Times were weird.
The President of the United States had been run out of office a year ago, in the face of near-certain impeachment and conviction for high crimes and misdemeanors. Two disturbed women — one a lunatic follower of Charles Manson — tried to shoot his successor.
New York City was on the verge of implosion, compressed under the weight of crime, corruption and economic failure. Homegrown radical groups were planting bombs and shooting it out with police — on live TV in Los Angeles. The country was deeply divided along cultural faultlines ripped wide open by the Vietnam War, which stumbled to its ugly conclusion in the spring. An energy crisis and inflation left the American economic engine was lugging and pinging and maybe running out of gas.
It was 1975, and America was looking and feeling pretty threadbare. Yet, as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — who documented much of the “fear and loathing” of those times would have it — “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
In October, the circus came to town, under the direction of gaucho-hatted Bob Dylan in white face paint in The Rolling Thunder Revue. Yeah, the weird had turned pro, alright — and Dylan was never better.
That fall 1975 leg of the Rolling Thunder tour that barnstormed through New England, eastern Canada and New York has gone down in rock legend. It was weird; it was wild; it was wonderful.
The band was incendiary. Dylan sang with Joan Baez for the first time in years. There was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There was Alan Ginsburg. The great playwright Sam Shepard was brought along to write a screenplay for a film — but ended up publishing his observations of the circus as The Rolling Thunder Logbook in 1977. Patti Smith hung out with him. Joni Mitchell was brought on for one show and ended up sticking around for three.
Dylan himself engaged with a commitment and an intensity seldom seen before or since. He reinvented early songs. The 1962 vintage “A Hard Rain’s a‑Gonna Fall” comes off as an almost-joyous rocking shuffle. His new material, which would be released on the album Desire in 1976 (featuring the vocal support of the sublime Emmylou Harris), was extraordinary, from the lament for assassinated mobster Joey Gallo in “Joey” to the snarling justice-for-Ruben Carter epic of “Hurricane” to the cinematic Mexican Western “Romance in Durango” (all co-written with lyricist and theater director Jacques Levy).
And the man actually acted like he wanted to be there on the stage.
As Rolling Stone writer Larry Sloman wrote:
“I’ve been seeing Bob perform since 1966. I’ve never seen him as good as he was during the Rolling Thunder tour, night in, night out. He was just amazing, phenomenal energy, and incredible passion. They tried to go out and do something unique and they succeeded. It was just amazing music every night — the most incredible conviction and spirit.”
In times no less weird, divided and unstable, we have an opportunity to tap into that conviction and spirit in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Described as “part documentary, part concert film, part fever dream, ” the film drops on Netflix on June 12. I’m planning to save it up for Father’s Day on June 16 and watch it with my daughter Ceili.
She’s no big Dylan fan, but I think that swirling, slashing December 4, 1975, version of “Isis” is gonna win her over.
Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin’ rain
In a time of weird and unsettled weather, Bob Dylan brought the thunder. Ceili’s generation could use a little of that right now.