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The Rolling Thunder Finale with Scarlet Rivera
1975-12-08, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Dylan shows of yesteryear. I’m currently writing about every show on the Rolling Thunder Revue. If you found this article online or someone forwarded you the email, subscribe here to get a new entry delivered to your inbox every week:
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!
Today, our trip through every show on Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder comes to its end, on the 45th anniversary of the grand finale at Madison Square Garden. And, when I thought about how to end this series, there was only one name: Scarlet Rivera.
No musician is more closely associated with Rolling Thunder’s sound, image, and general vibe than Scarlet. Despite only being onstage for part of the show, she came to embody everything you think about when you think “Rolling Thunder.” It’s hard to imagine the sound of Desire without Scarlet’s violin and it’s hard to imagine the look of the Rolling Thunder stage without Scarlet standing to Dylan’s right, wearing some mystical outfit, staring Bob down.
Scarlet and I spoke back in October, before this special series even began, but I wanted to save her interview for the grand finale. Here’s my conversation with Scarlet Rivera:
Dylan famously first spotted you on the street from his car. Before then, what was your career looking like?
I flew a one-way ticket to New York City. I had this belief that I was going to break into rock music and do something with the violin that wasn't in music yet.
The first paying gig I did was with Ornette Coleman. He introduced me to the Revolutionary String Ensemble, which was very avant-garde jazz-ish music. I took some lessons with Leroy Jenkins, the black jazz violin player. After a couple, he told me I didn't need lessons. I also was playing at night with a 13-piece Cuban band to make money.
Did you think of yourself as a jazz musician back then?
No, I was just experimenting. I auditioned for a lot of rock things too. I also had my own rock fusion band at the time called Mammoth.
There’s a Blues for Allah sticker on your violin in the Scorsese movie. Were you in the Deadhead scene?
No, but I liked that sticker. I related to the skeleton playing the violin, so I put it on my violin and kept it on the whole time. That was my traveling companion.
I gather your first live performance with Bob was at the Muddy Waters show.
That happened the same day that I met Bob. I was walking down 13th street off of 1st Ave. He pulled over and asked, "Can you play that thing?" We ended up in a conversation. Our conversation was short and sweet. Perhaps it knocked him off of his feet, because he said he had to hear me play. We went to his loft in the Village. He asked me to play along with him. He just didn't give me any information like, "This is what key it's in and here's a chart.” He didn't say anything about anything.
After playing for like an hour, he got up abruptly. He said, "I got to go hear a friend play in the Village. You want to come along?" I said, "Sure."
We jumped back in the car, went a few minutes away to the club the Bottom Line. His friend that was playing was Muddy Waters. I was expecting to watch the whole show from the bar. He went up and did one song with Muddy and the place erupted in just thunderous applause. At the end of that song, he went to the microphone and said, "Now I want to bring up my violinist."
You had no idea that was coming?
No, absolutely not. I was just flabbergasted. I scrambled on stage and yanked the violin out of the case very quickly. It had no amplification; I think they just put me in front of a microphone. I was listening carefully as the song was going, and Muddy threw me a solo. The whole band turned and watched me while I was soloing, including Muddy and Bob, staring me down. [chuckles] Then they both smiled and that was it.
Was that part of your audition, even if you didn't know it at the time?
Yes. Let’s see how she does live. Let's see how she does throwing her in the middle of something. Let's see how she does under pressure. I pulled it off. I passed all the tests that particular day.
You then record Desire. After you finished those sessions, do you think that's it? At what point did you find out you were going on tour?
Well, before the tour, I got a call from Bob asking me to go to Chicago with him to do a special event. That special event turned out to be the tribute to the man who signed him to CBS, John Hammond. Talk about trial by fire. This was live television in front of every major CBS executive and John Hammond. That was a huge amount of belief that I was going to pull that off, which I did too. It was quite nerve-wracking. As I look closely at my face during that tribute, I look a bit petrified.
I still don't know about a tour, but now I'm in touch with Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth, because we are the group that continued from being the core band of Desire to the John Hammond special. It's possible one of them said something to me. I didn't get a direct call from Bob. I was informed by management, "You were chosen to be part of Rolling Thunder. Here's the tour schedule."
What do you remember from the tour rehearsals?
The band suddenly got huge and included Mick Ronson and Steven [Soles] and T Bone Burnett and Ronnie Blakley. Sometimes Bette Midler would sit in. She stopped in at least once. It was a big herding of cats. The task went to Rob Stoner to herd the cats and be the musical director.
Was the idea that you would primarily play on the Desire songs you had just recorded?
I believe Bob thought I could play on anything that I fit on, including stuff that was not on Desire. Although Desire was going to be a huge feature, I would end up playing on many other things, like “Just Like a Woman.”
How did your non-Desire songs songs get chosen? Would you just play on things and then at some point someone would say, yes, she sounds good on this song?
No, I don't think it was that loose. Bob had something to do with whether I was going to be tried out on a song. It had to come from him, because my participation was going to be very unique and special. It wasn't going to happen just willy-nilly. He was going to pick what he thought I’d sound great on, then we’d try it in rehearsal. There were a lot of band songs that were pretty obvious I probably shouldn't be on; they were too rocking and violin would get drowned out.
I was talking to Rob and his feeling was that your violin functioned in some songs like a lead guitar might. Was that how you thought about it?
It is. I did replace Eric Clapton on Desire. The reason that I flew to New York to break into music was not to be the string-section sweet sound that violins have been known for. This was the way I heard violin: I could replace a lead guitar. My lines were like lead guitar because I made them that way. I heard them that way.
How did you prepare to go on the tour?
Part of my preparation was how it was going to look. I did a lot of shopping to find the incredible outfits that I wore. I found all those hats and I found the raven feather necklace and the long bowler hat, and the long velvet kit thing to the ground. I didn't envision me face-painting before I went on the tour. That just happened when I was on. I connected with a muse that opened a different passageway for me to go into and pull out those symbolic images.
Did you have a favorite song to play live?
“One More Cup of Coffee.” I loved the story and I loved the gypsy atmosphere and the mysticism of it, and the interplay between the violin and the harmonica.
Did you feel like the Desire songs evolved over the course of the tour?
Some of them changed, some of them didn't. “Oh, Sister” or “Sara” didn't change. They stayed pretty true to the sound of the album. Things like “Isis” just went through the roof live. It became a fiery, fast, furious, completely different version.
I was rereading that Sam Shepard book and this sentence jumped out at me: “Scarlet is practicing her fiddle scales up and down the hallways in a long black dress, black snakes painted on her cheekbones.” Would you often walk around backstage or at the hotel practicing?
Yes, I would. There was one scene in Renaldo and Clara of me running through the hallway because I'm late. I was off practicing my scales and then it was like, "Oh no, I got to get to the stage!"
Speaking of Renaldo and Clara, there’s another scene that struck me where it looks like you're reading Dylan's palm. Is that something you actually did or was that staged?
I'm not a palm reader, but I am a tarot reader. I was very knowledgeable about the tarot. I actually wrote the booklet inside the Morgan Greer Tarot Deck in my 20s. But I only did it for myself. I did not hang out with other people very much [on the tour].
Was there anyone that you did connect with?
I really connected with Joni Mitchell. Sometimes I sat with her on the bus. She was a huge inspiration on that tour for me, somebody that I looked up to. I was very withdrawn, but it was nice to be able to step out and connect with her. I'm still friends with her today. I see her in LA from time to time. I was part of the Joni 75 tribute two years ago. I was also in part of last year's Blue concert with Brandi Carlile at Disney Hall.
On a personal level, why do you think you two connected, especially if you were so withdrawn?
I was beyond shy. Even though she is this major persona, she has a shy side of herself as well. We related to each other as artists. That overcame feeling shy. This was going to be the only opportunity we’d probably ever have to be in that close quarters. It was now or never.
On days off, would you typically be drafted for some Renaldo and Clara filming?
That happened sometimes. Also, they had some set things that they did on days off that the band was invited to do.
I also spoke to Chris O'Dell, who was organizing some of the logistics of the days-off stuff.
Every day under our door, Chris would slip a newsletter from “The Phantom.” They were quite hilarious. One was, “We got a request from the hotel management that they don't want nude filming in their lobby or in their courtyard. We would appreciate you getting a little bit more dressed up when you do your next filming.” [Another one] was a request from the crew that Scarlet Rivera be allowed to ride on the crew bus.
This will probably run on the anniversary of the Madison Square Garden finale. What do you remember about that show?
Even though all of the small shows in the Northeast were wonderful and special, Madison Square Garden stands out because it was the show that emphasized Hurricane a little bit more. Muhammad Ali was in the audience. I got to meet him backstage. Coretta Scott King was in the audience.
Did a venue that size affect how the band played?
No. I think we still held it together and felt really close, because we were really comfortable now doing [the shows]. Even though the distance between us was a little bit bigger on that stage, we still felt really connected to each other.
What were the biggest differences between the two Rolling Thunders, the fall one, and the spring one?
There was a magic to the first leg of the tour. There was a great sense of harmony amongst all the players. Although the music was as good on the second leg, I think it was a little bit less harmonious. Some element of tension wove itself in that wasn't there in the first one. Perhaps it was because Bob was going through his divorce or maybe there was some more tension with the guitar players and the band. I don't know. There was a little bit less of that magic fairydust glow on the second one for me.
Were you interacting more by the end? Joni Mitchell wasn't even around by then.
I was still pretty remote. Obviously, I connected with Bob, because he is the person who brought me in and discovered me. I wasn't withdrawn from him, but I really didn't hang out with band members when we weren't playing.
One word I see thrown around a lot about you is “mysterious.” Do you think that is just a function of the fact that you kept to yourself, so people just didn't know you well?
Well, I was a mystical child. Somebody that paints snakes and swords and butterflies and spiders on their face, I would call that reason to consider them a mysterious character.
When the second tour ends, do you have much contact with Bob?
I did for years after. I went to various private things with him, including places in Minneapolis and Minnesota, his home state. He introduced me to a childhood friend [Larry Kegan]. When I visited that friend, if [Bob] was not on tour, he'd come and visit both of us.
His friend actually is in the movie Rolling Thunder. There's a little clip of him in a wheelchair. When they were young kids together and in high school, [Larry] had a plan to be a singer as well, but his accident abruptly ended that. He remained a remarkable guy. Even though he was bound to a wheelchair, he still sang and still did live shows.
I would fly out sometimes and help to do those shows. There was one occasion when Bob was not on tour and came and listened to us practice and rehearse the day before in his friend's house. Then he came [to the show] at the Extempore.
Was this shortly after Rolling Thunder or later?
It was a couple of years later. I saw Bob from time to time throughout many years. At least once a year, I'd go visit them.
What did you think of last year’s Scorsese film?
I was stunned with the live footage, because I had never seen myself perform from a distance on those shows.
You never watched Renaldo and Clara?
Renaldo and Clara didn't have concert footage that blew me away as much as this did. I was stunned and thrilled to see how riveting it was. The interaction between myself and Bob was especially electric. I got a chance to see my facepaint close up as the audience would have seen it.
Did you do that painting yourself? Some of those are pretty impressive.
I did all of these by myself. I did facepaint from the very first show on. In fact, the face-painting was inspired by me originally, and then about a week Bob later started the whiteface. Then other people imitated that. He was impressed by the symbolism that I was bringing out. It impressed him enough to want to come up with a theme himself of the whiteface, a symbol as well.
I like the real story better than the fake “you took Bob to a Kiss concert” story they inserted into the movie.
It’s much more interesting, and happens to be true as well. I really was not happy with the insert of Kiss. My face-painting was absolutely not inspired by them.
You didn’t strike me as a huge Kiss fan.
No. I did not like their music at all.
The next 5 or 10 years, what did your career look like after Rolling Thunder? Did you feel like it opened a bunch of doors?
I got a record deal after Rolling Thunder with Warner Brothers.
Because someone had seen you on the tour?
Of course. New York City executives were at those shows. When I got pitched to Warner Brothers, they were highly aware of me being in that show, which is probably the only reason they signed me. I’d assume they would have liked me much better if I had sounded more like a folk singer. It was a bit of a stretch; I was doing music not like Desire at all. It was more, as I said, like rock fusion.
Was it frustrating that people were pigeonholing you as this one sound if there were other genres and sounds you wanted to explore?
They didn't pigeonhole me. I didn’t let them. I was doing that music before I left for the tour. If somebody wanted, "Let's just create a whole sound around you that's a copycat of Desire,” I didn't go that route. My journey was more like, I have to explore all kinds of music and all kinds of genres. Eventually, I came back full circle to roots music, many years later. I would say the music I'm doing now in my solo album is probably closer to the sound [of Desire]. If I came out with this a year after the tour, it would've been a big deal. I wasn't ready for that then.
There's another Rolling Thunder connection on your new album, the song you wrote about Joni Mitchell.
I felt compelled to write about how amazing Joni is. I felt inspired to write a song that tied the elements of her not only as a singer but as a painter. I also hand-picked words from her songs and threaded those into the song as well.
Did you send her that song?
She read the lyrics before it was even a song. The year before I recorded it, I was seeing her. I brought over the lyrics, and I read them to her. She loved them.
Thanks to Scarlet for taking the time to talk! Her new album is called All of Me and finds Scarlet making her singing debut. You can find more information on her website.
Update June 2023:
Rolling Thunder XXV: Madison Square Garden
Madison Square Garden! Need I say more?
It's easy to point to all the special guests - who I'll get to in a minute - as indicating that this benefit show was unlike any other show on the tour. But what strikes me listening to the recording is how similar it is. They added a few more people, sure, but they mostly found a way to translate this show they'd been workshopping in small New England venues to the most famous stage in the world. Bob doesn't add any new songs to the act. Neither do any of the other performers. They've got a show that works, no matter the room. You can slot in an extra person here or there, but the song remains the same.
First up: Muhammed Ali. Ali comes out between Joni Mitchell and Ramblin' Jack's sets to talk about Hurricane's case - and talk to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter himself, on the phone from prison. He brings Carter's wife and daughter onstage with him.
Ali also brought out the man he said would be "the next President of the United States," John Jay Hooker, who had been close with Bobby Kennedy and regularly ran for (and lost) political office in Tennessee. Sam Shepard called letting a politician use the opportunity for a mini-campaign appearance “a pathetic demonstration of bad timing and totally out in left field in terms of what the whole concert and tour has been about." Both Shepard and Rolling Stone recalled widespread booing (Rolling Stone added "Dylan was reportedly furious with Ali’s actions"), though it's not obvious on the tape. Oh, and Hooker was not - spoiler alert - the next President of the United States.
Next, Robbie Robertson. Robbie did not get his own mini-set like Rick Danko had, but he sat in on guitar for "It Takes a Train to Laugh." Despite the song dating back to The Band's first run with Dylan, they hadn't played this together on either the 1966 or 1974 tours. You can hear Robbie take some searing solos. Wish he'd stayed on stage for longer.
Then, in the second non-Bob portion, Roberta Flack shows up in between Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn (Flack also introduces Coretta Scott King, who it sounds like may have come out to wave or something). Roberta Flack had one of the greatest - maybe the greatest - singing voices in music, but her two songs here don't do her justice.
Part of the problem is, unlike any of the tour's other guests, it sounds like she brought her own band - there are some delays as they get set up; Jacques Levy must have been seething - and they veer toward lounge-jazz. The energy feels totally sapped from the room. The original plan was to bring Aretha Franklin to the show; maybe she would have brought a little more grit. Or, if Flack had fronted Guam, that could have been great. But this is pretty tepid stuff.
Here's what Sam Shepard wrote about Roberta Flack, and the show more broadly, in his Rolling Thunder Logbook:
I can’t remember the feeling of tension being like this at any other time on the tour except for maybe the very first concert at Plymouth. But that was mostly just butterflies, hoping the show would get off the ground on an up note. But this is more verging on anxiety. To add to it, Roberta Flack has been called in at the last minute because Aretha Franklin was tied up with dates in Los Angeles. Roberta makes no bones about being picked as second string to the great Aretha. She comes on like full-tilt Hollywood, storming around backstage in a flashy bandanna, decked out in jewelry, and shouting orders to her entourage. There’s a definite taste of black-white tension going on backstage, which is another new ingredient that was lacking on the New England schedule. Nothing weird or violent, just these two totally different streams of musical culture swimming by each other without mixing. Almost as though there were two different concerts to be given on the same bill, having nothing in common. I keep coming back to the idea that it’s a black man that the concert’s being given for. A benefit for a black convict initiated by a white singer with black support. It’s too sticky to figure out. Ali’s been trying to trump up support for Carter for quite a while. Before Dylan even. But it took Dylan to get this whole thing together.
Finally, Richie Havens was on the scene. Being on the scene was about all he did, though; he pops up onstage for the "This Land Is Your Land" finale, but for whatever reason he didn't perform anything else. Maybe he was just hanging backstage and someone dragged him up.
And that's not even counting the who's-who spotted backstage, from politicians like Congressman Charles Rangel to boxers like Joe Frazier to, my personal favorite, Candice Bergen, who exactly a month earlier hosted the fourth-ever Saturday Night Live (and who two weeks later would become the show's first repeat host, coming back to Saturday Night Live's first Christmas show, which is on Hulu and worth watching).
Bob dedicates "It Takes a Train to Laugh" to his former manager Albert Grossman, who is in the house (he was at New Haven too). And remember Muhammed Ali bringing on a man he claimed would be the next president? Bob gets a little dig in here, introducing Grossman by saying, "He won't be the next president. He don't even wanna be president!"
Naturally, the song "Hurricane" gets a slightly extended intro, Bob saying, "This is what this concert, or this show is all about… This person, he’s a beautiful man, and beauty should never be in prison.” That said, Bob doesn't really do much speechifying on Hurricane's behalf. He leaves that to others.
But the most important comment of all comes near the end: "We are the Rolling Thunder Revue, and we shall return!"
"Dylan could not have sung better. He did 21 acoustic and electric songs during various segments of the show and ranged from Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon” to “It Ain’t Me Babe” to “Isis.” He was hoarse but made that hoarseness work for him. He turned “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” into a stunning electric rocker marked by a breathless, staccato vocal delivery that in many ways was more powerful than “Hurricane.” In his whiteface and flowers, Dylan was so much more animated and intense than he had been on the Band tour that it seemed he was embarking on a new career, built on a solid repertoire of reinterpretations of older songs and a set of powerful new ones." - Chet Flippo, Rolling Stone
"Perhaps it's his mystique or his stage presence, but Dylan's performance dwarfed the efforts of the other stars, even such accomplished performers as Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack, two guests who could have filled Madison Square Garden in their own right. Only Joan Baez, who joined Dylan in several songs before doing a solo set, matched Dylan's own stage charisma." - UPI
“[Baez] pulls off a real show stopper by coming on dressed completely as Dylan. For a second you think you’re seeing double for sure until she tries to sing like him. Then the whole thing dissolves. It’s like an apparition up there. Both of them the same height, dark eyes peering out through white-moon make-up. The same straight-brimmed hat, black vests. There’s so many mixtures of imagery coming out, like French clowns, like medicine show, like minstrels, like voodoo, that your eyes stay completely hooked and you almost forget the music is going on all this time." - Sam Shepard, Rolling Thunder Logbook
"This is it, the confusion and ecstasy and depression and joy and tumult and fury and love and rage and boredom and transcendence of six weeks on the road, six weeks as a traveling karass, a musical medicine show on wheels, the real magical mystery tour, it’s all boiled down to this last three minutes, this last salute to Ol’ Woody, and to the audience and to themselves. “This Land is Your Land” of course, and this stage is your stage, too, at least it looks that way, with friends, sound men, stagehands, old ladies, kids, and managers streaming out, singing along beside the musicians." - Larry "Ratso" Sloman, On the Road with Bob Dylan
"It was a long, variably effective show. But Mr. Dylan's parts were fervent and intense, and both they and the tour itself suggested that the best candidate for a 'Dylan of the 70's' may be Mr. Dylan himself." - John Rockwell, New York Times
What's on the tape?
Everything, from Guam, the special guests, even Ali talking on stage for a while. It sounds great too.
Well folks, we did it! Every date of the Rolling Thunder tour. I'd like to thank everyone who's been reading, subscribing, commenting, and sharing. Special thanks to the participants who took the time for an interview: Ronee Blakley, Cid Bullens, Louie Kemp, Claudia Levy, David Mansfield, Janet Maslin, Chris O'Dell, Scarlet Rivera, Luther Rix, Larry "Ratso" Sloman, and Rob Stoner. Special thanks also to the many who assisted in various ways behind the scenes, among them James Adams; Dag Braathen, Bob Stacy and the other Dylan-photo experts; Karl Erik; Ray Harlow; Jesse Jarnow; Les Kokay; Harold Lepidus; David Perry; Lesley Stephen; Tyler Wilcox; and everyone who emailed me a tip, a memory, or even just some kind words about the series.
Our Rolling Thunder journey may be ending, but the newsletter will continue. I'll be sending out a special Never Ending Tour-themed newsletter this Sunday, then taking a break for a bit before returning in 2021. If you just joined during this Rolling Thunder run, I hope you'll stay subscribed. Who knows, maybe next spring I'll tackle the second Rolling Thunder tour…
Find the index to all shows covered so far here. Subscribe to get future newsletters delivered straight to your inbox here:
*** More info on the book here… ***