Friday, December 23, 2011


A rare holiday treat: Bob Dylan's "Renaldo & Clara" in its entirety. You may not like it. It's pretty strange, after all, being somewhat chaotic and hard to define. It's an avant-garde art film, a mythical hero's journey, part poetic puzzle, part Commedia del-Arte, interwoven with excellent concert performances, all filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975. Maybe you had to be there.

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 caught the Rolling Thunder Revue in Providence. During a cross-country road trip in a van, we picked up a longhaired hitcher outside Boston who was wild-eyed with excitement. "You going to see Dylan?" He frantically 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 eying the grocery boys. Which way did his beard point tonight? I shook his 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. The old circus curtain came up on Dylan and Baez singing a duet. Dylan was wearing that old hat that would later show up on his next album, "Desire," and its hatband was stuck with flowers and autumn leaves.

In this free, chaotic spirit, "Renaldo & Clara" was filmed. It came out a couple years later and puzzled theater-goers but delighted Dylan fans. By 1978, when the film was released, the world had already moved on, but it's all captured here, a ramshackle dream, an unlikely mosquito set in prehistoric amber. Tell the grandkids about this bygone era. Happy holidays!

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