Thursday, April 14, 2011

Midweek Musical Muse XIII - The Rolling Thunder Revue

In the mid 1970s Bob Dylan’s career was back to shining as brightly as stadium floodlights after some years of candlelight flickering in the musical alleys of the time. During the second peak of his career he gave us an extravagant, theatrical musical experience: The Rolling Thunder Revue.

In January 1975 he had just released one of the best albums of his career, Blood on the Tracks, an intimate, confessional affair, many critics believed was about his broken marriage to Sara Dylan, although Dylan himself, in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Vol 1, said it had nothing to do with his personal life. But being the storyteller he is could we ever take Dylan at his word? He was about to release another classic album and one of my personal Dylan favorites, Desire, in January 1976, a mix bag of various musical styles, rich folk tales, weird detours and strange characters, as only Dylan can put together. Squeezed in between these two albums he came up with one of the strangest plans for a Rock and Roll tour, an extravaganza of performances, reminiscent of days when the Ringling Bros. Circus would travel from town to town and proudly proclaim “The circus’s in town”, with many artists, a unique set, and some of the wildest and weirdest recreations and interpretations of his songs. The Rolling Thunder Revue has come to town!

He had the strangest bunch of people on the tour: A mixture of theatrical actors and backstage troupes to political wannabees and musical cling-ons, from accomplish musicians to poets and playwrights. This was typical Bob Dylan. Different, unexpected, innovative, doing his own thing, nothing perfectly organized or synchronized, off the cuff and loving it. It was a rolling, mobile circus. It seemed everyone was welcome and at times there were more than a 100 folks in the entourage. Some of the shows were between 3 to 5 hours long.

He assembled a new band and called it Guam, God know why, but maybe just because he could. He took the sessions musicians from the Desire album: Scarlet Rivera (violin), Rob Stoner (bass) and Howie Wyeth (drums) and added multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield and David Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. Along came Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Anne Waldman, as well as playwright Sam Shepard (as Dylan's scriptwriter), record producer Bobby Neuwirth and many more interesting characters. From time to time actor Dennis Hopper and perennial wannabee politician Kinky Friedman joined as did folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Canadian folkies Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, and last, but not least, the female star of this Revue opposite Dylan, Joan Baez.

He rented Frank Zappa’s tour bus and started the tour on Halloween night 1975 (was there a specific reason behind the date?), in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The tour could well have been the most documented rock tour until that time. Two NBC television specials were taped during the tour, a professional sound team recorded everything and many hours, more than a hundred hours of the tour were caught on tape for the Dylan movie Renaldo and Clara.

The movie, which I had the pleasure(?) of seeing many years ago in Rosebank, Johannesburg, of all places, is one of those movies that, at the end of it, makes you wonder why you just wasted 4 hours of your life sitting through it. There was no real storyline or too many, I don’t know, and if there were any storylines I missed it. Maybe I was too old to understand back then, “I am younger than that now”*

Intersperse between stage footage of Dylan in a white-painted face resembling, what I thought, either an American Indian warrior wielding his guitar like an axe or theatrically imitating a mime in trance by music and smoke, but one that can sing, there were too many rambling-on-forever discussions about politics, rock and roll life, and nothing in particular in seedy bars, backstage hole-in-the-walls and bare-tabled, cheap joints eateries. There were attempts at being funny and others at being serious, nearly always badly acted. It was hard to sit through it. Nevertheless, I liked his flower-decorated hat. The only scene I can remember today was Dylan, or Renaldo, on a cold snowy day, somewhere on or near what I thought was the Canadian border, why I thought that I have no idea anymore, selling or exchanging Joan Baez, or Clara, to a farmer for a horse. Well, that was my interpretation of it. So typically Dylanesque. Reminds me of the article, as recalled by Marianne Faithfull, of an event in the Sixties, probably 1965 when Dylan was in England, when Dylan came up to her one day and told her he wrote a song for her, but he also wanted to have sex with her. She was seventeen, pregnant and about to get married and didn’t wanted to cheat on her would be husband and said no. Well, Dylan tore up the song in front of her, turned around and walked away. For all his mastery at being a lyricist and making his fans feel warm and fulfilled by the stories he told and interesting characters he created, he can be cold and calculating.

From the first leg of the tour: Tangled Up In Blue

The Rolling Thunder Revue was over two legs. The first leg took place during the fall/autumn of 1975 through mostly New England towns and some shows in Canada, ending on December 8 at Madison Square Garden in New York. During the spring of 1976 the Revue continued through the south and southwest of America with the final show on May 23, 1976 in Fort Collins, Colorado, where the show was taped for a NBC television special, broadcast in September that year. However, most critics agreed the Rolling Thunder Revue was a magical musical experience, Dylan at some of his best, but that the second leg was not as good, not as spontaneous, as the first leg. Rolling Stone magazine exclaimed "The Rolling Thunder Revue, so joyful and electrifying in its first performances, had just plain run out of steam,"**

Apart from the movie Renaldo and Clara, the tour sprouted two albums: Hard Rain, mostly recorded during the last show from the second leg of the tour and released in 1976, and The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue, which was only released in 2002, from the first leg of the tour.

Everyone will have their own opinion whether the latter album is better album than the former or vice versa. I rate both albums excellent because they both provide me with a Bob Dylan that is livelier, excited and focused on alternative interpretations of his music. I know some people don’t like that. I had a colleague that labeled At Budokan, another Dylan live album, as Dylan’s worse album ever simply because of the alternative interpretation of the song Ballad of a Thin Man. Some people always want to hear the songs like they heard it the first time. Well, life changes from time to time. Artists have mood swings. Get use to it!

Listen to Isis, from piano infused original to a guitar twanging swinger, or how he nearly reggaed It Ain’t Me, Babe, and to the toned-down, tone-changed Simple Twist of Faith on the Bootleg Series album. And how different is You’re a Big Girl Now on Hard Rain; the original being soft, tender and mellowed while the live version is cold, hard and angry, nearly like the hard rain that fell throughout that day in Fort Collins.

Hell, the man can Rock…he ain’t a rock. He is allowed to be different from day to day, from same song to same song, and many of us, I certainly do, dig it that he gave us different versions of the same musical poetry.

*   From the song “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan
** Janet Maslin (July 12, 1979). "Album Reviews: Bob Dylan: At Budokan". Rolling Stone.

From the second leg of the tour: One Too Many Mornings