A Rolling Thunder Review: Don´t Ask Me Nothin´About Nothin´, I Just Might Tell You The Truth

The Magic and high quality of The Rolling Thunder Revue has never really been highly disputed, as some of Bob Dylan´s other periods. It´s commonly known and accepted that this was Bob Dylan at some of his best and most glorious moments. Do we really need more proof or documentation, something that can give us or teach us any more? Is it possible to shed even more light? In June 2019 there are synchronized releases of both a Martin Scorsese film on Netflix, and another box set – both shows us that the answer to the questions is yes.

«When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.”  Pause. “When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” That´s the Dylan of today, speaking to us, looking sharp in a deep green suit, a beautiful bolo-tie, close-up, wearing his Bob Dylan mask. The scene is from the new Scorsese movie, «Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan story». Dylan´s comments are sprinkled over the movie, as is interviews with lots of the participants, new interviews and interviews from the seventies, about this mythological odyssey named «Rolling Thunder Revue» in the year of 1975. Dylan´s comments are both funny and revealing, though he, as usual, hesitates a bit when it comes to looking back: “It is so long ago, I wasn´t even born.” What is truth, after all?

We already have «Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Live 1975», we got the «Tangled Up In Blue»-video, we got the Renaldo & Clara EP, some of us have even been able to see the whole four-hour-long slightly confusing, but still wonderful road trip movie «Renaldo And Clara», thanks to the magical musical performances that are holding things together in the chaos, like in the eye of a hurricane. There are bootlegs from the tour, there are photos. There is Larry Sloman´s «On The Road With Bob Dylan», according to Dylan, the «War And Peace» of rock´n roll, there is Sam Shepard´s «Rolling Thunder Logbook». We´ve heard stories about rehearsals and the surprise party for Mike Porco and the occasional story from the audience or journalists attending the shows. What more could we ask for, and would it really add to the story? Really?  

If one, with a straight face, could ask such questions before seeing the new Netflix movie, and before listening to the soundtrack/companion 14 CD-box set, «The Rolling Thunder Revue – The 1975 Live Recordings», – after seeing and listening, it seems like a question not having to be asked at all. This IS the story being told, and in a more fulfilling way than anytime before. Of course, the whole and complete story can´t be told, of anything, that´s only an illusion. And that´s the truth. CUT!

1975 so far…

1975 was already a great year for Dylan, long before this story starts. «Blood On The Tracks» was released in January, soon reached the top of Billboard, hailed as one of, or maybe, THE best of all his albums. The logical thing would be to continue the success of touring in 1974, now taking the fabulous new songs on the road, but that´s not the way Dylan works. In springtime he visits France, on his birthday a gypsy festival that makes an indelible impression on him – the old and forlorn gypsy king, the music, all the pretty people, the women, the guitars, the fireplace in the dark, all blending into a dream, into a vision, into songs. «One More Cup of Coffee» was the first. Back in Greenwich Village he stumbles into Jaques Levy, the playwright, what should be the start of Dylan´s most extensive co-writing project till this day (Sorry, Robert Hunter), releasing new possibilities in Dylan´s songwriting, to dramatic effect. Then the boxer, Rubin «Hurricane» Carter, sends him his autobiography from his prison cell, hoping Dylan will join the growing crowd of followers thinking he was framed and not guilty of the triple murder back in 1966. Dylan visits him in the prison, and his allergy to injustice unfolds in full – again. One of the last times was “George Jackson” in 1971. He now writes “Hurricane” with Levy, making it the prologue to his new suite of songs, and also much of a theme song for the coming tour.

The songs of «Desire» were recorded, more or less, in three days of July, from a chaotic start with more than twenty musicians in the studio the first day, a reduced number of musicians the second, and a really tight unit the third the soon-to-be core of his new touring band (with an exception for Emmylou Harris). The new songs spanned from the beautiful western movie «Romance In Durango» to the controversial empathy in the song about mafioso “Joey”, from the gypsy mood of “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Oh Sister” to the mystic of “Isis”, from the heartbreakingly naked “Sara” to the conradesque novel of “Black Diamond Bay”, and, of course, the locomotive of a song, “Hurricane” – also controversial; adjusted lyrics had to be recorded in October.

In the midst of all this, “The Basement Tapes” was released, an old idea of a new way of touring came alive, Dylan also played with thoughts of a movie, and – he had the world´s greatest songbook in his back pocket. CUT!

Folk City.

Enter – 23rd of October, the day of Mike Porco´s 61st birthday and the surprise party thrown for him at Gerde´s Folk City in Greenwich Village, celebrating the old owner of Folk City, and one of the first great believers in Dylan. “Everybody” was there, it was like a revue from 1963, Ramblin´Jack is there, Eric Andersen, Joan Baez and Dylan is back on stage together – a heartbreakingly beautiful “One Too Many Mornings” (Included on the “Rarities” CD). Newcomer Patti Smith is there, meeting her idols, improvising on stage. Rumors of a tour are discussed. And – lo and behold – Scorsese “was there”, he got all of the fantastic footage and invites us to participate in what might have been, at least poetically, the conception, or maybe the birth of Rolling Thunder Revue. CUT!

The Rehearsals.

Dylan is like a kid in a candy store, happily trying out old and new songs with old and new friends, mostly piano – pictures we´ve seen, now come alive. Some of the songs are suggestions from the musicians, some from Dylan himself. Anything goes. A rocking “Simple Twist of Fate”, a surprising “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, a beautiful rendition of Curtis Mayfield´s “People Get Ready”, with its message of both salvation and judgement: “There ain’t no room/For the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind/Just to save his own”. Then it´s the song called «What Will You Do When Jesus Comes?», maybe Dylan´s own sequel to «Whatcha Gonna Do» from 1963? Or a prequel to «When You Gonna Wake Up» further on up the road and around the bend?

As “People Get Ready” is a song Dylan is coming back to through the years, with known versions both from 1967, 1975 and 1990, and it´s the same story with “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” – an old song from 1936, originally called “The Border Affair”. He played it in the basement and there are several versions known, the least impressive released on “Dylan”, more beautiful outtakes from the “Self Portrait” period, and from last year a fine rendition you can find on the “More Blood, More Tracks” box set. Nevertheless, this rehearsal version might be the most tender version of them all. Gorgeous! The song seems to belong in the bag of songs Dylan always can reach back to, helping him focus – “Adios, Mi Corazon.”

“Easy And Slow” – a song known by Dominic Behan, and later by The Dubliners, is one of the absolute and surprising highlights of the rehearsals. It´s Dylan alone, and he leans into the song with all his singing powers. A spirited song of the seducing of a young girl, but delivered with such passion and tenderness that we can´t help being touched by the drama, the vocal reminding me of some of Dylan´s most intense readings of songs like “Barbara Allen”.

“Patty´s Gone To Laredo” is a pearl, and it really reminds us that it isn´t always about the words with Dylan, he is, first and last, a fabulous singer that doesn´t always really need words to get to the deeper truths. He improvises and is having fun with lyrics in the rehearsals, also in his old songs, f.i. “what did you eat, my blue-eyed son?” In this one, about Patty, he is back to using the dummy lyrics as we know them from “Basement Tapes” when he needs them. It´s a unique, but unfinished sketch. Some of the same can be said of the take of “Gwenevere” at the same disc.

The first version of “She Belongs To Me” is special, Dylan starting on a particularly low and dramatic note, playing with the words and soon one in the band, maybe Bobby Neuwirth is acting the part of a harmonica. “She wears a turtle neck sweater”, goes one of the verses. Go figure.

“This is one we could finish with, too”, he says, as he is starting a tender reading of «This Land Is Your Land»: “As I went walking that ribbon of highway…..This land was made for you and me”. It´s a reminiscing of the most fragile and beautiful version from 1961, Bob, The Woody Guthrie Jukebox, lifting the song to the mountain top at the age of nineteen. This is a long way from the uptempo version used as a finale to the shows.

The box set gives us three discs full of rehearsals, some of them among the finest and most interesting moments of the box set, including a new version of “Tonight I´ll be staying here with you”, introducing a new pair of lyrics for the song, we´re getting a waltz-like version of “Isis”, even an incomplete swing version of “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts”, and a deep blue version of “If You See Her, Say Hello”, another song from “Blood On The Tracks”, not used on the tour, totally re-written lyrics. She isn´t in Tangier any longer, this time she might be in Babylon!

Even if we get so much from the rehearsals, there are of course still songs we know were played that are not included, notably the Hank Williams song “Kaw-Liga” and the folk song, known by Carter Family, “Little Moses”.

Still, we´re getting all the way, behind the curtain, to some of the magic you´ll seldom get from the stage, the artist sometimes mostly singing to his inner self and not to an audience. No mask. CUT!

The Shows.

The stage is a whole other ball game. We see visual proof of all the different sets from the show. With masks. Still, Rolling Thunder Revue was never about one show with one artist. The concerts had a long string of performers – Ramblin´Jack, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley and more – Dylan, of course the main attraction, slipping in and out between the rest, maybe for one time making him feel part of a team, a collective, taking, at least, some of the pressure off him as a solo act. 

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is the opener of each of the shows, strangely not used in Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Live 1975, but here we get it. The song is back as one of the highlights of the 2019 shows, but with substantial changes in the lyrics.

A typical Rolling Thunder show had two main sets, the first consisting of several artists singing with the band (the band actually had a name: Guam), about fifteen songs, then followed by Dylan´s first set, then a fifteen minute break, before Dylan starts the next set with five songs acoustic with Joan Baez. Then Dylan leaves the stage for Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn, playing about ten songs with the band. So Dylan has his solo spot, one, two or three songs, before the last set with Dylan and the band, usually ending it all with “This Land Is Your Land”. One could have hoped for one complete show in the box, but this time we just have to be very satisfied with the Dylan sets.

Five of the 31 shows were recorded professionally, and occupy ten of the fourteen CD box set. All five are complete documentation of Dylan´s part of the shows, also including all duets with Joan. Joan, who seems to have the thrill of her life, being back with Bob on stage, forgiving difficult memories from 1965. Some of the nights Joan arrived on stage dressed as Bob, even with the white-face-mask, mirroring him like something from a Marx Brothers movie.

Some of their duets are, in my opinion, a bit rushed in tempo, losing some of the nuances of the songs, but others, like the covers of Johnny Ace´s “Never Let Me Go” and Merle Travis´ “Dark As A Dungeon” are some of the show´s finest moments. From the last show, from Montreal, we even get a “Blowing In The Wind” with the refrain in French to a happy audience, and then a really beautiful «I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine», a song only played live on the Isle of Wight 1969 before this tour. Here it becomes an integrated part of the back-to-folk-element of the shows, surely pleasing for Joan Baez, Dylan and her again back on the same page.

The footage of Dylan, both with and without band, is surely exceptional. With band, the white-faced Dylan dancing around stage in the crossfire between the Bowie- and Mott The Hoople-infected Mick Ronson and the mystical gypsy-like violin of Scarlett Rivera, well, you gotta see it to believe it. «Isis» is one of the absolute highlights, and bless Scorsese who lets us see so much of this greatest of performances – where Renaldo and Clara was more brutal in the cutting room, often with frustrating abrutions, this time Scorsese lets us lean back and enjoy a lot more of them. «A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall» is a fullblown rock version, Dylan attacking the verses with his unique sense of timing and phrasing, completing each performance with mimics, dance steps and hand gestures to dramatic effect – his magnetic movements captures the minutes we´re in.

“Hurricane” is delivered with rage and frustration against a system that always was important to Dylan, the one of injustice based on race. This perspective was important in the early sixties, and it is on the Rolling Thunder Revue. This is not only about Rubin Carter, this is about Dylan´s lifelong focus on the fact that black lives matter, and that racism has been a curse for the USA from day one, and still is.

The box set gives us both concerts from Boston, from the same day. You can listen to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, and how the moral outburst from Dylan, The Prosecutor, is presented in two slightly different ways the same day. He doesn´t have to tell us that Hattie Carroll is black, we just know it. Quite a songwriter, that Bob. But what a singer!

What´s interesting is that, in spite of the great success of “Blood On The Tracks”, just two of the songs from this album are introduced live in concert this fall, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate”. More of the songs might need a changed state of mind for Dylan, and that will happen in the next leg of the tour.

The film starts with a great acoustic “Mr Tambourine Man”, Dylan solo, setting the tone for a string of unique performances, with new songs such as “Oh, Sister” and, my personal favorite, “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”, one of Dylan´s most beautiful vocal performances ever. God bless Martin Scorsese one more time for giving us many almost uncut versions of those magnificent songs. CUT!

The Movies.

Dylan´s own movie project, “Renaldo And Clara” was a hybrid of rockumentary and a brave attempt at existentialist deep digging into the human heart and condition, the use of masks, about truth and about love, like life itself. Dylan´s ambitions were set at a tremendously high level in a project that was something very different from three or four intense days in a recording studio, then moving on to another project or another song. That might be part of the reason why the movie contained both success and failure when it came to fulfilling the ambitions. Still, Dylan himself has been talking about his understanding of the fact that other artists sometimes have had greater success than himself with his songs, that his recordings was just the blueprints of a song, developing on the road, while other artists immediately could see the potential and structure and do something completely different with it in their recordings. In one way you could say that this is some of what happens when Martin Scorsese is diving into the miles and miles of footage used as building blocks for “Renaldo And Clara” – he looks at it, puts them together in a new way and uses it to tell us another and simpler story, wildly succeeding at that, still hinting at some of the depths that Dylan thought of when he chose the really big canvas to make his own movie.

Still, Scorsese has made his own artistic choices. With few exceptions, all the staged scenes and written or planned dialogue in “Renaldo And Clara” are taken out of the picture. Where we in “Renaldo And Clara” can see Dylan´s wife Sara, Joan Baez and Dylan act a written “menáge á trois” (“Do I love her like I love you? No! Do I love you like I love her? No!”), this theme isn´t part of or hinted at in the new movie. Sara isn´t either. Not even the beautiful song “Sara”, obviously an important performance of this tour in fall 1975, as we luckily can listen to it in all the five shows provided by the box set. The Scorsese film is another story, maybe a more simple, more narrowed approach than Dylan´s, but to great success. It has become a great movie for all slightly interested in live music, for all that never did get Dylan, and of course, most of all, for all that did. The possibility for all to see this on Netflix, is perfect. This movie should be seen, not just one time, but many. And will be. The soundtrack box set is the perfect companion, as you will be able to dig deeper on your own, broaden the musical perspective that the film hints at, and now you can´t help remembering the musical carnival seen in this movie, when you listen to the music. Just close your eyes, and the movie continues. CUT!

Behind The Scenes.

Ginsberg and Sam Shepard give us insights from their perspective, one as a godfather for the tour, the other as a hired playwright to help Dylan get the planned dialogue scenes right. Joan Baez´ love for Dylan is once more revealed in interview. Ronee Blakley of today tells us how much she still loves Dylan, but that not all felt the same way. She asked Mick Ronson at the end of the tour if he loved Bob, but Mick answered that he didn´t know: “I never spoke to him”, though he undoubtedly contributed excellent guitar solos throughout the whole tour, to Dylan´s satisfaction. Dylan has always been a private person, still we can see him socialize much more in this movie than we´ve ever seen before. The footage of him and Allen Ginsberg by Kerouac´s grave has given us iconic photopraphs that are well known, but in the movie we also get great footage from these important scenes of the trio of beat poets.

Stefan Van Dorp, the cameraman? Hmmmm!!?? A walking contradiction? Partly truth and partly fiction?

Larry Sloman starts the tour as a young Rolling Stone journalist on wheels, is named “Ratso” by Joan Baez, a name that´s stuck until today. Trying to be as much friend as journalist, fails at first, but succeeds after awhile, breaking up with Rolling Stone during the tour. Kemp, the tour manager, remains mostly negative. Ratso is in and out of the scenes with youthful energy and passion both for the music and the artists, he got his first row seat to the stuff that dreams and books are made of. Lucky Ratso! Larry Sloman actually debuted with his own record just a few weeks ago, 44 years later, fittingly named “Stubborn Heart”, including a fully passable version of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, mentioned each night on Rolling Thunder Revue, from Bob in the song “Sara”.

Joni Mitchell joined the tour and appears with grace in the film, a great artist herself, partly frustrated with the concept, but partly hypnotized by it – the film includes wonderful footage of her singing the song written on and about the experience of Rolling Thunder, “Coyote”, in an intimate setting behind-the-scenes. A beautiful moment of the film. Another Canadian, Leonard Cohen, visits the entourage and Dylan shouts out a dedication of “Isis” to Lenny in the Montreal show.

The actress Sharon Stone appears surprisingly, wearing her Sharon Stone mask, invited by her mother to see one of the shows, appearing in a Kiss T-shirt. In a new interview in the movie she tells about meeting Dylan and discussing Kiss´qualities. Part of the fever dream? Dylan also, she says, invited her to join the tour, help out with the make-up, and he also made her believe that he wrote a song for her, singing by the piano, resulting in her crying. It was later someone could tell her that the song was “Just Like A Woman”, written ten years earlier. In 1975 broke like a little girl, but today she was able to laugh when she tells the story. It´s just a little anecdote from The Rolling Thunder Revue, or is it, but Scorsese makes a carefully and beautiful woven carpet of stories and threads of many colors throughout the whole 2 hour 23 minutes sitting, and all you can think when it´s over, is: Already? We want more! But Martin Scorsese agrees with Dylan´s wisdom: Never give a 100 percent. And that´s okay. CUT!

Rarities.

The last content of the last CD are both one-offs from the shows and real rarities from other circumstances during the tour. One of the highlights of the whole box set, and even more of the movie, is when the tour stops by the Tuscarora Reservation, speaking to a group of native Americans there. The scene ends with Dylan picking up his guitar and making a stunning recitation of Peter La Farge´s “Ballad of Ira Hayes”: “Call him drunken Ira Hayes/He won’t answer anymore/Not the whiskey drinking Indian/Or the marine that went to war.” The native American war hero from Iwo Jima, that didn´t get the appreciation and care he deserved, coming home from the war. It´s a deeply touching moment when Bob wanders between the tables with his guitar, reaching out to the people of Tuscarora in a very heartfelt and beautiful way. Once you´ve seen it, you´ll never forget it.

We can see Bob sitting in the back of the bus, singing Hank Williams´”Your Cheatin´Heart” with his childhood friend, Larry Kegan, and we can listen to the tape of him singing Smokey Robinson´s “Tracks of my tears” in the back of the tour bus, with friends blending in. He uses the same voice as he does in hotel rooms with Robbie in 1966. He needs help with the second verse, but comes on strong, like with a knife in his heart, when he almost screams the words “you´re the only one”. Soul singing in the tour bus.

Speaking of Robbie, one of the songs on CD 14, is Robbie´s guest appearance on “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry”, dedicated by Dylan to his former manager, Albert Grossman: “Who won´t be the next president! He don´t even wanna be president!”. The familiar sound of Robbie´s guitar soon appears.

“With God On Our Side” was played once, a very dark and intense version, Dylan improvising the whole catalogue of countries he learned to hate as a child. In a time where the hatred as much is pointing towards both the constitution, the press and fellow citizens of America, to listen to this makes you think much about the question: What really happened? What went wrong? Or is it just history running in circles?

“It´s Alright, Ma (I´m Only Bleeding)” was also played once, and is here delivered as a solo performance, Dylan reminding us, post-Nixon, that “even the President of the United States, sometimes must have to stand naked” – maybe a song to include in your set of 2020, Bob?
(The 2013-version really was fabulous.)

There´s some kind of beautiful poetic justice related to the fact that the Bob Dylan Archives now are safely placed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As Bob himself put it: “I´m glad my archives have found a home and are to be included with the works of Woody Guthrie and especially along all the valuable artifacts from the Native American nations. To me it makes a lot of sense, and it´s a great honor.” It´s a touching statement, and in both the film and box set from 1975 we already can see why the three come together in such a beautiful way, symbolized by Dylan´s use of both “This Land Is Your Land” and “Ballad of Ira Hayes”, now well documented both in the movie and on the box set. CUT!

Anchorage.

The Rolling Thunder Revue continued in 1976, great shows, but quite different and more confronting in mood, more of a punk attitude, more aggression and different songs. Lots of material, both audio and video, is waiting for properly handling. The “Hard Rain” film and album give us great hints of the dramatic performances that might be found in the Bob Dylan archives, that played never-before-seen footage of “Going, Going, Gone” and “You´re A Big Girl Now”, last weekend. Still – The Rolling Thunder Revue came to a definitive end in 1976.

Dylan´s vision of another way of touring was in some ways a success, but still not a sustainable way of never-ending touring. In 1988 Dylan started what later would be known as the Never-Ending Tour, and Dylan is still on the road, 3000 shows later, all over the world, reminding us that Bob Dylan´s artistic home and anchorage is and always will be the beaten path as his North Star, the road that goes on forever, he always busy being born, as he was in the fall of 1975. Rolling Thunder was maybe a blueprint with a touch of magic, the vision maybe fully realized in the Never-Ending Tour, but in the end he had to do it alone, to make it work for so long of a time. I guess it was up to him.

CURTAIN FALL.

Johnny Borgan

8 thoughts on “A Rolling Thunder Review: Don´t Ask Me Nothin´About Nothin´, I Just Might Tell You The Truth

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