Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue was less a conventional tour than a traveling carnival, replete with gypsies, cowboys, groupies, relatives (including Dylan’s mother), reporters, and various hangers-on, that camped at local motels to play a series of gigs at small to intermediate sized venues – and, for good measure, film “Renaldo and Clara,” a surrealistic movie – during fall 1975 and spring 1976.
The Rolling Thunder Revue featured not only Dylan but also (at various times and in various doses) Joan Baez (Dylan’s ex-lover), Rambling Jack Elliott, Kinky Friedman, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn (formerly of the Byrds), Bob Neuwirth, Ronee Blakley, and Allen Ginsberg. The backup musicians included T-Bone Burnett, Bob Stoner, Steven Soles, Luther Rix, Howie Wyeth, Mick Ronson (David Bowie’s guitarist and arranger from the Ziggy Stardust era), and David Mansfield as well as violinist Scarlet Rivera, whom Dylan found, literally, on the streets of New York. On December 4, 1975, the night the Rolling Thunder Revue played the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec, there was the chance that the troupe would be joined by Leonard Cohen.
But, that was not to be.
The story is best conveyed in this excerpt from “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” the account of the Rolling Thunder Revue by Larry (Ratso) Sloman that is oblgatory reading for any Dylan fan or anyone who wants to understand this epoch of pop music:
“Get Leonard please,” Dylan gets serious. “I got some people to see.”
Ratso walks over to the booth and dials Cohen’s house. After a few rings the poet picks up. “Leonard, this is Larry, how are you?”
“Can’t complain,” Leonard replies and Ratso remembers his work and laughs at the irony.
“Are you coming to the concert?”
“I guess so,” Cohen says in his world-weary monotone. “You’re so coy, Leonard.”
“Is it gonna be crowded?” the poet worries.
“You won’t have to deal with the crowds, we’ll zip in the stage door, Leonard,” Ratso reassures him, as Dylan keeps nudging the reporter, trying to grab the phone. “Tell him to come through the back door,” Dylan whispers in Ratso’s ear. Ratso frowns and hands Dylan the phone.
“Leonard? Yeah, how you doing? Can’t complain, huh. Well I could but I won’t. You wanna come to the show? Fatso can pick you up.”
“Ratso, not Fatso,” the reporter pokes Dylan, “but he doesn’t know me as Ratso.”
“Yeah, Larry’ll pick you up. You got four people? Sure, easy, hey, if you wanna play a couple of songs that would be all right too_ Pardon? OK, whatever you feel like doing. We’re gonna hang around for a few days, we got some film to shoot. We’re also making a movie so we’re gonna be shooting tomorrow and the next day, here. Maybe after the show we can get together if that’s OK with you. OK, man, Larry’ll pick you up, see you later then.” Dylan hangs up and the trio starts back toward the bar.
Cohen’s house is a tiny affair, located in the heart of old Montreal, a student, foreigner, bohemian ghetto. Ratso shivers as he walks up the block looking for the address. He finds it, and knocks on the door. Muffled sounds but no answer. A few more knocks. No response. Suddenly the reporter notices the door is slightly ajar and he throws it open. And steps into a sea of sound, the harmonicas, spoons, kazoos, and spirited voices washing over him like a funky Jacuzzi. Cohen is ringleading, playing the harmonica, stomping his foot on a chair, leading the vocal to a French chanson. “How are you, my friend?”
Leonard ushers Ratso in without interrupting the music. “This is Hazel, Suzanne, Armand, and Mort. Pull up a chair.”
“We gotta go, Leonard.” Ratso remains standing.
“C’mon,” the poet urges, “we have time for one more song.”
“But Sara’s1 in the cab.”
“Bring her in.” Cohen gestures expansively and alcoholically. “Here, have a quick sip of wine.”
Leonard, we really have to go,” Ratso stresses.
“OK, troops,” Cohen calls to the others, “bring your instruments to the car.” Cohen pulls a topcoat over his charcoal gray suit, a suit that Ratso has seen him wear for four years.
“Leonard, you’re still wearing the same suit.”
“It is my suit,” he says with dignity. “It’s my suit.”
Suddenly the other four have revolted and start a jig around thr living room, whooping and hollering and waving their hands the air.
“Can you put your coats on while you’re dancing,” Leon requests, and a minute later they’re all piling into the cab. Introductions are made.
“Leonard,” Sara breathes, “are you gonna sing?”
“No, are you?” Leonard shoots back.
“Me? No, they’ve been asking me to but I refuse.” Sara smiles coyly.
“Leonard, you gotta sing one for me and Sara,” Ratso implores “that one `hungry as an archway.’”
“OK,” Leonard whips out his harp, “here we go. Get your spoons out, Mort.” And they break into a cheerful French folk song.
“If anyone asks you, you’re all Leonard’s backup band,” Ratso warns the others, “there’s not supposed to be anyone back tonight.”
“That means Leonard has to go onstage,” Sara prompts. Cohen frowns.
They go into a three-part-harmony French song. “C’mon Leonard,” Ratso whines, “you promised `Take This Longing’ … I’ve been so patient sitting through all these foreign songs.’
Cohen whips out his harp and blows some melancholy and then he starts to sing, in his low dull-razor voice, “While apart, oh please remember me, soon I’ll be sailing far a sea/While we’re apart oh please remember me, now is the when we must say good-bye, soon I’ll be sailing far across the sea.” Armand joins in on another harmonica and the two wail away as the cab pulls up to the Forum.
The party scurries inside from the frigid night, Ratso leading them in. Joni, who had just finished her set,2 comes running up and hugs the poet. `Joni,” Leonard sizes up his Canadian counterpart, “Joni, my little Joni.”
“I’m glad you’re here, I just came off, though.”
Cohen looks disappointed. “Well, we just heard the greatest music I’ve ever heard, the greatest music I ever heard we just played on the way here.” By now, Neuwirth and Ronee have come over to pay respects, and Dylan, who’s about to follow Ramblin’ Jack, trots over.
“Leonard, how you doing?” Bob warmly greets the Canadian. He points over at Ratso. “Hey, do you know this character?”
Leonard rolls his eyes. “This man has plagued me for the last three years.” They all laugh.
“Hey, Leonard, you gonna sing,” Ratso pleads.
“Let it be known that I alone disdained the obvious support,” Cohen chuckles. “I’m going to sit out there and watch.”
“Why not sing?” Joni begs.
“No, no, it’s too obvious,” Leonard brushes off the request and looks to Ratso for guidance. He leads them out to the sound board where some folding chairs have been set up, just in time to see Dylan do his first set.
And what a set. The band is blistering, Dylan has regained the momentum that began to sag during Quebec, and every song is like a sledgehammer pounding away at the overflow crowd that has filled every seat, nook, cranny, corner, penalty box, and aisle of the cavernous Forum.
By the time Stoner ends “This Land is Your Land” with a torrid bass run, everyone—fans, ushers, concessionaires, even Bob’s own security crew—is on their feet, in a screaming rollicking standing ovation. Ratso rushes back to Leonard’s party and escorts them backstage, worming their way through the crowds, stepping over the huge rolls of toilet paper that were thrown from the rafters by the enthusiastic audience.
Backstage, Leonard greets the troops, and everyone repairs to the hotel for a party in one of the downstairs banquet rooms.
Update: The story of the dinner Leonard Cohen and Suzanne hosted the night after the concert for Ratso, Joni Mitchell, and Roger McGuinn is now available at Leonard Cohen Hosts Joni Mitchell & Ratso At Home For Barbequed Ribs.
Dylan Dedicates “Isis” To Leonard Cohen
The Montreal concert is widely considered a high point of the tour. Dylan prefaced his performance of “Isis” with “This is a song about marriage” (Dylan’s own marriage was in trouble at this time and, Cohen’s relationship was similarly deteriorating). He then announced, “This is for Leonard, if he’s still here.”
- Sara, at the time this was written, was Bob Dylan’s wife. [↩]
- From the concert summary at Wolfgang’s Vault: Much to the delight of the Montreal audience, the first “special guest” of the evening is up next, Joni Mitchell. After several massively successful albums in the early ’70s, Mitchell had retreated into seclusion for some time and her brief stint with the Rolling Thunder Review not only signified a welcome return to the stage, but was also a showcase for new material. Mitchell was beginning to head in a new direction that would take both fans and critics years to catch on to, but the embryonic stages of that transition can clearly be heard on this four-song set. Three new songs destined for her transitional and controversial next album, 1975’s Hissing Of Summer Lawns, are previewed here. Also, of particular note is an embryonic “Coyote,” one of the most intriguing songs to later surface on Hijera. Written on this tour and a direct reflection of her experiences, Mitchell even acknowledges writing the fourth verse just the night before. [↩]