She Was Supposed to Tour with Rolling Thunder. She Chose Elton John Instead.
1975-12-01, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Canada
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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!
I first encountered the name “Cindy Bullens” when I was looking up the complete Rolling Thunder setlists. I saw she sang a song at a couple shows, weeks apart no less, in Providence and Toronto. I wanted to figure out who Bullens was, so we got on the phone.
Turns out, there was a lot more to Bullens’ story than a couple random guest spots. Not only was she there for the tour’s genesis at Bob Neuwirth’s Other End gigs - here she is talking about it in the New York Times in July 1975 - she was, for a minute at least, scheduled to be a member of the Rolling Thunder band. Then, at the last minute, she bailed to tour with Elton John instead.
One note: In 2011, Bullens transitioned from female to male. He now goes by Cidny and uses male pronouns. He still prefers “Cindy” and female pronouns when referring to the time before his transition though, which of course includes Rolling Thunder. He recently recorded his first album as a man, Walkin’ Through the World. It includes his song “The Gender Line” about the experience; you can learn the story in a powerful Washington Post feature from earlier this year.
Here’s my conversation with Cid:
How did you first get involved in Rolling Thunder?
I was friends with Bobby Neuwirth who was one of the three guys who “discovered me.” We met in '74 back in LA when I moved out there and he took me under his wing, et cetera. He called me one day in the summer of '75 and said, "I'm sending you a ticket to fly to New York to be a part of this week at The Other End." I said okay.
To do what exactly?
He wanted me to be part of the band. He wanted people to back him up. Bob Neuwirth always liked people to back him up, so he called me, he called T Bone, he called Steven Soles. He had a number of friends. We all had our own solo songs and stuff. I played guitar and sang.
Rolling Thunder wouldn't have happened without this week at The Other End. There was some kind of energetic thing that happened. All these people started showing up. Mick Ronson, Sandy Bull, David Mansfield, tons of people. [Neuwirth] just kept adding people to this revue. Dylan came in. He didn't play; he just was there.
Next door was where Dylan and Bobby were hanging out. We were all sitting around after hours just yakking. That's where the idea of the Rolling Thunder Revue came up. I don't know if it was named that then, but it was definitely talked about. "Let's go on the road. Let's do something," and so on and so forth.
Do you remember your first interactions with Dylan himself?
My favorite line is, Dylan wouldn't know me if he fell over me. I remember sitting with him at the table, but my recollection back then is that he wasn't the most personable person in the world. Neuwirth was very extroverted and brought people in. Dylan wasn't. I didn't have much personal interaction with Dylan himself, but I was there at the table.
After the Other End week, I went back to LA. I get a call from Neuwirth, or I saw him or something, within the next couple of weeks. He said, "We're going to go on the road. We're going to be the Rolling Thunder Revue.” I was scheduled to go on the tour as a guitar player and as a backup singer. In the beginning, it was T Bone, Steven Soles, me, I think Mick Ronson, and a few others.
Now my story differs from the people who actually went on the whole tour. I by chance crashed a party at Cherokee Studios. Elton John was doing a press party for Neil Sedaka, who had just signed to [Elton’s label] Rocket Records. I knew the owners of Cherokee and had recorded there and been a gofer there. I just crashed the party and met Elton John.
That night, I was asked to go on the road with Elton John, which started two days from that date. We were slated to go on the Rolling Thunder at the exact same time. I had to choose between Elton and Bob Dylan in one day. I met Elton on a Wednesday. On Thursday, I had to decide. I chose Elton. By Friday, I was rehearsing with Elton.
It wasn't an easy decision, let me tell you. I was a nobody and I had been slated to go on the road with Bob Dylan. I would have had my own song in the revue. [But] I chose Elton because, in my soul, I was basically a rock and roller. I wanted to experience that, even though I was a background singer with Elton.
You mean you were thinking of Bob as more of a folk thing and Elton as rock?
There was nobody bigger than Elton John in ’75 and ‘76. He was the biggest rock and roll star in the world, period. The first tour I did was Rock of the Westies. The second one I did was Louder Than Concorde.
It was painful for me to make that decision. It was very painful. Like I said, I would have had a solo on the Dylan thing, I would have met all those other people who came in. It would have been a completely different experience.
Being with Elton John, obviously, was also an adventure. We can't have any foresight into what the future holds, but Elton is still a dear friend of mine. We communicate regularly; he's very supportive of me both personally and professionally.
I was looking up which shows you did. I have you in Providence, Rhode Island for one and then in Toronto. How did you end up doing those?
I thought there was one more. I remember three but I don't remember what the third one was. I know I did Toronto, because I happened to be in Toronto recording with Elton at the same time they came. Elton actually came to that show too. In Providence, I was probably home at my parents’ in Massachusetts or my sister’s in Rhode Island when they came through. I just called up Neuwirth and he would invite me in.
I found these recordings and they're great. It’s a song, I don't know if this is the right title, called “Nowhere To Go”
The right title is “You Don't Know Me”, but they have it listed as “Nowhere To Go” because who knew it? It's just a song that I wrote back in LA. I was just beginning to write my own songs back then. I was young like everybody else, and I had written a bunch of songs, but that was the one that I played with T Bone and Steven.
Back in LA, pre-Rolling Thunder, Bobby Neuwirth would have these soirees at the Sunset Marquis. Anybody who was in town [would go], whether it was Steve Goodman or Paul Butterfield or John Prine or Bonnie Raitt. Bobby would drag me around and he would make me play a song. I played that song and it stuck. T Bone and Steven sang backup on it at The Other End.
It was Neuwirth’s show. It really was. It was Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, but it was Neuwirth who was the catalyst for the whole thing. He gathered people together who were like me, nobodies, young. He'd grab you by the hair and say, "Come on." I don't think Bobby Neuwirth has ever forgiven me for not going on the road. Not because I would have been that special in the Rolling Thunder Revue; there were 180 people. It's not like anybody missed me.
Did you ever end up recording “You Don't Know Me”?
I did not ever record it. Those are the only recordings. I heard one of them, at least. My voice is much better in those than it is on my albums.
This is one of the bones of contention that Neuwirth had with me; I went the rock and roll away and not the folk singer way. Bobby really did believe in me as a singer-songwriter. I, in my own soul, was a rock and roller. My first albums were of the more rock things.
I can't even listen to those songs today. The songs I wrote are good, but my singing is just not my natural voice. When first heard the Rolling Thunder recordings many years ago when they were bootlegged, I thought, "Oh, there's my natural voice."
Do you have any specific memories of the two or maybe three shows you did perform at?
I just have those snapshots. Obviously, being backstage in Toronto, and I brought Elton with me. Meeting Joni Mitchell who was an idol of mine. Just being backstage with all of those people feeling like a part of it, and of course playing in front of thousands of people.
Providence, I don't have as much of a recollection of except sitting on the bus, people just yakking away and feeling a part of it. That was the big thing for me. I sat one seat back from Allen Ginsberg! As I see footage of it or read about it in books, I feel like I really missed something special. [But] I didn’t miss my own experience of being on the road with Elton. That was also absolutely incredible. If there were only a way that they could have been a month apart, I could have done both. But I couldn't.
Thanks for explaining all this! It’s great to get the story, because I was looking at the setlists, seeing Mick Ronson and Rob Stoner and T Bone Burnett, then it says Cindy Bullens and I'm thinking, "Wait, who's that?"
I've been around a long time and there's a lot of “who's that?” My history is interesting, to myself anyway! One of the things I love is that I was there at the beginning. I may not have been there at the end, but I was there for every minute of the genesis.
Cidny Bullens’ new album ‘Walkin’ Through the World’ is available everywhere. He’s also due to launch a podcast soon called ‘Cracking the Sky: Conversations With Creatives’. David Mansfield will be the first guest. Keep an eye out at https://www.cidnybullens.com/.
Update October 2022:
Rolling Thunder XXI: Toronto
Rolling Thunder nears its conclusion! Toronto marks the second to last stop of what we might call the regular Rolling Thunder tour. (Though technically a part of the tour, the star-studded Night of the Hurricane finale at Madison Square Garden has an entirely different feel than traipsing around New England and Canada). It was the first time they did two nights in the same place since the tour-opener in Plymouth. Good thing too, because as you can see on the map above, this was the longest drive of the tour. Then they would drive straight back to Quebec after for the Montreal show. Quebec City->Toronto->Montreal is some questionable tour routing.
One of the biggest venues of the tour, seating 16,000, and it wasn't sold out. The Toronto Star called the local scalpers "desperate and bewildered," getting stuck with a bunch of tickets they could barely give away.
The final new song Dylan introduced the entire tour: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Performed during his solo set. It's fine, but I would have preferred a roaring full band arrangement like he'd done for other early acoustic songs like "Hard Rain" and "It Ain't Be Babe." As you know if you've been following along, I find the short solo-acoustic sets the least interesting part of these shows, especially when he plays songs he's performed in that style many times before.
But there are bigger changes to the show than this one song. We'll get to them in the Special Guests section…
When someone in the audience yells a request for "Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," Bob responds, "I'll play it, you sing it." Unfortunately, he did not make good on that offer. The only time he reportedly played that song was at the Salt Lake City finale of the second Rolling Thunder tour. "Reportedly" because there's no recording, so it could have been someone misremembering. Or maybe the audience sung it that time.
Also got a kick out of one of Joan's offhand remarks: "I’d like to thank publicly Bob Dylan and Bobby Neuwirth who conjured up this thing, which was going to be five or six people traveling in a station wagon giving little coffee shop appearances, and there are now approximately 112 people in the tour."
We already heard about Cindy Bullens (though sadly her guest Elton John did not get onstage as well), and there's another big one: Gordon Lightfoot! Gordon sings three songs, sticking with the Joni Mitchell model of performing new or new-ish material: "Race Among the Ruins," "The Watchman's Gone," and "Sundown." He sounds great. I wonder who is dueting with him on "Sundown."
Interestingly, for any of you following the shape of these setlists (and probably extremely uninterestingly for everyone else), Gordon is the only special guest to come on after Bob's first set, during the middle section with Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn’s sets. Perhaps Jacques Levy figured that, with Cindy Bullens up top and Joni now doing four songs, adding another guest there would demand the audience wait too long before Bob made his first appearance (it was already pushing an hour and a half).
"Last night he was caught up in the whirl around him…a jiving, romping Petroushka in baggy blue jeans dancing at his own fair. Suddenly, it was easy to remember the little rooms you were sitting in when you first heard the warning from the song, 'and you who philosophize disgrace.' You could remember the people you were with, the hunger and unease you felt and, even stranger, the sense he was saying it all for you. For he was saying it all again last night." - Peter Goddard, Toronto Star
In a separate news article, Joan Baez told the Star that is was "perhaps the best concert we've had in the entire tour." I bet you say that to all the newspapers…
What'd they do before the show?
Party at Gordon Lightfoot's! The Scorsese-doc scene that's come up several times already, of Joni Mitchell playing her brand-new song "Coyote" with McGuinn and Dylan strumming along, was filmed at a party at his house on the night of November 30 (I've also seen some sources say it was the following night). I've embedded that scene a few times already, so instead, here's a version of Dylan's "Ballad in Plain D" that Lightfoot recorded - presumably at this same party - which was used in Renaldo and Clara.
Interesting that Dylan included this cover of a song he later said he regretted writing, due to the vitriol he expressed towards his girlfriend's family. In a 1985 interview, he called it "exploit[ing] a relationship with somebody" and added, “I look back and say 'I must have been a real schmuck to write that.' I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone. But if that’s the only one I look back and say maybe I shouldn’t have written, I think that’s a pretty good record. That’s maybe five hundred to one.”
That interview came a decade after Rolling Thunder, true, but even a decade before, in 1965, he was ragging on "Ballad in Plain D." Unprompted, when asked about his new songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," he replies, "The songs I was writing last year, songs like ‘Ballad in Plain D,’ they were what I call one-dimensional songs, but my new songs I’m trying to make more three-dimensional, you know."
Per Ratso's book, there was more to Lightfoot’s party than the folk-song circle. Too bad this wasn't included in the film:
Ratso also has a very vague memory of a party later that night, a party at Gordon Lightfoot’s palatial digs in a suburb of Toronto, a party where Neuwirth fought off three security guards at the hotel, commandeered a cab, stumbled in to Lightfoot’s and finding the gathering a little too staid, proceeded to throw his down jacket into the fire, sending billows of ashy smoke all over the house, and sending big Gordon into paroxysms of laughter.
Ronnie Hawkins later said the jacket-throwing came about after Neuwirth and Dylan got into an argument about carrot juice.
Renaldo & Clara footage
Perhaps realizing they were nearing the end and needed more content, filming for Renaldo & Clara was amped-up at this point. In addition to Lightfoot's house, other scenes filmed before this first show included a half-hour chase scene on the streets of Toronto and a scene where a truck driver tried to pick up Sara Dylan at a diner. Both were in the movie (albeit only a snippet of the chase).
Most notably, Toronto was reportedly where they filmed the famous scene of a TV reporter in the hotel lobby. trying to interview Bob Dylan. Only problem: She doesn't know what Bob Dylan looks like. She interviews multiple people pretending to be Bob Dylan, including Ronnie Hawkins (who calls himself, as Bob Dylan, "a hero of the highest order"). The reporter seems completely confused. It's at around the 23-minute mark in the movie. Later on, just before the three-hour mark, she starts interviewing “Mrs. Dylan.” I think it's the other Ronnie: Ronee Blakley. In the credits, Hawkins gets listed as playing Bob Dylan and Blakely gets listed as playing Mrs. Dylan.
Later, Dylan himself talks to Ratso, who also pretended to be Dylan for the reporter, and utters this great quote: “What was it like being Bob Dylan? I wish you’d tell me.” Sounds like something he would have said at one of those 1966 press conferences. Can't you picture that being a Cate Blanchett line in I'm Not There?
What's on the tape?
Everything! I think this is the first show that topped four hours too. That is no joke, especially for the Guam band members who are onstage for most of it. And they had to do it again the following night.
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*** More info on the book here… ***