The rhythm of the times is always changing. One minute, it’s a heartbeat away from nuclear oblivion, the next it’s the folding of the Vietnam War, another it’s planes flying into skyscrapers in an azure New York sky. One minute it’s 1975, another it’s 2019. Time is a jetplane, it moves too fast. It’s now. It’s a lifetime ago. It’s a blur, it’s unreliable memoirs, it’s bound in cold hard facts.
And here is a man for whom time has never stood still. Here is one who performs at the edge, and is the edge. Here is one who is busy being born so as not to be busy dying. Here is the artist who doesn’t look back. Here is Bob Dylan. Just a song and dance man, just a Nobel laureate for literature.
In the past week, the floodgates have reopened on the man, the myth, his life and times because of the premiere of the film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, directed by Martin Scorsese on Netflix. The film documents, to use the term somewhat loosely, the small-town tour Dylan did with a rambling, shambling entourage in 1975, and intersperses it with comments from those who were there. Even Dylan. The result is both cinema verite and fabulist. How could it not be when the opening scene is of magician Georges Méliès, who covers a woman sitting on a chair with a sheet and then the sheet is theatrically lifted and, of course, she’s not there. Subtle? Hit me with a hammer.
As Dylan says in the film, “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself, and creating things.”
If you are to believe Dylan what he remembers of the tour is virtually nothing. All that remains? Ashes.
Some may beg to differ, perhaps what’s left is diamonds and rust, to steal a line from Joan Baez about her relationship with Dylan. Those years are way over the horizon, nearly half a century ago, and yet come to life. While others have fallen by the wayside, Dylan keeps on keeping on. Still touring, still recording.
Dylan could probably see the eyes of those in the back row when he was performing. And what did the audience see? A man who more often than not wore white face paint, a mask.
The arc of Dylan’s career up to the mid-’70s had been vertiginous, soaring, stratified, stalled and restarted. Reinvented and reinvigorated, from a spokesman for his generation (never his term) to rock and lyrical iconoclast to retiring backwoodsman, burnt-out, injured from motorbike crash, to mining the muse. He was never gone, he just wasn’t where people wanted or expected him to be.
Dylan’s early ‘70s began not with a bang, but a whimper, first with Self Portrait and New Morning in 1970, songs for the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which did include the classic Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door) in 1973 and Planet Waves in 1974. Then came the bang, Blood on the Tracks in 1975, followed by Desire in 1976. He was back.
But which one? The film I’m Not There constructed Dylan’s life on distinct characters – “poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity, rock and roll martyr and born-again Christian”. So many windows into the house on the hill. Where is he now, which room is he in? It’s a mystery. Creation is a mystery.
In 1974, Dylan and The Band toured America (40 concerts in six weeks), which resulted in the live album Before The Flood. It was Dylan’s first tour since the high-intensity, flame-out concerts of 1966. The ‘70s also saw the merging of stadium rock and the corporate world. So what was the reaction of Dylan after the flood? The backwaters of America, theatres and small halls “in the traditional form of a revue”.
Dylan could probably see the eyes of those in the back row when he was performing. And what did the audience see? A man who more often than not wore white face paint, a mask. They saw a disparate group of musicians from Mick Ronson, of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band to Rambling Jack Elliott, to Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell came along for the ride for awhile and, of course, Joan Baez. There was even a poet, Allen Ginsberg. The film shows Dylan and Ginsberg visiting the grave of the ultimate beat Jack Kerouac.
Scorsese, who also directed No Direction Home, about Dylan’s tour of England, told The New York Times: “I think the tour was unique in that it tried to expand the conventions of what a music show would be at that time. So there were poets, filmmakers, playwrights, and all, without thinking about the economics, without thinking about what people had done in the past. Just a pure expression of music and joy.”
It is all that, and it is also a document of the times. Rolling Thunder was the phrase the US military used for its carpet bombing in the Vietnam War, or it could have just been a spark that came to Dylan when he heard thunder rolling across the sky.
It was a carnival come to town, the master showman bringing his songs old and new, sung now with power and passion, songs such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Isis, One More Cup of Coffee and Hurricane. And most times ending with Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land.
Asked in the film what it was all about, Dylan (surely his albatross), says: “I don’t have a clue. It’s 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, I wasn’t even born.”
It’s a joke, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
In 1975, Dylan had already travelled many a mile, conquered many a city, and here it is, 2019, and looking back, the journey had barely begun.