Ronee Blakley Remembers Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue: ‘We Were Delirious’

"We could't believe our good fortune," says the singer-actress, who just recorded a new version of the song she cut with Dylan, "Hurricane."

Ronee Blakley TCM Opening Night, Arrivals,
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As fanciful as Martin Scorsese’s new film about Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 is, it doesn’t aim to turn truth into myth nearly as much as the infamous movie Dylan himself made during that period, “Renaldo and Clara” — in which the cast list had Ronee Blakley playing “Mrs. Dylan.” Whatever impish reasons he might have had for doing that, it was undoubtedly a sign of the affection Dylan had for Blakley, who’d come right off a promotional tour for Robert Altman’s “Nashville” onto his tour, with a quick stop to record his single “Hurricane.”

Blakley appears in archival footage and fresh interviews in the Netflix film “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” and she can also be heard singing with Dylan throughout the new 14-CD boxed set “Rolling Thunder: The 1975 Live Recordings.” (We’ll have to wait longer still, though, to see or hear any of the solo numbers she did on the tour.) She’s also known for her solo albums and roles in “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Driver” on screen and “Pump Boys and Dinettes” on Broadway. Blakley just wrapped up her first studio album since the 2000s, which will include her own freshly minted remake of “Hurricane,” recorded with a band that includes Dave Alvin.

Variety visited her at home in Los Angeles a few hours before she was to fly for New York for Monday’s “Rolling Thunder” premiere (a trip that also had her introducing “Nashville” Wednesday as part of a Pauline Kael tribute at the Quad Cinemas).

So how did you meet Dylan?
I was on the road promoting “Nashville” and had come into New York. Michael Murphy called and asked if I wanted to have dinner with Woody Allen. I said, “Well, I’d love to, but I told David Blue that I was coming down to hear his show tonight at the Other End.” Michael said, “You’re going to say no to Woody Allen?” But I had promised. So I went down and ended up harmonizing with David from the back of the room. Then Bobby Neuwirth said, “Ronee, there’s somebody I want you to meet,” and it was Bob Dylan. Eventually Bob got up on stage and started playing piano and singing, and I got up there and started playing and singing with him. We just immediately fit together as we were doing four-handed piano and singing harmony. And nobody invited me to do that. Where did I get the chutzpah to do that?

He invited me to go on the tour right from the stage. I said no, because I had to go down and join my band in Muscle Shoals the next day; I had a full tour booked by Joe Smith’s people at Warner Bros. to support my new album, “Welcome.” Neuwirth said, “You can’t say no — nobody says no to Bob Dylan!” That was twice in one day somebody said that to me.

But afterward we all hung out at a party at the Gramercy Park Hotel, until I thought I better go pack to catch my plane. I called Jerry Wexler from the airport. He said, “You’ve got to stay! Go with Dylan.” I said, “I can’t, I promised the boys.” I got to Huntsville, rented a car, drove to the studio in Muscle Shoals, met with the band, told them I’d been up all night playing with Dylan, and theysaid, “You’ve got to go.” I called up the Gramercy Park Hotel and said, “May I speak to Bob Dylan?” Well, he picked up the phone! I said, “It’s Ronee. The boys said that I can go.” Louie Kemp instructed me to get on a plane back to JFK.

I was picked up at the airport around 11  or midnight and driven to the Columbia studios, where I walked in and we started recording “Hurricane.” And that was 24 or maybe 26 hours after we met at the Other End. [Laughs.] I still hadn’t been to sleep.

What was it like, being rushed into the “Hurricane” session?
All of a sudden, there I was, singing face to face with Bob. I don’t think there was any working out of parts. I heard the song and then we just recorded it, live in the studio. It was riveting. We’d take a page and it would just fall off the music stand onto the ground after we’d sing it. I saved those pages. We finished around 4 a.m.

Then how long from “Hurricane” till the tour started?
We rehearsed at SIR, and I think it was two days, or not more than three, before we left town. … I never did get back to do my own tour. Joe Smith later said to me, in a hurt tone, ”Ronee, why didn’t you at least let me know?” With Jerry Weintraub and Jerry Wexler and all these powerful people I had around me, nobody let Joe Smith know that I was going with Dylan? It was exciting, and there were difficulties as well.

Was a concept for the Rolling Thunder Revue ever explained to you by anyone?
No. We were told that it was a surprise kind of a tour. We would only find out once we got there, and it would be announced (to the public) when we got there. There was no schedule. I remember my mother once said, “Well, you were high.” I said, “Mother, what makes you say that?” And she said, “Well, you didn’t know where you were going!” [Laughs.] We didn’t know where we were going because we were not told! It was kept a secret.

Where did you go first?
We went to Falmouth, Mass., where we stayed in a rambling motel that was out of season for the beach crowd; it was already fall with winter coming on. But there was a mahjong tournament taking place, with all ladies, and they filled up the main dining hall at dinner, and we put on a show for them. Allen Ginsberg read that night to the ladies, as you see in the film. I shaved Allen’s beard off that night, because I wanted to see his face, and he let me. That’s why at the beginning of the film he has a beard and then at a certain point he doesn’t.

We rehearsed there and then we opened in Plymouth. I think it was a high school gym, on the basketball court. People were seated in the bleachers on the side, as I recall. I was wearing a long dress and I sang my songs “Please,” “Dues” (from “Nashville”) and “Need a New Sun Rising.” David Mansfield played unbelievable pedal steel on my song “Please,” and it was faster than normal and really challenging to get it out. But we were on fire. We just were just ecstatic.

There is a new Rolling Thunder CD box set out. It has great full Dylan sets. But some people were hoping to hear selections from you and some of the others who performed on the tour, or to have some of that in the film.
Maybe one day somebody will say, “Well, what about the other acts? We’d like to hear them too.” And “Renaldo and Clara” had some of the other stuff in it. Imagine, my song in a Bob Dylan film that he created! That was just astonishing to me and something I’m very deeply proud of. This film is different, and it does center on Bob. They didn’t want to make a film about the rest of us. I’m not in it very much, but I’m delighted that I’m in it at all. This is Bob’s show. And when you think about it, there’s so much of Bob to show, how long would the piece has to be to include the others?

Even Joan Baez was not featured in a solo; she was featured singing with Bob. I think Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the great cowboy singer, has some moments (in the movie). Joni Mitchell has a solo with “Coyote” at the end. I’m the one who brought her on the tour. She was my best friend from about ‘70 to ‘75. We ran together a lot all the time. So when I was on the tour, I invited her to come out and visit. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. She didn’t even bring a guitar at first. Then she came on stage and sang my song “Dues” with me, and that’s what we did for a few shows. Then when she decided to stay, where would she fit in the show? The show was already too long, and, as you see in the film. Ginsberg was completely cut. And my set had to be shortened, then, because they added Mitchell for a couple of songs.

It’s almost surprising Mitchell didn’t get cut out of the movie, as she has gone on to say some uncomplimentary things about Dylan’s songwriting.
Well, she was my dearest friend, and I saw her not long ago, and we had a wonderful talk. I loved her then, and I love her now. But the truth is that she came out to visit me on the tour, and that’s what happened.

[The film] is joyful but it’s an exercise in grief, as well. Allen is gone. Sam (Shepard) is gone. (Mick) Ronson is gone. I’m so glad for Ronson that he has that beautiful place in “Hard Rain,” where the camera goes in and Bob turns around, puts his back to the audience and just plays with Ronson. That’s beautiful. But you know, we’re missing about a third of the crowd.

Dylan was at his most expressive during this time.
His voice I don’t think was ever better. I think he’s physically beautiful in the movie, as I think almost everyone was. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had already had a whole round of success 10 or 15 years prior. This for them was already looking back. We see Bob in his youth — which in those days we thought was middle age! But now, we look back and they’re so young. They’re in the prime bloom of adulthood, of beauty — Baez too.

It seems like Dylan had the impulse to surround himself with a community. But there was still no doubt that he was the star.
Oh, he is, was and will always be the star. But we were a good supporting cast, and he had 100% devotion from everyone. And you don’t have to pretend to support Bob. Everybody’s called him our Shakespeare for so long, but I’m going to start calling him our Sophocles. He’s for all time, and I think Scorsese covers that in the film. I also think he points out, without saying so, in the same way that Tennessee Williams did, that even a flower is sad, because our story is basically tragic. And we are growing older, and we won’t live forever. And our glory days, they were glorious. I think that’s what Scorsese… [She pauses, filled with emotion.] … is trying to point out, without being obvious about it.

Dylan used a lot of female vocals in the years to come. But you were the first woman to sing backup vocals with him.
Well, Emmylou Harris was on “Desire” singing “One More Cup of Coffee.” But yeah. I did “Just Like a Woman” with him for all the shows with Rolling Thunder. There’s never been a better song than “Just Like a Woman.” That is a heavenly song, and every woman feels that. Those were big moments for me. I think that shows in some of the footage from “Renaldo and Clara,” not so much this one. Although I may have been one of the first to sing with him, I certainly wasn’t the last. I’ve heard him say in interviews that Clydie King was his favorite and the greatest. … I don’t really think of myself as a background singer. I think of myself if anything as a duet singer or harmony singer. I don’t just do a little “ooh, ooh.” I tried to get right in there with him and make it intense and help drive it along.

Do you have any thoughts about the fictional elements in the movie? There’s Michael Murphy playing Senator Tanner, a la the Altman miniseries, which you know. And then the documentary filmmaker character… 

That’s fiction? Do you know Kevin Crossley? He was piano tech on the tour and played with Joan Baez’s set — brilliant pianist, fantastic guy. He and I went to see the film together, and we said to each other, “Did you ever meet this guy?” Well, see, that explains a lot right there. It completely fooled me and Kevin, so thank you for telling me, because we’ve been asking around. What else?

The Sharon Stone thing.
I never saw her, but you know, I didn’t see everything and I don’t remember everything, so I wasn’t sure.

Scorsese and Dylan are having a laugh with this.
Having a laugh. That I think, also. I don’t think you can (get upset about it) because they made a point to put “story” in the title, so you know it’s not a documentary. They’re interwoven it so skillfully that even I did not know which was which in some instances.

Plus, they chose to make it about the times as well. I think Scorsese was looking to broaden the picture into a worldview. I think he wanted to let people know what it was like to run off and join the circus. The carnival comes to town and there you go.

You were interviewed quite a few years back, right?
I’m not sure how many, but a few, and they did that interview right here in this house, and I played “Just Like a Woman” on the piano and answered questions. It was a very, very good experience, but it was not with Scorsese, it was with Jeff Rosen, Bob’s manager. I can’t think of Bob having a better manager, by the way.

In your interview, you say there was a moment Dylan made a little cry for help, and you didn’t really get it until later.
What would you like to know about that?

It’s just that this such an interesting period in his life, where he willfully became part of an ongoing crowd scene. There aren’t many other times in his life where we think of Dylan thinking, “How can I find more people to surround myself with?”
Well, we were alone in the basement of a country inn near Arlo’s place. We were there first. and people were coming — I don’t know if you’d say hordes, but a group. And when Bob said “Ronee, help,” I (brushed it off because I) did think that we have to be with Bob as normal people. We can’t always be as if we’re with the king, or protecting him. We have to live in the real world if we’re going to be real people and have real relationships. And yet I did learn to understand. I mean, if I didn’t know at that second, I knew it the next second. Because when the people descend, they do descend, and there’s not just one or two, and Bob is just standing there, and he does need protection.

Also, when he did extend himself, it was very real. He doesn’t waste words. You know, I’m hesitant to speak about it because I don’t want to come off as if I know him that well today. I think of him with fondness in my heart, and I love seeing him, and he seems happy to see me. But he’s a private man, and I never have really spoken about his privacy. But I think he’s reached a point as a public figure where he has become the lion in winter. He is in a position to rage, as Lear might, at the dying of the light, but he hasn’t yet because it hasn’t died for him. You know, it’s still ongoing. We can’t imagine Bob getting old. We won’t permit it. He has to continue boxing and hit those punching bags.

He goes out on stage, and I’m not the one to say what might be hurting him on a given night, but do you think he goes out and plays all those dates with no pain? Do you think he goes out on the road all those years and doesn’t have a shoulder hurt or backache or something else that everyone else has? He’s human, but we don’t want to acknowledge that. And it’s something to be proud of, how he is functioning. That’s the point of all the tour dates being on there at the end (in a scroll before the end credits). The producers and Scorsese want us to know what Bob has done, without telling us what he’s done. You look at the tour dates and you go, my gosh, who has the constitution to do that? It’s physically demanding and exhausting. It’s an act of generosity, of endless giving. That’s the weight of his gift. He could have retired and gone back into a place like Woodstock to spend the rest of his life, but no, he’s out there, delivering, all the time, all over the world, to anyone who comes to hear.

In the film, there’s a story about how Mick Ronson hadn’t even met him, other than on stage.
I’m the one who told that story. I said to Mick, “Don’t you love Bob? isn’t he great?” And Mick said, “I don’t know, he’s never spoken to me.”

Did you feel like you knew him by the end of Rolling Thunder?
I felt that I knew Bob to a certain extent. I adored him. And he’s been to my home, and I’ve been to his home. I would go to his house and watch edits of “Renaldo and Clara.” I lived with my husband Wim Wenders at the beach at Paradise Cove, and Bob lived with his family out at Malibu. But I don’t want to overdo it. We were friends at that time, I would say. And I’m sure I got on his nerves a couple of times. I think he said so once! [Laughs.] But yeah, I felt I enjoyed a special relationship with him — which I was rather possessive over. I think people like to feel that way. And Bob had a lot of people who did feel that way — I mean, men as well as women. I read where Steven Soles said recently it was like being at the court of King Henry the 8th … “including the beheadings.” [Laughs.] Everybody wants to be close to Bob. And it can be absolutely wonderful, and is. And he has every right to be as funky or anything he wants to be. He has given us so much.

The magic of the 1975 tour was gone by the second leg in 1976, by a lot of accounts. The cast was different and he was in a very different mood. You did not go on to Part II, but what do you think was the difference?
All of us (in 1975) were watching him every night. I would often go stand in the back of the house. It was just so powerful, no holds barred, nothing held back. I think you can tell from the footage: Everybody was giving 100 percent all the time. We were kind of delirious, and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. Because it didn’t come again. Even though they went out on the Southern tour (the following year), I don’t think they had what we had. I’ve heard they didn’t. We just had our special thing. And without getting into his personal life, because that is not my business, and if he wants to talk about that then he will… We just have to be grateful that he has been there when he has been there.

You know, in some ways, Scorsese’s making of this film is a generous act from him, too, to take another artist and just put him up almost on a pedestal. And Bob says some crusty things in the film. I’m glad he does. You wouldn’t want him to be all sweetness and light. We don’t want that from Bob. We want the truth, and we want his take on it. We want to hear his play on words and his interviews and his responses, which are clever and turn on a dime.

Why didn’t you go on the second leg of the Rolling Thunder tour?
Well, I would have. There were more film festivals to attend. I’d been on the cover of Newsweek, and that kind of put me forefront. Right after the tour ended, I went to a festival in Belgrade, and when I returned, my brother came to the airport to pick me up and told me I was nominated for the Golden Globes, an Academy Award and the Grammy. I remember going to the People’s Choice Awards and not being quite sure what show I was at. You go to all these shows and it looks glamorous, and people don’t realize how much work it is, especially for women, when you’re expected to kind of look okay. … It’s not that easy to mix music and movies. It’s hard on the agents. Your business staff is trying to book you and then, lo and behold, you run off with Bob Dylan, and you don’t attend that booking that a lot of people put a lot of time and energy into setting up for you. Sensible business people advise a person to choose between the two.

You just recorded a cover of “Hurricane.” It has to be one of the least covered Bob Dylan songs ever. But obviously you’ve had some practice at it.
It’s a hard song and it’s a long song. He had Jacques Levy’s help on that, and it still is a great anthem. It still has meaning for me. We’re still fighting the man. We still have to rage against the machine. Now more than ever, we have to fight for women’s rights. We have fight for people like Trayvon Martin, and now we have Central America people coming in that are being held without habeas corpus. One thing that the movie shows is how we thought we had made progress.

“Hurricane” was the final song I recorded for my new album. I had sung it so many times with Bob, so I knew it was in me. And I knew the musicians I was working with. I was on the road with (drummer) Don Heffington with Hoyt Axton in the ‘70s. Dave Alvin (who played guitar), I just have a growing friendship with that is not old but feels old. Chad Watson I’ve known for many years. … I feel pleased with it. I might even want to make a dance mix! But the thing that scares me a bit is the N-word in there. I consulted with Bob’s manager about what I should do. Should I substitute another word? Should I make a bleeped version? And he said he thought I should retain the original. I just hope the younger generation will understand.

What are you looking forward to about the film premiere in New York?
I’m hoping that it’s going to be an old home week. I wish there’d be a little stage there and we’d all get up and do “Hurricane.” I wish somebody would say, “Yeah, we’re all here. Let’s go on the road.” We’d start over again and go get in a bus and take off.