A few hundred years from now, nearly all of the old rock ‘n’ roll warhorses who wrote some great music and pushed for social change in their lyrics and melodies will be long forgotten. But like Beethoven, and some other musical geniuses, there will be pockets of Bob Dylan admirers fanned out across the forlorn cities he felt most comfortable visiting, such as Lowell, and Springfield and Worcester.
Dylan, who is 78, is still cranking out new projects and, like each line in one of his songs, they stand alone as short stories about life’s long road. Now he’s mined an old project – combining scenes from a barnstorming tour in 1975 and ’76 where he brought along luminaries like Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The group performed at small New England and New York venues, including a mah-jongg tournament and a jail.
Earlier this month, Netflix released “Rolling Thunder Revue, a Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” and it comes as no surprise that the troubadour included the word “story” in the title of the film. Dylan’s narrative arc has always included plenty of fiction – in 1961, he swapped out Bobby Zimmerman and tried on Bob Dylan for a name; there was no mention of his middle-class Jewish upbringing when he met new friends. Instead, he presented himself as a Southwest drifter who had run away to join the circus as a teen.
Daily life is filled with a healthy dose of sober facts and soaring fantasies, and Dylan has done his best to present his version of what really happened during that tour – blurring reality with a strong dose of fiction. The truth: Dylan wanted to present his version of the American Dream, and sought to perform in intimate venues where he could reach out and recharge alongside the faces of lost America. In his first on-camera interview in a decade, he explains his creative process: “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything,” he tells Scorsese. “Life is about creating yourself, and creating things.”
In his attempt to make sense of the tour, Dylan adds numerous fictitious characters to form backstories that provide perspective and tension. We meet filmmaker Stefan van Dorp, a glum European artist who talks matter-of-factly about the chaotic period. But in reality, van Dorp is Martin von Haselberg, an actor and the husband of Bette Midler. In other scenes, Sharon Stone explains her brief flirtation with Dylan during the tour, in which she describes ironing a shirt for Joan Baez and discussing Kabuki with Dylan (who wore white face paint throughout the tour). But Stone was a teenager at the time, and wasn’t there. Then there’s Paramount Pictures Chairman Jim Gianopulos, who portrays the frustrated promoter who lost money on the tour.
In addition, many of the scenes are lifted directly from Dylan’s 1978 film “Renaldo and Clara,” which included concert footage of Dylan and the Rolling Thunder. The plot focused on the songwriter’s relationship with his wife Sara, and his former lover Joan Baez.
The melding of music, interviews and backstage scenes presents an artist at the top of his career. The tour took place in late 1975, just after “Blood on the Tracks” was released. Many of the tunes he performed – such as “Hurricane,” “Oh Sister,” and “One More Cup of Coffee for the Road” would be included on “Desire,” which he released in early 1976 – about halfway through the Rolling Thunder shows.
He also revisits his classics. The film begins with a live version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” set behind a montage of scenes from the 1970s America: the Tall Ships in New York harbor; a marching band on a cheery main street; a carnival barker dressed as Uncle Sam, who holds Confederate flags under the World Trade Center, and sings the national anthem. We also hear full versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and other Dylan classics.
Dylan’s search for the American Dream is also a Jewish story. We see Allen Ginsberg reading lines from “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Before a concert in Lowell, we witness Dylan and Ginsberg’s pilgrimage to Jack Kerouac’s grave, where they recite their own form of kaddish by reading poetry. Then there’s Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the singing cowboy, and son of a Jewish dentist who was born in Brooklyn. And there’s Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a Dylan confidante, Rolling Stone journalist and prime yenta who seems to know all of the performer’s secrets.
This peripatetic search for the American Dream unveils a universal personal diaspora that’s central to the human condition. Just because the Old Country has been replaced by the New Country, there’s no settling down; the quest for meaning continues because we long for journey and discovery. Like Dylan, and Ginsberg, and Ramblin’ Jack and even Ratso, we all are trying to figure it out. And, as Dylan tells us, the story is a series of shades of gray: everything is broken and everything can be replaced. All that’s left is for viewers to craft their own narrative, which combines elements of truth and fantasy.
And when it’s placed in a tale like Rolling Thunder, we can only hold on and look for a glimpse of ourselves on screen.