Prelude to the Thunder: An Alumnus of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue Looks Back (Guest Column)

J. Steven Soles was part of Dylan's traveling circus of a tour in 1975. He recalls its origins, in advance of Martin Scorsese's Netflix documentary.

Bob Dylan Madison Square Garden 1975
Ray Stubblebine/AP/REX/Shutterst

As Martin Scorsese’s Netflix documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue approaches, one of the members of that traveling troupe, J. Steven Soles, writes about his memories of how the idea of a communal tour gradually took shape.

In the spring of 1975, my new managers at Lookout Management were putting me out on the road as as an opening act on the club circuit. Back in New York, where I was opening for Hot Tuna, club owner Mickey Ruskin’s new place beckoned down Fifth Avenue. Hoping to catch up with old friends, I’d settled in at the bar when Bobby Neuwirth came bouncing in with T Bone Burnett and Larry Poons, artist extraordinaire. We had a few drinks and headed to the Other End (aka the folk club Bitter End, rechristened for a spell in the mid-‘70s) to meet up with owner Paul Colby, the great folk singer Phil Ochs (for whom Arthur Gorson and I had helped produce a couple of songs), a young singer named Patti Smith, whose debut album was still half a year away … and Bob Dylan.

Neuwirth suggested we go back to Poons’ loft and swap songs. We gathered the troops along with Jacques Levy, who had been out in East Hampton writing with Dylan at the time. This went on till dawn. Patti didn’t offer a single song. T Bone’s songs were sideways sci-fi humorous. Some of the songs Dylan played us would appear the following year on the “Desire” album. The dawn began to rise as Mr. D took his leave to go out to the Rahway State Prison where Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was incarcerated.

Two days later we were back at the Other End, where Neuwirth was holding court for the week. Neuwirth had been on the music scene since he left art college in Cambridge back in the early ‘60s. He knew that scene like nobody’s business. (In case you don’t know, he is a bitchin’ painter.) For his band, he enlisted Rob (Rothstein) Stoner on bass, Howie Wyeth on drums and T Bone and myself on guitars. Cindy Bullens was flown in from California for good measure. Neuwirth’s idea was to have everyone do a song and then he would do whatever he wanted and invite guests to join in. Every night a different artist would be part of the show. He wanted it to be a happening — an Art experience. It was.

Word spread and every performance was packed. On the third night David Mansfield showed up, I remembered seeing him play with his band Quaky Duck when they opened for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris at Max’s Kansas City. Mansfield had his violin and I suggested he play a little for Neuwirth backstage. He blew everyone away. Welcome to this band of gypsies, young Dave: He took over my job as “the Kid.” That night he played with me on “Jim Dean Of Indiana,” a Phil Ochs song. Mansfield played so beautifully that singing was difficult. Phil was moved. John Belushi, just months shy of becoming a star on “Saturday Night Live,” sat in on the weekend, not only performing his Joe Cocker bit, but also doing hysterical impressions of each of us. Mick Ronson, fresh from years with David Bowie, also sat in. as did Ian Hunter and so many others. Dylan was around most nights but never took the stage.

It was by far the most fun, spontaneous and irreverent experience I had had to date — a tightrope act with no net. Those days were a constant party; substances often blurred the lines, on so many levels. I was almost sober in a room full of forgotten brilliance followed by indiscriminate acts of beauty and unkindness.

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Henry Diltz / Courtesy of J. Steven Soles

I’d first met Neuwirth in Woodstock years before, but he didn’t remember this kid from those days. Neuwirth has been the premier agent provocateur for so many historic happenings. He was the only one who could keep up with Jim Morrison when Paul Rothchild and the Doors needed his help. He helped co-write “Mercedes Benz” with Janis Joplin. Thanks to him, she recorded Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” There are a million stories that have never been told. Neuwirth could get in your face and put you in your place, or make you feel like you were the best thing that ever happened.

The Rolling Thunder Revue was one of the many moments he helped champion. He is not given to self-promotion, hence my tooting the horn for him. The shame is the echoes of history tend to be measured in the amplitude of the waves, rather than the origin of the pulse.

By the end of the week Neuwirth took me aside to let me know he and Bob were cooking up something. Something big. Dylan reckoned it would be a great idea to bring a show like Neuwirth’s stint at the Other End on the road in a much larger context. Mr. D recognized a great idea when he saw one. He had been thirsty for an artistic platform with more freedom of expression. His 1974 tour with the Band, great as it was, had been too constricting. The pants fit too tight. Neuwirth, in contrast, represented something you could wear loose, like a baseball glove. His brand of play had an even greater appeal to Bob. The form was this: the writers perform a song while also providing backup for Dylan, Neuwirth and anyone else relaxed enough to join this funky circus. We would just show up in a town with no fanfare, set up and play a show. Keeping the mystery alive.

There were many variations on how this played out. So many things have been written about how it all happened, so I’m just doing my bit for the record. This is my eyewitness account.

By the time I got to L.A. to open for Johnny Rivers at the Roxy, Neuwirth and Dylan had made progress on the plan. Associates rounded up the production essentials and set them in motion. Neuwirth came to the Roxy where he swore Ron Stone, my manager, to secrecy. It seemed to be more than a remote possibility that this Magical Mystery Tour would actually reach the stage. Meanwhile. back in New York, Howie and Rob, along with Scarlet Rivera and Emmylou Harris, were with Dylan recording songs that would end up on “Desire.” T Bone, Neuwirth and I conspired in L.A., writing our story in Laurel Canyon. Weeks later I got the call: There’s a plane ticket waiting at the airport; be there Sunday . I took the red-eye to Kennedy Airport, cabbed it to SIR, went through layers of security and walked in to see cameras already rolling. The Raven and Gary Shafner, our road managers, welcomed me at the door.

Dylan’s power made manifest all that was about to happen. Without him, there is no show. The room was full of the cast as written, plus all sorts of crew, concert promoters, celebrities, hangers-on and some wonderful additions. Roger McGuinn, whom I love, the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and percussionist Luther Rix came aboard, along with Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard. Mick Ronson, or “Rono,” was the best — a hero in my book. Ronee Blakely joined fresh from her stellar performance in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” Later, Joni Mitchell got on the bus in New Haven, opting to stay after her guest performance. You’re either on the bus or off.  Emmylou wasn’t, so the call went out to Joan Baez.

Joan had last been on tour with Dylan in England in ’65, as so well documented in the D.A. Pennebaker film “Don’t Look Back,” which also featured Neuwirth. Baez was uncomfortable to rejoin the two Bobs. Their reputation as word assassins was well known. She had felt the sting. After several calls and much coaxing and reassurance, she agreed. Lou Kemp, Dylan’s friend from boyhood, helped make that happen. She arrived with her entourage the next day. The stage was set. How many roads till we intersect?

I spied Bette Midler in the corner, and she greeted me with her biggest smile before we embraced. The Divine Miss M and I had worked together just before she broke. Jacques Levy interrupted our reunion asking to know which song I would sing. He was on board as director, and what a great guy he was. He organized the show and helped give it a form so it could expand and contract as needed for pace and dynamics. I stepped up to the mic, and the most amazing journey began.

While in rehearsal (if you can call it that) two days before my birthday, Bob invited a few of us to help record a new version of his song “Hurricane.”  It became the linchpin of the “Desire” album. The engineer set up multiple microphones like a news conference. This put Ronee, Rob and I close to Bob so we could capture that old-style vocal sound. That was a great call; it was exciting and challenging to make a studio record that way. It required another level of commitment. I reckon Bob wanted to capture the energy of the telling. We did a number of takes but could not get a complete one that had everything he wanted. I suggested a possible edit, and the engineer did his magic; it worked, and Columbia Records’ Don DeVito was happy. A mere week later, the single of “Hurricane” was released. Recording with Bob brought yet another layer of understanding to the art I love so much. Love was all around us; the chance to make art was in our hands.

On October 30, 1975, the Rolling Thunder Revue opened with Ned Albright’s “Good Love is Hard To Find,” a song that dated back to Tidbits, a  band he and I had been in together, Tidbits, belying the fact that this was to be like no “Bob Dylan tour” before, or since.

And now you know another part of the rest of the story. And so the curtain rises and the show must begin.

P.S. The Rolling Thunder Netflix documentary will arrive soon, along with a boxed set of tour material. By the way, this reminds me: I am still waiting to be paid for the “Hurricane” session, as I am a member of all governing unions.

After performing with the Rolling Thunder Revue, playing on the live album ”Hard Rain” and appearing in Dylan’s film “Renaldo and Clara,” J. Steven Soles went on to play on Dylan’s “Street Legal” and “Live at Budokan” albums, before he, Burnett and Mansfield branched off to form the Alpha Band in the late ‘70s. This piece is excerpted from Soles’ memoir in progress, “Road Scholar.”

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Henry Diltz / Courtesy of Steven Soles