A wraith, a witch, a gypsy princess, a Cottingley queen. Scarlet Rivera haunts Bob Dylan’s Desire like desire haunts a lover’s dream. Mystery cloaked in enigma draped in black, but only if you saw the shows, watched the movie, or have spent a recent evening enveloped in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue movie (on Netflix, now), do you comprehend the absolute truth behind her presence.
Rolling Thunder was not solely Dylan’s show. Rolling Thunder Revue is not exclusively Scorsese’s picture.They both equally belong to Rivera.
She is not seen in every scene, but you look for her.She is not heard on every song, but you listen for her.She scarcely speaks, now or then, but the legends heap up around her.
Some, she suggested herself, in appearance if not in words.As People magazine patiently assured us back in 1976, “Scarlet comes not from an Andalusian cave but from suburban Chicago.”
Others, however, are drawn from who knows where.
Asked to describe her for Scorsese’s camera, Dylan shrugs, “she was a piece of work.”She carried a sword, he tells us, and a trunk with chains, mirrors and a snake inside.“That told me more about her than anything she had to say.She didn’t say much, but she didn’t have to.”
In another scene, from Dylan’s original Renaldo and Clara footage, she is asked about the painting on her violin, a mysterious red-cloaked figure, Phillip Garris's award-winning The Fiddler. (Coincidentally the same artwork was employed on the cover of the Grateful Dead's latest album, Blues for Allah, released that same September.)
“He keeps me company while I play,” she explained. “He’s playing the Dance Beyond His Limits. Something that most people would say is impossible, but I like to challenge the impossible.”
Dylan continues his litany of observations.She dated “the leader of Kiss.”Her room was filled with candelabra.But one thing is clear to us all.While the rest of the band painted their faces,Rivera tricked tattoos off the walls of ancient sanctuaries and carried them like a second snakeskin. She wore sequinned jeans as well, and they looked good.
There’s the sequence when the camera is clattering up Gordon Lightfoot’s staircase, en route to a gathering where Joni Mitchell plays “Coyote.”Alone in a darkened room, withdrawn from the brightly-lit party central, Rivera stands alone, almost motionless.Or at least, we think it’s Rivera.It could be a ghost.
And every time Dylan glances to his right onstage, his expression is always the same.“Who?What?How?”Most musicians, Dylan included, know and recognize every player in their band.But Rivera’s unearthly presence takes him by surprise every time.
One moment, he is singing a song.The next, the specter is there alongside him, devouring his melody, slow-dancing his words, spells cast like shadows across the familiar terrain.And the camera clings to her like castle wall lichen, and still it begs for more.
It’s a fascinating treatment, one that verges almost on the fetishistic.Sundry voices on the online forums say as much, and it’s unlikely that Scorsese would deny it.But then you turn to the three ür-texts of the era, Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook (published in 1977), Larry Sloman’s On The Road With Bob Dylan (1978) and Sid Griffin’s Shelter from the Storm (2010), and she’s the Dark Eyed Lady of the Lost Lands there as well, a constant shade in every situation, but rarely settling long enough to get her name on the page.
Sloman repeats the story of her induction into Dylan’s band, how he saw her crossing the road with a violin and sent a friend named Sheena out to ask if she played.“She told me later that she thought I was a prostitute and Bob was my pimp,” Sheena told Sloman.Scarlet, on the other hand, barely says a word all book long, not even to correct Sloman’s perpetual misspelling of her name.It’s one “t,” not two.
Shepard admits he never spoke more than three words to her, “not because I didn’t want to, but because it never happened.”He christened her… what else?… “the mysterious dark lady of the fiddle”And Griffin sticks largely to the facts.
It’s not a lot to go on, but Scorsese makes the most of it. Which means there's no room in the movie for Suzi Ronson (accompanying her husband Mick on the tour) to recall, "Scarlett was wonderful but she kept herself to herself, and I often wonder whether it was to do with her boyfriend, who I think was also her manager. We had light conversation here and there. Nothing heavy."
And Scorsese, for all the lightheartedness that shines through the period footage, does like "heavy."
The Rolling Thunder Revue is a long movie, some two hours-twenty-five, and in places it’s overlong.Too much time spent introducing “Hurricane”; too much venom from Dutch film-maker Stefan Van Dorp, which becomes even more baffling when you realize that he doesn’t actually exist.Like Rivera, he’s a phantom, but not a real one.He’s a stick with a sheet thrown over it.
Too much footage of the similarly fictional Rep. Jack Tanner - yes, he’s an amusing in-joke, at least if you watched HBO’s Tanner ’88, but he goes on way too long, and seems to be there primarily to shoehorn President Carter into the action.Maybe too much 1976 Bicentennial scene setting. Maybe.A smart pair of scissors could have trimmed the whole thing down to two hours, to echo the fate of Dylan’s own Renaldo & Clara, halved for the sake of the cinema audience.Rolling Thunder Revue does not need that much cutting.But the analogy holds.
Ah, but should it?Quietly edited throughout the movie, speech from the past… a Richard Nixon quote here, an Alan Ginsberg monologue there, and yes, Van Dorp and Tapper too… they were not inserted purely to confound Dylanologists, or compound the madness of the moment.Read between the lines.Don’t believe what you hear.It’s tiresome to be reminded of the fact, but “Fake News” is everywhere and the fact is, the vast majority of people who watch this movie probably won’t be able to cull fiction from fact.History here has been rewritten as blithely as the truth is in the outside world.It’s brilliant, and you’ll probably read Van Dorp quoted liberally in a new Dylan biography soon.
So, cut those moments, snip snip snip.Because what’s left is glorious, a hailstorm of original tour footage, backstage and front, and the machine gun clatter of so many musical performances.“Mr Tambourine Man.”“Simple Twist of Fate” with a whole new clump of lyrics.“One More Cup Of Coffee,” “Rita May,” “Hard Rain,” “Hattie Carroll,” “Hurricane” itself.And a few of them are also the moments when the audience tears its eyes away from Dylan, to the apparition that stands almost motionless beside him.Just as Dylan does the same thing.It’s her show, after all.
Only an “Isis” so theatrical that it could be MacBeth pulls the attention back to the name on the ticket stub.But even then, your brain is split screen, one eye on Bob, the other watching the Rivera flow.Anyone accustomed to the traditional vision of Dylan in concert is in for a shock, though.White-faced, wiry wild, flowered hat and florid gestures, a dancing chicken on a hot tin plate, he carnival barks the saga towards the most passionate denouement of his career:
“She said ‘you’ve been gone’; I said ‘it’s only natural.’
“She said ‘you gonna stay?’ I said ‘if you want me to….
And beside him and around him, Rivera - her face suddenly painted with the Eyes of Horus - arouses cataclysm from the surrounding musicians. And yes, that is a secret smile playing on her lips when he gets to the line “I said a quick prayer.”
That dichotomy - what you think you know and what Dylan and Scorsese want you to believe - lies at the heart of Rolling Thunder Revue.As much as the original Renaldo and Clara gleefully spliced fact and fantasy across its four hours, so Scorsese does the same across two.
There are some differences, of course, and they are profound.Viewed as a straightforward rockumentary, it is fatally flawed, and that was the point.While Dylan was recreating the Dylanworld that was home for all those musicians and crew throughout the first (late 1975) leg of Rolling Thunder, Scorsese seems more intent on reinventing The Rutles moviefor the age of post-ironic Twitterstorms, which some might find bizarre.There were, after all, already sufficient “characters” on the tour to be talked to, and enough bizarre moments that may or may not have happened, without inventing more than nobody’s going to like. But again, maybe that was the point.
Because then you start to wonder what else is true, what else is false, and can you even believe a word that Dylan himself says?Not the bit about Rolling Thunder taking place so long ago that even he wasn’t born yet.That is clearly a joke, because he then proceeds to misremember a lot.Nor the sequence of a trimmed down band performing “Hurricane” for the inmates of Clinton Correctional Facility. That happened.
The tour did visit and perform at a mah-jong parlor, but Sharon Stone did not have an affair with Dylan when she was nineteen.(Although we like to think the story about “Just Like a Woman” might be true).
Dylan did perform “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” to an oddly apathetic Iroquois audience, but Ginsberg was never rehired as a baggage handler because there was no time for his poetry onstage.
And Mick Ronson, once Bowie’s most glittering Spider from Mars, wears less make-up (as in none) than anyone else in the group. Who saw that coming?
"Mick wore a bit of make up," Suzi Ronson tells Goldmine. "He wore that blue scarf on his head." The only Englishman aboard the caravan, "he loved it. It was a great tour."
Again, as Renaldo and Clara makes clear, Dylan’s travelling medicine show was already a Ray Bradbury novel unto itself. (You know which one.) Scorsese simply embellishes Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show with some 21st century emphasis.
Watch Dylan and Roger McGuinn perform a two man re-enactment of the gunfight scene from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly during the chorus of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”That would never happen in real life.Would it?
Listen to Dylan and Joan Baez argue about who married someone else first, and why.People would never talk like that on camera.Well, maybe they would now, on the set of Jerry Springer.But not back then.Did they?
See Dylan drive the tour bus - did you even know he could drive?
That’s what’s great about Rolling Thunder Revue.Not its confirmation of truths or its patchwork of lies.It’s great because it reminds you… or, if you’ve never heard of it before, and are only watching because you’ve paid for your Netflix subscription and you’re jolly well going to watch everything they show… it informs you what a magnificent showman Dylan was in 1975.How he was playing the best music of his life with the greatest band of his career, on his most imaginatively laid out stage, whilst wearing his most glorious ever hat.
It reminds you how Desire didn’t simply follow the ultra-mythologized Blood on the Tracks onto the racks, it came close to surpassing it as a creative statement.And it lets you know that none of this would have been possible without Scarlet Rivera.
Because, for as long as it lasted, and it really wasn’t long, Rivera was the look, the sound… the very muse of Rolling Thunder.Dylan hatched the notion, wrote the songs, hired the band, picked the venues, and yes, drove the bus.But Rivera was the mystic fulcrum around which the alchemy revolved, the motionless goddess at the center of the storm, and the rest of us… a cast that sweeps up musicians and roadies and audience and listeners, everyone who ever has been touched by rolling thunder… we are simply the humble subjects at whom she might deign to glance.
Or is that just what we’re supposed to think?Moments before we recall what Dylan says to Baez at the end of their scene together.
“Thought will f*** you up.”