Ronee Blakley still remains better known to many as an actor than a singer-songwriter, thanks to screen appearances like her Oscar-nominated turn in “Nashville” and later appearance in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” But she was releasing major-label albums in the early ’70s before a plum Robert Altman part landed her on the cover of Newsweek. Now she’s returning to music with her first non-soundtrack, non-spoken-word album in years, “Atom Bomb Baby,” out today on digital services.
The album has a strong tie-in to another project that brought her back into the limelight last year: Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” documentary about the legendary Bob Dylan ensemble tour on which she was a featured singer, with Dylan and on her own. Before the tour commenced, Blakley was called into a recording studio for a seat-of-their-pants recording session for an epic Dylan single, “Hurricane,” about the plight of incarcerated boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
Blakley recorded her own version of “Hurricane” for the new album, going from background to foreground singer. She bookends the beginning and end of “Atom Bomb Baby” with her fresh rendering of the Dylan tune and the newest song she’s written, “George Floyd, Oh Mama.”
“My desire to record ‘Hurricane’ probably began long ago, but materialized when I was interviewed for the Scorsese film,” Blakley tells Variety. “Forty-five years ago I recorded it with Bob, and now I am doing it again as a cover. And then ‘George Floyd, Oh Mama’ was not written to be a bookend, but it seemed to make sense to me after I recorded it. George Floyd was murdered, along with so many others, and not much has changed. It seemed to fit, that there is a new movement — past time for a new movement — that people must unite to erase the inequities plaguing our civilization, so that there is no more need for protest songs. And so that in another 45 years everyone will be free and equal, looking back on these days of struggle with wonder and disbelief.”
(To read Variety‘s 2019 interview with Blakley about Rolling Thunder and all things Dylan, click here.)
Blakley had not completely left music behind in recent years. She’s issued live albums recorded at the Bottom Line and the Mint, a couple of soundtracks (including one for a film she directed), and spoken-word projects. But “Baby” marks her first album of all-new non-soundtrack songs in a decade, in an Americana-flavored vein… at least up to the point that the more than 13-minute title track leads her into the realm of a kind of spooky beat poetry, with a mesmerizingly gentle and inviting speaking voice film fans will well remember from the movies.
The writing has never stopped, even if she wasn’t going full-bore into a music career. “The death of my parents hit me hard, to the point where I lost some of my ambition, some of my drive,” she admits. “Because so much of it was always for them, to impress them and make them proud, which I never really knew until they were gone. And life happened with a couple of challenges. But basically, I write every other day or so. I always have the urge to write and record and could do it every day if I could afford to.”
The players on “Atom Bomb Baby” represent some of the cream of the Americana-based L.A. rock crop.
“I thought Dave Alvin would bring edgy fire and his blues virtuosity to ‘Hurricane,’ and he did that and more,” Blakley says. “Drummer Don Heffington [formerly of Lone Justice] and I were on the road with Hoyt Axton in the ’70s. He is an authoritative and sensitive drummer who kept us together and helped build the drama of the track dynamics, in spite of recent surgery. Chad Watson is a legendary bass man who worked with me last at McCabe’s and is solid and trustworthy as a leafy tree. For the other tracks I brought in Tony Gilkyson [another Dylan alumnus], whose pure, sometimes garage tone I love, and who played for X but has folky roots, and we created some intimate musical moments; Colin Cameron on bass — rest in peace — who I played with over 30 years; David Raven, drummer world-class, who has his own band; and Rusty Anderson, now guitarist for Sir Paul McCartney, who I discovered at the Whisky on Sunset when he was 19 and put him to work on my film the next day; we still play together whenever we can.”
When it came time to record “Hurricane,” Blakley had a hurdle to face: whether to record it with all of Dylan’s language intact… which, in this case, included the N-word, at a time when it also popped up in Richard Pryor routines and John Lennon songs, among other places. Not wanting to mess with the bard, she surveyed friends and even asked Dylan’s manager.
“The N-word was a subject of much discussion and care,” she says. “It is a word we do not use, yet I sang it with Dylan onstage for over 30 performances, and recorded it with him on his No. 1 album, ‘Desire.’ It is a song with a famed history, so since I did not write the song, I did not have the right to change it. I spoke to Jeff Rosen at Bob’s office and he thought it should be left as it was, but left it up to me to change if I wished. … But I knew young people would not have any relationship to the past in that kind of detail, so my final decision was to put a small bleep into the word, not enough to erase it completely or disrupt the flow of the track, but to pay respect to anyone who might be offended.
“Hurricane himself approved the original track, as did Muhammed Ali, when the song represented the fight to release Rubin from prison by getting him a new trial,” she recalls. “That was accomplished by the money earned at Madison Square Garden by the Rolling Thunder Revue, where we performed the song with Ali in attendance, and Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter appeared by phone.”
Blakley has often told the story of being whisked into the New York studio to stand alongside Dylan, whom she’d barely met at that point, and sing the many furious verses of “Hurricane,” pages flying to the floor as soon as they raced through each one. She says time hasn’t made getting through it any less a fear of singing physicality.
“‘Hurricane’ was easier to sing when I was singing with Dylan,” she says. “It is a hard song to sing, demanding and long, but a thrill always. I hope I did him justice and that it is seen as a tribute to him, to Hurricane, to that time we spent, to the history of civil rights and the power of activism, and to the Rolling Thunder Revue family of artists.”
One of the more conventionally arranged standouts of the new album is the acoustic “Into the Wind and Beyond” (“Where have all the poets gone? Into the wind and beyond”). “It was written some years ago, based on a chord Jonathan Richman taught me when I was sick,” she recalls. “He came over to my house and played his whole Palomino set for me at the foot of my hospital bed — and he taught me a mantra and this A7 chord.”
The album veers deeply into the conventional with what amounts to the title song, “Atom Bomb Baby: Fear by Request,” which Blakley describes as “a poem set to drums with a Greek chorus. As poetic as its 13 and a half minutes are — touching on family, mortality and, yes, the nuclear revolution Blakley lived through — the subtitle is literal. “It was written after I asked my daughter what she would like it to be about and she said ‘fear.’”
For the cover of the album, Blakley used snapshots representing the breadth of the project: one of Hurricane in full fighter mode; one of her parents Ron and Carol “right before the time of the bomb, in 1945, with me in utero”; and one of daughter Sarah (who figures into the title track as a subject as well as subject generator) “from about 10 years ago — photo by me.”
The album can be found on different digital services through this link.