New York Times Critic Janet Maslin Talks Rolling Thunder

1975-11-06, Civic Center, Springfield, MA (two shows)

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If you’ve read the New York Times’ arts section at any point in the last forty-plus years, you probably know Janet Maslin’s byline. From 1977 to 1999, she served as one of the paper’s film critics - “Chief Film Critic“ by the end. One of her first reviews was of Renaldo & Clara. Then in 2000, she switched to become one of the paper’s main book critics, just in time to review Chronicles.

But before she was a film critic or a book critic, she began her career as a music critic. In 1975, she wrote one of the most comprehensive contemporary reviews of the Rolling Thunder Revue after seeing the shows in Providence and, today’s show, Springfield. You can read her article for New Times - a national magazine, not to be confused with the New York Times - over on former guest newsletter author James Adams’ Twitter feed.

Last week I called Maslin up to talk about Rolling Thunder, Renaldo & Clara, last year’s Scorsese doc, and what other Dylan books and movies maybe the most credentialed person in the world on those two particular subjects would recommend.

Oh, and about the time she had dinner with Bob…

What was your history with Dylan’s music before Rolling Thunder?

Oh, I was a fan in high school. I graduated in 1966.  I lived on Long Island and we all went to the city to hear various folk singers. I don't know that I ever heard him, but we were all 100% aware of every single thing he did.

Do you remember when the first time you saw him was?

I'm not sure. I worked for the Boston Phoenix, which was an underground paper. I was reviewing records for them, then I started reviewing records for Rolling Stone. I was married to the music editor who did the record review section, Jon Landau. In the time I was married to him, I would bet I went to a Dylan concert or two with him. During those years I went to everything. I went to see Elvis at the Boston Garden. I went to Mick Jagger's birthday party. There was no big occasion that we didn't go to.

In terms of Rolling Thunder, you reviewed two shows, Providence and Springfield. 45 years later, what sticks out in your memory?

By then I was commuting to New York once a month for New Times. I was their music columnist; that was how I got accredited. But it turned out you didn't really need that. You just needed to drive to one of those venues and wait around for tickets.

The concerts weren't that crowded. I know I went to Providence and Springfield. I think I saw it in Worcester also. And I think I saw one of the two Boston shows. I just drove around with a bunch of friends following it. They were the best concerts I've ever seen. I was just completely smitten.

Remember, I was a movie critic by then too. It was the year of Nashville and he had Ronnie Blakely with him. Just the whole combination of who he had with him and what he was playing was a huge magnet for everybody.

I think [the New Times review] is maybe the most accurate thing I ever wrote. Because when I saw the [Scorsese] film, I remembered the sense of having been so caught up in the acting that they were doing. The thing with Baez when the curtain comes up and she and Bob seem to be reunited - you get all caught up in that and you really believe it. Then the second time I saw it, the fact that it was exactly the same and that they were performing it, not feeling it, I remember being both let down by that, but really impressed with how staged everything was.

I mean, I don't think he's been in that mood any other time on stage. The fact that he really seemed to be enjoying himself was different. I don't think that's what he does. I haven't seen him in a long time, but, for once, he seemed really excited and exuberant and like the audience wasn't the enemy. It was just a very special moment in his life, for whatever reason.

Those concerts were so good that they were just draining. Rolling Thunder was in small venues with audiences packed tightly together. There was no other way you could ever see him that would elicit that kind of response. Not at Newport, not anywhere, because he usually played to gigantic crowds.

I cried like that girl in the audience after the first time I saw it. I felt so ecstatic and so wiped out by it. I understood exactly what [that girl in the movie] was doing. I remember that feeling.

Do you remember any differences between Providence and Springfield? I mean, I know the setlists, but just in terms of the venue or your experience.

It didn't feel like seeing the same thing twice. It felt like they were making it up as they went along, except for things like the curtain rise with Baez.

Did you end up seeing more shows after Rolling Thunder in later years?

Not so much, because by then I was a film critic, and I was very busy and I had little kids.

I had dinner with him once. I was supposed to do a piece for the Times Magazine about him. I think I was being auditioned for it. So I went to dinner at Jerry Wexler's apartment and sat next to [Bob] at dinner.

The whole idea of having to talk to him throughout dinner, and just like watching him eat salad, was more than I could handle. He was very nice, but the idea that he was human was just overwhelming to me. He was with a black woman who was a singer, who might have been his wife [Carolyn Dennis]. He kept telling me, "Why don't you write about her? She's a much better story than I am." We talked about very banal things, but it was a constant drumbeat, "you should write about her." Nothing was accomplished in terms of my doing a piece about him.

Maybe you should have done a piece about her! You might have gotten the scoop about that marriage, which no one knew about for years.

Well, I wasn't assigned to write about her! I had been sent there with one mission. I wasn't there looking for assignments. I had one.

Anyone else notable at that dinner?

I'm sure they all were! But I had eyes for only one person. I was working, you know. Everybody else either knew him very well, or they were professionally ignoring him on purpose. You weren't supposed to stare at him. And he was making every effort to act like a normal person. I think he is a normal person, in a lot of ways. But I had no preparation for that. I had no idea what to expect.

Do you ever get a sense of why the story didn't work out? Was it just a lack of interest on his part?

I don't think he bothers with most things he's asked to do.

I'm surprised he even assented to your trial dinner.

I think he knew who I was. I'd written about him an awful lot. I had reviewed Renaldo and Clara in the Times. And I wasn't as stupid writing about him as I was sitting with him! It was a very pleasant high-powered music business dinner, but being seated next to him was just too much.

I just read your Renaldo and Clara review. It was positive, at least compared to a lot of the other ones. Maybe that was part of it. Do you still feel the same way about that movie so many years later?

I haven't seen it again, but I imagined I probably would. I was more interested in him than most people would have been. Everybody else was saying, get out of town with that. I think he probably knew that.

The longest movie review I ever wrote for the Times was about The Doors. I was always the person who cared about the rock stuff in some way when nobody else did. No one understood what he was doing until they saw [the Scorsese doc]

You’ve mentioned that Scorsese movie a few times. You’d left the film beat by the time it came out - what did you think of it?

I just adore it. The idea that I can have that movie on my iPad and I can turn it on at any time and just queue it up to "Hard Rain" is the most exciting thing. I think the artifice in it is really a smart, interesting way of putting that material together. Marty did a brilliant job with it - which I don't think about all of his music films at all. I'm just happy it exists in the world. I know it almost by heart, I've seen it so many times.

There's a funny story. I have two sons and they're both married and they know how I feel about this. They were not having any part of Rolling Thunder. I tried everything. I got a bottle of his bourbon, so I could try to bribe them with it [to watch the movie]. They weren't going to even touch that. Then, for Christmas, they all surprised me. They had t-shirts made up that said Rolling Thunder Revue with my name, special screening by invitation only with a date on it, and his picture on the front. And they all sat down to watch it with me. I'm not sure they enjoyed it one bit. But they did it. That was my Christmas present.

It drives me crazy that people watch the scene with Joni Mitchell and think that's the best scene in the movie. No it's not! She wandered in there for one or two songs. But it's not about her. She just happened to be there. It's about him and it's about all of his tricks. About him as a collector of people and a terrible manipulator. Kind of a seeker, but also a really mean person too. Most of all, it's about the music.

I'm glad there's finally some tangible record of what I saw. Because it's been lodged in my head like that for all these years. I could see it, hear it, smell it, and couldn't make anybody else see it, because there was no way of transmitting it. It's the most accurate memory I had of a concert. I was shocked when my memory turned out to be so close to the real thing.

Any other Dylan related movies you'd recommend?

I would have been very interested in the movie they just canceled, the one with Timothée Chalamet that James Mangold was going to make. They weren't going to be able to do it fast enough. and he was probably going to age out of the part. But I could write the reviews of that right now before they even put up your camera.

What would the review be?

 “Nobody can play Bob. Timothée’s a good actor, but he's too shallow for it. Things are off about it; they didn't get this right.” It would be very picky. There aren't that many critics now who would even remember him at that age I don't think. Chalamet walked around prepping for that role for about two years, and they were running out of time. You can't hold an actor like that forever.

You know the book it was based on, Dylan Goes Electric? It's a very cerebral book about the clashes between the old folk movement and Dylan coming along and seeming to be part of that, but then sticking a knife in the back of it and going on to be his own person. Just infuriating Pete Seeger and setting off this huge ideological fight. I couldn't figure out which part of that they expected to do, because they couldn't very well use that book for just a movie about “young Bob comes to Newport.”

In terms of people playing Dylan. I feel like Cate Blanchett has gotten the most acclaim in recent years. What did you think about her?

I thought she was incredible. I'm a big fan of Todd Haynes. I think he's a really imaginative, interesting guy. I love Velvet Goldmine. I hate The Last Waltz.

Why?

Because I think that's a big, self-pitying ego trip by Robbie Robertson. He seems to step all over the other members of The Band. I just never thought it was on a par with all the other movies it's been compared to, musically or otherwise. You remember it for the cameos, not for The Band. You remember Van Morrison high-kicking. [Robbie] just tries to dominate too much. Marty has a case of hero worship with him.

Switching from your film critic to your book critic hat, what Dylan books do you recommend? You already mentioned Dylan Goes Electric and you reviewed Chronicles for the Times of course. Any others jump out at you?

Jonathan Cott did a book of interviews, those are really interesting because the interviews vary from Nat Hentoff at Playboy to Nora Ephron. [Dylan] just adapts his style to who he's talking to. He plays games with everybody. I like that.

Who did the best biography? I don't know; I have so many of them. Greil [Marcus] has written about him interestingly, but those aren't that easy to read. Down the Highway is maybe a good one. My favorite for sure is Dylan Goes Electric.

What I don't understand now is this sudden kind of fetish for him. People go around wearing Bob Dylan t-shirts.

Wait a second - you said you’re going around wearing a Bob Dylan t-shirt!

[Laughs] I know, but I don't wear one with an album cover on the front.

They just released a whole line of Rolling Thunder clothes.

I bought the hat. It's pretty heavy. It's a man's hat. But sometimes I'm in the mood for it.

Last question: Do you think we will ever get a Chronicles Volume Two?

Good chance. After I reviewed the first one, I kept asking people at the publishing house, is there going to be another? They weren't sure, but they certainly didn't say no. I think they expected something.

I think he's very active and lively lately and has a lot of energy to burn and can't tour. For all you know, he's writing it right now. I would bet on it rather than not. I don't think he's going to go without leaving more legacy stuff.

I just want to tell you that the day that obit runs is the day I don't get out of bed anymore. That's the thing I most dread in the world. You know, all the people we're losing, we can't lose him. I've dreaded that for about 25 years. Any signs of vim and vigor I think are really thrilling to a lot of people.

Thanks to Janet for taking the time to talk! Catch up on her latest book reviews for the Times here. Thanks also to James Adams for connecting us. Now on to today’s show…

Rolling Thunder VI: Springfield

The Venue

Another double-header at another anonymous arena. Then called the Springfield Civic Center, which at least sounds quaint. Now called the MassMutual Center, which doesn't. 

The MassMutual Center is currently home of the minor league hockey team the Springfield Thunderbirds. Why does that name ring a bell? Oh yeah, Thunderbyrd was the title of a planned post-Rolling Thunder Mick Ronson and Roger McGuinn collaboration. McGuinn kept the title for a 1977 album, which did feature Desire figures like producer Don DeVito and co-writer Jacques Levy - but no Ronson. It's the album AllMusic raved was "a bit of a letdown." It did feature what I believe was the first release of the Desire-era Dylan composition “Golden Loom.”

I'm choosing to believe that someone in the C-Suite of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company is a huge fan of forgotten Roger McGuinn solo albums and named the hockey team after one.

Show/Setlist Changes

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" makes its proper debut! This has always been one of my favorite Rolling Thunder arrangements, and I was surprised it took so long to show up. As noted, Dylan and Baez tried out a duet version the first night, which they quickly abandoned. Now the song returns in its proper barn-burning arrangement. Well, the arrangement is barn-burning; Bob's still singing it pretty quietly. His energy on this song still had some ramping up to do.

Onstage Comments

Bob, before "Never Let Me Go": "We're gonna do this song specially today, a tune written by Johnny Ace. It's a request"

Joan: "Its a request by Bob Dylan."

Only Joan could get away with bursting Bob's bubble like that.

I also like Bob's enigmatic new intro for "Romance in Durango: "This is a tune from south of the border. Remember raw lust does not hold a candle to true love."

Special Guests

Arlo Guthrie! He marks the first surprise guest to pop up for a show or two. Even Joni Mitchell hadn't shown up yet. Arlo performed two songs during the opening Guam portion of the evening show, with Roger McGuinn on harmonica. Here's the bad news: It wasn't taped. Nice photo though, looks like he's singing with Ramblin' Jack:

Arlo's brief experience apparently stuck with him. In the late 1980s, he self-published a newsletter called the Rolling Blunder Review. I can't find much info about it, but gather it didn't have anything to do with Rolling Thunder besides the name.

Contemporary Reviews

"This set was a little different [than Providence], but the spirit was the same - exactly the same. Once again, Dylan and Baez matched; once again, she removed her guitar to hold him during 'It Ain't Me, Babe'; again they kissed once during their set. As at the other show, the loudest ovation of the evening came when Dylan picked up his harmonica (song things never change). The band, which had seemed to loose it helped catalyze Dylan's good cheer, was looser still, and the performers more playful than ever." - Janet Maslin, New Times

“The second show is incredible. Everyone’s really loose, T-Bone going so far as to dress up like the Red Baron, with goggles, long scarf, and aviator cap. And midway through the opening set, a black-leather-pantsed Arlo Guthrie ambles on and picks out two new numbers aided by McGuinn on harp. Then Dylan bounds on, and he’s singing incredibly, leaning sensually into the mike, then turning to the band half in authority and half in awe, then back to the mike, even gesturing gently to the sky on the line “make me a rainbow.” The film crew is shooting tonight so everybody’s a bit hotter than usual." - Larry "Ratso" Sloman, On the Road

What'd they do before the shows?

They went to a hotel! Stop the presses because the Berkshire Courier has the scoop:

Renaldo & Clara footage

None from the shows themselves, but the following day some of the most memorable footage from the film was taped at Mama's Dreamaway Lounge nearby. Sam Shepard wrote an entire chapter on this taping in his Rolling Thunder Logbook, so hopefully you'll forgive a few extended excerpts:

This was one of the most amazing days on the tour and seemed to come out of pure chance. Through Arlo Guthrie, Ken had contacted an eighty-year-old gypsy lady, known in the vicinity as plain Mama. She ran a small bar/diner-former brothel somewhere out in the extreme boondocks of Massachusetts, a place called Becket. We pulled in on a warm, sunny afternoon after having stopped periodically along the back-country roads to leave little white notes pinned to trees for the buses to follow. “Lay Lady Lay” is softly drifting out of a shack behind a bulging apple tree. Guthrie’s funky half-ton Ford is parked in front of the Lounge, a place that immediately gives the impression of eccentricity and oddball taste. There’s nothing imposing about it, just a kind of eclectic atmosphere to the trimmings. Inside, every inch of wall space is taken up with ancient photography, mostly images of Mama in various stages of her adventurous life.

As soon as Baez shows up, things really start pumping. Mama immediately relates to Joan’s Catholic features and bursts into a series of giggles, sobbing and bear-hugging Joan, then standing arm’s length with a firm grip on her shoulders and staring up into her eyes, tears streaming down both cheeks. She squeezes Joan’s hand, lifts up her muumuu, and starts sprinting up a narrow flight of carpeted stairs. “Come, I have something to show you. Something I want you to have. Come.” 

Baez is towed into Mama’s bedroom, placed on the billowy blue bed just below a large color portrait of Christ while Mama rummages through an old dresser and hauls out a white sequined wedding gown. She wheels the gown around and holds it out to Joan. There is a silent moment of almost religious proportions as Mama slowly tiptoes toward Baez with the dress.

Joan is squirming halfway between embarrassment and glee at the old woman’s generosity. “I couldn’t take that, Mama. That’s yours."

Arlo finally announces that dinner is ready. Dylan’s not hungry. He wants to go on with the shooting. It’s hard to resist the smells of Mama’s fish gumbo, so we all pack it in for a while to dive into huge plates of the stuff. Bob is really hot for the film now. He takes his plate into another room and sets up a scene of him eating with Scarlet Rivera, Ginsberg, and Rob Stoner, and Arlo sits down at an old beat upright piano. Dylan starts talking to Scarlet at the table, asking her what goes on in this town. Scarlet picks right up on it and starts winding her way through a “hometown girl” routine. Arlo does a soft piano, silent movie back-up to the dialogue. The camera crews are going bananas trying to keep up with all this shift of scenery, light changes, and at the same time balancing plates of gumbo off their elbows, sneaking forkfuls at the same time they’re adjusting camera angles. Mama is handing out black-and-white postcards of herself in her younger days. The scene at the table picks up momentum and begins to turn into a full-tilt Mack Sennett routine with Jack Elliot appearing in the window singing sea chanties, then Ginsberg reading from Moby Dick, then Dylan crawling across the table, out the window, and disappearing…

All of a sudden it’s nighttime and someone remembers we have to be somewhere. Another concert somewhere. Mama’s Lounge is glowing in the dark, as though the special energies from the day have been transmitted to it, seeping into its walls and boards somehow, causing it to throb with life in the middle of the Massachusetts woods. The bus drivers come out of hibernation behind the wheels. The gear’s packed up and we’re rolling off again, leaving Mama doing dishes in her muumuu.

What's on the tape?

Not the tapers' finest hours. The afternoon shows cuts a few songs off, and the evening show loses even more. What there is doesn't sound that great either. Nothing of the Guam or Baez sets at either show is included either. Fair warning!

1975-11-06, Civic Center, Springfield, MA - Early Show

1975-11-06, Civic Center, Springfield, MA - Late Show

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