Dylan Says He Doesn’t Remember Rolling Thunder. Happily, We Do.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the only person in the music biz who doesn’t want to explain Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan.
Happily, he periodically talks to people and lets filmmakers follow him around, so we have a modest library of material that usually needs decoding, but does consistently point us where we really need to be looking, which is toward his music.
That’s the case again with Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, directed by Martin Scorsese and just now available on Netflix.
Anyone who has seen D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan film Don’t Look Back should see this one. While Rolling Thunder Revue is longer and more meandering, it’s set in the similar world of a band tour and thus strikes a number of chords that will feel familiar.
Among other things, it reconfirms Dylan’s stature as one of the music world’s great contrarians.
He kicks things off by telling an unseen interviewer, “I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder,” which is an odd thing to say about a tour memorable enough that someone is making a film about it and Sony is releasing a 14-CD audio box set of its music. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.”
To refresh his memory, Rolling Thunder was a tour Dylan launched in late 1975. It ran six weeks through New England and the Northeast, with an encore the following spring through the South and Southwest.
Besides Dylan, it featured a lot of folkies: Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Rambling Jack Elliott, Ronee Blakley, Joni Mitchell. For a time it also included Allen Ginsberg, and once you added some one-shot drop-ins, the shows ran about three hours.
It was a big deal because while Dylan concerts for the past 30 years have been as much a part of our cultural landscape as Starbucks coffee shops, in 1975 they were a rare and prized thing. Dylan had only returned to the road in 1974, with his Band reunion shows, and meanwhile he had also recorded the towering Blood on the Tracks album.
So there were many reasons to want to see Dylan in 1975, and the Rolling Thunder performances confirmed every one of them. Dylan was in good, strong voice, enunciating clearly and often unusually animated on stage. He even talked to the audience.
Rolling Thunder presents six or eight songs in pretty much their entirety, and they’re a strong argument for spending the money on that 14-CD Bootleg Series box set.
Some of the songs seen in complete or near-complete versions here include “Isis,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Hurricane,” “Oh Sister” and “Simple Twist of Fate.”
“Simple Twist Of Fate” features alternate lyrics, like “People tell me that it’s a crime / To know too much for too long a time / She should have caught me in my prime . . . .”
The box set, obviously, has roomf or more gems and a whole lot more variety, which was part of the tour’s mission. To the extent that Dylan admits remembering anything, he suggests he wanted to take some folksinger friends out on the road and have an old-style stage revue.
At one point, he says, he toyed with the idea of having the whole cast be a jug band, a concept that still sounds intriguing 44 years later.
Rolling Thunder also goes beyond Dylan’s white face paint, and the fact all these folks look frighteningly young, to capture some great off-stage musical moments.
There are Dylan and Larry Kegan sitting in a bus singing “Your Cheating Heart.” There’s Dylan walking through a room full of Native American with his guitar, singing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
There are a bunch of the artists, including Mitchell and McGuinn, singing “Love Potion Number Nine.”
And there’s Baez at the microphone with Dylan, looking happy in a way we almost never see her look happy. Dylan tells Scorsese that Baez always struck him as someone “who came in on a meteorite” and that he and she can “sing anything” together.
Scorsese juxtaposes this with a separate interview in which Baez says that of course she had some reservations about joining the tour, because she knows going on the road with Dylan could be fun “or not.”
We then cut back to Dylan, who cryptically adds, “I don’t know what happened.”
Hmmm. Neither do we.
In truth, Rolling Thunder leaves several mysteries unexplored and unsolved. Instead it spends a fair amount of time on things like the finances of the tour — it didn’t make any money — which frankly seems less interesting than random information like the fact Dylan sometimes drove the bus.
The late Ginsberg gets considerable screen time and comes across as something of a curiosity, like an oddity in Dylan’s backpack. Scorsese obviously finds him important, though, and we spend some time following Bob and Allen to the grave of Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Mass.
Scarlet Rivera, the violinist in the Rolling Thunder band, also seems to fascinate Scorsese. It would have been interesting to hear a few more details about the night she and Dylan played music until 6 in the morning at the home of pioneer blues singer Victoria Spivey.
Scorsese bookends Rolling Thunder with a couple of silent movie-style scenes of magicians and actors in masks. This unsubtle wink lets us know that Scorsese, who did a longer Dylan documentary called No Direction Home a couple of years back, understands that while Dylan’s descriptions of other people and places are poetry, he’s not going to give up much of anything about himself.
As a sort of periodic motif, Scorsese ties the Rolling Thunder tour to the restlessness of America in the mid-1970s. Dylan won’t place himself in that picture, saying only that the country had lost its convictions “about anything.” Dylan’s own response was to go out and make superior music.
Not that he’s even copping to that.
“What remains from the tour?” he says in his final interview segment about Rolling Thunder. “Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”
Okay. But maybe he won’t mind if we just poke around a little before we bring it all back home.