The ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ tour of 1975 was a prototype for the so-called ‘Never Ending Tour’ (NET), which is itemised in all of its extensive glory throughout the closing credits, and made me think that I will never ever begrudge Bob Dylan his millions, as his work rate appears to be superhuman. It was, at the beginning, a tour of relatively small dates, which put me in mind of Spinal Tap’s own downsized live venture (as did many aspects of this film, especially the scene with the chauffeur!!) Dylan himself was hoping for a “musical extension of the Italian commedia dell’ arte (which, c’mon, most of us haven’t really got a clue about, right?); playwright Sam Shepard described it, probably more accurately, as a “circus atmosphere… a dog and pony show”. Someone else come sup with “the court of Henry VIII’.
Some of the hangers-on were far from wasters, though - the film features Horses -era Patti Smith (looking archetypal), Joni Mitchell (performing the then-unreleased ‘Coyote’ from Hejira-, backed by Dylan himself and Roger McGuinn, a highlight) of the film), Shepard, Ronnie Hawkins (who is clearly a mensch), Rambling Jack Elliott, Joan Baez (seemingly always the bridesmaid, never the bride), Allen Ginsberg (ever the Holy Fool, clearly a vital figure, but whose appeal has always completely escaped me, especially his awful poetry) and even Mick Ronson (who claims that Dylan completely ignored him throughout the whole tour).
The live footage is excellent, especially of him playing “Ballad of Ira Hughes” at an Indian Reservation, circumventing the dining tables with his guitar held and strummed high, looking like a true troubadour. There are some deja vue moments from ‘Don’t Look Back’, in particular the backstage stuff with the various flotsam and jetsom getting out of their heads, and Dylan trying to keep his, By the end, Ginsberg and the Beat poet Peter Orlovsky have been demoted to mere tour gophers and crypto-roadies, which is a sad moment, whatever I feel about them as artists, The lunatics taking over the asylum, etc.
I could say much more about this interesting film, but didn’t find it as ultimately engrossing as ‘No Direction Home’ or as era-defining as ‘Don’t Look Back’. However, it did bring me to realise something that I haven’t really considered before - that of Dylan’s importance as a bandleader, This becomes evident throughout the various numbers (mostly culled from the contemporaneous Desire), where the viewer can see that he takes on a similar role to that of Miles Davis with his various groups; it is nearly imperceptible, but the musicians are taking, and always looking for, their cues from Dylan. This may seem obvious, but Dylan has never been a great instrumentalist, and he always uses highly skilled and adaptable players. But he is always at the epicentre of the music, and guides his team though what at times amount to'improvisations around a ‘well-known’ theme. The vicissitudes that he puts his famous songs through are notorious, and yet he often manages to get the bands to produce fantastic reinventions, even of songs as famous as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Just Like a Woman’. And countless others over the years of the NET.
Often seen as principally as being the ur-solo singer/songwriter, we can easily forget that he is also a very skilled ‘leader of men and women’. And still the oldest survivor of the counter culture’s great originators - ‘Roll Over McCartney and Give Jagger the News’?