The Day Bob Dylan Began His Rolling Thunder Revue
Bob Dylan stayed off the road for nearly a decade before embarking on his 1974 tour with the Band in support of Planet Waves. Happily for fans, he wouldn't wait anywhere near as long before starting his next round of shows.
That next tour, dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue, got started Oct. 30, 1975, in Plymouth, Mass., and found Dylan traveling with an unwieldy group of associates and famous friends that included Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Roger McGuinn, as well as poet Allen Ginsberg and a filmmaking crew led by director Howard Alk and assisted by actor Sam Shepard. The entire enterprise, from the name to the self-consciously "vintage" posters to the circus-like stage atmosphere, was intended to evoke an old-timey roadshow driven by the forces of nature.
"I was just sitting outside my house one day thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I looked into the sky and I heard a boom," Dylan told Larry Sloman. "Then, boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east. So I figured that should be the name."
Grand as it ended up becoming, the Rolling Thunder Revue had far humbler origins. Initially springing from idle conversations between Dylan and his friend, singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth, about putting something together that would allow them to "travel around and sing and do little concerts in little halls," the Revue snowballed around a series of gigs at New York's Bitter End that lured in an assemblage of talented musicians that included multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield.
"I don’t know whether Dylan had the idea for doing something like this or whether it was a matter of hanging out with Bobby in their sort of drunken reveries after the gigs, or whatever," recalled Mansfield. "But the atmosphere at the Bitter End was such that it wouldn’t take much to say, 'Hey, this would be great. Let’s just take this out on the road and we’ll make it like a revue and when we get tired we’ll get somebody else to take over for us.' That was the original concept, actually — that it would be a self-perpetuating thing and when Dylan, or whoever, got tired of it someone else of similar stature would take it on and keep it going."
While plans solidified, Neuwirth assembled a band that included Mansfield as well as a handful of musicians that were already in Dylan's creative orbit: guitarists Steven Soles and T Bone Burnett (who'd later go on to form their own group, the Alpha Band, with Mansfield) drummer Howie Wyeth, and bassist/bandleader Rob Stoner. As a series of gatherings that could be loosely described as rehearsals warmed up, Dylan started adding to his patchwork crew, inviting violinist Scarlet Rivera to join in and reaching out to his former career benefactor, Baez.
"Bob called up and asked what I was doing for the month of November. I had a tour lined up. Usually I'm not working with a dollar sign in front of my face, but this time I was, so I had to give it considerable thought," Baez told Rolling Stone. "But I'm bright enough to know what this tour will mean. I didn't trust a lot of it. I said, 'Look, what if Ramblin' Jack decides he wants to live in a freight train for the month of November instead?' I've known these guys for a long time and I love them dearly but everybody is slightly unstable. But it's delightful working with Bobby again. He's relatively impossible to follow and that's a challenge, but I need that."
"You had to be ready to follow him like a hawk and keep your eyes glued for any body language or lip movement that was going to tell you that he was going to zig instead of zag," agreed Mansfield. "For the most part it wasn’t like he changed the chords. In practical terms or in technical terms, he would change phrase lengths on a whim. So you might think there were four more beats to go in that phrase and all of a sudden there would be three or one and then he’d be off and running on the next phrase."
Into this mix tumbled the unlikely addition of guitarist Mick Ronson, who was in the mist of a disappointing lull after leaving David Bowie's band. With his solo career on the skids, Ronson was available when Dylan came calling following a chance encounter after one of the Neuwirth shows.
"[Neuwirth] was with this guy," Ronson later recalled. "And I looked at this bloke he was with and thought, ‘Wait I minute, I know you.’ And, of course, it was Dylan. And we talked, and he said, ‘We’re going on the road, why don’t you come with us?’ I just said, ‘Yeah.’ I honestly thought it was a joke. I didn’t think I’d hear any more. Then Dylan phoned me, said the tour was going to happen. This was a Friday. He said rehearsals were going to start on Sunday and would I be there? I thought it were a f---ing hoax. I really didn’t think he was serious."
The first leg of the tour lasted through early December, and found the backing band — dubbed "Guam" — opening the show before falling in behind Dylan, often playing behind face paint or a mask, who'd run through a solo set that led into an intermission. After the break, Dylan and Baez performed together, followed by solo sets from each, and the whole night closed with a crowded rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" that Sloman recalled featuring "everyone on stage from Allen Ginsberg to Bob's mother Beattie one night." So intoxicating was the communal vibe that Joni Mitchell, who popped in for a night toward the end of the first leg, ended up staying for the last three nights — closing with an all-star benefit at Madison Square Garden for imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
The MSG show doubled as a stirring showcase for Dylan's new single, an anthem for Carter called "Hurricane," and Dylan himself would later refer to it as "one of the greatest nights of my life." After a short holiday break — during which Dylan's Desire album that featured many Rolling Thunder personnel and opened with an eight-and-a-half minute version of "Hurricane" was released — he held a second benefit for Carter, this time at the Astrodome in Houston.
With Desire out and the benefits shows finished, Dylan then set about resuming the Rolling Thunder Revue. Whether he wanted to recreate the infectious spirit of those earlier concerts or genuinely intended for the Revue to continue indefinitely without him is unclear — but whatever the motivations, a modified lineup returned to the road in April for another round of dates that lasted until late May and were preserved for posterity with a live album (Hard Rain) and a TV special. Unfortunately, this time around, the magic seemed to be largely missing, and neither the concert film nor the LP were received particularly warmly.
Given how haphazardly it came together, it's perhaps fitting the Revue ground inelegantly to a halt and started a period of retrenchment for Dylan, who'd remain largely out of the limelight until 1978's Street Legal and tour. But for many of the musicians who were part of it, the Rolling Thunder Revue remained a memory to cherish. Ronson, for one, came away from the tour with the bittersweet knowledge that he'd never experience anything like it again.
"I’d follow him anywhere, no questions asked," he vowed. "That whole tour was this huge, huge adventure. A real treasure hunt. There was Joan Baez. McGuinn. Ginsberg – he’s a grand lad, is Allen. There was Dylan. And there I was too. For a lad from Yorkshire like meself, it were truly out of this world."
Dylan, as he's often tended to do throughout his career, simply moved on to the next way station on his restless journey — and for Neuwirth, who helped start it all, the tour was little more than a beautiful haze. "I remember nothing," he chuckled years later. "Every night was great."
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