Saturday, December 01, 2007

Roadie Report 31 - "The Rolling Thunder Revue"

Roger, Joni and Joan

A few days after we hugged Barry McGuire goodbye, we loaded our van and hit the road. October has always been our favorite time of year to tour. The minute the landscape colors change from Florida’s green and blue to the scarlet kissed trees of the Virginia mountains, we both excitedly reminisce about our favorite autumn stories. Roger’s is about the Fall of 1975, when he joined Bob Dylan’s "Rolling Thunder Revue."
Video From RTR - Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Spring 1975

Roger and Bob Dylan were casually tossing basketballs at Roger’s Carbon Canyon home in Malibu when Bob paused. Holding the ball, he looked out over the ocean view and commented, “I want to do something different.”

“What do you mean?” Roger knew the word “different” from Bob could be a door into the outer limits.

“I don’t know ... something like a circus." Then he tossed the ball toward the basket.

Fall 1975

Roger McGuinn and Band's touring schedule had a two week break, so Roger and Al Hersh, his road manager, headed for the infamous Rock 'n' Roll hotel, The Gramercy Park in New York City. After checking in, they went to Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. A few drinks and several request later, Roger decided to perform a few songs - the “techie” McGuinn way. He had Al put one of their walkie-talkies on a stool on the stage in front of the microphone. Then he sang one of his favorite sea chanties, “Heave Away Me Johnnies” from his seat at the table into the walkie-talkie he was holding. Once the audience became aware of where the voice in the small box was coming from, they shouted for more. Roger borrowed a guitar and joined his walkie-talkie on stage.

Larry Sloman, a writer from Rolling Stone, was in the audience. After Roger returned to his table, Mr. Sloman boldly introduced himself. Roger was intrigued with the manner of this young reporter but he was also hungry. He invited Larry to join him for dinner in China Town. Over a plate of Moo Goo Gai Pan, Larry mentioned that Dylan was over at the Other End. Roger paid the bill and said, "Let's go find Bob."

The “Other End” was a folk club that had once been called “The Bitter End.” Roger had recorded there years earlier with The Chad Mitchell Trio. The minute they walked in the door, the owner of the club, Paul Colby, recognized Roger and directed him to the back room. Dylan was sitting at a table with Roger’s friend and writing partner, Jacques Levy. Bob and Jacques had their heads close together, talking earnestly over two full brandy sniffers. They both looked up simultaneously, noticed the disheveled long haired shadow in the doorway and shouted, “Roger - we were just talking about you!” They jumped up quickly ... the table and drinks went flying, just like in a old time western movie. Roger ordered another round of drinks for everyone and Bob told him about the show he was planning with a group of folkies from the old days in the Village. He and Jacques wanted Roger to join the revue.

It had been a long day for Roger and he was groggy enough to give a quick answer. “Sorry man ... I’ve got a tour booked.”

The next day, Larry called Roger and asked him, “Do you remember last night? Bob invited you on his tour and you told him that you couldn’t go.” In the light of the morning sun, Roger realized that this was something that he wanted to do and called his agent. He told him to put his band on retainer and to cancel the rest of the tour. He was going to join Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue.”

“Rolling Thunder’s” rehearsals were at Studio Instrument Rentals in mid-town Manhattan and lasted for a few days. The band wanted to have an unusual name. They decided on someplace no one had ever been. They called it Guam. In October, a rag-tag caravan of buses and motor homes hit the road to electrify the Eastern Seaboard.

Dylan led the way in a red Cadillac convertible. He was a modern day Peter Pan taking a band of “flower children” to “Neverland.” His plan was to arrive unannounced in any town that had a stage available, have people give out fliers for a show that night and entertain a bemused but excited audience for hours.

Jacques Levy was the director, Alan Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky were the poets. Sam Shepard was the screen writer/actor for the film of the tour being produced. Harry Dean Stanton, Sarah Dylan and Joan Baez were actors. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joni Mitchell, Bobby Newwirth, T-Bone Burnette, Steven Soles, Ronee Blakely, Rob Stoner, Mick Ronson, David Mansfield and Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman were all part of the original cast of this traveling band of gypsies and “when no one was looking, McGuinn was there too!”

Mr. Dylan housed the band in resort hotels with hospitality suites for the comfort of everyone. The suite was stocked with a complimentary bar from five in the evening until two in the morning. That will explain a line in this song that Roger and Jacques wrote about the tour. But this song also captures the wonderful mystery and fantasy that can come from knowing a modern day Shakespeare aka Peter Pan.

"Take Me Away" by Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy

You should have been there when
The time was right for the music to begin
You shoulda been there when
That band of gypsies started rollin' in
You should seen it
You'da swore for sure the circus came to town
There were ladies ridin' bareback
And the mystery man
All painted like a clown
You should seen October feelin'
Like I never felt before
Flashin' up New England skies
Like the fires of the revolutionary war
You shoulda heard the music comin' down
Like the hardest rain that ever fell
Wakin' up in the afternoons
With a hundred lovers feedin' in the same motel

Take me away take me away take me away
Take me away take me away take me away
Take me away take me away take me away
Take me away take me away take me away

To the place where the greatest
Show on earth is playin' high on your highway
You shoulda seen me
I've been told I had a smile upon my face
Slippin' from state to state
Endin' up in a drunken state of grace
It wasn't very long ago
I used to say this kind of life is rough
You shoulda been there
But I can tell you even that was not enough

Take me away take me away take me away
Take me away take me away take me away
Take me away take me away take me away
Take me away take me away take me away

After the concerts, the band often piled into the buses to head out into the dark of the moonlit sky. They went from the “flower children in Neverland” to “pirates in the night.” Black was the color of the clothes and the swashbucklers were riding the waves of the highways. One dark night, the bus diver caught a glimpse of Joan Baez in his rear view mirror, dancing down the aisle of the bus, waving her hand over her head in the style of all the pirates on board. Roger and Jacques crafted the song “Jolly Roger” to recall the spirit of those moments.

Roger needed a few more songs for his next album. He wanted to capture the exhilarating, inspiring, excitement of the tour in the studio, so he tapped Mick Ronson to be his producer. They decided to title the record “Cardiff Rose” after the ship in the song “Jolly Roger.” Ronson brought the band “Guam” into the studio.

Joni Mitchell was habitually writing lyrics in her black and white composition book while the tour bus “Phydeaux” rolled down the highway. One of the songs in that notebook was “Dreamland.” When Roger asked her for a song to record on his album, she gave it to him, but wasn't quiet sure if one line would work for Roger. She smiled when Roger suggested the "folk tradition" of changing lyrics to match the gender of the singer. He would change "Dorothy Lamour sarong” to "an Errol Flynn sarong.” There were so many words in the song, he wondered if anyone would notice the difference or even laugh at the image of Errol Flynn in a sarong.

Roger still needed one more song for his album, so he asked Bob. Generously, Bob gave him the unrecorded opus “Up To Me.” As a personal tribute to both artists, Roger decided to sing the songs in the inimitable styles of the authors because he'd always admired and appreciated the way they both sang.

It was on the “Rolling Thunder Revue” that Ramblin’ Jack Elliot entertained Roger with stories of his adventures touring with his lady Polly. He told him about the times the two of them would put their bags and guitars in the back of a Land Rover and barn storm across America, singing in old vaudeville theaters. Roger was thoroughly enjoying the lack of responsibility of the Revue, but he knew that when it was all over, he would be back at the helm of a band and entourage of people who counted on him for their livelihood. He filed Jack’s stories in the recesses of his mind with the hope that someday, he too could tell stories of love and freedom on the open road.


“The Rolling Thunder Revue” was a moment in the history of a group of troubadours who went to “Neverland.” I wonder if anything like that could ever happen again. Well ... “Tinkerbell” revived because we all sat glued in front of our black and white television sets and said, “I believe, I believe.”

The times - they have changed.