Ratso's Favorite Rolling Thunder Show

1975-11-11, Palace Theater, Waterbury, CT

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I’m not sure a single one of my Rolling Thunder newsletters hasn’t at some point cited Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s book On the Road with Bob Dylan. Chronicling Ratso’s time following this tour, the book is essential reading about the life of a gonzo journalist trying to ingratiate himself with the touring party and getting dissed at every turn (Joan Baez first nicknamed him “Ratso” after he hadn’t showered in a few days).

The man saw almost every show of the tour - “almost” for reasons that will become clear - and gives his impressions on each show in the book. But I wanted to find out what still jumped out at him 45 years later. Of the several dozen shows he saw, does he have a personal favorite?

He does: Today’s show at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut. So we hopped on Zoom last week to talk about it. Ratso’s a hell of a raconteur, so I’ll turn it over to him from here. His remarks have been condensed and edited for clarity.

I have to give you a little bit of history before we get to Waterbury. The reason I was even on the tour was that I had done a preview of Blood on the Tracks for Rolling Stone. I was a freelancer, so I would go up to the offices of all the record companies to see, you know, any interesting stories. And Columbia wouldn't say anything to me. Then [once] the publicist left the desk and I looked up on a bulletin board and I saw a sheet that said, "Dylan in the studio," which would be Blood on the Tracks.

[Soon after] I was walking on Fifth Avenue to the Rolling Stone offices. I look to my left and there was a car parked. Dylan was behind the wheel. So I go up to him and say, "Hi I'm Larry Sloman with Rolling Stone magazine. I hear you're doing an album." And he goes, "how'd you hear that?" Immediately I figured, I better change the subject. I said, "By the way, I live in Soho, and my roommate's Phil Ochs," which was true. I inherited the apartment that Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin had when Jerry Rubin moved to California. Phil had nowhere to go, so my roommate and I said Phil could crash on the living room couch as long as he needed. When I told Dylan that Phil was my roommate, he just melted. "Aw man, how's Phil doing?" So we did the article, and he loved it.

Fast forward about eight months. I hear that Dylan's in the Village recording again. Each night he was hanging out at the Other End, because Jacques Levy lived around the corner on LaGuardia Place. They would write a song, then Dylan would be so excited that he'd run down to the Other End.

McGuinn was in town. He said, meet me at Gerde's Folk City, because this guy Sammy Walker, who was one of the “New Dylans,” was playing. We went to that show, then we went to Chinatown to eat. It was about two in the morning, and I said, "Hey, before you go back to the hotel, let's stop in the Other End. Maybe Bob's there with Jacques." McGuinn had collaborated with Jacques Levy before Bob did. So we walk in, we don't see anybody. We walk to the back and around the corner there's a big long table, and there's Dylan and Neuwirth and a bunch of other people.

Dylan yells out, "Hey, Roger. Where you been? We've been waiting for you all night!" We walk over to the table and hang out. When McGuinn introduced me as the guy who wrote the Rolling Stone piece, Bob said, "Why don't you come on a tour? I'd rather have you cover this than anybody else." So I got the assignment from Rolling Stone.

[Before the tour began], I had total access to Bob. But once we got on the road, I go to try to check into the hotel we're all staying at in Plymouth, Louie Kemp comes and says, "You can't stay here."

Louie Kemp was an old childhood friend of Bob's. Somehow him and the other guy that was working on the tour, Bill Graham's protégé Barry Imhoff, decided that I was press, so I had to be segregated from the people on the tour. That was ridiculous, because Dylan invited me, I was friends for years with McGuinn, I knew the whole band - Stoner and Wyeth, all the New York-based musicians were friends of mine.

I had that famous scene that's at the beginning of Renaldo and Clara, where I'm two feet away from Dylan screaming “I need access! I need access! I need a room to stay in. I need per diem.” When I first said I need the room, Bob says “get him a room” to Imhoff. “And I need per diem!” “Okay, yeah, we'll take care of expenses. What else?” I said, “I need access!” And he goes, “You need Ex-Lax? What have you been eating?” Howard Alk, who filmed that, told me years later that if they weren't going to call the movie Renaldo and Clara, they were gonna call it Access.

Now, in Burlington [on November 8], Louie Kemp, said, “Look, you’re a good guy, but you're outta control. I'm not going to give you tickets to the next show.” That was Durham, which was an eight hour drive. I kind of protested, but I didn't give a shit. I said, okay, I'll be a good boy, I won't go to that show.

So I showed up at Waterbury. It was this beautiful theater, the Palace Theatre, in downtown Waterbury. It was like an old Art Deco theater, small, maybe 2,000, 3,000 seats. I was getting settled in when Allen Ginsberg comes out. My first piece for Rolling Stone had just been published, so Ginsberg says, “Do you have a copy of it with you? Bob wants to read it.” I gave it to him and he goes backstage. Then I start watching the show.

I think it was intermission. Lola, the actress comes out with Ginsberg, and says, “Bob is really pissed at you.” I said, “Why? What's the matter?” She says, “He doesn't dig it that you're putting down Ronee Blakley.” And I said, “What are you talking about? I'm not putting down Ronee Blakley!” Then I realized I called her the "Nashville neurotic.” I put it in italics, because the role she played in Nashville was of a neurotic country singer. Ginsberg and Lola run back and start explaining it to Bob. At some point, Lola comes back out from the backstage area and comes to where I was sitting and gives me a big thumbs up sign.

By then, I'm watching Dylan. Right after “One More Cup of Coffee,’ the crowd dies down. Dylan turns to the audience, and he starts strumming the first chords to “Sara,” which was one of my favorites. I think I had told Bob that. All of a sudden, I hear him say, “We're going to send this out to Larry. He's out there somewhere.” Some of my friends were actually in the audience and they start squealing, “Larry! Larry!” And Bob goes, “He's our favorite reporter. He tells it like it is.” And then he went into “Sara.”

I was just gobsmacked. Not only was he not mad at me, but he said such nice things about me. In fact, when the tour was over, I made business cards. They were folded in half at the front. It was my info and you open it up and it says, "Larry's our favorite reporter. He tells it like it is." - Bob Dylan, 1975. And underneath it says, "I like you, Larry, but you're outta control." - Louie Kemp, 1975.

[Bob’s dedication] put me in another league with Louie Kemp and Imhoff. Bob saying "Larry's our favorite reporter" gave me a certain status, and also just my hanging in there. They would try to fuck with me in all different ways, including fucking with my car, pulling out the distributor cap, so I'd be stranded, couldn't go to the next show. At one point, near the end of the thing, Bob says, “You better watch out. I heard something about Louie. He's got some plans for you.” What I found out from one of the security guards was that he actually came up with the idea of having them kidnap me and put me on a steamer going to Europe, until somebody told him that's a federal offense. He thought it would be a great practical joke. [In Kemp’s memoir last year, he says he was “half kidding.”]

The other thing about Waterbury that's very near and dear to me is, you'll notice I dedicated the book to my parents, to Lynn, and to Phil Ochs. Well, my parents and Phil Ochs, we know who they are. Lynn was a woman I had met at the Waterbury show. I was just smitten with her. In the lobby during intermission, I went up to her. Don't forget, I did that in every venue. I wasn't allowed then to go backstage, so I wound up talking to kids and interviewing them. I don't remember what I said - I'm sure it's all documented on tape somewhere - but I got her phone number. I called her later in the tour, and said, you want to come on the road for a couple of days? When the tour was over, we started dating. She wound up living with me for a couple years. So Waterbury was a turning point for me for a number of reasons - the dedication, clearing up the stuff about Ronee Blakley, and also meeting Lynn.

Oh, one other thing about Waterbury was that "Hurricane” was another level that night. George Lois, who was in charge of the Free Hurricane committee, was this famous crazy Madison Avenue ad man. A lot of people think that he was one of the models for Mad Men. He hated that show. But George had gotten Rubin transferred that day from Trenton, which was a really high-security, shitty setup, to a much lower-security facility. So that's another nice thing about Waterbury, that we found out about that. Bob was so up.

In fact, that is the place where at the end of the tour, right before the Night of the Hurricane, they stopped there. They performed for Rubin and the inmates. People magazine was covering that and they wanted to get a picture of Rubin behind bars, and Bob visiting him. But it was a minimum-security prison, so there were no bars. It was like a dormitory. George says, “What kind of prison is this? You have no bars, nothing like that?” And the warden says, “Well, if there's an emergency or something, a wire barrier would come down to segregate areas of the prison.” George said "Put it down! Put it down!" And they put Rubin on one side of the wire and they put Bob on the other side. That was a completely staged photo.

Thanks to the one and only Ratso for taking the time to talk! If you don’t have ‘On the Road with Bob Dylan,’ pick up a copy for many more stories like this. A 20-minute interview with Ratso is also one of the bonus clips on the upcoming Criterion release of Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder film.

Ratso recently launched his own recording career, at age 69. In our chat, we also talked about his new covers of his buddy Nick Cave and of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (including Dylan’s reaction when Ratso told him about it a couple years ago). That part of our conversation is over at Cover Me.

Rolling Thunder IX: Waterbury

The Venue

The iconic journalist Lisa Robinson reviewed this show for Hit Parader, and began her article with a good description of the location:

Waterbury, Connecticut is only two hours out of New York City but it is smack in the heart of American: Holiday Inns and fast food Jack in the Box stands dot the highways. The Palace Theater, literally on East Main Street, is like any old cinema … funky and once fabulous … in any old town. It sure is weird to see "The Rolling Thunder Revue" on the marquee, with the names of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, just like that. Of course it's only on two sides of the marquee, the other features the announcement of the impending arrival of The Kinks, Richie Blackmore's Rainbow, and Kiss. The Palace is opposite a Woolworth's, next to the Hotel Palace, and Veneziano's Market … real ordinary. A far cry from the huge arenas where Dylan performed two years ago.

This venue apparently made quite an impression on attendees; Nat Hentoff also described the venue for Rolling Stone: "An old rococo movie theater that reminded me of Depression nights as a boy when we would go to just such a place to feel good anyhow and come home with some dishes besides."

Show/Setlist Changes

None, though a big change was coming: Joni Mitchell would join the tour at the next stop in New Haven.

Onstage Comments

The second best onstage dedication - after Ratso’s, of course - comes from Joan Baez before "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine": "We're gonna dedicate this next song to some rehearsal time"

Special Guests

A whole bunch of New York City-based music journalists, apparently, as everyone from Rolling Stone to the New York Daily News to NME came to review this show, no doubt because it was the closest the tour came to NYC until the end.

Contemporary Reviews

"The most mellow feelings I’ve had from a concert since the Duke Ellington band on an exceptionally good night. The kicks were from the genuine mutual grooving of the music makers; but it was Dylan, as shaper of the thunder, who was responsible for lifting the audience and keeping it gliding." - Nat Hentoff, Rolling Stone

"Dylan's band converted most of the music into the new country-boogie style that he plays now. Surprisingly, nearly all the artists seemed to make the transition with no trouble; they easily adapted their material to the new Dylan style." - David Marziale, Hartford Courant

"The curtain rolled up and there they were - America's 1960 sweethearts singing what some people here consider a national anthem. While [Blowin' in the Wind]'s never been one of my favorite numbers, it was kind of special to listen to them sing it … very strong voices, nice feeling between them. Of course, Joan was a bit maternal, wiping his brow, arm around him, smiling at him benevolently in exactly the same way it's been described she does at every concert - I could have lived without that. Bob seemed to take it in stride." - Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader

"The evening ended, lights up, with the entire ensemble on stage, including friends beat poet Allen Ginsberg and folk singer David Blue, singing Woody Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land,' the performers' exuberance turning it into a hoedown rather than the hymn it usually approximates." - Ernest Leogrande, New York Daily News

Renaldo & Clara footage

Not footage, exactly, but the audio recording of Bob and Joan singing "The Water Is Wide" at this show was used as background of one of the love-triangle scenes with the two of them and Sara.

What's on the tape?

The whole show! Or pretty close, just missing a couple Ramblin' Jack songs. If you read Rob Stoner's Guide to Guam on Monday and wanted to hear more Guam, this is a good show for that.

1975-11-11, Palace Theater, Waterbury, CT

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