Scarlet Rivera may well be the most famous post-Band musician to play behind Bob Dylan. Two reasons: a violin that stands out more than, say, even the most stylistic bass or drum set, and one hell of a story. In February 1976, People magazine previewed Dylan’s latest record, Desire, with the following hyperbolic headline: “Bob Dylan Spotted Scarlet Rivera on the Street, The Rest Is Rock History.” Certainly, few backing musicians have ever made so strong or immediate an impression. I talked to Rivera about her unlikely discovery, and her time with the man himself.
The name of a book that Scarlet Rivera has read at least twice: Jaguar Woman by Lyn Andrews.
The name of a movie she’s seen at least three times: The Shawshank Redemption.
The Bob Dylan album she’s listened to most in the past year: Oh Mercy
It’s a wonderful story: You’re walking through the Lower East Side, minding your own business, a violin case in your hand, and you get cut off by an ugly green car and the man inside tries to convince you that his name is Danny and that he’s from Hungary, but it’s really Bob Dylan. And we all know — and trying to convince you that he’s Danny from Hungary is a good example — that Mr. Dylan is not one to let truth stand in the way of a good story. Is that the way you really met him?
Yep. Versus some people who would prefer that he drove up in a limousine, because that makes it more fairytale, you know. But unfortunately, it was just an ugly green car, because he didn’t want to flash to the world that he was Bob Dylan, obviously, and wanted to go incognito, as he always does.
The story just sounds so random. Even though you lived it, is it ever hard for you to believe that it actually happened that way?
Oh, yes. I mean, it is probably a one-in-a-maybe-million chance that it could’ve happened, because I actually was going to cross the street and disappear into a basement apartment for a rehearsal within probably less than 60 seconds. So our time of encountering each other, visually even, on that street was infinitesimally small [laughs]. And had I disappeared across the street before his car crossed, it wouldn’t have happened.
Do you ever think about how your life might have been different if you had arrived five minutes earlier or crossed that street five minutes later?
Absolutely. And things would definitely not have been the same. I mean, this intersection, it had to have been touched by destiny in some ways to even happen. Definitely it has colored everything in my life after that, and opened doors that would have never happened as a result, and given me, you know, credibility that I would not have had. You know, all of that. I mean, I did get to perform years later with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And I had an audition, you know, with Mercer Ellington, and my credentials with Bob Dylan didn’t actually influence that at all, because that was in the realm of jazz, and they didn’t really care whether I’d played with him or not. But, nonetheless, pretty much everything else.
Dylan is such a large entity, both musically and culturally, that he tends to cast a shadow over everything else. I know the experience has opened doors for you, and I know that a lot of really cool, wonderful things have happened because of your association, but is it ever an albatross? Is it ever a pain to be “Scarlet Rivera, the violinist who played on Desire“?
No. Never, never. You know, the term “success” means that when opportunity and talent or, whatever, ability intersect, you actually have to measure up, or you will disappear again in the same amount of seconds [laughs]. If I didn’t have what it took to impress him, I probably would’ve disappeared again in another 60 seconds [laughs].
I mean, he has no problem getting rid of people [laughs], whether they’re fans or band members. If they don’t meet up to whatever it is that he wants at the moment, they are gone. And so I had to have impressed him in such a way that, you know, I ended up on ten songs on the album, versus just one song and “good-bye.”
You grew up in Chicago and had been living in New York for about a year when you crossed paths with Mr. Dylan. Why did you come to New York?
I wanted to make it in music. And, you know, I decided in college that I was fed up with the traditional route of sitting in an orchestra, and I had heard of Stuff Smith and Stephane Grappelli and other kinds of off-beat, interesting violin players, and I thought I’d strike out and see if I could do something original.
You were making about $100 a week as a violinist?
Yeah. I mean, I did something with, like, the Revolutionary String Ensemble [laughs] and, you know, just bouncing around, trying to listen to different things and sit in with different people. I was a clerk at the United Church of Christ in the daytime.
So you weren’t getting rich. When you crossed paths with Danny in the green car, did you feel like things were going well? Or did you feel like New York was not really working out for you at that point?
I wasn’t ready to leave at the time. I basically still had this idea that I wanted to tough it out.
So how long did you end up staying?
Oh, I stayed until well into the ’80s, almost the ’90s. If I knew what I know now, I would’ve left earlier [laughs].
New York’s a good place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here again?
It’s a great place to visit. Everyone knows that. You know, the culture, the arts, etc. I just don’t want to be there for another winter [laughs].
I know that it would be really hard to be a musician in New York around 1974, ’75 and not have an idea about Bob Dylan and how important he was, but would you have called yourself a fan before the green car pulled in front of you?
Oh yes, I was. I wouldn’t say a rabid fan, but definitely a fan. You know, I’m not and have never been the groupie type. I mean, I would never sit and wait to meet somebody, ever. And never have. However, in my mind’s eye, if I would’ve, it would’ve been for him. As a musician, you know, yes, he was at the top of my list of people I respected artistically.
So he drives you to his rehearsal space and plays a few songs that will end up on Desire. How much direction does he give you? Or does he just tell you what key you’ll be in?
Not even that.
Absolutely none. No direction. No direction home [laughs]. As in, sink or swim. And I swam. I have perfect pitch, and I know exactly how to follow keys even with nobody telling me where it’s going. That’s just something I know. I will say in the recording studio he gave me a couple of takes, but literally only a couple. At one point he said, “Play under,” play more under him, meaning the lower end, and then at one point he was going to do his harmonica solo and I stopped and didn’t play, and he actually said, “No, go ahead and play with me.” And I was just stunned that he asked me to play with his harmonica, and, you know, just went into complimentary mode, and fortunately I didn’t have too much time to think about it.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, you’re having to make some decisions here. Was your style more organic, or did you say to yourself, “I have to play like a violinist would for Bob Dylan?” Or, “I have to play like me because that’s who he’s hired?”
I think it was purely organic. I think my style actually solidified and emerged on that record, and it was those songs that brought it out. And it had to be brought out pretty fast, because, I mean, they were rehearsed in the studio and played in the studio. You know, you didn’t have homework time to go back home and listen and try different things. You had to try it on the spot and be ready in two takes. Or one.
In contemporary reviews of Desire your playing was described with words like “warm” and “melancholy” and “haunting.” And I’ve always thought “haunting” was a pretty good thing.
Me too. Me too. I love the word.
But even if you found your own style while working on this album, it has to come from somewhere. If someone had called the 24-, 25-year-old Scarlet Rivera — not the violinist, but the person — “warm” or “melancholy” or “haunting,” would that make sense, or would you think they didn’t know what they were talking about?
Oh no, definitely. Absolutely. That’s who I was, too. I mean, I never thought of it that way, but if you applied those characteristics to me? Yes. Those adjectives fit.
Scarlet Rivera will perform at the Café Wha? on Saturday, January 29th as part of the Highway 61 Revisited tribute show. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.