Interview: Rolling Thunder Tour Manager Chris O'Dell
1975-11-15, Convention Center, Niagara Falls, NY
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Update October 2022: This interview will be included along with 50+ others in my forthcoming book ‘Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members.’ Preorder and more info available now at Indiegogo!
George Harrison wrote “Miss O’Dell” about Chris O’Dell. Leon Russell’s “Pisces Apple Lady” is about her too. She’s the “woman down the hall” in Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” and was pictured on the back cover of Exile on Main Street. Hell, she even sang in the chorus of “Hey Jude.” But she wasn’t just a muse or ingénue; she was, among other things, a tour manager - by some accounts the first woman to ever hold that role.
Among the many tours she managed was Rolling Thunder ‘75 (and half of ‘76). She pops up constantly in Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s memoir about the tour as a sort of utility player. One minute she’s handing out roast beef sandwiches to the band on the bus, the next she’s corralling everyone on a tour of the Vanderbilt houses (she also spends a lot of time as boss Louie Kemp’s enforcer kicking Ratso out of various places). As of a few years ago, she’s got her own book too: Miss O'Dell: My Hard Days and Long Nights with The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Women They Loved.
I called her up to ask what it was like trying to manage this unwieldy tour.
How did you end up on Rolling Thunder?
I was already a tour manager. I'd been hired by Bill Graham's organization to go out on tours. The first one was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion tour of 1974. Then I went to Europe with Santana and Earth, Wind & Fire to do a European tour. When I was in Paris, [promoter] Barry Imhoff, who had split from Bill, called me and asked if I would come and work on the Rolling Thunder tour. I flew straight from Paris to New York. I checked into the hotel and started work.
What does your work look like before the tour kicks off?
One of my things was setting up all the logistics, so booking the hotels, booking all the transportation. We were doing it by bus and with motorhomes, so there weren’t airline flights to set up. Barry had an office near Grand Central Station that we worked out of. Because the tour was not being advertised publicly, we had to keep it really quiet. Nobody could know the different cities we were going to.
How do you book a hotel without tipping the town off?
We had to use fake names. I'd call up marketing and say, "I have a group I want to book into your hotel." I can’t remember what name we used for them, but I don't think it was Rolling Thunder. The hotel didn't know. Nobody knew.
What's a typical day like then when you hit the road? What are you doing day to day, city to city?
I usually had to wake up fairly early because whatever was going on that day, we had to start planning for. I didn't worry about what was happening at the gig. That wasn't my responsibility. My responsibility was just dealing with the band members and their families or whoever they decided to bring along.
We always had a suite, a place with food and drink where the band could come. I was usually situated there with Barry or Gary Shafner; the three of us took care of everything. [Band members] would come in and ask for different things. If somebody was flying in, I'd have to do the travel.
If we were doing a show, it was really important to get everybody downstairs at the right time, because herding musicians is not an easy job, and then get them to the show. If it was a day we were traveling, it was about collecting luggage and getting everybody ready to get on the bus or the motorhome to leave for the next town.
I just reread the Ratso book and there's a funny scene you’re checking band members off the list to make sure they all made it, like a teacher trying to keep track of unruly children. "Mick Ronson, are you here?" Check.
Pretty much. I’d check them off as they got on the bus. Other tours I’d done, we had flights to catch or chartered planes, so everybody had to be there. This was pretty loose.
During the shows, I didn't have any job. It was a time to relax, to start thinking about the next day. I did try to go out front to watch “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Isis.” Those were the two songs I liked the most. There's one show, I remember I sat in the audience that night. I just was so amazed at how excited everybody was. It was like going to a circus. It really had that kind of feeling.
[After the show,] there was the herding back on the bus. Then I would go back and write a newsletter after we had our come-down time. The newsletter generally was telling everybody what was going to happen the next day. Although it became like People magazine.
You mention the newsletter in your book and it's also in Ratso's book. It had a lot more than just logistics.
It was a little gossipy, I'm afraid to say. I discovered on the very first tour I'd done to do a newsletter so that I didn't have to call everybody up and remind them of everything. I put things in like, where the nearest restaurants were going to be in the next city, just informational stuff.
With that one though, somehow we got into gossip. I signed it by another name [The Zebra Phantom], even though everybody knew I wrote it. It started talking about things that were going on behind the scenes. People would slip me notes under my hotel room with bits of information about other people. It went pretty well for a while and then it didn't work so well anymore.
They outed me. The gossip became about me and Sam Shepard. I thought, "Okay, maybe I better be a little bit more careful."
Did you interact much with Joni Mitchell? I know she started playing “Coyote” on the tour.
Yes, we did. She and I were both involved in a thing with Sam at the same time - who by the way was married. She and I actually became friends because of it. It brought us together. After the tour, we kept in touch and talked a lot, discussed how crazy that was.
Did you ever talk about the line in “Coyote” about you [“he's got another woman down the hall”]?
Oh my God, yes. We had to laugh about it because what can you do? Two women who are doing a thing with the same guy, best thing you can do is get together. When I did the second tour, Joni was on that and Sam wasn't, so we had plenty of time to talk about it.
I feel like the breakout scene of that Scorsese thing last year was that footage of Joni playing “Coyote” at Gordon Lightfoot's house. What did you think of the movie?
I loved part of it and I hated part of it. I loved the real part. I was not excited about the fictional parts. I think it was off-putting. The thing about Sharon Stone being on the tour as a young girl, I remember [talking with] other people who were on the tour like, "I don't remember her. Do you remember her?" It put us into a mind game thing, like “were we like too out of it?”
Were you at the Madison Square Garden finale?
Yes, I was there. We had a party afterwards and Bob gave everybody gifts, and they took a group photo and everything.
What was the gift?
A medallion. He had some medallions made. Rolling Thunder medallions with a stone set into them.
Going from these tiny little New England towns to Madison Square Garden, was the vibe different?
Whenever you go into a major city like New York, it always feels different because people have friends there. They've got friends coming to the show, so there's a different attitude. The whole event feels bigger.
After Madison Square Garden, did you think that was the end?
No, not at all. That was always the plan to do the East Coast and then fairly quickly the West Coast. I got a call from Barry asking me to come up and start organizing it. I said, “Not unless you give me a raise.” I was making, at that time, pretty good money. It was like $500 a week or something. I asked for $700 plus per diem. He said no. I said, "Then I'm not going."
And I didn't until about halfway through the tour, I think they were in San Antonio or something. Barry called me and said, "We need you. Get on a plane and come here right now. I'll give you the money."
When I first came on the tour, Bob came up and said, “I'm really glad you're here.” Then, after the bus arrived in Fort Worth, he said, “Let's go have coffee.” We went up to the restaurant and just sat there talking. That was the day that I learned something about him that I thought was pretty incredible. He was facing the door to the restaurant. My back was turned. We must have been there for an hour talking. At the end of the conversation, when we're getting ready to leave, I turned around and half of the tour was sitting in tables behind us. But his eyes never once left me to indicate that he saw somebody coming in.
I've spoken to some people and read a lot of people say basically the vibe in ’76 was worse. Did you sense any of that?
Oh, yes. It shouldn't have happened, honestly. A good thing happened and then they tried to recreate it in a different space and it didn't work. It just wasn't the same. Nobody felt the same way about it. They should have stopped and just left it at the one.
How did that impact your day-to-day experience on the tour?
A lot more complaints. “This doesn't work, I don't like that.” You just look at people getting on the bus and it would look different. Musically, I think everybody did the best they could, but it was the behind-the-scenes stuff that was like, "Let it be over," which is sad because everyone looked forward to the second one. How do other people describe it?
Similar, just a bad energy. People say Dylan was more distant and less involved, having marital problems, and things flow from the top. If he was grumpy, then the whole vibe's not great.
That has a lot to do with it. He was pretty distant. He is distant, let's face it [laughs], but I think he was more distant at that time. Personally, I didn't even really put together that he and Sara were having problems [during the second tour], even though I knew that. I don't remember her coming on the tour.
He impacted the whole tour with his moods. He was in a really good space the first tour because it was fun and it was new and it was exciting. I will tell you, people have asked me who did I enjoy touring with the most? Definitely Bob was most fun, on the East Coast tour. People are surprised by that.
He wasn’t ducking [during the first tour]. He ducks stuff. He knows how to keep people away. He fully ignores everybody as though you aren't there, and you feel it. You know there's a barrier around him, so you don't even approach him. That was more on the second tour. The first tour, he was much more interactive, and he'd say, "Hey, what's going on?" He would call me into the dressing room to find out what the gossip was.
Did you have much interaction with him after the second round of Rolling Thunder?
Not a lot. There was a period of time where I didn't see him very much. Many years passed, and he came to Tucson [in the ‘90s], where I was living at that point. Gary was working with him and invited me to the show. Bob acted like he’d never known me in his whole life. That's how he was. Does that mean anything about me? Probably not. It had more to do with him, where he was at at that time.
Thanks Chris! This only scratches the surface of her book, which also includes stories about her time with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others. Pick it up here.
Update October 2022:
Rolling XI: Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls Convention Center was reportedly chosen because Dylan wanted to avoid the more obvious venue in the area, nearby Buffalo's much larger Memorial Auditorium. Though they probably couldn't have filled the bigger space, at least not for two shows. The local paper reports that the 10,400 seat arena in Niagara Falls was only about half full for the afternoon show, two-thirds for the evening.
Their accommodations weren’t so hot either; Sam Shepard proclaimed it “possibly the worst hotel yet.” Though it did have its perks:
A hundred bucks worth of Valiums are delivered to the Niagara Hilton like so much Chicken Delight. They come complete with a little pharmacy man in a blue baseball cap, overcoat, and galoshes. Each prescription in its own little white pharmacy envelope with the customer’s name in longhand. The doctor was here this morning, sitting in his own special room with his own special needle, pumping everyone full of vitamin B. I took a hit myself. Did nothing for me. Not to say that it’s all a Vitamin Hoax.
The only ever "Like a Rolling Stone" of Rolling Thunder occurred at the afternoon show! Before you go rushing to the download link at the bottom, bad news: The afternoon show wasn't recorded.
The consolation prize is that the evening show, which was recorded, also includes two tour debuts. First, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" would become one of the opening-set highlights from here on out, and sounds great in its first outing.
He also does "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" in the solo acoustic set. It's fine, but for me the solo acoustic sets are most notable when he does solo versions of the new songs ("Tangled" and "Simple Twist"). The versions he does of songs he played solo many times in the ‘60s aren't as memorable.
Other than "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," this is not a tour where song arrangements change all that much, but they try out a much slower "Romance in Durango" tonight (unless something's just funky with the tape).
Someone in the audience shouts "Bob Dylan!" before "Tangled Up in Blue." Bob responds: "No, I don't think so, I think you've got me mistaken for someone else."
Funny how Dylan was advocating for a boxer falsely convicted of murder and who should turn up but a football player who would be, down the road, falsely acquitted of murder.
Why was O.J. there? Buffalo Bills defensive end Pat Toomay, a Dylan fan, had brought his teammate along. Toomay wrote about the whole thing for Rolling Stone. A few highlights:
O.J's reaction to being invited to see Dylan: “I can get into some white music. But if it snows, count me out. I cannot handle snow.”
Joan steals the show at the Bob-O.J. summit:
The dressing room was dominated by a long buffet table laden with assorted fruits and cheeses. There were garbage cans packed with ice, beer and soft drinks. Dylan turned as we walked in. For the second time that afternoon, he seemed startled – probably at the sheer physical size of our contingent. He shook hands all around; we congratulated him on an excellent performance. For a moment, there was an embarrassing wash of silence. But then T-Bone sauntered in with a bottle of tequila and we finally struck some common ground. A sound and camera crew materialized and found O.J. and Joan Baez chatting amicably in a corner. For posterity, Joan asked O.J. if ballplayers spent the evening before games fucking. “You know,” she said, “to get loose.” O.J., for the first time ever, was speechless.
O.J. hears "Hurricane" for the first time: “That song is great. I’m gonna tape that bitch.”
"The Niagara Falls concert showed precisely the difficulties in taking a personal and essentially low-key art to a mass audience. The size of the crowd, poor acoustics and poor seating arrangements prevented intimacy. An easily excited crowd surged constantly around the hall, interrupting even quiet music with cheers, calls, and whistling." - Eric Mills, Winnipeg Free Press
"The Rolling Thunder Revue wasn't performing for the audience, it was performing for itself and it decided to allow a few bodies the opportunity of observing what uncommercial music is all about. The feeling or atmosphere inspired by these many fine musicians is quite similar to the feeling which comes across on the ‘Basement Tapes.’” - Gordon Venner, unknown local newspaper
What'd they do before the show?
They were in Niagara Falls - what do you think they did?
Renaldo & Clara footage
Naturally, the film crew tagged along to the falls. Clinton Heylin reports that a scene was filmed with Sara (Clara) acting as a “witch-goddess” challenging Dylan (Renaldo) to prove his worth through various tasks. This sounds wonderfully bonkers, but sadly the footage wasn't used.
What's on the tape?
No afternoon show tape, so no “Rolling Stone” on Rolling Thunder. The evening tape doesn't include any of the Guam/Joni/Ramblin' Jack opening sets, but includes all Dylan songs plus Baez and McGuinn's songs. Sound quality is pretty muddy, but improves somewhat by the end.
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*** More info on the book here… ***