscle Shoals guys were going on the road with me, so I was going to Huntsville.
[After the party,] I went back to my hotel by myself and packed up. I think I had the top floor at the Sherry-Netherland at that moment in time, like Elizabeth Taylor or something. Me and my little suitcase. I went out to the airport and called my producer, Jerry Wexler, who told me not to go. He said it's much more important to stay there and work with Dylan. I told him I'd promised the boys, and so I got on the plane and I went. I rented a car, drove from Huntsville to Muscle Shoals, went to the studio, met with the band and I told them. They said, "Well, you got to go with Dylan. That's much more important."
Your own band said that?
Yes. The band members said, "This will be good for all of us. We'll do [our tour] afterward." I went back to my motel and called New York. Amazingly, I called Information, and Information gave me the number of Bob’s hotel. I called the hotel and Dylan got on the phone. I said, “The boys said I can come." He said, "Stay right there. I'll have somebody call you and we'll fly you back." Lou Kemp called me and said, "Go back and get on a plane. There will be a ticket there for you. We'll have a limousine pick you up and bring you to the studio."
I went back to Huntsville, got back on the plane, flew back to New York, was picked up, driven to the studio, and recorded “Hurricane” that night.
Tell me about that session.
It was incredibly exciting. It's hard to put it into words. I'd never heard it before. I was sharing the mic with Bob, we were face-to-face, nose-to-nose, off one set of lyrics. It was like seven pages of lyrics or something. When we finished one page, I would drop the page to the floor. I still have those papers.
Was it pretty quick, or were you there for hours, doing take after take?
Well, we were there for hours, but it seemed quick. I mean, a few hours is quick for an eight-minute song.
While we’re on the subject of “Hurricane,” let's fast way forward to the present and your new version of the song. Why did you decide to record it again all these years later?
Fora few reasons. I wanted to pay tribute to Bob. The Martin Scorsese movie was coming out, so it seemed appropriate, and our social situation is still almost as grim as it was then. We've been facing some very, very difficult situations, and it's been very difficult to achieve the equality that we have fought for for so long.
What sort of sound were you going for?
It's a fairly rocky version. Dave Alvin has that edge, whether you call it folk-rock, whether you call it cowpunk, whatever name you put to it. When you hear it, you know it. My piano playing places a difference into the piece as well, and I did it a little faster.
Nothing can top Bob Dylan. No one and nothing, so there's no thought of that. It's a tribute to him, and a tribute to Hurricane, and a tribute to all of us on the Rolling Thunder Revue. All the decades that we've put in trying to achieve change since we were on that magical mystery tour. I did it on stage with Bob at least 30 times, so it has deep, personal meaning for me. Hopefully that comes across.
Let's rewind again back to 1975. I know you knew Joni Mitchell who joined later, but did you know any of the initial group of people before the tour?
I knew Bobby Neuwirth and I knew David Blue. We were all part of the same scene, whether in New York or LA, around the Troubadour and the Ash Grove. We all played the same clubs and knew the same people. Bobby was a legendary figure even then. He put theRolling Thunder Revue together. He really did. He's the one who asked the musicians to be in it, the main mover on that.
David lived up the road from Joni Mitchell, by Lookout Mountain. They had the same manager because Mitchell brought a lot of her friends to her manager Elliot Roberts. There was lots of going to each other's shows and just hanging out, being friends, playing music. David was a mensch.
I know David Blue wasn't in the band or onstage, but I've read that he was around a lot, and obviously he's in Renaldo and Clara too.
He was around a bit. It's hard to know when everybody came and went, because there were so many people to keep track of, and you were trying to do your own portion of the show. I know David was at the motel that we stayed in on the beach because I think that's where he did his pinball stuff [in Renaldo and Clara]. He was in and out. I don't think he performed on this tour.
Do you know why he never performed?
I don't. The show was long. People were always having their sets cut, because the show was too long with all of us and we all kept inviting people. When I asked Neuwirth if Mitchell could come out, he said, "No." [laughs] So I went to Dylan, and he told me yes.
Allen Ginsberg, for example, was originally part of the show, but he was cut completely. He was no longer in the show. He and Peter Orlovsky, his partner, acted as baggage handlers. We'd put our bags outside our hotel door and they would come and pick them up. It was wonderfully strange. We were all together and we all admired each other; it was quite an extraordinary group of people to be hanging out with.
Speaking of how long the shows were, I was re-watching Renaldo and Clara and you have a featured song, “New Sun Rising.” How was it chosen?
That was complicated. I was hired by Bob as the fourth headliner, billed below Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and above Bobby Neuwirth, and was the last headliner signed, while still in rehearsals at SIR, before leaving town. My name was not on the flyers because those were printed before I was hired, but the press took note and published it in Rolling Stone in an article by Larry Sloman, and later Chet Flippo.
It started out with me having I think four songs. I was introduced by Neuwirth and came on and did a duet with him. Then I did my song “Dues” and my song “Please” and my song “New Sun,” which is the one you were referring to. When Mitchell came out to visit me, she came on and did “Dues” with me.
Then it was decided that Mitchell was going to do some of her own songs. When that happened, the show had to be cut to make room for her songs. They told me that, since I had invited her, that mine would be cut.
Yes! [laughs] My part of the show was shortened probably to two songs then. I still did the song with Bobby, “Hank Williams,” and I still did “New Sun” but it started to shrink. That's the way the ball bounces.
How did you meet Joni initially?
I met her in Jamaica when I was sailing with David Crosby and Graham Nash on David's boat in 1970. She flew into Kingston to join us. We became close friends after that.
How did you get her to join the tour?
I called her and invited her to come. She did not bring a guitar. She came out just to hang out, and then she decided she wanted to be a part of the show.
I'm sure they mostly blur together, but are there any particular shows on that tour that stand out to you all these years later?
I'm fortunate that the show that “New Sun” is on in Renaldo and Clara was a wonderful evening for me. Some nights you sing better than others, and that was a good night for me.
I liked our shows better when they were tighter. Sometimes the audience and the journalists like the shows where more stars appear. It's more exciting for the audience when the guest stars and friends would show up, whether it was Kinky [Friedman], Rick Danko, Roberta Flack. If you ask me, sometimes the show itself was better when it just went straight through with us the way we did it.
Bob never had an off night. He was always great. I never heard him make a mistake. I would often go out and watch from the audience in the dark after the lights went down. Nobody could see me. Most of us watched a lot of the show.
We were like a family in a way. It was pretty special. Bob did not hang out with us all the time, but, for the rest of us, we would be together every day, every night, riding on the bus. We didn't know where we were going, because it was a secret. We'd only be told on the day of where we were headed.
How did you land on what songs you sang with Dylan? Other than “Hurricane,” where you're on the record, but “Just Like a Woman” and “Knockin’ on Heaven's Door” and the various other songs you sang?
Bob asked me to do the songs with him. I don’t know what he thought.I guess he wouldn't ask me to sing with him unless he thought I would sound good, right? Baez even wanted me to do songs with her, but the show just got too big. Instead of adding great stuff, things had to be subtracted.
I wanted to ask about one specific concert because it will be the anniversary on the day that your interview runs. It’s maybe the most unusual concert – the one at the prison for all the inmates. Do you remember that one?
Yes, I do. I can't say I remember everything about it, but I certainly remembered going there, and I remember Hurricane Carter, and I remember the stage. We did our [usual] show. I think the audience loved the show, and I think they appreciated us coming. I remember Roberta Flack came out on the bus that day. Hurricane was great.
Did you interact with him much?
Yes, we talked a bit. He was in the crowd scene with us. Well, “crowd scene” is not the right word, it's just that when you realize that it's in a movie, then, if you're going to talk about it, it's a crowd scene. The camera crew was there, and Ken Regan shooting stills. You have the still of that don't you, of all of us except Bob in the photograph with Hurricane? That's a wonderful picture. You can tell by everyone's expressions that it was a meaningful serious event.
Do you remember anything about the concert itself? Was it a regular Rolling Thunder performance?
Yes, except of course, there's the prison there. They did have a proscenium stage, but of course it was smaller, and we didn't have the sound equipment. All that we had was the hall. It was slightly less majestic. [But] we did a show and they appreciated it and so did we. We were there for a purpose.
Prison is no joke. It's a very serious matter when you go to a prison. I've been to a few. I've performed at La Tuna Federal Prison. I've been to Chino with Joan Baez's sister Mimi Fariña and went on a show there. When you go to a prison, you feel it.
When you're performing a show at a prison, is it tough to get in? Are you having to go through metal detectors?
Not in those days that I recall. What you do have to do is come through a gate that locks. You're behind bars basically. Although at Hurricane's prison, oddly enough, there were not bars. When Hurricane was with us, as you can see in that Ken Regan picture, he was not behind bars. We were all gathering around him.
Speaking of Hurricane, what do you remember about the following night? Did that have a different feel, this big benefit at Madison Square Garden as opposed to small New England towns?
It did. I personally didn't feel that our Madison Square Garden show was our best show, but it was exciting. Muhammad Ali was there. I had done a show with Muhammad, the original Howard Cosell Saturday Night Live. Muhammad and I were on that together with Evel Knievel. Johnny Cash was piped in from Nashville via satellite. Muhammad and I stood together and watched Johnny. I was dressed in a long gown and he was in a blue tuxedo shirt. He said, "That's a pretty dress” and I said, "Well, that's a pretty shirt." In Madison Square Garden, I was the only white person in his dressing room, because we'd already worked together.
Madison Square Garden was incredibly exciting, but there were odd things about it. Everybody was in town meeting with their family and friends and the show changed a little bit. I don't think it should have. Like I said earlier, I think the show was best when it was tight.
Yeah, there were probably more guests at Madison Square Garden than any other show.
Everybody was in town and wanted to get on stage. I don't remember it being that great an evening for me personally. It was big for Hurricane; it earned the money to get him a new trial. It's an historic evening and I'm glad I was part of it.
In terms of the filming side of things, you had just come off of Nashville and now you're thrown into this movie with no script. Was it a big transition to go from Nashville to Renaldo and Clara?
It all seemed natural. It all flowed. It all seemed to be part of one big pageant. That was my life at the time.
One memorable scene in the movie is you at a bar talking with Dylan. Do you remember anything about that?
Yes, of course. I believe that bar was connected to Mama’s [Dreamaway Lounge]. She's the woman who sang with Joan Baez and had the bridal dress and all that. A friend of Arlo's. Bob and I had that scene in the bar. He was to be a hitchhiking musician. I invited him to join us and come and meet “Bob,” because he wasn't supposed to be Bob. We shot more scenes related to that, which were great, in which Joan Baez dressed up as Bob. Bob was the musician, and I took him to introduce him to “Bob Dylan,” who is Joan Baez. Bob didn't put it in the movie. He said he didn't have the nerve.
The other scene with you that jumped out of me was the one with you and Steven Soles as your verbally abusive boyfriend. [Note: If you skip to 1:08:17 in the movie, you can watch this scene, followed by Blakley’s “New Sun Rising,” followed shortly by a snippet of the bar scene]
Thank you. That's a fairly, fairly tough scene. I came up with that, and I thought Steven did a great job considering he's not a professional actor. I love the film Renaldo and Clara. I love it. It's a valuable document. It's a shame that it hasn't had the distribution it should have.
You got credited as “Mrs. Dylan.” Was that part of the character you were given, or was that just something added later?
It was added later. I really don’t know [why], but it’s a pretty big compliment.
What did you think of the Scorsese movie, the one that came out last year?
I loved it. There were many different levels to view it on, from the position of being an audience member, from the position of being a cast member, as an experimental film mixing reality and fiction - which I did in my own movie in a way. I made a feature film called I Played it for You with my husband at the time, Wim Wenders. I mixed fiction and reality. It's a challenge.
Scorsese did a brilliant job to the point where it was confusing even to some of us who were there. That's how convincing it was. We needed somebody to explain it to us. The very first time you see it in an empty room, you're going, "Was that person there? I don't remember them being there. That guy must have been there before I arrived." In other words, we were fooled by some of it.
It’s brilliant. I don't know how they did it. It's magical. It starts out with magic tricks, and then it proceeds to engage in magic tricks.
I know you didn't join for the 1976 Rolling Thunder tour. What did you do instead?
I was opening the movie Nashville around the world. I was coming back from Yugoslavia at the airport when I found out I got nominated for an Oscar for the Academy Award. My brother met me at the airport and told me I got nominated.
I got nominated for a couple of Golden Globes, I got nominated for a Grammy. They have all those shows at that time. You go into the People's Choice, the Grammys, the Oscars, the Golden Globes. It's a lot of shows, a lot of film festivals, a lot of PR tours to open that movie, so there was a lot of that going on.
At that time, did you think of yourself primarily as a musician or primarily as an actress?
I thought of myself as myself. Whatever I am and whatever I do is what I am.
Ronee’s new double album ‘Atom Bomb Baby’ is out this Friday, December 11. It includes the cover of “Hurricane” we discussed and, to bookend the album with another call for justice, a new song Ronee wrote about George Floyd’s murder. It also features an all-star band of Rusty Anderson (Paul McCartney), Tony Gilkyson (X), Dave Alvin (The Blasters), and more. Follow her on Facebook for more information.
Update June 2023:
Rolling Thunder XXIV: Clinton Prison
A prison, the Correctional Institute in Clinton New Jersey. Yes, in a tour full of unusual venues, this was by far the most unusual (though not that unusual if you're Johnny Cash, I suppose). Before the following night's big Hurricane Carter benefit show at Madison Square Garden, the entire Rolling Thunder Revue went to Carter's current place of residence to play for him and his fellow inmates. This is the low-security facility where that famous photo of Bob and Rubin was taken (which, as Ratso told me, was entirely staged - this prison didn't have bars).
Here's a somewhat snarky news story about it, interviewing Rubin and Ginsberg and Joan:
They say there were more press than prisoners, as half the inmates took a pass. But the press, to some degree, was the point, raising awareness of Hurricane's plight with a media stunt of sorts. Roberta Flack said as much to a reporter: "This is probably the greatest chance any of us will have to show our real concern. I think press interest will turn the corner in terms of getting things done."
Blakley remembers it being the full show, others remember it being abbreviated. Unless any sort of complete tape emerges one day, it’s hard to know. For what it's worth, here's what tour chronicler Larry "Ratso" Sloman recorded in his book about it. Since there's so little other detailed information about what happened on stage, I hope you'll excuse an extended excerpt:
Neuwirth kicks off the set by introducing Stevie Soles to do “Don’t Blame Me” and from the outset, Ratso gets a strange vibe. First of all, the acoustics are horrid, making everything sound like musical mush. But more important, the audience is about 95 percent black and they really don’t seem to be spoken to by these first few opening numbers. Even Stoner’s funky “Catfish” fails to elicit a good response.
And when the quintessential honky, blond, blue-eyed Joni steps up, Ratso cringes in anticipation. “I wanted to be a painter,” she starts out by way of introduction, “and I was told this was the age of the “camera so I put it into songs. Some of these are of me, of those on the tour, maybe some of you can relate to them.” But halfway through “Coyote” it’s clear these ain’t no Court and Spark fans, and some people in the front row start screaming for Joni to sit down. “Wait,” she yells over the music, “I got one more verse, it’s the best one too!”
After Joni, Elliot rambles on, remarkably composed despite the fact that his mother had died just the day before and he had arrived at the prison in a limousine provided by George Lois, the same limousine that had taken him to his mother’s funeral earlier that morning. And, in an odd way, the audience relates to this bizarre-looking Brooklyn cowboy playing a funky ’50s rock ’n roll song. Ratso leans over and looks at Rubin who’s yacking away into Lois’ ear. “Hey George,” Ratso screams, “tell him to relax and dig the music.” But the boxer goes right on ignoring the performances, a move that does not go unnoticed by Ratso and some of the singers. Even as Dylan starts into an incredibly moving version of “Hattie Carroll,” singing “the tale of racial and legal injustice to an audience of blacks who one way or another got screwed and are sitting in this audience tonight as proof, Rubin chats on. And the moment reaches Dylan, he’s straining, squeezing out the words like some kind of Turkish taffy, with Ronson wailing a chorus of sighs in the background. Ratso is stunned, he’s never seen a more moving performance, the chills are cascading down his back like water over a fall, and at the conclusion, the reporter leaps up in his chair for a standing ovation of one.
However, the gesture isn’t lost on Dylan. “We play for all kinds of different people,” the dark-glassed singer leans into the mike, “and if we can get through to just one person out there we feel our mission is accomplished.” Incredible, Ratso laughs, Kinky’s old line, and marvels at Bob’s laser-quick wit as Dylan plows into “Hard Rain.” And everyone seems to be getting off on this one, even the all-night girls from the D train, encamped in the first few rows.
Then a surprise, as Dylan yields the stage to “Mr. Allen Ginsberg, an American poet from Paterson, New Jersey.” And Ginsberg is great here, sing-screaming his poems of rebellion, getting a huge rise out of the convict section with a line about butt-fucking. Then Baez races on, joining Dylan for two duets and inheriting the stage from the singer.
“We’d like to thank the authorities for making it so easy for us to get in,” Baez grimaces sarcastically, no stranger to these places, “I wish they’d make it easier for you to get out.” The crowd goes wild, and the fever pitch grows with a soulful a cappella rendition of “Do Right Woman."
Roberta Flack is up next and the place goes bonkers, cons start dancing in the aisles, standing on their chairs, whooping and clapping along. After the commotion dies down, Joan grabs the mike. “We’re gonna end this more or less like we’ve been ending this. Bob Dylan is gonna sing a song which he’ll just say a couple of words about and I think you’ll relate to it.” A bit of scattered applause and Dylan steps to the mike. And without any words of introduction the band kicks into “Hurricane,” and in the audience, the bald former boxer shakes his head to the beat, a sly smile slowly creeping across his face as CBS, NBC, ABC get the shots they’ve been waiting for all night.
She's come up a couple times already in passing: Roberta Flack! According to one newspaper report, she was the biggest hit of the whole show, getting the inmates to their feet with "Killing Me Softly," "Feel Like Making Love," and "This Time I Will Be Sweeter."
What'd they do before the show?
After their December 4th show, the group stuck around Montreal for a few days, filming various scenes for the movie. That includes both Bobby Neuwirth helping the late, great Harry Dean Stanton - who was tagging along by this point - climb over a wall to escape from prison and, probably, the confrontation between Renaldo (Bob), Clara (Sara), and the Woman in White (Joan):
Renaldo & Clara footage
For maybe the tour's most unique show - and surely the one with the most video cameras on hand, courtesy of the various TV stations - you'd think Bob would have included more footage in his movie. Just a clip of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and some of Carter's press conference.
What's on the tape?
Let's state the obvious: Prison inmates aren’t really set up to bootleg concerts. All we have are the portions of three songs that aired on various news broadcasts or were used in Renaldo and Clara.
1975-12-07, Correctional Institute, Clinton, NJ [just a few songs]
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*** More info on the book here… ***