When Bob Dylan Lost Himself

John J. Thompson

“I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened 40 years ago. That’s the truth of it.” (Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese)

There’s probably not a persona in popular music that has been more analyzed or dissected than Bob Dylan. In many ways he functions as a cultural Rorschach test—more a reflection of what the viewer wants to see than what is actually there. Protestor? Anarchist? Conservative? Romantic? Mystic? Jesus freak? Sure, yeah. And now, with the release of Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Dylan-philes and modern artists looking for inspiration as they attempt to impact the world with redemptive work have a new side of Dylan to study.

Essentially a documentary, with fictional flourishes thrown in here and there, Rolling Thunder Revue is a two-and-a-half-hour deep dive into one of Dylan’s shortest and most cryptic chapters: a 1975 roaming concert tour/carnival that was partly captured on camera. Scorsese, no stranger to music documentaries, has combined the archival footage with contemporary interviews with many of the original players. The latter includes some of the most revealing material Dylan has provided in decades (whether he is telling the truth or not.) The result is a completely immersive and enveloping document that is both vintage and contemporary.

As a longtime fan and student of Dylan, I’ve listened to some of the recordings from this tour over the years. But I was not prepared for the power of Scorsese’s film. Selecting ruthlessly tight close-ups, organizing the narrative flow, and keeping the characters straight, the director orchestrates the story with a poet’s aplomb and establishes a new high-water mark for the musical biography genre.

“We didn’t have enough masks on that tour. We should have had masks for everybody. When someone is wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask it’s highly unlikely.” (Bob Dylan, while not wearing a mask, in Rolling Thunder Revue)

Dylan began his superstardom as the troubadour voice of the folk generation—a commercialized variation on Woody Guthrie. As an artist, however, he would never be satisfied stuck inside anyone’s caricature of him. And so he became a professional obfuscator almost as soon as he was dubbed “the spokesman of a generation.” He crucified the folky archetype when he plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He made records in square Nashville during the height of the hippie era, an era he had helped to inspire. He dug beyond politics in his songs, seeming to sense that the problem America was experiencing was much deeper.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.” (Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue)

Dylan mostly stopped performing live after a 1966 motorcycle accident, allowing his songs to speak for themselves. But in 1974 he went on tour, backed by The Band, and filled stadiums. With the “peace and love” of the 1960s going up in flames, the United States limping out of the Vietnam disaster, Nixon melting down, and a whole lot of people wondering what there was to celebrate as the American experiment reached its 200th birthday, Dylan was frustrated, bored with stadium shows, and in need of another reboot. He dreamed up something small, theatrical, communal, and anachronistic.

Rolling Thunder Revue was a relatively short tour that played small rooms in towns that most A-list artists skipped. It had the feel of an old-time medicine show, with Dylan as the snake-oil salesman and carnival barker—his face either covered in kabuki-style paint or hidden behind a cheap plastic mask. The group played gymnasiums, community theaters, and civic centers, with Dylan driving everyone from town to town in an RV. Promoters handed out flyers to kids hanging out in the dying downtowns. Many could not believe that the Bob Dylan was coming to their backwater. But what was it that he was selling?

It was a complicated and expensive undertaking, with numerous acts sharing the stage, including longtime Dylan friends Roger McGuinn of The Byrds; Joan Baez; beat poet Allen Ginsberg; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Joni Mitchell; and others. The backing band, dubbed Guam, was put together by Bob Neuwirth and included T Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, David Mansfield, and Mick Ronson. Scarlet Rivera also appeared on violin. It was electric and acoustic, frenetic and intimate. It was both a reminder of the community spirit that sparked the folk movement in the early ’60s and the beginnings of the punk movement that was about to burn all musical dross to the ground. Dylan assembled a team that was almost bigger than him. Almost.

It’s especially fascinating to consider that Dylan’s personal commitment to creative excellence drove him deep into community. By surrounding himself with such strong, talented individuals and allowing them the space to run amok, he seemed to also find a deeper reserve of passion than he had experienced in years.

Yes, there is some satire going on here and some social commentary, but it’s almost as if Dylan, Baez, McGuinn, Ginsberg, and the rest were offering up a cup of clean water to a thirsty audience that had no idea how serious the performers actually were. In one scene, a young girl breaks into tears as the show ends, giving us a glimpse of the deeper things this kind of music can mean to people.

Dylan assembled a team that was almost bigger than him. Almost.

It is also interesting to note that it was shortly after this tour, and seemingly through some of the relationships that he formed during it, that Dylan embraced a carefully considered and biblically anchored Christian faith. Roger McGuinn did as well. Burnett, Soles, and Mansfield would go on to create excellent new wave and roots-inflected music as The Alpha Band, which was artfully informed by their own Christian beliefs. Yes, something fascinating happened when that thunder rolled 40 years ago, though all involved are tight-lipped about what it actually was.

In a sort-of exit interview included among the archival footage, Ginsberg offered a remarkably sincere reflection. “We started out trying to recover America,” he says. “We discovered a certain amount of truth about ourselves. Old friends who thought their loves had been lost were able to get together and face each other eye to eye and sing over an electrical microphone to please the desires of myriad young yearners who had been seeking some kind of union and community and saw therein an image of that community.”

I won’t ruin the last bit of his benediction by quoting it here. But I will admit that it brought tears to my eyes. I see some definite parallels between the bleak, frustrated, disenfranchisement of the mid-1970s and the tension, division, and bewilderment that grips people today. It seems that adventurous, risky art and unfettered community—and a willingness to poke holes in the absurdity of his own celebrity—sent a disillusioned Dylan into the words and work of Jesus for some answers to the nonsense. Young artists seeking inspiration in these fractured times would do well to sit with Rolling Thunder Revue and turn the volume way up. This stuff is important.

“No, it wasn’t a success. Not if you measure success in terms of profit. But it was a sense of adventure. So in many ways yes, it was very successful.” (Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue)

Topics: Movies