Shelter from the Storm: Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Years By Sid Griffin
Of the many different periods in the career of Bob Dylan, the years 1975-76 were particularly productive on a variety of fronts: the recording of Desire, two Rolling Thunder Revue tours, filming of Renaldo & Clara, and the TV special Hard Rain. And all this after a year that saw a massive tour with the Band and the release of Blood on the Tracks, which many Dylanologists (including Rocks Off) believe is his best record.
Author Griffin, who previously penned Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band and The Basement Tapes, again uses new and existing interviews from principals and his own analysis to chronicle these two crucial years, with the Revues as his centerpiece.
Dylan had long toyed with the idea of a traveling musical "carnival" inviting friends (Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth, Ramblin' Jack Elliott), musical acquaintances, (Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera), guests (Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Kinky Friedman), Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and whoever else showed up for a series of loose-limbed shows often lasting 3-4 hours and only announced the day before.
Playing covers and their own tunes in various groupings, audiences had not seen anything like Rolling Thunder before. And while Dylan was definitely the star attraction, every performer got a chance to shine.
Griffin uncovers many tour nuggets not in either Sam Shepherd's Rolling Thunder Logbook or Larry "Ratso" Sloman's excellent On the Road with Bob Dylan, including the fact that one woman's main job on the jaunt seemed to be caring for Dylan's trademark wide gray hat which appears on the cover of Desire and that he wore onstage every night.
He also delves into Renaldo & Clara, the much-maligned (even by those who've never actually seen it) four-hour opus that was either a brilliant Dylan-esque adoption of French New Wave cinematic techniques ahead of its time, or a self-indulgent bore with no storyline, poor "acting" by musicians, and only saved by concert footage.
Regardless, Griffin's exploration of Dylan's intent and editing technique based on math and themes instead of storyline sense or plot development, is enlightening. However, given that the film was never re-released and has yet to see the light of day on home video, one chapter's scene-by-scene (including excised bits) dissection makes for a bit tedious reading.
Oddly, while most RT shows were recorded, the only live releases have been the weak Hard Rain and the much-better Bootleg Series Vol. 5. It is in the latter that audiences can at least hear how much fun the shows must have been, with jaunty live arrangements replacing more staid studio counterparts on many numbers.
Houston's Astrodome makes a cameo as the site of the May 8, 1976 "Night of the Hurricane 2" benefit show for imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Not surprisingly, the Dome's acoustics are remembered as "woeful," and the air-conditioning at the less-than-capacity event "intensified the prevailing Texas humidity."
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To spark interest and ticket sales, acts like Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson were added to the bill - although RT member Roger McGuinn admits today that when the Red-Headed Stranger stepped up to share a mike with him, the ex-head Byrd had no idea who the scruffy, hirsute singer was.
Interestingly, it was then-Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz who stole the show from its scheduled location, the Louisiana Superdome, in a bid to show off the city and its facility. "It still stands at 8400 Kirby Dr., Houston," Griffin says of the structure. "A monument both to thinking big and to civic folly."
After Rolling Thunder came the Sermon on the Mount years, which found Dylan converting to a strain of Christianity that resulted in three straight gospel records and concerts in which he refused to play any secular hits and often berated his paying customers from the stage - far cry from the man who, during the Rolling Thunder tours, proved an amiable, even personable host for the audience for this ramshackle traveling circus. Griffin's book is a succinct, welcome addition to the Dylan bookshelf.
Jaw Bone Press (www.jawbonepress.com), 256 pp., $19.95