I’m in a new Joan Baez video. But you won’t get to see it and I’m certain I won’t. It was filmed on her Fare Thee Well Tour when she stopped at the Ferguson Center on the campus of Christopher Newport University in Newport News. I’m pretty sure only Joan will look at it.
Stepping out onstage close to the end of her show, she moved the video camera of her phone slowly across a hall where she received standing ovation. We were cheering rightfully so in the moment to commemorate a lifetime achievement, a remarkable life still being lived.
“I have to have something to watch when I stop touring,” she said as the content creator of her new home movie.
As she approaches eighty, Baez is in better shape and seemingly more youthful than many in her audience. Outside the hall it was noticeable with time passing marked by the graying of people and the noticeably slow pace by which they approached the admission doors. They were likely some of the same once a stride faster going into halls of the traveling caravan of the mythical Rolling Thunder Revue tour of yesteryear.
“This is a Bob Dylan song,” she said early in the set stating the obvious as if she needed to say it. Perhaps it was her humility that she left out the part she was one of the greatest promulgators of his songs, introduced him as she basked in fame. She was the star who as journalist Larry Sloman noted, presented the ragamuffin to the world.
Baez said little between songs and there was little context of their history. The closest she came was during “Diamonds and Rust” the song she released in 1975 about their romance of years past.
“Now I see you standing/With brown leaves falling all around/And snow in your hair
Now you’re smiling out the window/Of that crummy hotel/Over Washington Square”
In some ways it was the musical equivalent of The Way We Were. Instead of waving goodbye to her former love as in the movie’s climactic scene, Baez chose to re-examine it the same year she joined the rock and roll circus, the troupe known as Rolling Thunder Revue where she donned the same white face of her former lover.
Now the images of Rolling Thunder permanently etched and frozen in time are going to be forever new now with the release of a new three-hour documentary film airing on Netflix directed by Martin Scorsese. A fourteen CD box set of performances and rehearsals accompanies it.
(Photo by Rico Vaccaro)
It wasn’t just Bob Dylan’s life that Baez helped to change. Baez immortalized an inner circle member of the Rolling Thunder Revue and fellow traveler, the Rolling Stone journalist Larry Sloman. One day his life changed when Baez casually walked up and leaned into his car window and said two words.
“You calling me Ratso because I remind you of Dustin Hoffman?” Larry Sloman asked her thinking of Dustin Hoffman, a co-star of the film Midnight Cowboy)?”
“No, you remind me of Ratso Rizzo,” she replied referring to the seedy character Hoffman played.
Sloman was following the tour for Rolling Stone and what later became his opus On the Road With Bob Dylan. From that point he left Larry behind and became Ratso, even referring to himself in the third person as a character in the daily drama of the Rolling Thunder tour. Sometimes he played fictional character in film scenes directed by Sam Shepard and orchestrated by Dylan, creating a parallel world as the troupe wandered its way through New England that Fall.
Life takes some strange twists. It may have been an offhand comment by Bob Dylan that set off a chain of events that led to today. While on a tour stop in Toronto, Ratso shared some lyrics with Dylan who said they were pretty good. That set off Ratso on a lifelong journey to write songs.
It may be simply a coincidence but somehow cosmic forces have aligned and Ratso has released his first album Stubborn Heart at the age of 70, just as the world is ready to revisit Rolling Thunder Revue.
In 2019 with eternal thanks to Baez for the gift that keeps giving, he’s just Ratso. You’d be hard pressed to find Larry Sloman on Spotify in 2019 but Ratso lurks about in the age of streaming in playlists, album and podcasts (Ratso and Friends). In all honesty, I haven’t been able to stop playing it and it just may be my favorite album and nicest surprise of the year.
On the new album, Ratso casts himself as an unlikely front man who dazzled with a mystical erotica and seductive forces powering an undying romantic. With an imposing vocal presence set against an expansive but sparse landscape of minimalist electronics. Ratso uses the instruments of Caged Animals to project his deep commanding baritone. In the album’s opening track, he casts himself as an unlikely performance artist using word play and association that builds alongside a passion play with co-vocalist Yasmine Hamdan.
“Caribbean Sunset” is a song he co-wrote with John Cale for his album Artificial Intelligence. Here he updates the song of a dark broken romance to bring a duality in an alternate view of a female character sung by Imani Coppola. Perhaps it shows that the extensive argument with Joni Mitchell about Ratso’s male-centric songwriting lens may have been a teachable moment.
Perhaps the album’s greatest song is the scathing “Little Big Man” reminding me of the comment of political commentator Joe Scarborough who compared the sitting president as the short fat little man behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz. Whether or not this song is about the president is subject to interpretation. But the line about the masses wearing blinders is a fitting indictment for our times.
I suspect Ratso has had David Byrne like moments asking himself, “Well, how did I get here?” One gets a sense of Ratso, an adoptee of the indie Brooklyn music scene, laughing at the circumstances of it all. But when he puts himself out there to sing “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands,” Dylan’s eleven-minute homage to then wife Sara Lowndes, it’s magnificent and majestic. It’s a soundscape that captures all of the majestic qualities of the original and faithful to the subtle but reverent vocal intonations. When he brings in five women to alternate on the repeating chorus, it’s kind of edgy outer world experience, Ratso’s harem from the avant garde sent for worship and adoration of one of the great heroines of song.
Now he does Dylan better than Dylan singing the song that the great writer confessed to penning staying up all night at the Chelsea Hotel but can no longer sing.
“Too sad,” I have it on good account that Dylan is said to have said.
Ratso is like the Woody Allen film character Leonard Zelig who found himself appearing in major historical moments, initially with the rock and roll circus alongside ringleader Dylan and later as a recurring character in Kinky Friedman novels and a ghostwriter for the famous like Mike Tyson and Howard Stern.
Living in the Village near his neighbor Rick Derringer, Ratso was encouraged by wife Liz Derringer to write with her husband. She called him “Schmatzo.” That led to collaboration with ex-Velvet Underground John Cale and here we are with Ratso singing with Nick Cave on “Our Lady of Light.”
Stubborn Heart alternates between the spoken word and economical melodies. There’s a metaphysical aspect to it. Like Leonard Cohen who he once commiserated with about the virtues of Planet Waves and held court over dinner at his house when Rolling Thunder reaches Canada, Ratso shares a spiritual connection. When you hear the depth of Ratso’s voice, there’s more than channeling of the great late Cohen. You feel like Cohen is programming him from great beyond.
I have spent the fast few weeks preparing to revisit the Rolling Thunder Revue by reading Ratso’s meticulously and comically detailed book and listening to the Audible version narrated by Ramos Monsef. It is worth the purchase of the audio edition listening to his renditions of Dylan, his mother Beattie Zimmerman and the cool of Leonard Cohen. When Ratso mentions friend Kinky Friedman, Monsef responds with his best Bob: “Who’s Keenky?”
In his pre-Ratso phase as a writer for Rolling Stone, Ratso was in Greenwich Village late one night convincing Roger McGuinn to join him at the Other End folk club where Dylan was said to be holding court. Upon seeing the two, Dylan called them over and revealed he would soon be doing an old timey medicine revue-type show.
The book also reports on the time Dylan was “rambling aimlessly” down Second Avenue when he came upon a woman walking and carrying a violin. The driver asked if she could play for the man with her named Danny. Rivera said she could and got in the car. Upon arriving at a studio, “Danny” began playing a song called “One More Cup of Coffee” when Rivera realized his name wasn’t Danny.
And there’s Ratso in the studio the night when Dylan’s song about imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter “Hurricane” is recorded. Take after take, he details the elusiveness of multiple tries to get it right.
When Dylan performs the sequel to “Sad Eyed Lady” called “Sara,” Ratso Sloman finds himself sitting next to Bob’s mother Beattie Zimmerman on Thanksgiving night in 1975..
“Isn’t that the greatest love song ever?” Beattie Zimmerman turns to Ratso and says. (Yes Mrs. Zimmerman I would have agreed if I was in Ratso’s seat.)
Perhaps my favorite moment in the book is when Ratso tries to “buttonhole” Dylan with the following question: “I’ve always wanted to know this. When you say in ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ that ‘my warehouse eyes my Arabian dreams, is it two distinct separate images, ‘warehouse eyes’ and ‘Arabian drums’ or is it using eye as a verb, you know, ‘my warehouse eyes my Arabian drums.’”
As Ratso writes, “Dylan looks befuddled.” “Yeah,” Sara tugs on his arm and smiles, “I’ve always been curious about that too.”
It’s a confirming moment of the “vagueness” Baez observes and writes about in “Diamonds and Rust.”
And then there is the name Rolling Thunder Revue which Dylan is said to have thought of sitting on the California beach when he heard a sonic boom. But as an interview with Ratso later reveals, Dylan claims the name was conceived in Europe.
“I was just sitting in a field overlooking some vineyards, the sky was pink, the sun was going down and the moon was sapphire , and I recall getting a ride into town with a man with a donkey cart and I was sitting on this donkey cart, bouncing around on the road there , and that’s when it flashed on me that I was going to go back to America and get serious and do what it is that I do, because by that time people didn’t know what it was that I did.”
We’re forever ingrained with the mythical images of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez looking at each other through the lens of Ken Regan on the opening night at Plymouth Rock. friend Rico Vaccaro who saw them later at Madison Square Garden, remembers seeing Muhammad Ali onstage at the benefit show they performed for Rubin Carter.
Joan Baez’ son Gabriel was just a baby on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. In one scene when Ratso comes into her camper to discuss “The Combat Zone,” a song she believes he is working on with Dylan (and for which Ratso cuts a demo with McGuinn and T Bone Burnett.) She chides him for waking up the baby.
Gabriel is now a grown adult who is her drummer and played behind her as she sang the traditional spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” When she came out of the song, she talked of the angels coming to carry us, adding “and even Donald.” Then she deadpanned, “Well maybe.”
It’s a far cry from “Nasty Man,” the song she penned following the election. I once read a tweet in which someone posited that Cohen lodged the greatest protest when Trump was elected—he left the planet. If I’m right about Ratso’s “Little Little Man,” we have another defiant anthem. If it was not intended as such I hereby invoke eminent domain.
On his Podcast series Ratso and Friends, Stubborn Heart producer Vincent Cacchione asked Ratso a question on how he was feeling about things. It was like lobbing a change-up to a home run hitter.
“How does it feeeeel” Ratso responded in his best impersonation of Robert Zimmerman.
In the months ahead we can look forward to another Dylan book, this time by Louie Kemp, Dylan’s old friend from Minnesota who ran the Rolling Thunder Revue tour and is cast as Ratso’s nemesis throughout On The Road With Bob Dylan.
Kinky Friedman, who narrates the prologue to the intro he wrote for the 2002 edition of On The Road With Bob Dylan, is a co-author with Kemp. The book Dylan and Me comes out in September
The Rolling Thunder Revue film by Scorsese will be shown on the big screen in select cities. In 2019, the Rolling Thunder Revue is still coming to a theater near you. Only this time the location of the show will not be a secret.
(Photo by Rico Vaccaro)