Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese Revisited
Intrepid Bob Dylan supporters rejoice when any obscure corner of his career is brought into light from the hidden confines of some inaccessible vault. For those of us who hadn’t necessarily kept up with the deluge of bootleg recordings made available through collectors’ markets, 1985’s Biograph boxset was a revelation for a number of reasons. First, it reminded us of what a prolific and varied artist Dylan was. Isolated from their parent albums and recontextualized, songs like “Señor,” “Every Grain of Sand,” and “I Believe in You” took on a new resonance. Biograph also contained numerous unreleased compositions, such as “Caribbean Wind” and “Abandoned Love” that were left off of his commercial releases for one reason or another. Mainly though, there were live versions of songs like “Isis” and “Romance in Durango,” from 1976’s Desire album and performed on Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour (before Desire was even released!), that most of us had only been able to read about in Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook.
Sam Shepard was hired to write dialogue for the movie Bob Dylan was filming during the Rolling Thunder Revue. That movie became the little-seen Renaldo and Clara. Wikipedia lists Renaldo and Clara as “Drama/Experimental” and “4h 52m.” It also lists the screenplay as by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, although much of the “dramatic” portions of the film (as opposed to the “live performance” sections) appear mostly improvised. Unfortunately, most of us will never get to experience the complete Renaldo and Clara in its full glory because the film has been locked away in a vault somewhere since its initial, financially unsuccessful, run, and inaccessible to curious Dylan devotees. Sources close to the Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese project insist that the negatives to Renaldo and Clara could not be located to work from. And, perhaps Sam Shepard’s screenwriting work was underutilized in the film, but he did publish The Rolling Thunder Logbook in 1977, which gave an insider’s perspective of the tour, demystifying it on one hand while mythologizing it on the other. Besides, who even knows what was written for, and included in, the film and what was improvised? There’s no way to tell and no one’s talking, especially those interviewed for Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.
Shepard went on to co-write one of Dylan’s best songs ever, “Brownsville Girl,” which is on an album that received confoundingly negative reviews, 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded. Shepard also provides some of the most cogent commentary in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. With a title as ambiguous as this, it is not entirely clear what the focus of the actual film will be: The Rolling Thunder Revue? Bob Dylan? Martin Scorsese? A Story?? Rolling Thunder participant Joan Baez gives the game away at a certain point by asking her interviewer, “Are you being funny? Okay, well, get to the point.” Joan Baez, too, stayed on-topic and focused on the subject at hand, and archival footage of the late Allen Ginsberg allows viewers a global and poetic overview of the Rolling Thunder enterprise from conception to completion. So, the question remains: Why would Martin Scorsese take the original footage that was shot during the 1975 tour, along with recent interviews from Dylan himself, along with Baez, Shepard, and other Rolling Thunder contributors, and mix in a bunch of fictional interviews with people who were not in any way associated with the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue?
Actress Sharon Stone was certainly not invited along on the tour, as her character “The Beauty Queen” informs us, to take care of the wardrobe; Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos (as “The Promoter”) was not a promoter for the tour; Director Stefan van Dorp, supposedly hired to film the original tour, simply does not exist. Although the claim that Dylan got the idea to wear white makeup onstage from seeing a KISS concert is pretty funny, especially when one remembers that he co-wrote a song with Gene Simmons in the early 90s. Unfortunately, Dylan followers know these constructed flights of whimsy are not factual or true, and casual Netflix observers, or curious Dylan first-timers, will probably accept these fictional misrepresentations at face value. For some reason, the film Renaldo and Clara, from which the original Rolling Thunder Revue footage was culled, is not mentioned by anyone. Obviously, this is deliberate, but why?
The Rolling Thunder tour has been revered by Dylan enthusiasts since it first took place, despite most people never coming any nearer to it than a rumor. Sure, articles and books have been written, pictures are published, the four-hour Renaldo and Clara film was released for a limited time to a limited number of theaters, and its abbreviated edited version took its place on select screens shortly thereafter. And then…the Thunder was gone. Just gone. Bootleg recordings kept the dream alive, somewhat, but the average music listener does not normally traffic in bootlegs. For those who bought the Biograph boxset, the inclusion of “Isis” and “Romance in Durango” from the Rolling Thunder Montreal show was a revelation. The performances are as on fire as the first line of “Romance in Durango”: “Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun.”
In 2002, The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue was released on compact disc and, up until then, it was the most commercially available documentation of that tour. It was a sort of “best-of” compilation of the tour on two discs with a comprehensive essay by Larry Sloman and a DVD that included a performance of “Isis” from the Montreal show (“This is for Leonard…if he’s still here”). Bootleg Vol. 5 was an attractive product and a welcome package, but it still felt incomplete somehow. If this incendiary footage of “Isis” was available for commercial release here, how much more of this stuff is there? This performance was too inspired to be locked away in some vault somewhere and there had to be hours more. Where was it? The Rolling Thunder Revue was like some Holy Grail existing in a mythical landscape eternally out of reach. Perhaps there just wasn’t an adequate distribution network that could handle a project of this magnitude until the streamers came along and Netflix opted in.
The original Renaldo and Clara has never been released on DVD and, released now, it would probably be more of a 4-hour curiosity for the uninitiated than a viable commercial prospect. Besides, Dylan had already put so much effort into the filming and editing of Renaldo and Clara initially (along with performing every night on the tour), that there was probably never any chance he would want to go back and re-live the experience again. Besides, he already had a fulltime job: He was either recording or touring or writing, or doing whatever Bob Dylan does in any downtime, and moving backwards to haggle over something he had completed some 40 years before seems highly unlikely and counterproductive. So, it makes sense that if the project ever was going to be revisited, it would have to be with someone who could curate the material with objectivity, sensitivity, and insight. And, who better to take the reins than Martin Scorsese. After expertly compiling Dylan’s mid-60s maelstrom in 2005’s No Direction Home, Scorsese seems like the obvious choice to bring the Rolling Thunder Revue back to life. So, what went wrong?
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is almost the film that Dylan fans have been desiring for years. At two hours and 22 minutes, it is a generous offering, with several songs allowed to play out for their full duration. It has more entertaining Allen Ginsberg commentary (as well as hairstyles; bearded, not bearded, clean-shaven, long hair, short hair) than probably any other documentary released this year, clear-eyed observations from Joan Baez and Sam Shepard, brief encounters with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Roger McGuinn, quality archive footage of Joni Mitchell debuting “Coyote” at Gordon Lightfoot’s Toronto house (Lightfoot had performed with the Revue that night) and Joan Baez dancing onstage to “Eight Miles High.” And the uninitiated will finally get to experience the wonder and magic that is Scarlet Rivera performing on violin; simply stunning. There are various snippets of improvisation from Renaldo and Clara, but then almost all of the footage that makes up Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is compiled by Scorsese and his team from Renaldo and Clara footage. And then, there’s all this other stuff.
What could have been a relatively straightforward documentary on the mystery and myth of the Rolling Thunder tour becomes a bit of a pseudo-comedy with the inclusion of fictional interviews describing fictional scenarios as if they had actually happened. Who thought this was a good idea is never made clear, and we will probably never know whose idea it was to go for the funny instead of sticking to the task at hand. Scorsese’s? Dylan’s? Netflix? Naturally, Dylan didn’t do anything to promote the movie, and Scorsese’s published interviews aren’t especially forthcoming. Dylan is obviously in on the joke, as he refers to “van Dorp” a couple of times during his interview for the film and swears not to remember anything about the original tour. “I wasn’t even born yet!” Dylan jokes, despite his seeming to have total recall of the 1960s for Scorsese in No Direction Home, and the 1960s, for Dylan, seemed more fraught in various ways than his 1970s, but that might just be a misperception. So, maybe the whole “fictional comedy bits” conceit of the film was Dylan’s idea all along. Maybe he just had no inclination to go digging into his past again, maybe he thought this would put a new twist on covering ground that had already been covered since 1975, maybe he just couldn’t be bothered.
But then again, Bob has always been a bit of a joker. In 1961, the year he arrived in New York City from Minnesota, he told interviewer Billy James that he joined a carnival at 13 years of age, he got his first guitar at the age of 10 in the South Side of Chicago, he was once a farmhand in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and that he had lived in Gallup, New Mexico. And, this was in 1961! More recently, his 2004 “autobiography” Chronicles: Volume One has been scrutinized for plagiarism at worst, which is a matter of perspective here, and hijinks and shenanigans at best. Upon release, the memoir received across-the-board accolades from the mainstream media and seemed to offer a glimpse into the protected private inner landscape of Bob Dylan’s work. Chronicles is really a remarkable document and a breezy read recounted in the homespun and carnival barker-ish voice/persona similar to the one Dylan utilizes in his No Direction Home interviews. However, valorous researcher (and musician) Scott Warmuth from New Mexico began discovering anomalies in the text that lead him to probe deeper into the text’s accounts of Dylan’s personal recollections. What he found might be shocking to some but is absolutely hilarious in the context of Dylan’s career.
For example, Warmuth discovered numerous similarities between the Chronicles text and various Jack London texts. “He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair,” Dylan writes in Chronicles; “He was broad-chested, powerfully muscled, of far more than ordinary size, and his neck from head to shoulders was a mass of bristling hair,” London wrote in 1902 short story “Bâtard.” “Ray was maybe ten years older than me-from Virginia he was like an old wolf, gaunt and battle-scarred,” Dylan “recounted” in Chronicles; “Then an old wolf, gaunt and battle-scarred, came forward,” London offered in his 1903 novel Call of the Wild. And on and on and fucking on. But it doesn’t stop there. Warmuth goes on to chronicle (!) Dylan’s use of “American classics and travel guides, fiction and nonfiction about the Civil War, science fiction, crime novels, both Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, Hemingway, books on photography, songwriting, Irish music, soul music, and a book about the art of the sideshow banner” in his “memoir”. Over the years, Warmuth has compiled hundreds of examples of Dylan’s cut-and-paste techniques woven into his work throughout the years, which may lead one to wonder: Is Bob Dylan pop music’s longest running performance art prank?
After all, there should be no dispute that Dylan is well-read, well-travelled, and knows that of which he speaks. As an associate of Allen Ginsberg since the 1960s, and a fan of Beat literature since encountering Jack Kerouac’s writing in 1959, Dylan would certainly be conversant with author William S. Burroughs and his impenetrable “cut-up” collage technique. Dylan has seemed to apply this technique to his work, whether he called it that or not, from very early in his career. For example, it has been noted how Dylan liberally mixed and matched Jack Kerouac’s 1965 novel Desolation Angels into his 1965 song “Desolation Row.” As Michael Goldberg observes in the anthology Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack:
Dylan slightly reworked four of Kerouac’s phrases for his song. Kerouac wrote, ‘They sin by lifelessness,’ which Dylan turned into ‘Her sin is her lifelessness.’ ‘Cabinets with memories in them’ became ‘memories in a trunk.’ ‘The perfect image of a priest’ became ‘a perfect image of a priest.’ ‘Get his letter’ became ‘received your letter.’ Historical figures that were in Kerouac’s book appear in Dylan’s song: Romeo, Einstein, Noah, and the Phantom of the Opera. Kerouac writes about a hunchback; Dylan name-drops the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Although perhaps not the cut-up method that Burroughs had envisioned, Dylan’s collage technique, even at this early stage of his career, reflect an artist more concerned with creating and inhabiting a particular literary landscape than spilling his guts all over the stage. Perhaps this is part of the reason that Bob Dylan has always expressed disdain for those who try to read too much into his lyrics or relate them to his private life. Perhaps this is why, in Chronicles, he writes, “Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories — critics thought it was autobiographical — that was fine.” One must wonder where all the outcry was amongst Kerouac scholars, academics, journalists, and other Dylanites in 1965 when “Desolation Row” was released on Highway 61 Revisited. Although poet Philip Larkin suggested the song has an “enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words,” the Sep 25, 1965 issue of Billboard magazine praised the album by writing, “the leader of the message songs is in top form throughout his story-telling material which includes a long cut called ‘Desolation Row.’ A blockbuster.”
And, despite Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times being released to universal critical acclaim and being his first US number one since Desire in 1976, it soon engendered accusations of appropriation and plagiarism. Critics accused Dylan of reworking old standards and blues songs, but especially galling to academics was his flagrant utilization of Civil War poet Henry Timrod’s verse. Of course, scholars were appalled, but when Dylan was confronted with the controversy in Rolling Stone by interviewer Mikal Gilmore in 2012, he made it sound like it was just another day at the office:
…as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing — it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
As if playing electric guitar and alluding to the work of an obscure Civil War poet weren’t enough, Dylan stirred up controversy again with showings of his paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City. “The Asia Series” was criticized for Dylan’s duplicating of famous, and not-so-famous, photographs, some sourced from someone else’s Flickr account lol. And, for Dylan fans, the fun is only just beginning. In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which, in itself, created a media firestorm, with many scholars and literary figures skeptical about Dylan’s qualifications for the Nobel as a songwriter and not as a “poet,” and debating the merits of Dylan’s winning the prize over someone of true literary stature (as if, somehow, the “Mr. Tambourine Man” line “But for the sky there are no fences facing” doesn’t qualify as “literary”). Dylan’s award caused some to go as far as to prophecy this as the death of literature! So, it must have provided a sense of vindication for naysayers when Dylan’s Nobel speech was later discovered to not only include bits and pieces of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but also, in truly enigmatic Dylan fashion, selections from the SparkNotes version of Moby Dick. Again, hilarious. And postmodern. And art.
Most criticism of Bob Dylan’s work suggests that he does not have an understanding of what he is doing. It also does not take into account that he does what he wants and what satisfies him and, on occasion, what may amuse him; him, and only him. Not you, not me, not people who write about what he should do or who tell him what he should have done. He has operated under this methodology longer than many of us have been alive, as if it has always been a kind of “contract” with his audience. Dylan has been presented a Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award by Gregory Peck, has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, was friends with Johnny Cash and, according to Tom Petty, “George [Harrison] quoted Bob like people quote Scripture.”
By following Dylan’s work, we know what we are getting, even if we don’t know what we are going to get; that’s part of the fun of being a Dylan fan. Never a dull moment. But ultimately, Rolling Thunder Revue isn’t a Bob Dylan composition: It is A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, and that is where the problem lies with this film. Martin Scorsese is listed as the director, so he would be accountable for what we see, and don’t see, onscreen.
Again, the original 1975 footage culled from the Bob Dylan-directed Renaldo and Clara, shot by Howard Alk, David Meyers, and Paul Goldsmith, and a small team of cinematographers who are never mentioned in Rolling Thunder, is magnificent. The contemporary interviews conducted for Rolling Thunder with tour participants like musician David Mansfield and singer/actress Ronee Blakely give the tour some firsthand perspective, but one must assume that there is more interview material in the vaults that could have been used in place of Scorsese’s comedy pranks. Many real people who were part of Rolling Thunder, whether living or dead, are absent from Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, people like longtime Dylan friend and tour producer Louis Kemp, musician T-Bone Burnett, co-songwriter and stage manager Jacques Levy…Levy died in 2004, but he co-wrote seven of the nine songs on Desire (the album released during the tour) and managed the stage production. Mick Ronson was there; doesn’t anybody from the tour have something to say about him? Bob Neuwirth, for God’s sake! All of these people, and more, are somewhat unceremoniously airbrushed out of A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.
Of course, everything that occurred during the tour can’t be included or discussed in Rolling Thunder Revue; it would probably be of little interest to the casual Netflix viewer. Plus, there may be gaps in the contemporary interview material that prevented Scorsese from presenting information in a particular way that suited his narrative. As reported, the Dylan team conducted interviews with various Rolling Thunder participants, including Dylan himself, and then passed them on to Scorsese to do as he pleased. Scorsese himself did not correspond with the interviewees, which may suggest the whole “van Dorp” business was Dylan’s idea from the beginning, and Scorsese just ran with it. Again, this would be Dylan throwing a mischievous monkey wrench into the machine to amuse himself and see how Scorsese would respond. But then again, we don’t know and probably never will.
Netflix promoted Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese as “part documentary, part concert film, part fever dream” and IMDb lists it as “an alchemic mix of fact and fantasy.” Well, one must promote something some way, I guess. It’s unfortunate that the unadulterated story of the Rolling Thunder Revue and its participants were not allowed to speak for themselves in what could have been the ultimate final word on the subject. Yes, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to concoct a standard, chronological rock documentary, but also that he needed to put his own stamp on the project by flying in outside sources, whether they were needed or not. The film is still a wonder to behold. You can pause the picture anywhere and there are enough stolen moments onscreen to delight any serious Dylanologist: here is Dylan standing in the back of Folk City with Louie Kemp and David Blue while Larry Sloman scribbles away in a notebook; there is Allen Ginsberg singing “Speed freaks took my statues” while Dylan laughs and Roger McGuinn observes; Peter Orlovsky handing out Rolling Thunder fliers on the streets of Plymouth. You could pause this film almost anywhere and enter a gateway into another world, one that no longer exists.
Except, of course, for the gratuitous fictional footage.