Masked Men

Rolling Thunder Revue as Trickster Manifesto for our Apocalyptic Times

The mood was hot and apocalyptic in line at the Smith Rafael Film Center on a recent Tuesday as patrons waited for the doors to open to Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Martin Scorsese’s Netflix documentary about the mid-’70s Dylan tour of the same name. Or, should we say, part-mockumentary?

The much-anticipated film debuted last week and the movie played at select theaters around the country for one-night stands. It’s an enjoyable romp through a shaggy, barrelhouse Dylan of the macrame mid-’70s. True to the Dylan mythos, the film is larded with entertaining reams of pure malarkey. We’ll get to that in a minute.

That night, tickets sold out and the line extended down the block as a trio of moviegoers lamented the scorching heat next to where I stood, waiting. To get with the spirit of the thing, it’s worth noting that you didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the hot winds were blowing. I tuned an ear as one of the moviegoers waved his arms into the hot air and declared, “And this will be considered a cool day 30 years from now.”

He was late middle-aged, and his comrades nodded in sad agreement at the moviegoer’s climate change–driven prognostication. The conversation continued into greater depths of end-times despair, peppered with resilience, if not defiance, in the face of what’s now being promoted as imminent global catastrophe. That was the bad news. The good news was that the theater offered the promise of air conditioning, popcorn and the Desire-era music of Bob Dylan on the big screen.

As the trio continued with their end-times lament I couldn’t help but think, Generation X outcast that I am, “You Baby Boomers should have done more about global climate change when you had the chance.” I immediately felt horribly guilty for the thought, and chalked it up to the heat, which was making everyone cranky.

At last the doors opened and everyone took their seats. The film was introduced by a Film Center staffer who noted, almost apologetically, that the movie everyone paid $13 to see would be on Netflix the next day—but we’d get the benefit of the big screen and Dolby sound, he said quickly. Did anyone feel scammed? Not by that.

The emcee asked the crowd whether anyone had been on the Rolling Thunder tour and hands shot up from every corner of the theater. Well, who wasn’t? I would have raised my hand, too, except I was in the third grade when Dylan launched his ramshackle tour in October, 1975 and was more interested in dressing up like Fonzie than fuzzy folkies bearing whiteface.

The movie is an account of the first, East Coast leg of Dylan’s U.S. tour that year and 1976 and was pegged around the release his album Desire—and after the Band had danced its last waltz for legions of fans in large stadiums the year before.

Rolling Thunder was a famously unprofitable tour, with Dylan himself driving the bus to small venues in small towns around the country, playing to nothing but the cheap seats. The tour was conceived, as Rolling Stone reported in 1975, as a sort of thank-you dished by Dylan to some of the folkies and poets who’d come up with him out of the New York folk music scene. The ground zero for that scene was a neighborhood bar in Greenwich Village called the Kettle of Fish that’s still around. The tour would continue through spring of 1976 and yielded a live album that was panned at the time by snoot-crits Robert Christgau and Janet Maslin. Like the sixties itself, they inevitably wrote, the saggy back-end of Dylan’s tour bore no resemblance to its high energy kick-off a year before. Whatevs. It’s high praise, if you ask me, to be panned by Robert Christgau.

And, it’s high praise indeed that Scorsese continued with Dylan’s penchant for larding his music and books with cheeky or cryptical gestures and tricks. If you’ve been keeping up, there’s a growing “scandal” over the amount of B.S. that’s layered into Rolling Thunder, which reminds me of a joke about academia that goes along the lines of: “Why are debates in academia so fraught and riven with anger and passion?” Punch line: “Because the stakes are so low.”

I knew there was something weird about this movie from the opening credits on, and it wasn’t just the sight of Mick Ronson onstage in his Ziggy Stardust attire, looking like the future had come to tweak the past as it gave way to disco. That was pretty funny, seeing Ronson windmilling on stage with a bunch of shaggy hippies. Ronson wasn’t some CGI phantom shoved into film—he really did tour with Dylan. As did Marin’s own Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the recipient of some clever shade offered from Dylan regarding the formerly seafaring Elliott’s singing voice. “He should stick to making knots,” was the gist of Dylan’s crack about Elliott, who sings about knots in a few of his songs. What are you really saying, Bob? Well, the Marin crowd cheered at the mention of our local folk legend.

As I was driving back to West Marin after the screening, it was late and I started to reflect on Scorsese’s entertaining romp—and chuckled at how it was that several images, which had nothing to do with Dylan, were sort of seared into my mind.

One was of a photo of Gene Simmons that appears in the film. Why? Well, Dylan’s violinist, Scarlet Rivera, was then reportedly dating the co-founder of Kiss. That may or may not be true. What is true is that Simmons looks downright creepy. I also couldn’t stop reflecting on how Allen Ginsberg kept scratching at his sock whenever a beachside clip of him dispensing poetic ruminations came on-screen. Ginsberg was signed on to the tour at its outset but his planned poetic interludes were scrapped, due to risk of the shows going on forever.

And now for a flashback. I’m back in line outside the theater, and the man is despairing about climate change. He expresses despair over the dried-up lava tubes of Mt. Shasta that once coursed with mountain water, and everyone shakes their heads at the answer to the question, “Well, what are they going to do about the renaming of Glacier Park.” Write a song about it?

A woman chimes in with defiance that amid fears of global catastrophe, apocalyptic doom and a generalized sense that everything’s gone to hell with Trump in the White House, that she’d spent her life working in nonprofits, trying to do the right thing in the face of why bother. It’s all making sense now. Joan Baez features heavily in the film and I’ve always loved her maxim that “action is the antidote to despair.”

Later, I thought about how Baez and Dylan had come up in a world that had walked to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, only to be saved from armageddon by a president, John F. Kennedy, who would himself be assassinated.

When Dylan sings of that “hard rain that’s gonna fall,” he wasn’t talking about Superstorm Sandy, but he might as well have been. I listened as the trio wondered what was in store for this planet in 12 years, as climate change–scientists have denoted that time frame as when humanity will start to reckon with global warming on a globally scary scale. The mood in line reminded me of how we’re all accountable to the mundane even as it’s falling apart all around us, and perhaps spectacularly so.

So, the temptation is to describe Rolling Thunder as patient zero to highlight a post-sixties counterculture that had become insular, shabby, indulgent, paranoid and wasted—and had abandoned social justice for it’s time to get mine. There’s an even greater temptation, which I’ve been resisting mightily, to say that Rolling Thunder is a great music documentary, except for the music.

But I happen to be a big fan of Desire, with its swooning dirges and gypsy feel driven by Rivera’s sinewy violin playing. Here’s Dylan drinking “One More Cup of Coffee,” and here he is again writing about the framing of boxer Rubin Carter for murder. He’s got a dirgey blues about mobster Joey Gallo, and a song called “Isis” that isn’t about the beheading terrorists but rather the goddess of the same name.

Still, I left the theater with a funny feeling. Something didn’t add up about the movie. A few things, actually. Turns out I was on to something.

Let’s start with this: Scorsese leans on interviews with Sharon Stone, who recalls her time on the tour after she and her mother met Dylan. The connective tissue that weaves the web together is a Kiss shirt that Stone was allegedly wearing when Dylan met her and her mom. Turns out none of that’s true.

It goes on from there: The bitchy filmmaker identified as Stefan Van Dorp, is actually Bette Midler’s husband. U.S. Rep. Jack Tanner makes an appearance, a tip-off that something is not quite what it seems. Tanner was a fictional creation of HBO in 1988. And, did Scarlet Rivera really date Gene Simmons and did Dylan really go see Kiss in Queens with her, as he claims? Probably not.

I got home after midnight and Rolling Thunder was already up on Netflix, but I didn’t feel like I’d been scammed into buying a ticket, especially since someone else bought it for me. Cool, I thought, I’ll take another spin over the weekend while I’m writing and maybe I’ll have something interesting to add to the discussion. Then the stories started to pop on Variety and other entertainment hot-sheets. Stone was never on the Rolling Thunder tour. Von Dorp, who claims to have shot most of the footage that would ultimately comprise Rolling Thunder, was an actor who never shot anything.

All told, it’s now been reported that Scorsese included about 10 minutes of pure trickster fun in Rolling Thunder, much to the indignant chagrin of film critics like Owen Gleiberman over at Variety who felt betrayed, lied to, and embarrassed for falling for the Scorsese-Dylan ruse.

Dylan’s legendary for his trickster posturing. In the very short time he appears onscreen as a 77-year-old, he props up the Scorsese pranks by failing to shoot them down, and for offering a key aphorism about how nobody tells the truth unless they’re wearing a mask. Stone relates to the interviewer that Dylan told her that he wrote “Just Like A Woman,” in her adolescent honor—with its “breaks just like a little girl” lyric. Stone believed him until someone pointed out to her, she claims, that Dylan had written the song 10 years earlier. Stone’s retelling of Dylan’s lie is so convincing, you’d never stop to think whether the source of the lie was itself, a lie. Which it was.

The built-in pranks raise their own question: What is the suppressed history, that the bullshit should arise? More to the point, why make up a story about Stone when you could talk about folk-singer Phil Ochs?

Ochs was a traveler in New York’s coffeehouse folk scene that gave the world Dylan. Known for his humor, political activism and prolific output as a rousing singer-songwriter of the era, Ochs was also a deeply troubled man who struggled with addiction and depression. I read somewhere that Ochs cooked up the gypsy-carnival conceit of the Rolling Thunder tour with Dylan a couple of years before it launched, but wasn’t invited to the tour.

In the oft-repeated retelling, Ochs was so depressed at the slight that he killed himself. And it’s true that Ochs committed suicide, in April 1976. Some have laid his death at Dylan’s breast—all he would have had to do was bring him on the tour!—but that’s a simplistic, if convenient rewrite.

Ochs’ struggles are vaguely alluded to in an expansive Rolling Stone piece written by Ratso Sloman as the tour kicked off. I’d have liked to see Dylan say something about Ochs—but, really what’s left to say? There’s nothing left from this tour, no legacy, no afterglow—nothing to grab hold on to. That’s not me talking, that’s Bob. There’s nothing left, Dylan croaks at the end of the movie, but dust.

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