Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Dylan performs "Maggie's Farm" (edit), "One Too Many Mornings," and "Mozambique" from the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1976.

Bob Dylan dreamed up the Rolling Thunder Revue after "Blood on the Tracks." He'd just finished a king hell tour backed by The Band in 1974, but this would be different. He was working on a new album, what would become "Desire," and all summer long he'd been showing up in the old folk clubs in the Village, unannounced, to play a few songs just like in the old days. He wanted to bring back some of that spirit. Why not bring this on the road? Just gather up some old friends and play a string of small venues? If the '74 tour was a supersonic jetliner, Rolling Thunder would be a ramshackle gypsy wagon, part Commedia del'Arte and part sixties last hurrah, a raggedy collection of troubadours in masks and facepaint who magically appeared, played, and then disappeared like thieves in the night. Why not? Expect the impossible! So they painted an old-fashioned circus banner and made some phone calls. Dylan asked Joan Baez to come along, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, poet Allen Ginsberg, playwright Sam Shepard and Mick Ronson from Bowie's band. At one point or another Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen tagged along.

It was different from the big stadium rock tours of the day, and Dylan's enthusiasm was contagious. For the first time in years, lucky crowds heard songs that hadn't been released, strange new songs. So far, the only song that had been heard from the upcoming album was "Hurricane," which was rush-released to help raise awareness of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, a black boxer unjustly imprisoned. Live, the song was red hot and featured the wild gypsy violin playing of Scarlet Rivera. There was passion and poetry and wild new music. Spirits were high.

As luck would have it, I saw the Rolling Thunder Revue in Providence, Rhode Island. During a cross-country a road trip in a Dodge van, we picked up a longhaired hitcher who was wild-eyed with excitement. "Are you going to see Dylan?" He explained Dylan was playing in a few hours in Providence--it had just been announced on the radio--and since we were outside Boston we had to skedaddle. At that point, we only had two playable eight-tracks (yes, eight tracks), one of Clapton live, and the other Dylan's latest record, "Blood on the Tracks." We made it somehow. The place was jammed. Met David Blue, who was milling around inside chatting up some girls. Allen Ginsberg was there, too, old graybeard in a brown suit and sneakers, looking like Whitman in the supermarket, a lonely old grubber poking among the meats and eyeing the grocery boys. Which way did his beard point tonight? I shook the poet's hand and muttered something about "Howl," and he wanted to explain, but I got out of there and found my seat, high in the bleachers, a last minute perch. We didn't stay there long, but drifted down to the floor, where someone saw me snapping pictures and let me sit in his third row seat for a few songs.

Dylan performs "Tangled up in Blue" on the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, autumn 1975

The curtain came up to Dylan and Baez, on a set of old couches and lamps and rugs--a cozy living room. Old friends. During the course of this amazing show, Dylan unveiled new songs "Sara" and "One More Cup of Coffee," "Romance in Durango" and "Isis." I've seen many wonderful concerts over the years, seen many of the heavy groups, the old school and the punks, the jazz players and classical musicians, but I'd have to say this show ranks at the top. Part theater, part road show, part party, a loose group of friends that for one moment in 1975 I became a part of by sheer luck.

The Fall of 1975: Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visit Jack Kerouac's grave during the Rolling Thunder tour.

After the first leg of the tour, in the autumn of 1975 in the Northeast, Dylan took the Rolling Thunder Revue across the south in 1976. This second leg wasn't as astounding as the first, and the band grew tired--some of the magic was lost but there were still wonderful shows. This clip was filmed on the last day of the tour, in Fort Collins, Colorado. It's outside, and it's raining. Dylan's ex-wife has shown up unexpectedly--they would soon divorce after years of breaking up--and this added to the backstage drama of the scene. For whatever reason, Dylan pours his heart and soul into this show. He's on fire and enunciates his lyrics like a condemned man shouting his last words. This was his final say.

An hour-long film of this final Rolling Thunder show aired on network television in September of 1976. I watched it in a big hippie living room full of children and dogs in Kettle Falls, Washington, a stone's throw from the Canadian border. Another time, another place. Everyone settled down as Dylan strode onstage and sang a fiery "Idiot Wind," and it was like a State of the Union address. He's like that. At key points in my life (yours, too?) Dylan manages to compress life's freewheeling experiences into lyrics and music. That sounds too obvious, and to say Dylan just writes songs is like saying Michelangelo makes some carvings. Yeah, he writes songs all right. And he's not bad. But you really had to be there.

Bruce Springsteen, John Prine, and Bob Dylan backstage during the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975

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