How Bob Dylan Discovered Scarlet Rivera’s Strings
Thirty-seven years ago today, Dylan’s “Desire” was the #1 album in the country. Here’s to a great LP, and the woman who gave it that special sound.
Man, I can’t tell you how many times my shrink has had to listen to me recount this dream: I’m strutting down the street decked out like Joan Jett on ‘roids, minding my own business, as Bugs Bunny would say – carrying a guitar/amp/tambourine/harmonica – when a car pulls over and a famous, seasoned musician asks me to stop by a recording studio and rehearse with him. Instant stardom, based on nothing more than IMAGE. Hey, it’s no more far fetched than grabbing 15 minutes of fame by being anointed “star du jour” by the glam-bam-thank-you-ma’am American Idol judges.
Being swept off the street by a rock star may be nothing more than a wet dream for yer blogger, but this really did happen to a young violinist named Donna Shea, better known as Scarlet Rivera.
Here’s the story, as gleaned from previously published interviews with Ms. Rivera: One summer day in 1975, she set out, violin case in tow, from her apartment in New York’s bare-knuckle Lower East Side, erstwhile home of your huddled masses. She was headed to a friend’s house to kill some time prior to a rehearsal with a long-forgotten Latin band. All of a sudden a car cuts her off at an intersection, a woman leans her head out the window, and asks her if she really can play the violin. Scarlet peers into the car and spies none other than Napoleon in Rags himself – Bob Dylan – in the driver’s seat. Bobby ordered his companion, percussionist Sheena Seidenberg, to ask Rivera for her phone number. Was it the young woman’s exotic looks, gypsy flair, or violin case that piqued Bob’s interest? Let’s just say that factor number 3 probably wouldn’t have mattered much if it weren’t for factors 1 and 2. (Bob’s boot-heels never stopped wandering). Anyway, Rivera declined to relinquish her number. Bobby said he was headed downtown to rehearse; why not join him? Scarlet said she was headed uptown to rehearse; no thanks. And then – perhaps wanting to breathe the same rarefied air as Bob, or sensing something might come of this chance encounter – she boldly asked him for a ride to her rehearsal destination.
Once inside what Rivera describes as an “ugly green” station wagon (long rumored to have been a limo), Bob must have eked out whatever charm he stowed away for chick baiting and/or musician hiring, and the next thing you know she’s in his studio, playing along with him while he rehearsed several songs for his upcoming album, “Desire.” The mercurial Dylan is not an easy man to accompany, but the classically trained Rivera gave it her best, and managed to follow along with him while he played guitar and piano. Bob liked what he heard, and treated her to a night on the town. Within the course of one evening, Rivera would watch Muddy Waters perform on stage, mingle with him and his band at the Brooklyn home of blues singer Victoria Spivey, and jam with Bob long into the night.
Dylan has released 35 studio albums since 1962. His best LPs are lyrically poetic and defined by signature sounds – be they from Mike Bloomfield’s screaming electric guitar, Al Kooper’s Hammond organ, Paul Griffin’s piano, or Bob’s own acoustic guitar and harmonica. But never did the sound of a mystical violin figure prominently in any of his music. Until he asked Scarlet Rivera to play on “Desire.” I own lots of Bob’s albums, and aside from my favorite, “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Desire” is the one I’ve probably played more than any other. It may not be considered an essential, times-a-changing disc, in the same league with “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61,” “Blonde on Blonde,” and “Blood on the Tracks.” There’s little dissection of self and psyche here. But! No other Dylan LP sounds like “Desire” – thanks to the contributions of Ms. Rivera. It’s the mysterious, Eurasian gypsy vibe of her violin that conjures up past lives, that makes me feel like I’m wrapped inside every story-song on this album. I’m hunting gold in icy pyramids…and watching the last ship sail from Black Diamond Bay. I’m drinking white rum in a Portugal bar…and riding past Aztec ruins and the ghosts of my people. Hoofbeats like castanets on stone. Rivera plays like a woman possessed. Her strings set the mood of every mythical song.
Aside from Bob’s writing collaboration with members of The Band during the Big Pink/Basement Tapes sessions, “Desire” marks his first real foray into co-writing. Dylan composed seven of the LP’s nine songs in partnership with songwriter/theater director Jacques Levy. (Levy’s background as a clinical psychologist must have come in handy when working with a capricious artist like Bob.) Two of the album’s songs stirred controversy. “Hurricane”– about the wrongful imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight boxer charged with triple murder in 1966 — was criticized for its inaccuracies and libelous accusations. Yet, it did much to publicize Carter’s case; the conviction was overturned in 1985. “Joey,” an accordion-drenched paean to mafioso “Crazy Joe” Gallo, was viewed as a sappy lionization of a murderer. Still, the album maintained the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks, beginning on February 7, 1976. For what it’s worth, Rolling Stone lists it as number 6 among Dylan’s best albums, and #174 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
And, as for Scarlet Rivera, she went on to tour with Dylan’s carnival-like Rolling Thunder Revue, which featured a roaming band of minstrel rockers that included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kinky Friedman, T-Bone Burnett and Mick Ronson. She released two solo albums in the 1970s, toured and recorded with such artists as Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Keb’ Mo’ and David Johansen, and played as a soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. And she’s still on the scene – writing, recording and performing a wide range of music, from Celtic and World Music to instrumental New Age. But it’s her work with Dylan, and the serendipitous nature of their initial meeting, that’s the stuff of rock history. (There. I managed to get through this entire article without once using Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” song title to describe Rivera’s rise to fame.)
Here’s a clip of Bob performing “Hurricane,” with Scarlet playing her magic violin.
© Dana Spiardi, Feb 10, 2013
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