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Published: 2002/11/23
by Jesse Jarnow

Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue – Bob Dylan


"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" – which opens the second disc in the latest
installment of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, capturing highlights of
1975's Rolling Thunder Revue tour – is a send-off song. That's easy. There
are many ways to read it. At just about every point in his career, one could
point out any number of wives, girlfriends, flunkies, junkies, movements,
drugs, or gods that Dylan was in the process of casting off — and that's
part of the attraction of his myth. The first two times I sat down to listen
to this album, I wrote in straight rambles, ending up with almost 3000
words, and probably fully half of the arguments I made could've been used as
a starting point for a review. So it goes.

1975 must've been a great time to be alive, or at least to be a Bob Dylan
fan. Here was the Rolling Thunder Revue, a motley crew of sidemen,
sycophants, and genuine superstars: Dylan himself; Bob Neuwirth, T-Bone
Burnett, and Mick Ronson in the backing band; Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg
and Ramblin' Jack Elliot along for the ride; and superstar guest appearances
at nearly every turn. On top of that, it was 1975, man. Richard Nixon was
gone, resigned and retired to California in shame the summer before. Gerald
Ford was in the White House and the Republicans were in retreat. Saturday
Night Live was rapidly becoming the first rock and roll television show. It
looked like, maybe, the '60s had finally won. It was, by all accounts, a
renaissance. And this was Dylan's first tour since then.

Following the recording and release of the triumphantly heartbreaking
Blood On The Tracks in 1974, Dylan had returned to Greenwich Village,
hanging out at coffeehouses, rounding up musicians, and generally
reinvolving himself in the real world. Why, he even wrote a genuine
protest song – "Hurricane" – his first in ages, about the boxer Ruben
Carter, then languishing in prison. And in the midst of this explosion, the
Rolling Thunder Revue tumbled out across the country in a manner which has
often been referred to as "barn storming": there were no announced
tourdates, just a rollicking party that turned up in small towns, booked
venues, and played shows all in the same day. Yeah, it must've been a
fucking great time to be a Bob Dylan fan. Hell, it must've been a great time
to be Bob Dylan!

The live album Hard Rain was culled from this tour, too, but that was
a souvenir. This is a document, man. There's great material here, and
it's relevant — for Dylanologists more than most, but pretty relevant to
most. Musically and personally, it's Dylan at his most megalomaniacal.
(Rumor has it that Dylan had a separate truck on tour just to hard all the
random swill he purchased on the road.) Listen to Dylan's voice: he's on top
of the world and he knows it. It's the inflections of the words, the way he
yawps them, the way the voice breaks at the right places. His voice is
preachy, of course, but there's not too much subtlety. Most of the vocals
are shouted.

Dylan was right, of course, and maybe he was the prophet once again: the
Movement was over and Dylan was pointing towards the future — an excess of
ego and money and drugs and booze and women and whatever else (which, of
course, would bottom out on some level with Christian period a few short
years later). But if Dylan wasn't outlining the Me Generation in
extra-musical terms, then he was certainly singing about it, albeit perhaps
not intentionally.

Because he's Bob Dylan, there's always a sense – in the past and present
tense – that what he's doing is Important. And, because of that, one gets
the sense that everything written about him must have a sense of Importance
about it, a sense of grand schemes. It's very easy to pin Dylan to cultural
things. In the chaos, it's also easy to forget that his songs were personal,
weird things — especially the ones on Blood On The Tracks and
Desire (recorded shortly before the commencement of Rolling Thunder).
In the context of a live show and, by extension, this double set, it's hard
to approach the kind of intimacy one gets with Blood On The Tracks.
You don't get the secret pleasure of listening to it alone late at night.
Well, you can, but your private thoughts and personal interpretations of
Dylan's abstract systems of logic are validated (or invalidated) by the
cheers of 20,000 faceless people.

Taken literally, Dylan's contemporary abstractions – the material on
Blood On The Tracks and Desire – are pretty far from the folk
and blues byways of the American south, where he drew much of his early,
powerful material from. Songs like "Isis", "Simple Twist of Fate", and
others (some co-written with Jacques Levy) take place in romantic worlds,
European worlds, in cities in Spain, Morocco, and France. "Dust on my
face and my cape," he sings on "Romance In Durango". Cape? What's up,
Bob? The folkies who bugged out when Dylan went electric in 1965 were right:
he was about to move far, far away from them.

The short set he plays with Joan Baez on Rolling Thunder Revue is
completely comforting. I almost cried when I was listening to it for one of
the first times, driving around on Long Island with my dad. It must've
seemed like a return to form, to the golden age. "Bobby will be back," Joan
(Joanie?) promises after "I Shall Be Released". Bobby: the frazzled
bright-eyed kid from Minnesota who crashed on people's couches and churned
out these amazing little gems of folk songs drawing on every tradition of
the folk scene and soaking up new music like a sponge. You know, the
kid. Famously, Dylan donned white face makeup for many of the shows
on the Rolling Thunder tour — as is depicted in several photos in the lush
liner notes. In one of them, one can only see the square of Dylan's face
outlined by the white, and one can easily see the gaunt man-child from the
cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’.

But, despite outward trappings, Dylan was still worlds removed from all of
that. The version of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on the first disc is sung
triumphantly, the song turned into a driving blues, ala "It Takes A Lot To
Laugh, It Takes Train To Cry" from Highway 61 Revisited. What was
once a song of social protest is turned into a sneering stomp with a
rollicking refrain. The sound is dense, and – looking at the pictures in the
liners with myriad acoustic and electric guitars – it's a wonder that the
group made discernible music at all.

Most notable, though, is "Hurricane", the clear centerpiece of
Desire. Though Dylan was making a point of playing small theaters
with the Rolling Thunder Revue, it was a futile gesture. He was still Bob
Dylan and it was still 1975, and by the following spring he was forced to
bring his troupe into Madison Square Garden — quite a different venue for a
protest than a dumpy little coffeehouse in Greenwich Village. He prefaces
the Rolling Thunder version with an appeal: "if you've got any
political pull at all, maybe you could help us get this man out of jail and
back onto the streets". At the height of Dylan's Village days, a statement
like that couldn't be taken for anything more than typical humor for a bunch
of post-blacklist lefties. In 1975, Dylan was one short year from being
invited to perform at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.

And, as for "Hurricane", it's a downright angry song. "The trial was
a pig-circus," he sings. It was a very different approach from Bobby Dylan,
whose song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was once praised for its
"fierceness without an angry tone", and whose "Masters of War" – while angry – wasn't directed at anybody in specific. "Hurricane" is clearly a powerful
song, both topically and musically (the occasional drop outs where the band
is driven by Luther Rix's kick drum are riveting), but there's something
about it that rubs me the wrong way, the same thing that gets rubbed by
Dylan's delivery of the "Blowin' In The Wind" chorus here: it's a Dylan who
seems downright happy to gloat.

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