“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorcese,” Real/imagined documentary, May 23, 2020 (2019), Netflix. Pieced together by Scorcese from other materials and concert footage from the Rolling Thunder Tour in 1975, Scorcese invents an understanding of Dylan’s second great return to the road. Most of it seems to be lifted from outtakes of “Renaldo and Clara,” interviews, etc. Some characters are entirely fictional (the purported filmmaker of much of this footage, for example.) Others are entirely real, like Reuben “Hurricane” Carter. But the footage of Allan Ginsburg, Joan Baez, Scarlett Rivera, Anne Waldman, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Patti Smith, and Mick Ronson along with a host of industry folks and journalists, creates a pastiche that feels like a history it may or may not be. What is real is something I never saw and have never had a chance to see: a rocking, interactive, expressive performer of astounding charisma and personality; Dylan in his prime. The musical performances are superb and really need to be seen to appreciate this great bard/poet. As Ginsburg notes in what is likely an outtake from “Renaldo,” “song has replaced poetry.”
I didn’t see Dylan live until 1987, when he was touring with the Grateful Dead. A crowd of Deadheads was less courteous and receptive than I’d have preferred. I’ve seen him several times since then, including a great show at the Bentley College gym Waltham on April 12, 1997. Others were more or less inspiring and, depending on his artistic focus of the moment, interesting. But none of them gave us the loose, wild, excited Dylan of the Rolling Thunder Revue. These were breathtakingly alive performances with an articulate poetic clarity that has sometimes been absent in his later work.
I met Dylan once at a party in New York City in January 1976, shortly after the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Ginsburg, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, William Burroughs, and many others were there. Dylan was wearing ‘the hat.’ Ginsburg read two poems including an awful obscene limerick about wanting a young man to sleep with and followed it with a stunning, painful, beautiful poem about being in a mental institution. He was like that. Burroughs was so drunk/stoned he could barely speak a coherent sentence. Young poets read poems about Dylan. As they declaimed, he silently left the room and went off to play congas (poorly) with a drummer who was in the back room. He took a lesson. He did not seem to want to hear more praise. Not much after this event, he entered his “Born Again” period, to “serve somebody” and not carry the weight of being a god himself. That was a relatively brief immersion. He seemed very tired that evening; maybe he was just tired of that role.