Guitarist Arlen Roth on the Dress-Rehearsal Show for Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue

Arlen Roth

Any serious Bob Dylan fan will likely be able to tell you exactly what his favorite show was/is from the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975-76, yet, there is one show that has escaped many Dylan fans from the tour: The October 23rd, 1975 dress-rehearsal which took place at Gerde's Folk City in New York the week prior to the tour kick-off on October 30th in Plymouth, Massachusetts.   While the dress-rehearsal show was recorded on film, only a few moments from that October 23rd show actually appear in the four-hour version of Dylan's 1978 movie highlighting the tour, RENALDO & CLARA.  Those few minutes feature Arlen Roth on guitar with Rambin' Jack Elliot.   

If one isn't immediately familiar with Roth's impressive body of work you should be.  According to Vintage Guitar Magazine, Roth is one of the Top 100 influential guitarists of the 20th Century.  He has played with the likes of: John Prine, Leon Rebone, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Phoebe Snow, Jack Bruce, Pete Seeger, Duane Eddy and Don McLean amongst others. Roth also taught Ralph Macchio to play the guitar for the 1986 Walter Hill film CROSSROADS--playing against Steve Vai in the films climatic finale.

Arlen Roth interview
TV STORE ONLINE:   I'd love to hear your story about how you came to work with Bob Dylan on his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour...

ROTH: It's a pretty unbelievable story.  There was just the one night.  It was an incredible night, and what I understand it hasn't been documented in many places.  Maybe, in a book that was written about Phil Ochs?

TV STORE ONLINE:   You played with Dylan during Rolling Thunder at the November 15th, 1975 Niagara Falls show, right?

ROTH:  No, I wasn't there.  I only played with him that first night--the opening show.  What happened was that I had gotten a call from  [singer/songwriter] Eric Anderson. I had been playing with him on-and-off for a few years.  He called me and he said, "Arlen, the survivors of the '70s will be decided tonight."  I said, "What are you talking about?  What is this?"  He said, "You'll just have to come down and see for yourself.  We'll be at Gerde's Folk City."   It was a tiny club down in the Village, and apparently, it was one of the first places Dylan had ever played at in the early '60s when he had first arrived in New York.   I was told that it was only a rumor that Dylan was going to show up at Gerde's, but Eric persisted that I come down there.  This was back when, just a sighting of Bob Dylan, was an major thing.    I said, "Okay, sure. I'll come down and play and see what's going on."  

Alren Roth Bob Dylan
By that time, I had also been playing with a bass player named Tony Brown.  He had played with Dylan on Blood On The Tracks, but he had grown despondent with the music business.  I had called him up to see if he's like to go down to Gerde's with me and he didn't want anything to do with it.     

So I went down to Gerde's with Eric.   At that time, I had this little pig-nose amplifier.  It was tiny.  I used it in the movie CROSSROADS later on.  I went down there, and there were people milling about--it didn't look like anything special to me.  But as I walked up the stage and put my amplifier down I noticed that a film crew was setting up around the stage.   Someone was putting a microphone down in the front .    There were people with film cameras running around.   And a few minutes later--in walks Dylan and his entourage.  He brought with him a traveling circus. Joan Baez was with him.   Bob Neuwirth.  Rob Stoner.  Roger McGuinn.  T-Bone Burnett played piano that night. There was a bunch of great musicians there.   So the idea was that everyone was going to jump up on stage and play as it was going to be a birthday party for a guy named Mike Porco.   Mike owned Gerde's Folks City.

 So we start tuning up, and Dylan decides that he wants to play Happy Birthday.  I was standing on stage, and he points to me.  I was standing there holding my 1939 Martin Guitar.  I had bought the guitar from Ry Cooder when I was out on tour with John Prine the year earlier.    Dylan said, "Can I borrow your guitar."  I said, "Sure."   Joan Baez said, "Oh, you're really gonna be in trouble if you let him hold your guitar."   The guitar had no strap.   It wasn't set up for it.  I had planned on playing that night sitting down.   So I handed Dylan my guitar and he looks at it and says, "No Strap?  No Strap?"    So he took the guitar and played it--kinda of just holding it up.  And afterward, when he gave it back to me there was a huge belt buckle gash in the back of my 1939 Martin.  I went around for years showing it to people afterward. I was quite proud of it. (laughing)

Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue
Dylan called a few people up to the stage.  I played backup behind Dylan and Joan Baez.   We went through a few songs and he went into a new song that I wasn't familiar with but I managed to follow the changes.  Rob Stoner was on stage with us playing an upright bass.    Immediately, the bridge of the bass broke.  It snapped.   So we had no bass right from the start.  I could see that it was shaping up to be this incredible evening. I mean, Ramblin' Jack Elliot was there.  Better Midler was there.  It was a huge evening.   During one of the breaks, I went over to this old wooden telephone booth that was in the club.  I called Tony Brown.  My friend who had played with Dylan on Blood On The Tracks.  I said, "Tony, get down here right now.  There's no bass player here. The bass broke, bring your bass and you'll be reunited with Dylan."   In Tony Brown fashion, he responded with, "No, screw him."  He was so despondent about it.  He refused to come down!  He lived five minutes away!   So I played with Ramblin' Jack Elliot that night.  There's a scene of me and Ramblin' Jack Elliot playing together in RENALDO AND CLARA.    I played with Patti Smith that night too.   She was there with Allen Ginsberg.    Ginsberg came up and read some poetry and I played guitar to accompany him.   

Gerde's Folk City
Then Phil Ochs came up on stage, and this was the turning point of the whole evening. Dylan was off sitting in the corner of the club with Bob Neuwirth.   Ochs was really drunk and barely coherent.  He just started playing. Myself, T-Bone Burnett and a couple other people were backing him up.   Ochs was playing and then suddenly he stops and turns to us.  He says, "No!  No background..."   So we stopped playing.    Down in front of the stage was a giant birthday cake.   On it was this huge knife.  It was placed there so someone could cut the cake I guess.    Out of nowhere, this African American man, who no-one knew, jumped up on the stage with the knife in his hand and he tried to stab Phil Ochs in the chest!   Almost like in slow motion, Ochs said, "There's a guy with a knife..."  It was really like it all happened in slow motion.   As Ochs backed up a little bit, Eric Anderson jumped and tackled this guy and they fell off the stage and into this birthday cake--just destroying it.    I mean, this place was packed.   After a couple seconds Ochs started playing again.  I can't remember what he was playing now, but about a minute later Dylan and his circus got up and started to leave.  Ochs saw this and he stopped playing.  He said, "Bob, no, don't go. Come back. Don't go."   Dylan turned toward Ochs and said, "Hey man, I'll be right back."   Then he left.   He never did come back that night.   We were told that there would be a after-party gig with Bob and he wanted a few of us to come over there.   So we all walked over there.  We ended up standing outside on the stoop of a brownstone.  I was there with Patti Smith and a couple others.   We stood around for a long long time and he never showed up!   We waited at least an hour there.   It was an interesting evening.   And I think that Phil Ochs died not long after that night at Gerde's.

Arlen Roth Walter Hill's Crossroads
Maccahio and Roth on the set of CROSSROADS
TV STORE ONLINE:  Did the film crew there that night capture the guy going after Ochs with the knife?

ROTH: I think so.   They were everywhere that night.    There are only a couple scenes in RENALDO & CLARA from that night as far as I know--but not that attack on Ochs.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I'm a huge fan of  what you did in Walter Hill's CROSSROADS....

ROTH:  Oh, there are hours of stories there. We'll have to talk about that another day.   I had my credit stolen from me on that film and I spent many many weeks down in Louisiana working on that film with Ralph Maccahio.  

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Arlen Roth please visit his official website here.

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