On the Street Again


The Rolling Thunder Revue with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and a cast of thousands the place: local bars and concert halls the time: "watch the parking meters"

DYLAN TERRORIZES reporters. The closest he came to explaining his hatred of the press was in the documentary by A. D. Pennebacker, Don't Look Back, when he blew up at a guy from Time magazine. "Man you know what kind of people read Time? The people who read Time magazine are the kind of people who want their news all bundled up and laid at their doorstep every week, people who can't confront the truth. Time magazine would never dare print the truth. You know what the truth is, the truth is Mr. Jones throwing up in the gutter, and Time would never print that."

He's not always outright vicious. Sometimes he plays word games that totally baffle the eager young correspondents who want to know what the message of hissongsis or who the songs are about. He seems genuinely puzzled as to why anyone would be interested in his personal life, and he guards it jealously. "It was never my intention to become a big star," he says. "It happened, and there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to get rid of that burden for a long time. I eat and sleep, and you know, have the same problems anybody else does, and yet people look at me funny."

So it's unlikely that we'll ever find out the story behind his reunion with Joan Baez. Bob and Joan go back a long time. In the early days in the Village, he thought her voice too pretty, that the world was ugly and needed to be sung about in harsh tones. But she fell in love with him -- he aroused this wierd maternal feeling in her, the way he seems to with most women who he meets. She took him along on one of her big tours and endured him when he got drunk and self-indulgent (he was once booed offstage for performing a forty-five minute version of "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," which was dubbed War and Peace by the entourage.)

But he was learning, assimilating all kinds of information, and accommodating his act to the big concert halls. Midway through the tour, he simply surpassed Baez; he was securing the future, and she was being left behind. Dylan planned a trip to England and invited her along. She agreed, assuming they would perform together. But when they got to Europe she was shunted aside. Dylan was contemplating a change to electric music, becoming increasingly suspicious about the press, and drawing closer to himself. It was a prolific period for him, but he was hell to be with and Joan finally picked up and left.


They remained estranged until the present tour. At her concerts, Baez would mimic him and demand that he return to the "movement" that spawned him. In a conversation with Michael March of Fusion magazine in 1969, Dylan said he hadn't seen her in two years. She must have been scared off by the electricity and morbid lyrics, he speculated, but he still loved her "even if she is straddled on peace and some punk ex-resident-from-college-kid (David Harris)."

IT'S HARD TO SAY exactly what prompted the current tour, but Dylan seems to be trying to heal old wounds, to bring together all the disparate people he has influenced and been influenced by. There's Ramblin' Jack Elliott, just a relic of his Woody Guthrie days--rumor has it his voice was plain then. He had to change registers in Providence on Tuesday to handle the chorus of "Friends of the Devil." Bobby Neuwirth harbored bitterness towards Dylan at one time because he felt that he could have been a superstar if he had gone commercial the way Dylan did. But it was clear why they never made it when his band led off the show: their solo set left the audience wondering if they sounded more like a pallid imitation of the New Riders of the Purple Sage or a bland version of the Youngbloods.

Ronee Blakely seemed very uncomfortable, as if she wanted to avoid looking like Barbara Jean because this wasn't Nashville, and in front of the counterculture you have to be natural -- but she just didn't know how. Her big moment was singing the chor us of "Just Like A Woman" with Dylan. Her voice was fine, but she kept looking nervously to him for some kind of assurance.

When Dylan walked on, about thirty minutes into the show, the energy in the Civic Center surged. Wearing a black vest and a dark, flower-adorned sombrero, Dylan acknowledged the crowd's standing ovation with a small wave. He lit into "When I Paint My Masterpiece," an ironic song, loosely based on the scene in Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night where Dick Diver wanders around Rome and decides he will never be a great writer.

From the moment he appeared, it was clear that he was totally in control. There was none of the nervousness of the early concerts with the Band in 1974 when they had to coax him back on stage by playing "Stage Fright." This time he was confident, exuberant, and keeping it directed, bouncing on the balls of both feet, then going into a cocky strut across the stage, over to his new fiddler, Scarlet Rivera, and dancing around her.

Dylan delivered a very funky rock version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." When you listen to him, you have to be ready for anything -- he will almost never do the same song in the same way two times in a row. On the Band tour he sharpened the tone of "It ain't me Babe," to an almost David Bowie bitchiness: "But it still ain't me babe/ No, no, no, it sure ain't me babe/ It ain't me you're lookin' for babe." This time he syncopated the lines, "I'm not the one you want babe," giving it a jazzy flavor. The first half of the show closed with a new love song, "Isis," that sounded like the parable from John Wesley Harding, "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," about a false search for happiness.

Before the stage curtains opened again, the voices of Dylan and Baez came over the sound system harmonizing on "Blowin' in the Wind." The curtain came up and revealed them leaning into a shared microphone. "Bob Dylan and Joan Baez," Dylan barked in his best impressario voice into the applause that followed the song. They did a couple of more songs together, her arm draped casually around his neck, and then he left her on her own.

Baez did not seem at ease. She was very sensitive to the crowd, sometimes even responding to the things people shouted out. "Do you remember Newport?" "Yeah, I remember Newport. All that madonna stuff. What a bore." The audience was content to listen to her but she was jumpy, assuring everyone not to worry, her would be back soon. "I've never been to a rock concert before, do people sing along at these things?" -- she was a little bit bitchy. The material was exactly what you would expect: "Joe Hill," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and an a cappella "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" -- very competent, sort of boring. She also sang "Diamonds and Rust" from her new album which is explicitly about Dylan and pretty bitter: "If you're offering me diamonds and rust/ I've already paid."

DYLAN REAPPEARED for a solo acoustic number, "With God On Our Side." In place of the original line, "I've learned to hate the Russians/ all through my whole life," Dylan sang, "I learned to hate Russia/ and China/ and Korea/ and Vietnam/ and South America/ and Bulgaria." Onstage, he's exactly the opposite of a Liza Minelli offering her heart up to the audience. Dylan is coy, buried under the sombrero, the guitar and the harmonica holder; he demands complete fascination from the crowd and he gets it.

The entire revue sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," lending the show a people's bicentennial tone without being too corny. Baez discouraged requests for an encore, "because we don't know any more songs." And the crowd thinned out, satiated by the three-hour show, emotionally drained by two hours of Dylan.

The Thunder Revue will be roving around New England for the next month or so, turning up in various bars and concert halls on short notice. You'll have to be attentive if you want to catch it -- but then, keeping track of gypsies has never been an easy business.

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