The Chaotic Magic of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue”
I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think so: music, particularly pop music, will never reach you in a more visceral way than it does when you’re very young. Something about the hunger and plasticity you have at that time of your life as you encounter an art form that is so raw, joyful, erotic, and pure. If I had to choose the concert of my life, the one that hit me most directly and never seems to recede in its force, it would be Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which I saw in Waltham, Massachusetts.
November 22, 1975. So long ago—a historical nanosecond after Watergate and the fall of Saigon. I was still in high school at the time, and what’s helping me remember it all clearly now, what I’m crazy grateful for, is the release of Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” which is coming, on Wednesday, to Netflix and to some big screens around the country. Dylan, Inc., led by the producers Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, has also issued a fourteen-disk set of the tour’s 1975 live recordings—a completist’s heaven—including rarities such as Dylan playing Peter La Farge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” at the Tuscarora Reservation, in Niagara County, New York.
Scorsese, like Dylan, was in his early thirties at the time of the Rolling Thunder tour. (In an interview for the film, Dylan says he can barely remember the tour, as he wasn’t “even born yet.”) Scorsese was filming “Taxi Driver.” He didn’t see any of the shows. But, as he has proved so many times—in “The Last Waltz,” in “No Direction Home,” in “Shine a Light,” and on countless soundtracks—his feel for the music of that era is without parallel.
The Rolling Thunder Revue was conceived as an anti-corporate return to the days of travelling tricksters, medicine shows, and carnivals. Starting in 1966, Dylan took eight years away from touring. He’d been badly injured in a motorcycle accident and was hiding from countless fans who insisted on seeing him not as the descendant of the Carter Family and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, of Johnny Ace and Little Richard, but as a prophet, a political tribune, “the voice of his generation.”
“I think that was just a term that can create problems for somebody, especially if someone just wants to keep it simple and write songs and play them,” Dylan said, in 2004. “Having these colossal accolades and titles—they get in the way.”
Dylan returned to the stage in 1974, backed by the Band. That was the first time I saw him—a show at the Nassau Coliseum. The resulting live album, “Before the Flood,” captures its roaring energy, but that’s precisely what disillusioned Dylan. “It was all sort of mindless,” he said, ten years later. “The only thing people talked about was energy this, energy that.” The largeness of the enterprise, too, the publicity machine, the immensity of the arenas—particularly after all those years playing at leisure with the Band in basements around Woodstock, New York—seemed bloated. “I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy,” Dylan said afterward. “I wanted to do something different.”
In the fall and winter of 1974, he recorded “Blood on the Tracks,” a dark and painful masterpiece that reflected the fractures in his marriage. (His son Jakob once said the album sounded like “my parents talking.”) He didn’t tour behind it. Instead, he went on to write (with Jacques Levy) a batch of mystical, gypsy-inflected songs, which appeared on “Desire,” and “Hurricane,” a protest song about the wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter. He started recording them with a small band featuring Scarlet Rivera, a violinist he had met on the street on the Lower East Side.
In the summer of 1975, Dylan cooked up the idea of putting together a kind of roving carnival, in which he would be the central, but hardly the only, act under the tent. They’d travel by bus, stay in cheap hotels, show up at venues with minimal fanfare. A recipe for chaos, perhaps, but the opposite of the 1974 tour with the Band.
Joan Baez, who had helped to introduce Dylan to larger audiences, in the early sixties; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a surgeon’s kid from Brooklyn who ran off, as a teen-ager, to perform in a rodeo; Roger McGuinn, of the Byrds; and Joni Mitchell in her “Hejira” period were among the musicians who joined for all or part of the tour. (Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen passed.) Allen Ginsberg, who would play finger cymbals on the last song of the night, “This Land Is Your Land,” came along as a kind of accompanying shaman. A bass player named Rob Stoner directed a backing band for Dylan and called it Guam. And Lou Kemp, a childhood buddy of Dylan’s who ran a salmon fishery in Alaska, was the main organizer. The first leg of the tour, the fall of 1975, had thirty-one shows, nearly all of them in small venues in the Northeast. (A second leg, in the spring, would take on bigger venues and had little of the magic of the first. For years, the best extended video of Rolling Thunder was of a rain-sodden and cranky second-leg performance in Fort Collins, Colorado.)
Dylan wanted to make a movie along the way, something influenced, he said, by François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise.” He enlisted Sam Shepard to help write a script. (The resulting film, “Renaldo and Clara,” is a four-hour, fanatics-only matter. I’ve seen it three times. I will not see it a fourth.)
Shepard kept a “logbook” on the tour, which he eventually published as a book. In it, he says that the 1976 tour coincided with a moment of disorienting patriotic celebration. “New England is festering with Bicentennial madness, as though desperately trying to resurrect the past to reassure ourselves that we sprang from somewhere,” Shepard writes. “A feeling that in the past at least there was some form or structure and that our present state of madness could be healed somehow by ghosts.”
Dylan also enlisted a journalist named Larry (Ratso) Sloman to come along, and though Sloman seemed to irritate nearly everyone on the tour with his comically pestering presence, he filed a number of diaristic behind-the-scenes dispatches to Rolling Stone and ended up writing a book, “On the Road with Bob Dylan,” which Dylan blurbed as “The ‘War and Peace’ of rock and roll.”
The Rolling Thunder concerts were nearly as long as that novel. They started out with warm-up songs from various band members: T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Ronee Blakley. Dylan came onstage after an hour or so, usually with “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and other songs from his earlier days. But these old songs were made new, thanks to Dylan’s obvious passion for them and an odd brew of musical voices in the band: Ronson’s spacey glam-rock guitar licks, Dave Mansfield’s folky pedal steel, and Rivera’s gypsy violin lines.
The song that ended that first set—and I remember it well from Waltham and from bootlegs that followed—was “Isis.” “This is a song about marriage,” Dylan would say before the first crashing chord. And it was: it was a story told in mythological terms, about the odyssey of a man who marries, leaves his wife, encounters strangers, has adventures, fails in his hunt for treasure, and returns, beseechingly, to his wife. To perform “Isis,” Dylan stripped off his guitar and belted the song with incredible fury. These days, when Dylan steps out from behind his piano at a performance (he has all but abandoned the guitar), he does so with a wry, hand-on-hip crooner air about him; he is not just singing Sinatra songs; he occasionally embodies the Sinatra presence. But, in 1975, on songs like “Isis,” he took on a punk bravado, the veins in his neck bulging, his eyes unblinking, sweat dripping through the white face paint, nothing held back.
Patti Smith has said that she talked to him about putting those songs over without a guitar: “I said, ‘I’ll give you one tip. Use your fists.’ He sort of hung his hands when he was singing, when he was standing there without a guitar, he didn’t know what to do with his hands.” She says she told him, “ ‘You’re a great mover—what’re you standing there like a dead fish for? Move!’ And he says, ‘Aw, I can’t hit the air with my fists or nothing. People will think I’m copying you!’ I said ‘Well, I’ve imitated you for twelve years, you can spare a little imitation.’ ”
“Isis” was usually followed by an intermission. When the audience reassembled for the next act, the curtain, covered with old-timey circus illustrations, remained closed, but you heard two voices and acoustic guitars strumming. Often, the song was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In Waltham—the venue was the gym at Brandeis—it was “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Obviously, one voice was Dylan, and then it became clear, as you made out the purity of the tone, that the other was Joan Baez. The curtain came up only after the first full verse.
“Baez looks perfect,” Shepard wrote in his logbook. “She seems completely with Dylan in a way that no one else who sings with him can ever be. It’s as though she knows his every move just from having been there before. She doesn’t have to stare at his mouth in order not to be caught off guard by his changes in phrasing. She knows it in the bones somewhere.”
Their second duet was usually a standard, “The Water Is Wide” or “Dark as a Dungeon.” And Shepard is right: even as Dylan roams the lyrics, shifting emphases, playing with the line, Baez is always right there with him. In Scorsese’s new film, Dylan remarks on the naturalness of their collaboration. He says they could have sung together “in our sleep.”
The Scorsese film, of course, gets to where even the most fortunate ticket-holders for the Rolling Thunder Revue could not. Joni Mitchell playing with Dylan and McGuinn in Gordon Lightfoot’s house as they try to keep up with her unique guitar tunings and chord changes. Rehearsals. Frantic business calls. Dylan and Ginsberg talking about Shakespeare’s sonnets at Jack Kerouac’s grave, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Scorsese plays with the real-or-unreal flavor of the tour, inserting mockumentary elements amid the period footage.
My favorite scene comes when the tour alights on the Seacrest Hotel, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where hundreds of women are engaged in a furiously contested, multi-table mah-jongg tournament. To the surprise of the players, who are intent on their game, someone gets up and announces that “one of America’s foremost poets, Mr. Allen Ginsberg,” will read. Ginsberg reads from “Kaddish,” his great elegy to his mother, Naomi Ginsberg. The women seem cheerful enough for a while, but, when the poem reaches Naomi’s fatal decline, with all the gruesome particulars, it is all too close to the bone. The women wince almost as one. It’s only when Dylan gets up to play a solo version of “Simple Twist of Fate” on the piano, his fingers mashing the chords, his heel whacking the stage to keep time, that the mah-jongg ladies come alive.
If you’re lucky, at some point in your life you get to witness some flashing fraction of what music has to offer. Accidents of fate and the moment. I was too young to see Dylan’s early acoustic performances, his electric breakthrough at Newport, or the 1966 British tour with the Band. And there’s no time machine, only tape, to get me to the Regal for B. B. King, in 1964, to the Apollo for James Brown, in 1962, much less to one of Billie Holiday’s final concerts at Carnegie Hall, in 1956. Your luck and your time come when they come. My lucky moment was the Rolling Thunder Revue at a college gym forty-five years ago in New England; for those who missed it, your time has come.