Start of the Rolling Thunder Review 

From the making of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street to the Allman Brothers Band's Live at the Fillmore East, the 1970s were splashed with these rare atomic moments—these time-stopping bursts of brilliance that defined an age. But when Bob Dylan unfurled the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, in contrast to the decadence that marked the era, this gypsy road show paid tribute to the longstanding tradition of American bohemianism—the traveling carnivals of the Old West, the 1930s Dust Bowl exodus, the pioneering spirit of the Beat mystics. Rolling Thunder was not only the seismic pinnacle of Dylan's epic career, but the inspired capstone of a very special era, when creative prowess could still trump the bottom line.

How it Fell Together

By the end of the '60s, Bob Dylan's songwriting bonfire had smoldered to embers. His 1970 album Self Portrait was a flop and by 1973, with little new material worth mentioning, Dylan was seeking to revisit the magic of his 1965-66 heyday. He finally hit pay dirt in 1974 with Blood on the Tracks, the album that would jettison his career into all-new creative peaks. The next year, Dylan moved back to Greenwich Village, which at the time was experiencing a creative renaissance centered the Other End clubthe place to be in summer 1975. Besides Dylan, other major talent funneled into the scene, then exploding with a new swell of energy. Dylan's longtime friend, the demiurgic tempest known as Bobby Neuwirth (who co-wrote “Mercedes Benz” with Janis Joplin), had recently released an all-star album, and the Other End became the epicenter of activity, with all variety of hipster luminaries sharing the stage during Neuwirth's week-long run at the venue. In a collision of generations, rising stars like Bette Midler and avant Beat rocker Patti Smith mixed with Village vets such as folk great Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Meanwhile, having just come off the grueling Tour '74 with The Band, Dylan had been visiting incarcerated middleweight pugilist Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and was collaborating with Jacques Levy to co-write, among others, a song championing Carter's innocence for his album-in-progress, Desire. Zapped with new inspiration—and itching to get out there and perform his new song for Carter's release—Dylan's long-fermenting idea of a rock 'n' roll gypsy caravan quickly gelled.

The Rolling Thunder Rota

Dylan was certainly in good company. While working on the album, theater guru and co-lyricist Levy (co-writer of “Chestnut Mare” with Roger McGuinn), became the Rolling Thunder Revue's theatrical stage director. Between the throng of personalities at the Other End and the battery of musicians that packed nightly into the studio for Desire, there was plenty of talent for Dylan to pick from for the Rolling Thunder ensemble. With Dylan, Levy, and Neuwirth as the creative core, the Rolling Thunder band—dubbed “Guam” for the tour—would feature first and foremost the Desire sessions musicians: Scarlet Rivera (who Dylan literally and plucked off the street after spotting her violin case), Rob Stoner (bass), and Howie Wyeth (drums).The rest of Guam consisted of an all-star cast of the fabulously hip, including Joan Baez, singer Ronee Blakley (star of the film Nashville), folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliot, ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, Steven Soles (vocals), guitarist T-Bone Burnett, Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Anne Waldman, playwright Sam Shepard (as Dylan's scriptwriter), actor Harry Dean Stanton, Rolling Stone reporter Larry Sloman (tour documentarian), and a pile of special guests such as Canadian folk greats Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.

On the Road

For entourage transportation, Dylan rented Frank Zappa's bus, aptly named Phydeaux (Fido). The tour began on Halloween 1975 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, then swung across New England and Canada, finally ending at Madison Square Garden on December 8. Book-ended by shows in St. Peterburg, Florida and Fort Collins, Colorado between April and May, 1976, the tour passed through its second phase, featuring Rolling Thunder alumni from the last leg, as well as a new set of faces, including future Texas gubernatorial contender, Kinky Friedman. Even actor Dennis Hopper made the roll call along the way.

With a shows three-and-a-half to five hours in length and the entourage at times numbering upwards of a hundred souls, this was definitely not your average tour. The show would begin with emcee Bobby Neuwirth's introductions. Joan Baez would then launch into a three-song set, followed by a couple duets with Dylan, such as “Blowin' in the Wind” and “I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.” Ramblin' Jack Elliot would then do a two or three-song set, followed by T Bone Burnett, etc. After this five or six song set from the ensemble, Dylan would then emerge for a full show, featuring music from Blood on the Tracks and his forthcoming album Desire, along with plenty from his '60s repertoire.

As Not Seen on TV

The Rolling Thunder Revue is probably the most thoroughly documented concert tour ever caught on film. But despite two live NBC television specials being taped, along with 105 hours of footage captured for Renaldo and Clara (Dylan's four-hour experimental movie partly based on the tour), Rolling Thunder remains one of the most obscure events in American music history. Aside from a handful of concert clips scattered across YouTube, very little Rolling Thunder footage is available for public consumption. For audiophiles, The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue is a two-disc compilation released in 2002. Early buyers snagged a limited-edition bonus DVD which features live footage of Dylan doing “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Isis.” However, as of yet, hardcore hopefuls still await an unlikely Renaldo and Clara DVD release.  - Ben Corbett


    As reported in Rolling Stone 11/20/1975






Rolling Thunder Revue Page (with pictures) link

Rolling Thunder Revue - Wikipedia

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