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To begin at the beginning, you'd have to go back to the old folkie days of the Village or maybe just the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or maybe even the old auditorium of Hibbing High. Who knows where Dylan first got the idea, really decided that he wanted to go out again and do what it was that he does so well. Namely, tell the tribe the news of the hour. Depending on who you speak to, you'll get a hundred different versions of how the Rolling Thunder Revue idea was crystallized. Some say it was Bobby Neuwirth's pet project, a guerrilla attack on the hamlets of Middle America. Others credit Ramblin' Jack Elliott with the original idea. Still others believe it was Bob's all along, that he was only waiting for the right time and people. No matter, it happened. With a vengeance. Guitar sounds filled the air, Scarlett's haunting gypsy violin presiding over the clatter in hot, musky gyms and clean, stainless-steel auditoriums. The Rolling Thunder Revue was a caravan of gypsies, hoboes, trapeze artists, lonesome guitar stranglers, and spiritual green berets who came into your town for your daughters and left with your minds. They took to the road in the fall of '75, a weird karass, Dylan, Baez, Mitchell, Elliott, Neuwirth, McGuinn, Ronson, Blakley, Ginsberg, it went on and on, and you'll meet them all here, sooner or later. And they barnstormed for six weeks, shaking up the great Northeast, making a quick foray over the border into the land of snow. Then, with a bang at Madison Square Garden, playing to twenty thousand in a benefit for Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, it was over. At least, until Dylan decides to round up the troops, pack up the guitars, and head your way again.
But to begin at the beginning of this story, we might as well flash back to a lazy Indian-summery Sunday night in October 1975.
I remembered that Sammy Walker was playing at Gerdes Folk City on Third Street, so I walked in. Typical Gerdes night: Allyn (she's a girl) was tending bar, owner Mike Porco was tending Allyn with a hawk's eye. A few patrons at the bar. Inside, in the music room, Walker was onstage singing about Patty Hearst and her scorpions. My eyes scanned the room and stopped short at center rear. Ensconced at the table near the men's room was none other than old friend Roger McGuinn and party.
McGuinn is one of the rock 'n roll hall-of-famers. With Chris Hillman and David Crosby, he founded America's greatest rock band, the Byrds. And long after Crosby departed for the greener pastures of CSNY and Hillman founded the Burrito Brothers, McGuinn was still plugging away as a Byrd. Then around 1970, he started anew, first fronting a small combo, then going out solo and doing the folkie harmonica neck-rack bit. And it was hard years for the man who gave us "Eight Miles High," and the definitive hard-rock version of "Tambourine Man." The solo Byrd never really got off the ground, so Roger went back to a combo idea and re-formed the Roger McGuinn Band. And here at Gerdes up from a date in Philly, were Roger, his guitarist, Richard Bowden, and his road manager, Al Hirsh.
I joined Roger and his party and Porco came by and bought us all a round of drinks. Porco, of course, is best known in the music biz as one of the first discoverers of Bob Dylan. Dylan's first professional appearance was at Mike's original club on Fourth Street, and in those days, Porco was like a father to Bob, making sure that he had his cabaret cards, and generally looking after the ragamuffin minstrel.
Porco has fathered many a rising star over the years; among the headliners who first got their careers moving at Gerdes are Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, and Phil Ochs. And that night, in that same folk tradition, Sammy Walker, a teenager from Norcross, Georgia, was onstage singing a selection of songs from his first album on the small folk label, Folkways Records. And among those songs was "Ragamuffin Minstrel Boy," a tribute to Dylan, whom Walker resembled both musically and physically. McGuinn was listening intently, enjoying the new comer, and at one point, after I egged him on a bit, he agreed to do a guest number with Sammy-only McGuinn did it in his own inimitable fashion. Since Roger's an electronics freak, he carries around two two-way walkie-talkies wherever he goes, so Hirsh was dispatched to the stage where he whipped out his gadget, and held it up to the mike.
"There's some that's born in New York town," an eerie disembodied voice floated over Hirsh's walkie-talkie into the microphone, and McGuinn became the first guest star to sit in from his seat. But after the cackly sea chanty, "Heave Away," the audience screamed for more, so Roger vaulted up to the stage, borrowed Sammy's guitar, and broke into "Chestnut Mare," the compelling saga of a boy and his horse that Roger cowrote with Off-Broadway director, Jacques Levy.
Apparently the singing had built up Roger's appetite, so we all headed down to Chinatown for a late dinner. And over martinis, the talk turned to Dylan. "I've been hanging out a lot with Bob in Malibu," Roger told us, "playing basketball, and stuff. One day, he was sitting on my couch and we were trying to write a song together and I asked him if he had anything and he said he had one that he started but he was probably gonna use it himself and he started playing 'Never Say Goodbye.' He hadn't written all the verses yet, but he had the tune. I liked it, but it was his.
"He's really brilliant, but sometimes he acts naive, like there are gaps in his perception and if you fill in the spots for him, he really freaks out.
"We once were talking about the airplane Bob used to have and I asked him if he would charter it out when he wasn't using it and he said no. And I said, 'Well, that's what people do who have those airplanes, you gotta charter it out in order to pay the maintenance because they're too expensive to keep otherwise. Even everybody who's really rich charters them out and stuff.' And Bob said, real wide-eyed, 'Nobody ever told me that before.' What a great line."
It was getting on to 2 a.m. and McGuinn was set to pack it in and go back to his room at the Gramercy, but I suggested we stop for a nightcap at the Other End. Roger demurred. "C'mon, Roger, I hear Dylan just got into town and even if he's not there I'm sure Levy'll be there." So we took a cab over to LaGuardia Place, jumped out, and rang Jacques' bell. No answer. Roger led the way around the corner to the Other End. Bleecker Street was unusually quiet, almost eerie with a moist mist floating in. Something was in the air. I led the way into the club and immediately saw owner Paul Colby, who, at the sight of us, frantically summoned us to a side table. We turned the corner, and hidden in the first niche were two tables that had been pushed together. I scanned the tables and saw singer David Blue, Off-Broadway director and McGuinn song collaborator Jacques Levy, assorted other nondescript friends, and, hidden in the center of this motley crew, a black-jacketed Bob Dylan. "Roger!" Dylan screamed out, and lunged to hug McGuinn, spilling most of the drinks in the process. "Where you been, man, we been waiting for you all night."
By then a large crowd was observing and Levy suggested we go someplace a bit quieter. "Let's go to Menachem's," Bob interjected. So we trudged out of the Other End, Dylan and McGuinn in the lead, the others slowly following. "Hey Roger, we're going to go out on tour, wanna come with us?" Dylan was cajoling McGuinn, who seemed to be still recovering from the greeting. We hit the sidewalk outside the club and Dylan turned to me. I introduced myself. "Oh, you're Larry Sloman. I heard you were doing an article on Hurricane Carter. Did ya see him, how is he?" I began to answer but got cut off when a nervous teenager squeezed between us and asked Dylan if she could shake his hand. Dylan peered at her quickly, then broke into a smile. "Sure." She grabbed his hand and began a monologue about how much Dylan had changed her life. Bob began to look a bit uncomfortable and we got rescued by Lou Kemp, Dylan's friend, who steered our party to Bob's car: a cherry-red Eldorado. Jacques, his friend Muffin, Kemp, and I piled into the back seat, and Dylan, McGuinn, and Bob's friend Mike jumped in the front. Dylan careened around the Village, made an incredible left onto MacDougal, and pulled up in front of the Olive Tree. But Menachem had already called it a night, so we trudged across the street, to the Kettle of Fish, an old hangout for the folkies in the early '60s. As we crossed the street, Dylan picked up on our conversation about Hurricane Carter, the boxer who's spent ten years in jail in New Jersey for a crime he never committed. "You're doing a story, good, he needs that, that'll be a big help. So will the song I did. We got to get that out, get it out right away. Maybe you could put some pressure on Columbia, Larry. You can lean on them, you got some pull there."
Inside the Kettle we took two tables, Dylan, Eric Frandsen, a folksinger friend, Muffin, and me at one; Kemp, McGuinn, Levy and Mike at the other. Dylan and Frandsen were talking about obscure songs and movies, and Dylan seemed really animated. He reached for his Remy and it tipped over. "Oh, I must really be drunk," Bob moaned. Kemp ordered another one, and Dylan started to talk about his new album. I told him about Jake and the Family Jewels, a great Village band ripe for a big breakout. "Have you heard my new band?" Bob interrupted. "They're great. That Rob (Stoner), he's got such a pretty voice." "Did you ever see his Elvis collection?" I asked Dylan. "He's got this incredible Elvis scrapbook, with really rare articles." "Hey listen, Larry," Dylan leaned in, "you wanna go on the road with us and cover the tour?" "Sure," I pondered, "I could probably cover it for Rolling Stone." "Hey Louie," Bob screamed back at Kemp, "Larry's going to go out with us; sign him up. It might as well be him, I'd rather have him do it than anyone else." Dylan swung back and leaned across the table at me, preoccupied with Hurricane again. "We're gonna get him out in ninety days." "Did ya hear what Ali said at Trenton the other day?" I asked Dylan. "He predicted that Hurricane would be free in three days." Dylan didn't blink, "We're gonna get him out in ninety days, that's our slogan, ninety days or we fight." "You mean ninety days after the single's released," I corrected. Dylan smiled. "Yeah, after release."
Bob seemed restless and his hungry eyes scanned the room. "See that painting up there." He pointed to a canvas over the bar. "I remember coming in here in the '60s and always seeing that painting." The talk then turned to old friends, songwriters Phil Ochs and Kinky Friedman.
"Keenky," Bob mimicked, "who's Keenky?"
"C'mon, you know Kinky. You love him."
"Well, Kinky's all right, but he's too sensitive. You know what Kinky's problem is, he came just a little bit too late."
It was 4 a.m. and Kemp made his move. "C'mon Bob, let's get out of here, we got a lot to do tomorrow."
Dylan looked hurt. "Aw, c'mon, lemme finish this drink, then we'll split." I mentioned that Thursday night there was going to be a surprise birthday party for Folk City owner Mike Porco and Dylan's eyes lit up. "Hey Lou, you got that man, a surprise party for Porco Thursday night, what time man?" I gave him the details and he got up and said good-bye to me and Roger. Dylan and his entourage filed out of the Kettle leaving me, McGuinn, and Levy and a bevy of astonished patrons.
McGuinn still looked stunned. "And you didn't want to go to the Other End. You schmuck," I laughed. Roger managed a nod, and we shook hands and stepped out into the MacDougal Street morning. It was raining hard now so McGuinn hailed a cab as I walked home to the sound of thunder. Rolling thunder.