Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road
November 10, 1975
Perhaps it’s happening because nothing was happening. Maybe it means more because the lines of our interdependence are so strained, so fragile — yet overgrown, layered, and incestuous. Maybe because we’re so vulnerable now; especially in this impacted city, either hoofing it in the chorus line or hopscotching in the spotlight. But for whatever reason that you might need Dylan, and for whatever need he has of you, he’s back.
It’s like the first page of a book of miracles, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the magic gypsy returned to Macondo, the city in the jungle bearing the first magnet ever seen there. The pots and knives flew from their shelves, the nails creaked from the beams, and the gypsy, an honest man, proclaimed, “Things have a life of their own. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” And so it is that Dylan, and Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Neuwirth, and friends are out on the road, in a bus named Phydeaux (a black-humored greyhound), waking up souls in what, along with Woodstock (and Altamont if you have a taste for that side of things), is probably the most meaningful musical energy nexus of our time. The man has actually gone out and done it, and in the process discovered himself at the height of his powers.
In early July Dylan was dragging around New York like an out-of-work folksinger, living in a borrowed loft on Houston Street. His marriage had (reportedly) busted up and he had come back to the Village from Malibu for solace, for a transfusion, or simply to be home to visit. In any event it was obviously “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” time. He would show up almost every night at the Other End, usually alone, occasionally with director Jacques Levy and boulevardier Bob Neuwirth.
At a show during the July 4 folkie-smorgasbord, Neuwirth coaxed a reluctant Dylan onstage to sing harmony. Neuwirth, the high potentate of Max’s backroom, high living storyteller, song-writer, catalyst, and nonstop dancing partner to rock and roll royalty, prepared to do a week long Other End engagement. Rob (Rockin’ Rob Rothstein) Stoner on bass, guitarists Steve Soles and T-Bone Burnette and fiddler David Mansfield all were pressed into service, with Soles flying in from California, and T-Bone from Texas. Ramblin’ Jack stopped in; English rockers Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson fell by. The show itself was splotchy and shapeless. But it seemed to spark something in Dylan, and one night the Other End’s bar suddenly turned into Johnny Cash’s living room, as Dylan & Company held forth till almost 6 a.m. with a bunch of new songs, including the wild-eyed “Joey,” about Gallo the mobster in prison reading Wilhelm Reich. At one point Dylan leaned over to Ramblin’ Jack and suggested that they all do a tour together. I don’t think that anyone who heard it took the suggestion seriously. That week Dylan went into the studio to work on his new album. He then left New York for California and Minnesota.
In October, he returned to New York having definitely decided to tour. It was to be essentially a folk-oriented assemblage, an almost literal extension of the jamming at the Other End. Everybody gets to play and sing, trying to bring some music back down to livable scale and into an accessible intimacy. He needed professional help and he brought in longtime aid and childhood friend Louie Kemp from Duluth, ex-Bill Graham associate and Santana manager Barry Imhoff, ubiquitous tour-lady Chris O’Dell, and Boston promoter Don Law. Joan Baez was called and asked to come along. They set up shop at the Gramercy Park Hotel and booked a midtown rehearsal studio. But if the tour arrangements were in safe hands, the band was not.
Dylan doesn’t have the musical chops to lead or create the kind of band he’d like to have. That task fell to Rob Stoner. He’d been knocking around New York for years, falling in with Neuwirth and eventually Dylan in July. Stoner’s an amazing rock and roll mutant, a sort of a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Fabian. Fabian? But he literally put the touring band together, with the help and stage direction of Jacques Levy. The musicians, to a man, all credit Stoner with “taking a diverse and formless group, who’d never really played together in a context that demanded any precision, and whipping ’em into shape. He brought in his old friends Howie Wyeth, who does unlikely double duty on drums and piano, and percussionist Luther Rix. Violinist Scarlet Rivera, who’d been playing with Dylan since June, also signed on. Surprisingly, things fell into place, institutionalizing the loopy informality of the late night jam sessions.
On Wednesday, October 29, Dylan, Neuwirth, and a few others arrived for David Blue’s closing set at the Other End. Ronee Blakley showed up as did Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Denise Mercedes of the glitter group Stutz. After the club closed, Dylan and Ronee Blakley shared the piano and crooned, Roger McGuinn played guitars, and Ginsberg sang. “Allen, you’re the king,” said Dylan repeatedly. “You’re the king but you don’t know your kingdom.” That night Ginsberg was invited to join the tour, followed two days later by invitations to Denise and the always helpful Orlovsky, who was sort of given a job as a baggage handler.
At 3 a.m. Eric Andersen phoned from Woodstock. He spoke to T-Bone Burnette, asked if he should come down (one-and-a-half hour drive). “Well,” T-Bone replied, “it’s really happening.” “Has it peaked yet?” Eric asked. “It won’t peak for another month,” came the answer.
The next night (Thursday) they played Mike Porco’s birthday party at Folk City. They rehearsed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Monday at 1 p.m. they left the Gramercy Park with the band on board the $125,000 Phydeaux and Dylan in a red Cadillac El Dorado convertible. The tour was to be unadvertised, playing mostly small halls, $7.50 top, with only five days notice given by handbills in each town. The secrecy was such that even the musicians didn’t know where they were headed.
Meanwhile, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the Rock and Pilgrim fame, the biggest thing in 355 years was about to happen. Advance men Jerry Seltzer and Jabez Van Cleef walked into the town hardware store. They had booked the Plymouth Memorial Auditorium earlier for a Joan Baez concert. The town fathers asked that Joan not make any overtly political statements on stage. The hall was rented, 1800 seats, for $250 dollars per night (two nights), $100 over the regular rental price after assuring the house manager that, yes, they could fill the second balcony. In the hardware, store they gave a Rolling Thunder Revue handbill to two young guys buying spackle. The first guy screamed, “Get out, I don’t believe it.” He was reassured. “You’d better be right or I’ll rip this town apart.” “It’s your town,” Van Cleef replied. The second guy turned and said, calmly, “Look man, there are some things in life that’re real. This isn’t one of them.” He was wrong, and he was right.
The Sea Crest Hotel in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, (“on captivating Cape Cod”) is right on the beach. It has 200 rooms and is magnificently secluded. The tour arrived there Monday afternoon. On Tuesday I called for a reservation and was asked if I wanted an ocean-front room. “Something close to the Dylan party,” I replied. The clerk lied telling me that the only large group in the hotel was a Mah-Jongg convention. That evening, Dylan, introduced by the Borscht Belt MC as “a dynamite entertainer,” sang in the dining room, Ginsberg recited “Kaddish” and danced a pas de deux with Ronee Blakley. Thursday evening I flew into Boston. The next morning I headed for the Sea Crest.
I met Peter Orlovsky in the lobby. He said I shouldn’t be there, security was very tight. No press, no girl friends, no business like show business. He suggested I talk to Louie Kemp. Kemp was amazed that I’d found them. I’d have to leave. I said I’d register. We struck a bargain. They’d give me a room and send people up to talk. They’d send up lunch and two security guards, one to run errands for me, the other to make certain I didn’t leave the room and to accompany me if I did. Like Camp David, or Los Alamos. Fair enough. So, under virtual house arrest, I enjoyed my first visitor, Steve Soles, who told me that “Everyone cares about everyone else here, we’re all feelin’ good, no tension. It’s really run by pros and it’s a grown-up tour. Nobody’s on a bad trip or fucked up with drugs. And it’s all spontaneous. We don’t know where we’re goin’, neither does Dylan. We just walk out, tune up, and fall into the song.” Soles is half-N.Y., half L.A., but all of it came together in N.Y. “L.A. doesn’t breed this kind of energy.”
The tour represents an enormous financial investment for Dylan. There are no super banks of amplifiers or special lighting, but it still involves at least 50 people. It’s been a dream of the collective rock consciousness to do a tour like this. Small halls, no advertising — “the real magical mystery tour,” as Neuwirth says. And whether or not Dylan makes a profit — there will be a film, of course — he’s still doing something admirable. But it’s like the old J.P. Morgan riposte: “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” If you’re a big enough star to warrant a secret tour you a) don’t need the money, b) reap compensatory free publicity, c) stoke up your own emotional capital, and d) what the hell else would you be d0ing — sitting around the pool with Ali McGraw and occasionally switching your drink from hand to hand?
Meanwhile, outside on the beach, Jack Elliott, looking like a lawyer in Miami, is chasing Joan Baez, incredibly beautiful in just a towel. The cormorants are diving for fish and the Mah-Jongg ladies are walking around with their hands behind their backs.
Howard Alk and Mel Howard are there making a movie with Sam Shepard feeding them images; Jack Elliott talking to the wax pilgrims in the Mayflower museum; Rob Stoner as Gene Vincent and T-Bone Burnette as Buddy Holly in rock and roll heaven with Joan Baez as a red-afroed hooker and Paul Colby as a nightclub owner. Or, a scene in a local diner with Ginsberg as “the emperor” and Dylan as “the alchemist.” Allen: “Are you the alchemist? I’m the emperor, here’s my card”; he hands Dylan an orange maple-leaf. Dylan: “Your kingdom is bankrupt after all the wars, after sending off to Indochina for a shipload of tears you still haven’t paid your karmic debt.” Allen: “What’s the alchemical secret that’ll help?” Instantaneously (all improvised), Dylan smiles: “Invention.” And he proceeds to mix up a bowl of remedy, going behind the counter for Ritz crackers, honey, pepper, milk, Tabasco sauce. “Your using ordinary materials,” cries Ginsberg. “That’s the point,” says Dylan.
But like all rock and roll tours this operation is functionally schizophrenic. It’s understandably bizarre, this institutionalized intimacy, this paramilitary folkyness. Dylan’s aides are there to protect him, and like any other zealots, they overdo things. My incarceration was probably just a mistake, but a mistake very much in keeping with the tone of the tour. Kemp put a sign “Quarantine — Lepers Quarters” on my door.
So I threaten to sue, to call the police, the FBI (kidnapping is a federal crime), etc. And suddenly they’re very nice to me. McGuinn, Neuwirth, T-Bone, and Rockin’ Rob arrive. Room service comes in with a tuna salad and some wine. I insist McGuinn taste the wine first. I turn down some hashish because smoking makes me paranoid.
Mick Ronson, wearing just a towel, wanders in. He’s one of those English guys who, if rock ‘n roll hadn’t intruded, would’ve been a hairdresser. He’s a genuinely sweet man, and totally blown out by the whole idea. “I can’t believe it, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” like a Child of God or a Hari-Krishnoid, “the rest of my life, before this, was all bullshit.”
McGuinn, one of the world’s great gadget freaks, brings out a Polaroid and waits for a gull to fly past the sun. Neuwirth, looking calmer and softer than ever, starts talking about the 10 years of talking that preceded the tour. “It’s gonna be a new living room every night. This is the first existential tour, it’s a movie, a closed set, it’s rock and roll heaven and it’s historical, no, hysterical. No, spell it h-y-s-t-o-r… “and never finishes the word. “It’s been Ramblin’ Jack’s dream for a long time, he’s the one who taught us all and the dream’s coming true.” And then, “Aw, shit, let’s just watch the sunset over the Atlantic.”
Nowadays the residents of Plymouth eat grinders and drive around rotaries. It’s like any other medium-sized New England town filled with nice clean-looking kids, a lot of ’em still wearing their Army field jackets because the working class fought the last war. Even $7.50 is a steep ticket in Plymouth.
The Memorial Auditorium seats about 1800, including 400 folding chairs on the floor, ordinarily a basketball court. With the chairs set up it’s just like your high school auditorium, if you went to a small old high school. It was Halloween, but with the exception of a human toothpaste tube the Plymouthians were all dressed up as Bostonians. And the local police frisk you for wine at the door, but two New Yorkers, singer Garland Jeffreys and guitarist Alan Friedman, outsmarted them with bottles of Soave Bolla and Southern Comfort, respectively.
At 8:20 the show started. The band came out in Lone Ranger masks, with Steve Soles, who looks like John Astin, made up in whiteface. Neuwirth was wearing a khaki flak vest and served as MC. Throughout the show a guy behind me kept referring to him as “‘Nam,” saying, “He’s all right, see that vest, he’s been to ’Nam.”
Everyone on the show is in another band or plays solo, so the first half-hour was taken up by their solo spots. Rockin’ Rob Stoner did “The Moment’s Too Good to Be Wasted, But I’m Too Wasted to Be Any Good,” assisted by Quacky Duck’s David Mansfield on fiddle. David, only 19, looks like a Tintoretto angel and continually amazes everyone with his virtuosity. Neuwirth waltzed across the stage in those sliding glide steps you used on polished stages when you were a kid, he sounded great as a singer, too. T-Bone, who sounds like Roy Orbison singing underwater, came next followed bizarrely by Ronson’s Bowie-ish “Is There Life on Mars?” Then Ronee Blakley as Betty Boop with a mustache, the only real stiff on the bill. In toto, though, they’d taken all the dumb random jam session energy and drew it into focus. Then Neuwirth sang Kristofferson’s song to Jack Elliott, while Jack wandered out looking loony as ever in a Hawaiian shirt, knickers, and ever-present Brooklyn-Cowboy hat. Elliott’s one of the threads that ties the whole thing together. Ginsberg first met him in 1950 when they dated the same girl. She fell for Jack, sez Ginsberg, and Allen turned homosexual. Anyway, Jack’s the real thing, an authentic beatnik weirdo and he got tremendous applause, like they recognized a real freak. He sang, howlin’ and happy, getting down on his haunches or pointing his guitar like Lou Costello with a bayonet. At that point the show really took off.
Now, I want to say this now, before I get into telling about Dylan. Despite all this horseshit, like starting in Plymouth (“How Bicentennial of him,” says my friend David Schwartz), and all the too obvious loops of symbolic meanings and great chain of poetry, i.e., Blake to Whitman to Ginsberg to Dylan, it’s just a show. I’ve seen a lot of shows. And this one is the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Better than the Russian Circus when the troika disappeared. Better than Fiddler on the Roof.
Dylan comes out in a mask, like a Clockwork Orange droog, in his black leather coat, long scarf, and that old porkpie sombrero of his festooned with flowers. He and Neuwirth start “When I Paint My Masterpiece” together and that’s the only metaphorical teat to suck on. This tour is Dylan’s masterpiece. With a tiny little Gibson sunburst guitar, it was old “Alias” again, weird like a Goya, in the land of Coca-Cola.
You see him and you hear him and you say No Way. You can’t believe it. He’s tight like a matador and he turns slowly into a dark, bloody version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” He sounds more natural than ever before, so that his vocal affectations work better. Ronson drops a letter perfect solo and Dylan slowly takes up a harmonica and lifts it to his mouth. But he can’t play it because he’s still got the mask on. He turns around, takes it off, faces the audience, the place goes crazy like a Saint Vitus’s dance or Saint Elmo’s fire. Dylan responds with virtual Clapton on the harp, hips thrust forward, electric on the balls of his feet. Suddenly it’s over, and Neuwirth says only one word — “Dylan.”
He plays “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” next, reciting the overlong verses, the words rolling faster and faster and Ronson takes another solo, with his guitar low on one knee, right foot forward. And I think, “Yes, if he lives to be 100 this is the best thing Ronson’ll ever do.” Dylan takes it all in, strutting, sauntering around the stage, absolutely 100 Per Cent All There.
He does the new “Durango” and “Isis,” both coauthored by Jacques Levy. During a guitar solo someone tosses a rose on stage. Dylan turns on left heel, throws scarf over shoulder, and in one motion, like a shortstop, picks up the rose and tosses it back. And throughout the rest of the song he rocks on his heels, hands hanging in fists, tossing his head from side to side. You gotta see Dylan dance.
That’s only half of the show. When the curtain comes up again there are four legs showing and two of ’em are Joan Baez’s, on the left. Together they sing ”The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Baby, You Been on My Mind,” and a new Dylan song that sounds like “For Sentimental Reasons,” with Joan and Dylan trucking in and out of the mike like Sam and Dave.
Then Baez solo: her Dylan song, “Diamonds and Rust,” an excessive a cappella “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a Lily Tomlin imitation, and three more numbers. Next McGuinn, who’d been playing banjo, does “Chestnut Mare,” another Jacques Levy tune, and Joan returns for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Garland Jeffreys, sitting next to me, seems to explode with happiness.
Dylan comes back alone, harmonica holder on his neck, for a syncopated, faster version of “I Don’t Believe You.” Even his guitar playing is getting better. Followed by his new single, a topical song, “Hurricane,” about Reuben Carter in prison. The lyric is long and chilling, accentuated by Scarlet Rivera’s playing. Followed by two more new Mexi-Gothic love songs. Then, yet another love song. Amazing: “Sarah, loving you is the one thing I’ll never regret, Say-rah, Sweet love of my life.” And how could it be, how could his personal life, the part that counts, come to so much pain as he segues into “Just Like a Woman”? Finally Ginsberg comes out all in white, (inexplicably he doesn’t do much on stage; he should open the show) and Joan, in a Bozo-the-Clown mask for, inevitably, “This Land Is Your Land” with Ramblin’ Jack singing the verses nobody else knows, cause Jack knew Woody Guthrie and Guthrie knew William Blake.
“It’s Dylan’s mudra,” said Ginsberg, holding up three fingers to make a sign like a Bombay Boy Scout (which he is). “It’s his gesture, his act of significance. It’s the actualization of his best fantasies. His lesser, aggressive fantasies have been exhausted.” From one Jewish Gemini to another, Planet News to Planet Waves, 10-4.
Dylan’s survived, grown up. He’s not burnt out; his best work might even be ahead of him. He’s a giant, like Chaplin or Picasso. Like Brando or Muhammed Ali. He’s always got a plan. This one works on every level — body, head, intellect, heart. Nobody else even comes close — Jagger, Springsteen, Paul Simon.
The radio, next day, seemed to play only Dylan and Baez. It was some sort of reassurance that the miracles had actually taken place. Or were about to take place, because Dylan was on fire and the Rolling Thunder Revue was filling the sky.
“Aw, shit,” said Neuwirth, “let’s go watch the sunset.”