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Why Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue Is So Resonant Today

Bob Dylan. (Courtesy Netflix)
Bob Dylan. (Courtesy Netflix)

It’s not every night I sleep on the street outside the Wang Theatre. But I was hardly the only one camped out on an unseasonably warm November night in 1975. Word had spread underground that the mythic Rolling Thunder Revue was coming to town. A friend in rock promoter Don Law’s office had called and wink-wink-nudge-nudged to me, “Tickets for a certain show are going on sale tomorrow morning at the Music Hall" (the much comelier moniker for what is now the Boch Center's Wang Theatre).

Say no more, my friend. I showed up on Tremont Street — then the Combat Zone, now the Theater District — sometime around 9 p.m., armed with a sleeping bag, a parka and a pack of Marlboros. I had already seen the Rolling Thunder Revue as the plus-one for rock biographer Stephen Davis when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott descended on the Providence Civic Center. (Speaking of naming rights, it’s now the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.)

There are a handful of concerts in your life that you know are life-changing and the Rolling Thunder Revue, now the subject of a Martin Scorsese documentary and a 14-CD set of Dylan’s part in the concerts, was one of them. I wasn’t about to let a chance to see it in a more up-close and personal space. What made it so transformative and why the sudden interest in recapturing its spirit?

The Dylan chronology from 1965 to 1975 is well-known. He had torn the roof off folk music (and rock ‘n’ roll) in 1965, plugging in his guitar and going on tour with the band that would become The Band. Then the 1966 motorcycle accident and his “disappearance,” the '68 bootleg album that became "The Basement Tapes"; the ‘69 “Nashville Skyline” escape into country domesticity, all the while refusing to tour. When he did go back on the road with The Band in 1974, Dylan was a full-fledged rock star, and the role didn’t really suit him. That he was rough around the edges vocally while The Band had become the smoothest group around also made for a strange kind of disconnect.

These were dispiriting times in music and in life. The values of the ‘60s were dead in the water, Richard Nixon sounding the death knell when he trounced George McGovern in 1972 after ending the draft. As Dylan says early in the Scorsese film, “Saigon had fallen. People had lost their sense of conviction for just about anything.”

Throughout his career his art has seesawed between reinvention and reintegration. Dylan’s mid-‘60s reinvention involved more than electric guitars. He resolutely refused to sing any of his protest songs and took on the folkie establishment in songs like “Positively Fourth Street.” But a restless, hungry feeling set in 10 years later.

The 1974 Band tour set list ended with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of the songs he refused to sing in the mid-‘60s, causing the folkie fascists to call him a Judas. The music, though, sounded more like an announcement than a cry from the heart, a sign that he was merely playing at being Bob Dylan.

Ironically, it was by covering his face with white paint that he could actually be Bob Dylan again, that and by inviting along many of the people who reflected his history — Jack Elliott, one of Dylan’s mentors from his early days in New York City; Joan Baez from his protest period; Allen Ginsberg, an inspiration for his beat-poetry lyrics; Roger McGuinn from the folk-rock revolution. Also on board were new discoveries like singer Ronee Blakley, who had starred in Robert Altman’s recent “Nashville” and violinist Scarlet Rivera, who fit right in with the nonconformist troupe.

A still from "Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese." (Courtesy Netflix)
A still from "Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese." (Courtesy Netflix)

It was such a complete reintegration that he made it seem that musical labels were ultimately ridiculous. It was all just great music and great songwriting. The new band gave him a musical flexibility that The Band did not. He went easily from “It Ain’t Me, Babe” taken at a fox-trot pace to a hard-rock “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And, if songs about breaking up and the apocalypse can be said to be fun, these versions were a blast. Dylan has never looked like he was enjoying himself onstage more and even Baez said that the spirit of the Revue let her do things onstage that she never would have done in her shows, like frugging sensually to McGuinn’s “Eight Miles High.” Many of the Dylan-Baez duets in the Sony/Columbia set are breathtaking, particularly the traditional “The Water is Wide” and Johnny Ace's “Never Let Me Go.”

In the end, it was as if the ‘60s were back, not in some pallid attempt at resurrecting that overhyped era, but in trying to celebrate what was best about the communalism and artistic freedom of the past and to say it’s possible to live a life in revolt against the corporations and the Nixonian politics of the present.

In the end, it fell apart. The economics of the show didn’t work and the spirit turned bad. Dylan’s post-“Desire” songwriting was indistinct, his next tour was a dud and he ultimately got religion, a Christian “Trouble No More” phase that’s more interesting now than it was at the time.

He got his swagger back in the ‘90s and he’s been increasingly generous in letting others dissect his art — playwright Conor McPherson with the masterful musical, “Girl from the North Country,” which is coming to Broadway next year, and now the Scorsese film. And though the times have changed, there’s still a lesson to be learned from the high spirits, lefty politics and creativity on display in the movie.

While Dylan says at the end of the film that nothing remains of the film but ashes, Scorsese is wise to leave the summation cum blessing to Ginsberg at the end of the tour:

Take from us some example. Try to get yourself together, clean up your act, find your community. Pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness, become more mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper meditation, your own proper art, your own beauty. Go out and make it for your own eternity.

Will do, Allen. Thank you, Bob.

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Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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