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Behind Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Tour

When the voice of a generation became the man of a thousand masks, and what we—and he—lost

David Yaffe
June 21, 2019
Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

“I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.” So says Bob Dylan, 78 years old, in full pancake makeup and carny barker regalia at the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue.

Of course Dylan remembers 1975. He was cranky and making a joke. Dylan could remember even further back: Hibbing, punching in at his father’s electrical appliance store, seeing Elvis for the first time, ditching the name Zimmerman and dropping out of college to meet Woody Guthrie, reading Rimbaud, busking on MacDougal Street, dashing off “Blowin’ in the Wind” in about 10 minutes, Joan Baez, Acoustic Newport, Electric Newport, the motorcycle accident, marriage, children. By 1975, Dylan’s wife, Sara Lownds, was done with him. He wrote a song, “Sara,” trying to get her back, and sang it on every date of Rolling Thunder.

He had been born for all those experiences, but each time, at least in public, he was wearing another mask. For Rolling Thunder, his mask of choice, as he told journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, was the whiteface of Commedia dell’arte. “If someone’s wearing a mask he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely,” Dylan quips with a smirk.

Those masks used to be used in the service of truth, or so Dylan claims. But are they still? Billed as “A Bob Dylan Story,” Scorsese’s film feels like something of a scam, one of the documentaries that the great auteur and music fan has released since 2005 which feel signed, rather than directed. So it is hard to tell whose vision is being channeled here, or how dishonestly.

Dylan first emerged telling tall tales about his name, his background, and pretty much everything else in Nat Hentoff’s 1963 liner notes for Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. But listen to the music on that album, and all of the many high points beyond it, and we get a deeper truth few ever capture. It’s why we keep coming back to the erratic genius of Dylan, and why we are crestfallen when he is not in optimal form.

In 1975, when Dylan set out on the tour that became Rolling Thunder, he was outdoing himself ad infinitum. That year, he released Blood on the Tracks, one of the most emotionally intimate albums Dylan, or anyone else, would ever make, centered around the collapse of his marriage. He was back in New York City again, playing spontaneous gigs at Gerde’s Folk City, where it all began, and hanging out with old friends, like Allen Ginsberg and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and new ones, like Patti Smith. (Smith, somewhat manically, huddles in conspiracy with Dylan in a stairwell, while she holds up a picture of Rimbaud and compares him to Superman.) Ginsberg, seen in full guru mode on a beach with a long, flowing beard, recalls, “Rumor had it that the inspired Dylan was back, gathering his forces.”

The rumors were true. On tour, Dylan, who could be notoriously indifferent to his own material, sang as if every note—every word, every syllable—mattered like his life depended on it. In Rolling Thunder, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” became a blistering blues. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” became a furious rocker, with proto hip-hop internal rhymes, and a guttural, post-melodic attack. Lyrics were transfigured for “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” His cup was running over.

Dylan had another plan, which was to suddenly become a filmmaker, with a nearly five-hour, rambling improv film called Renaldo and Clara. He conscripted the mostly squandered talents of Sam Shepard—in the midst of igniting the American theater with Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child—as screenwriter. Shepard, who died in 2017, earns his honorarium with a taste of the freewheeling exchanges that ensued: “Take Shakespeare—Will. He grew up on Stratford-on-Avon, you know, where these rivers cross and it was way on the outskirts of London. And these troubadours and vagabonds and carnival people from all over were coming into London to perform. And they would stop at these crossroads of rivers. And as a kid, he’s seeing this. And then he writes those fuckin’ plays, you know?” And then Sam Shepard wrote his fuckin’ plays, and the tour bus rolled on.

Dylan was reunited with Joan Baez—recreating their king and queen of folk days from 1963-64. Their improvised dialogue about who hurt who and why is a revelation. (Dylan: It really displeases me that you went off and got married … Baez: You went off and got married first and didn’t even tell me. You should have told me. Dylan: But I married the woman I loved. Baez: That’s true. And I married the man I thought I loved. Dylan: See, that’s what thought has to do with it. Thought will fuck you up.)

Joni Mitchell, in an inspired flash between The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, came aboard in the midst. Her impromptu performance of a still unfinished “Coyote”—written about her flirtation with Shepard, with Roger McGuinn keeping up with her tablature and Dylan trying to—is a stunner. McGuinn announces that this is a song written on the tour, about the tour, and for the tour. In this footage, never before seen by civilians, we are there in Gordon Lightfoot’s Toronto apartment, witnessing Mitchell, like Dylan, flying too close to the sun.

What was it like? I have interviewed two performers on this tour, and they both volunteered that, just as circus performers were paid in wine, the Rolling Thunder troubadours were paid in cocaine. Recalling Rolling Thunder, Joni Mitchell told me, “Clowns used to be paid in booze, so I said, ‘Pay me in cocaine,’ because everybody was out of their minds.” (“Everybody” did not literally mean “everybody,” certainly not Joan Baez, among others. But it did mean more than a few.) If you are wondering why Dylan is taking songs from the just-recorded Desire album and selections of his earlier oeuvre and making them howl, screech, and brim with an almost desperate exuberance, a trail of white powder is not far behind. This was the circus, where one runs away from home and all its responsibilities.

Scorsese, of course, has made many films about failed marriages and cocaine, from Goodfellas to The Wolf of Wall Street. But neither the failed marriage nor the cocaine is ever mentioned in this film. Which is strange.

The most-seen footage from this tour—Dylan in whiteface singing “Tangled Up in Blue,” a devastating song of love lost—is not here. Nor is Sara Lownds, who appears in Renaldo and Clara as The Woman in White. The only footage of the reclusive Lownds that most people have ever seen is from Renaldo and Clara, but it is nowhere in this film, either. Nor is there a single performance of “Sara.”

Just as circus performers were paid in wine, the Rolling Thunder troubadours were paid in cocaine.

To replace all the real-world pain (and cocaine) that drove Dylan and his crew to such manic highs and lows come the whoppers. We are introduced to “Stefan Van Dorp,” a fake producer, played by Martin von Haselberg, who happens to be Bette Midler’s husband. “Rep. Jack Tanner,” a character from Robert Altman’s mockumentary Tanner ’88, also sounds off, as does Jim Gianopulos, who does exist, but whose involvement in Rolling Thunder is a complete fabrication. Sharon Stone gives an amusing performance as herself, but everything she says isn’t true. Dylan, while he did co-write a song with Gene Simmons much later, was not influenced by Kiss to wear white makeup.

(Photo: Netflix)
(Photo: Netflix)

These untruths, inserted by whatever combination of Dylan and Scorsese, are kind of funny, but to what end? It was surely more fun to Dylan and company to fabricate, but isn’t the point of a classic Scorsese film or masterful Dylan song to bring us closer to authentic emotions and uncomfortable truths? One has to tolerate the business at hand from 2019 Dylan and Scorsese, to get the good stuff from Dylan in ’75, or remember Scorsese in his prime from that period.

The archival footage in this film is a miracle. The present-day stuff is a con job. These new masks are another disappearing act, and an evasion of the performer’s responsibility to anyone, including himself. Bob Dylan of 2019, meet Bob Dylan of 1963: “I just want you to know I can see through your masks.”

But what a miracle 1975 was. We get the songs, persistently vivid and all too real. “Isis,” says Dylan from the stage, is “a song about marriage,” and dedicated to Leonard Cohen in Montreal. Dylan is not hiding behind a guitar. He defends himself with Kabuki-like gestures. His eyes are completely vulnerable and plaintive, but also running full-speed ahead. It is a new song, not to be released until Desire the next year, co-written with Jacques Levy.

Dylan is telling the story of an ancient Egyptian myth while really giving his autobiography—concluding when he belts out, in clangorous harmony with bassist Rob Stoner, “I still can remember the way that you smiled/On the fifth day of May in the drizzling rain.” His voice goes up at the end of each line. His eyes look innocent one moment and wired the next. And as he belts, he seems furious. But between the lines, he’s scared. His makeup is still on, but his mask is off.

No one in this film tries to talk about what these songs mean. But we get them in their full-bleed glory.

As the tour goes on, the whiteface makeup starts to come off, and Dylan’s eyes—“bluer than robin’s eggs” sang Joan Baez—are on fire. The edifice is crumbling. The circus has to shut down eventually. The fun will be done. There will be new people to confide in, and even more to ignore.

Dylan clung so hard to Rolling Thunder, he staged a sequel in 1976, still solid—the album Hard Rain did not fully capture its virtues. Later that year, on Thanksgiving, he joined The Band onstage one last time, for another one-night carnival, documented in The Last Waltz by a young and hungry Marty Scorsese, fresh off Taxi Driver. The Band was saying farewell to the road, but Dylan was addicted. His epic reimagination of his entire oeuvre as angry, edgy, cathartic rock ’n’ roll would be another miracle he could never quite recreate. Dylan would continue with his tall tales all the way to the Nobel Prize, where his speech contained passages from SparkNotes. The ending credits list all of Dylan’s shows from 1976 to 2018, and he’s still racking up the dates (38 shows so far this year).

“What remains of that tour?” Dylan asks himself at the end. “Nothing. Ashes.” When you’re Dylan, you’re only as good as your last mask. And the mask that we are watching now is decaying right in front of us.

The Dylan of 1975, while not always coherent, is also never jaded, and, in the performance clips from this Bob Dylan Story, he does not appear to be holding anything back. “Life,” says the contemporary Dylan, “isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself and creating things.” Unless it turns out that he cribbed this from a kung fu movie, this is the most lucid and honest thing the recent Dylan ever tells us. And yet when you watch this exquisitely preserved footage, you think, “There he is! I can see and hear him so clearly! He’s vivid, he’s vital, he is changing my life all over again!” No one, not even Bob Dylan, can ever take that feeling away.


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David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack:

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