Larry Sloman covered the Rolling Thunder Revue for Rolling Stone, and he got more than he bargained for, including his nickname “Ratso,” courtesy Joan Baez. He shares some amazing memories with PKM from his time in the front row of rock & roll history and explains how Bob Dylan changed his life.
By Larry “Ratso” Sloman
MONDAY JUNE 10, 2019 5:30 P.M.
The sleek black Mercedes pulled up to the curb outside my building. It was raining a bit, so the driver ran out of the car with a huge umbrella and escorted my wife and me to the car door, so not one drop would land on us. We settled in the back seat and cracked open the bottled water as the driver steered up Sixth Ave. My phone buzzed. It was Allison, one of the publicists from Netflix. “I saw that you’re on your way here but don’t worry about arriving until closer to 6:30! Take your time.”
I leaned back and melted into the luxurious leather seat. Netflix had sent us an executive car! We weren’t in some ratty Toyota Camry that had Uber, Lyft and Via stickers. We were in Fat City, farting through silk, as my friend Kinky Friedman would say. And we were on our way to the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s new documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. I had covered the revue for Rolling Stone forty-four years earlier, but I had to fight for my right to memorialize the tour, getting shit both from the promoters and from my editors at Rolling Stone. My car was vandalized twice by the tour security, I was routinely thrown out of the hotels where the performers stayed and my editors were more interested in how much money the tour was grossing than the amazing cultural spectacle that was unfolding every night. But I persevered and hung in, rolling with the punches. Now I had to laugh at the irony that I was being wheeled to Lincoln Center and deposited NOT A MINUTE before 6:30 so we could walk the red carpet at the appropriate time. And I chalked it off to a simple twist of fate.
Bob Dylan changed my life. Twice. The first time was in June of 1965 when I wandered into my local record store (remember those?) in Bayside, Queens. On the Top 100 Single list was a song called “Like a Rolling Stone” by a B. Dylan. Who is this B. Dylan guy ripping off the Rolling Stones? I thought. Since I was a card-carrying member of the Rolling Stones fan club I bought the record and took it home. And it blew my sixteen-year-old mind. That sound! That ethereal organ and the searing guitar and the mocking piano line. But it was the words that were beckoning me into another world, one filled with debutantes, mystery tramps, diplomats and Napoleon in rags. How does it feeeel? It felt like an invitation to me.
That night I borrowed my father’s car, drove to Flushing and bought Dylan’s new album Highway 61 Revisited. That was it. “Tombstone Blues”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Desolation Row”. Those songs were my first foray into an alternative reality (and I didn’t even need a drug!) Within weeks I had all Dylan’s albums and I was escaping from my Jewish middle-class semi-suburban home to hang out in the somewhat disreputable Greenwich Village. My parents slowly realized I would never grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer or even an accountant. If I grew up at all.
MONDAY JUNE 10, 2019 6:30 P.M.
Allison greets us at the side door of Alice Tully Hall and brings me to the red carpet where the press is set up. There’s a line of still photographers and then two video units that are shooting for Netflix and Lincoln Center, respectively. I’m wearing my handmade, tie-dyed, formerly white linen suit. Then I spy Ronee Blakely who I hadn’t seen in almost forty years and grab her and we pose together for some more shots, right under the nose of the giant photo of Dylan on the backdrop. Of course, Bob is a no-show but Scarlet Rivera, the amazing violinist on the tour, poses and then Marty [Scorsese] enters and does the red carpet tango. A few minutes later, incongruously enough, Fran Lebowitz walks the carpet, followed by Spike Lee. Guess he’s got to get his face out there somewhere with his Knicks out of the playoffs.
How did I get to cover the tour, you might ask? Well, after graduating from Queens College in 1969, I went to graduate school in Madison Wisconsin, where I eventually earned a master’s in Deviance and Criminology, a discipline that has informed my work for the rest of my life. At Madison, I became the Music Editor of the school paper, mostly so I could get free albums from all the record companies. But the title got me some cred and when I returned to New York in 1973, I began freelancing for Rolling Stone. I did a preview of Lou Reed’s Berlin, which in my eyes was a stone masterpiece. In fact, I was so enamored with that album that I wrote that just as Sgt. Pepper had captured the zeitgeist of the sixties with its love, peace and acid undertones, Berlin encapsulated the story of the sordid seventies, with its bisexual pair whose hard drug-fueled rampages led to domestic violence and a loss of their children to the state. But when RCA began plastering NYC with huge subway posters that depicted a topless couple embracing with a star in the corner of the poster that proclaimed “Berlin will be the Sgt. Pepper of the ‘70s– Sloman, Rolling Stone,” Lou Reed was beside himself. First, the reviewers had savaged the album but, to add insult to injury, here was RCA taking my quote out of context and comparing the album to that Beatles album, which Lou hated. Reed didn’t talk to me for years after that.
My parents slowly realized I would never grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer or even an accountant. If I grew up at all.
In October of 1974, while hanging out at Columbia Records looking for story ideas, I happened to see a piece of paper plastered on the corkboard of one of the publicists. I read it and was shocked to discover that Dylan was in town recording an album that would become Blood On the Tracks. In an incredible coincidence (or another simple twist of fate) I was walking up Fifth Avenue the next day when who do I spy sitting in car but his Bobness? I rushed over. “Hey Bob, I’m Larry Sloman and I write for Rolling Stone. Can I do a preview of your new album?” He looked at me with fury in his eyes. “How do you know about the album?” he spat. Hmm, that didn’t go over well. So I switched topics and told him that I was roommates with Phil Ochs. (Actually I had taken over Phil and Jerry Rubin’s apartment when Jerry had moved to California to detox and do Cali things like eat healthy and take EST courses. Phil had nowhere else to go so I invited him to crash on the couch.) At the mere mention of Phil’s name, Bob melted. “Aww, how’s Phil doing?” he said. And I was authorized to do the article previewing the majestic Blood On the Tracks.
A few months later, there were rumors that Dylan was showing up at his old haunts in the Village, especially at the Bitter End, which by now had changed its name to the Other End. Dylan was in town again doing a follow-up album. He was working with Jacques Levy, an off-Broadway director who had collaborated with the ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn on lyrics in the past. One night around then, McGuinn played a gig in New Jersey, then drove to Manhattan and we met for a late dinner in Chinatown. Then I suggested that we check out the Other End. Maybe Bob and Jacques would be there. We walked into the place and it was pretty empty. But we continued past the bar toward the back of the club and there in a corner was Dylan, Levy, David Blue, and a host of others.
“Roger!” Dylan jumped up, knocking over a few of the drinks on the table. “Where you been, man, we’ve been waiting for you all night!”
Within a minute, Dylan told Roger that they were going to do a tour like no other tour. A gypsy caravan that would sneak into a town on short notice, sell tickets, blow people’s minds and then take off in the middle of the night for the next stop. It was a tour where people could come and go but it would be always out there somewhere. And Dylan wanted Roger to be on it. And when he realized that I was the guy who wrote the preview to Blood On the Tracks, he wanted me too. “Hey Louie,” he said to his childhood friend Louie Kemp, a fishmonger who had left his business in good hands and was now managing this tour, “Larry’s going to go out with us. I’d rather have him do it than anyone else.”
MONDAY JUNE 10, 2019 7:30 P.M.
It’s weird to see yourself on a giant screen, especially when the footage was shot forty-four years ago. I was almost skinny then. And it was even weirder to see how fast I was talking. Of course, I was in the throes of the adrenaline jolt of a lifetime, touring with the likes of Dylan, Baez, Joni Mitchell, McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and the rest. Then there was the amphetamine I was occasionally taking so I could drive through the night following the buses to the next gig and the acute manic episode that was being amplified by all of the aforementioned. I was pretty gone, but, I have to admit, I was pretty funny too. It was probably that redeeming quality that weighed on Bob when he overruled Louie who suggested that, at the end of the tour, security should take me out drinking, slip me a mickey, bound and gag me and put me on a steamer headed to Europe.
When we were rehearsing in the city, I had no problem getting access to Bob and the rest of the performers. So it was a shock when I drove up to the first hotel in North Falmouth, Mass., and Louie Kemp freaked out when he saw me check-in. “What are you doing here? You can’t stay at the same hotel as us. No press are allowed in the hotel. If you want to talk to any of the performers, you make an appointment. These are the rules, Larry. You follow the rules, you’ll be OK.” It was bullshit. Dylan invited me on the tour, I knew half of the talent, so there was no reason to treat me like a pariah. When I tried to circumvent these regulations and get in on the action, Louie escalated his tactics. My ignition was snapped off in North Dartmouth. In New Haven, Kemp had the distributor cap disabled, and, right before the drive over the border to Quebec City, my brakes were tampered with during the Bangor show.
Watching those performances, I was reminded why I had put up with all of Louie Kemp’s and Rolling Stone’s bullshit. This wasn’t just another tour. This was rock ‘n roll history unfolding right before your eyes.
On top of Louie’s repression, I was also getting shit from my editors at Rolling Stone. My first article was fine but when it was time to file the second, Variety had run an article with a blaring headline, “DYLAN INTERESTED IN MONEY? SMALL CLUBS GIVE WAY TO ARENAS.” The costs of keeping a whole troupe on the road made the original concept of playing small venues unfeasible so they booked some larger gigs and raised the price of a ticket from $7.50 to $8.50. So now Rolling Stone had a bug up their ass about why the venues were larger.
“You need details. How much are these people making?” my editor said when I called him. “That Variety article seems to be asking the right question.”
“You’re asking me to ask business questions but that’s not what the kids want to read,” I shot back.
“How do you know?” my editor said.
“I KNOW kids. I ask them,” I screamed. “Who talks to more kids and derelicts on the street than me?”
Now I had to call up Dylan and Baez, who were in the next town, to get them to answer questions about the tour finances and the larger venues. Dylan, who was half asleep, answered the phone in his room.
“The schmucks at Rolling Stone are such bureaucrats. They saw an article in Variety with a headline IS DYLAN INTERESTED IN MONEY? Because the tour is playing larger venues now. They said the first eleven shows did a $600,000 gross,” I said.
“So what does Elton John charge?” Bob sounded annoyed. “Look, we got seventy people going around. All Rolling Stone ever prints about me is gossipy shit. These people who run that thing, they’re the same people who got us into Vietnam. They sit in their offices on their asses and they can only fantasize about the tour. They are the establishment. Aw, tell them to read the Wall Street Journal.”
We hung up and I dialed up Joan Baez’s room. Baez had given me my nickname on the tour when I pulled up to the motel they were staying in in Vermont and she grabbed my slightly oily hair and called me Ratso. Not because I reminded her of Dustin Hoffman. Because I reminded her of Ratso.
“The charge now is that the whole spirit of the tour has been sold out for bigger venues and more money,” I told her.
“Tell them to shove it up their asses,” Baez fumed. “I’ve never seen such a spirit among that number of people night after night. After a long day, two shows, you get on the bus, out comes a little Kahlua and milk and roast beef sandwiches. One night McGuinn took out the twelve-string and sang every hit we’ve ever known. Another time Jack Elliot did every yodel song that ever existed and everybody’s yodeling with him and we all sing and sing and sing until we pass out. These people should know the spirit of it. And it makes no difference if we played to fifteen people or fifteen thousand.”
My vehement protestations didn’t go over too well at Rolling Stone. In retaliation, they decided to stop paying my expenses and only pick up some spot coverage, which threatened my goal of capturing this wild experience in a book. Dylan had welcomed that idea, even dedicating the song “Sara” to me in Waterbury, Conn., saying “We’re gonna send this next one out to Larry. He’s our favorite reporter. He tells it like it is!” Of course, that gesture wouldn’t pay my motel room and expenses but I was able to stay on the tour thanks to my champions among the film crew.
Wait, did I mention that Dylan was shooting what would become a nearly four-hour film while he was touring?
MONDAY JUNE 10, 2019 8:30 P.M.
What hits you over the head like a sledgehammer when you’re watching the film in a big theater like Alice Tully Hall are the musical interludes. Dylan had assembled a band that included his principal players on the Desire sessions, Howie Wyeth, Scarlet Rivera, and Rob Stoner, who wound up taking over as musical supervisor and had to integrate those core players with Bobby Neuwirth, Steven Soles, Mick Ronson, T-Bone Burnett, and Luther Rix, who became the backing band. Then there was Ronee Blakely, Rambling Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and, of course, Baez, each of whom had their own featured spots in the show.
And then there was Bob. Night after night, the backstage area would empty out when Bob took the stage. He delivered some of the most powerful performances of his life, aided in part by the new songs he had written with Jacques Levy. He wasn’t just singing, he was emoting, frisky, playful, eyes darting from side to side. He was the loosest, yet also the most intense he’d ever been on stage. And Scorsese is blasting these magic moments right in your face, using the close-up shots filmed by Michael Wadleigh. Watching those performances, I was reminded why I had put up with all of Louie Kemp’s and Rolling Stone’s bullshit. This wasn’t just another tour. This was rock ‘n roll history unfolding right before your eyes.
Ah, thank God for the film crew. They became my champions when the ice was getting thinner and thinner under my feet, thanks to Kemp and Barry Imhoff, the other producer of the tour. Dylan was pouring his heart out on stage every night and then directing a film the next day. It wasn’t a typical tour documentary, especially after his wife Sara and his actor friends like Harry Dean Stanton and Helena Kallianiotes joined the group. Dylan had enlisted Sam Shepard to write a script for the movie, but Bob was rejecting Sam’s work and going for a more improvisational feel, which pissed off Shepard especially when he started complaining that his financial remuneration wasn’t what he was promised.
Meanwhile, I was bringing the film crew great interview subjects, and in their nightly meetings, David Meyers and L.A. Johnson, who were doing the majority of the standard documentary shoots, were extolling my value to Bob. I kept getting feedback from Mel Howard, the producer of the film, telling me that “I was in” and that I had nothing to worry about.
But it didn’t feel that way. I was still being hassled by Louie and Imhoff. It all came to a head in a hotel lobby in Foxboro, Massachusetts. I was supposed to meet Mel Howard to discuss doing more work for the film when the desk clerk refused to even give me Mel’s room. I flipped out and began writing a note to Kemp. Just then, Dylan, McGuinn and Joni Mitchell, who had come to one show and stayed for the rest of the tour, strode into the lobby. Meyers began filming.
“Hey Ratso, how you doing?” Dylan said amiably.
“I’m fucked,” I screamed. “Rolling Stone just cut me off because I wouldn’t write that bureaucratic bullshit about how much money you were making. And I’ve been getting jerked off this whole fucking tour. You fucking invited me that night at the Kettle of Fish and since then I’m like a fucking groupie trying to fight my way into the rooms to do my job. I don’t need this shit. I don’t have to take this abuse and humiliation. Fuck this, I’m just gonna go home…”
“Wait a minute,” Dylan interrupted.
“Do you want a Librium?” Roger offered a pill and I scarfed it down.
“Well, what is it you want? Be specific,” Dylan said.
Just then, Imhoff came scurrying over, trying to calm me down.
“C’mon Ratso, don’t take it so hard. We’re only joking. We like you,” he said.
“Bullshit,” I screamed. “You fucking hate me. You make it impossible for me to do my job…”
“Hey, what do you need, man?” Dylan interrupted. “You need a bed, right? Give him a bed,” he instructed Imhoff. “What else you need? You need per diem, right? OK, you got it. What else? C’mon man, what else?”
So suddenly I had a place to stay and a daily allotment of money to keep me on the road. But what else? I looked at Dylan, who was standing maybe four feet in front of me.
“I need access,” I screamed. “I need access to the performers on the tour.”
Joni Mitchell looked incredulous at this surreal sight and McGuinn was suppressing a smile at the irony of me, inches from Bob, screaming about needing access. Dylan rolled his eyes in amazement.
“You need Ex-Lax? Why do you need Ex-Lax? What you been eating?”
MONDAY JUNE 10, 2019 9:45 P.M.
The credits are rolling. This is the third time I’m watching the film and I’m just staggered at how great a job Scorsese and his team did. He completely captured the spirit of the tour. The camaraderie, the playfulness, the incessant jamming and joy in making music on the road. He demonstrated the incredible sense of humor Bob has, not often shown to the world, through Bob’s wry deadpan commentaries on the people and events documented in the movie. Even my struggles with my Rolling Stone editors to focus on the music and not the money struck a chord with Scorsese and art vs. mercantilism become a major theme in the documentary. In some ways, forty something years later, I feel vindicated that I was fighting the good fight. Even Bob drily commented in the movie, “[The tour] wasn’t a success. Not if you measure success in terms of profit.”
Now that Dylan had instructed Imhoff to get me a hotel room each night and pay me a per diem to keep me on the tour, I was able to regain the access I had and re-establish our relationship. The key to gaining both Dylan and his wife
Sara’s respect was to treat them like normal human beings. I took that approach to another level. I’d kid Dylan and tell him that Midwest Jews were closet cases, assimilationists, not like pushy New York Jews like me. He countered by pointing out that all my favorite songwriters, himself, Leonard Cohen and Kinky Friedman, none of them were New York Jews.
“All Rolling Stone ever prints about me is gossipy shit. These people who run that thing, they’re the same people who got us into Vietnam.”
One day, during a break from shooting the film in Maine, I approached Bob and Sara. “Hey, let me ask you a question,” I said to Bob. “When you say in ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ that “my warehouse eyes my Arabian drums”, is it two separate images ‘warehouse eyes’ and ‘Arabian drums’ or are you using eyes as a verb?”
“Yeah,” Sara tugged on his arm and smiled. “I’ve always been curious about that too.”
“Eh, uh,” Dylan was at a loss for words. “Oh man, you always catch me at my worst, Ratso.”
Now Dylan was actively aiding my book research. When they shot a scene for the movie on a frigid Toronto street, Dylan pulled his gloves off and gave them to me so I could continue taking notes. “Hey Ratso, we’re counting on you to set the record straight in this book now.” And after the last show, a big benefit for Hurricane Carter at Madison Square Garden, Dylan met my parents at the afterparty. “You should be real proud,” he told the kvelling Slomans. “Your son is going to make his mark on the world someday.” When my book on the tour was released in 1978, Dylan even gave me a cover blurb, calling it “The War and Peace of Rock & Roll.”
So with Rolling Thunder, Dylan changed my life a second time. I went home and wrote On the Road with Bob Dylan and never filed another story with Rolling Stone. But I did write eleven other books in the years to come. And I also began writing lyrics. One day on the tour, I was complaining to Bob that we had never done any shooting in Boston. “I did all that advance work, stayed up for days on end, got to know every hooker, pimp, stripper and you never used any of it? What, were you just fucking me over, sending me to do that shit?”
Dylan shrugged. “Why don’t you write a song?”
“I think I will,” I smiled.
“Oh, yeah, what are you gonna call it?” Bob asked. “’Jerked Off’?”
“No, I’ll call it ‘The Combat Zone’,” I said.
“Oh yeah? I like that. Hey, I’ll help you with that,” Dylan said.
I wrote the lyrics and showed them to Bob on the train ride from Toronto to Montreal.
“Hey this is good, man,” Dylan said. “I didn’t know you could write such a good song. It reminds me of Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
Just the affirmation I needed to hear. So after the tour I started writing lyrics with Rick Derringer and then spent three years writing songs with John Cale. And just this April, in what should be my dotage, Stubborn Heart, my first album was released. It has eight original songs and closes with a cover. Of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, of course.
TUESDAY JUNE 11, 2019 2:15 A.M.
There seems to be three times as many people milling around the lush confines of Tavern on the Green than there were at the premiere. We’re at the afterparty. If you’re in the know, you walk all the way to the back of the interlocking rooms which is where Netflix has arranged reserved tables for the cast and crew. Scorsese is there with his wife and daughter and he’s holding court, fielding congratulations from the cast as well as VIP guests like Fran Lebowitz, rock journalist legend Lisa Robinson, Rick Ocasek, Lee Renaldo and Bobby Cannavale, who starred in Scorsese projects Vinyl and Boardwalk Empire. Later, I bumped into Cannavale at one of the many bars. He’s a huge Dylan fan and we gush about the film. When the bartender puts down some cardboard coasters that feature the photo of Bob used in the press kit, Cannavale and I look at each other, smile and stuff our pockets with a few for souvenirs. There’s also multiple food stations set up and, well fed and fueled, everyone’s buzzing about the film. For those in the know, they’re chuckling about the fictional characters that Bob and Marty threw into the mix. For those that aren’t, they’re shocked to find out that the acerbic, bitter filmmaker Van Dorp is really Bette Midler’s husband, and that Sharon Stone wasn’t really enlisted to help out with the makeup backstage as a nineteen-year-old. I told Marty that I thought that casting Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures as the tour’s hard-boiled promoter, was genius. “Wasn’t he great!” Marty enthused. “He’s a natural actor. And he’s my boss!” It wasn’t as if people weren’t warned about the blurring of fact and fiction. The film opens with a sequence of a cheesy magician placing a cloth over a woman seated in a chair and then, with one swift motion, he makes her disappear. And the title of the film, on the screen, but not in the press releases, is CONJURING THE ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW: A BOB DYLAN STORY
During the last interview that I did with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour, I asked him to respond to an attack on his musicality by Paul Simon in Newsweek. Simon chafed at always being compared to Dylan and said, “Dylan comparisons make me emotional. There’s hardly a point of comparison except we’re the same age. He writes a lot words. I write few words… When I listen to Dylan I think, ‘Oh no, not the same three- or four-chord melody again.’”
“Lookit Ratso, you could play a song with one chord,” Bob countered.
“But he’s not the only one. There are lots of people who say that you’re a great lyricist, but you just don’t understand music.”
“Oh really? Well, I don’t understand music, you know, I understand Lightnin’ Hopkins. I understand Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker, Woody Guthrie, Kinky Friedman. I never claimed to understand music, Ratso, if you ever heard me play the guitar, you’d know that,” Bob laughed. “I’m an artist. You’ve seen the show, Ratso, how many times? Thirty? Forty? Have I ever let you down onstage?”
“Never, man, never,” I didn’t even have to think about that answer.
“OK, so why don’t you tell them that?” Dylan shouted.
And I have. For the last forty-four years.
Larry “Ratso” Sloman is the author of 12 books including his first, “On the Road with Bob Dylan,” the definitive account of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Portions of this article first appeared in that book. His first album, Stubborn Heart was released in April of this year by Lucky Number Music. All his books and his record are available at his website www.ratso.org