Bob Dylan is a myth. Bob Dylan is an actor. Bob Dylan is the best songwriter of the 20th Century.
Bob Dylan is a savior. Bob Dylan is a fraud. Bob Dylan can be whatever you want him to be. Bob Dylan can’t be bothered to care.
Though in 1975, Bob Dylan was coming apart at the seams.
Following his first extensive tour in eight years in 1974 with his friends in The Band, Dylan documented the painful dissolution of his marriage to his first wife, Sara, on his brilliant album, Blood on the Tracks. It was a personal, vulnerable examination of love, loss, failure, forgiveness, regret, and longing. It was the sound of a wounded man holding his broken heart in his hands for the whole world to see.
So naturally, Dylan turned the tour in support of that intimate, heartbreaking album into… a rollicking, madcap carnival. For what he called the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan took centerstage as a vaudevillian court jester, singing through his pain while he hid behind a caked-on Kabuki mask of whiteface.
That unconventional tour is the focus of the new Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, directed by Martin Scorsese. The film interweaves modern day interviews with major players from the tour, including Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, and, in a comic twist, Sharon Stone (one of many fictionalized accounts of the tour used throughout the film), with live concert footage from that tour originally shot for Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara, as well as backstage clips, rehearsals, random tour hijinks, and impromptu jam sessions.
The Rolling Thunder Revue remains an interesting social and musical experiment that was groundbreaking both for what it set out to accomplish and what it didn’t. While contemporaries like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were crisscrossing America playing stadiums and arenas, taking in money hand over fist, Dylan mostly steered clear of the big venues and large cities, opting instead to take his roving musical circus to far flung locales and playing auditoriums, gyms, and smaller theaters. The tour fittingly launched in Plymouth, Massachusetts, as if the Revue was symbolically embarking on a discovery of a new land, or a new way, together.
Dylan was touring behind one of the best records of his career, yet he seemed determined to undersell the shows and turn his poignant songs into a communal, celebratory experience that he shared with his friends and fans. There’s even footage of him actually driving the tour bus.
“No, it wasn’t a success. Not if you measure success in terms of profit,” Dylan reflects about the tour in a recent interview used in the film. “But it was a sense of adventure. So, in many ways, yes, it was very successful.”
Dylan sharing his tender, plaintive songs in what Rolling Thunder tour mate Allen Ginsberg referred to as a “con man carny medicine show” is reminiscent of Beck’s tour in support of his glorious breakup album, Sea Change. Beck brought along the Flaming Lips to not only open the show, but to serve as his backing band. Wayne Coyne and company added their madcap psychedelic shenanigans to Beck’s raw, heart wrenching songs, bringing some cosmic levity to material that was buried in the misery of lost love.
In both circumstances, these artists were able to deflect the personal pain and agony of their situation with a live spectacle where the focus wasn’t entirely on them. There were plenty of distractions to keep the audience entertained. Hell, Dylan even brought along ace guitarist Mick Ronson (fresh off being jettisoned from Bowie’s Spiders From Mars) for the tour and apparently never talked to him once. It was all for the sake of the show itself, giving Dylan someone else to try and hide behind.
“We didn’t have enough masks on that tour,” Dylan admits. “We should have had a mask for everybody. If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”
While the Rolling Thunder Revue (and Scorsese’s documentary) blurred the lines between truth and lies, carnival and con job, the musical performances themselves were absolutely stellar. Dylan was backed by five guitarists who helped create a wall of sound that gave his desperate, lovelorn songs an electric jolt. In addition to Ronson, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, Steven Soles, and David Mansfield all added their guitar tones to the travelling sonic circus. Add in the rich vocals of Baez and Joni Mitchell (who made a guest appearance at a Connecticut tour stop and enjoyed it so much she stayed on for the rest of the tour), Scarlet Rivera’s sonorous violin, Rob Stoner’s steady bass, and Howie Wyeth’s pounding drums, and you had a potent, boisterous live band that injected Dylan’s songs with a rowdy edge. The documentary is filled with inspired, vital live performances that make clear why this tour is worthy of such grand documentation as well as reverent mythologizing.
Of course, Dylan downplays the significance of the tour. “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about. And I don’t have a clue,” he says with a laugh. “Because it was about nothing. It’s just something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago that I wasn’t even born yet. What remains of that tour to this day? Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”
Thankfully out of those ashes and Dylan’s broken heart, plenty of musical magic took place that still resonates to this day. In an era where big shows are carefully choreographed and strategically planned, it is refreshing to see a group of artists taking risks and recklessly following their creative muse, not knowing where it will lead them nor caring about how their work is ultimately received. The beauty of the Rolling Thunder Revue was in the journey, not the destination.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Or finding anything,” says Dylan. “Life is about creating yourself. And creating things.” And there was a boundless amount of self-invention each time the curtain rose on the Rolling Thunder Revue, with these artists revealing who they are and who they aspire to be, with and without the masks.