Bob Dylan and Friends on the Bus: Like a Rolling Thunder

Dylan's famous folkie show hits the road

December 4, 1975
Rolling Thunder Revu, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jack Elliot, and Bob Neuwirth, 1975
Poster for the Rolling Thunder Revue featuring Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jack Elliot, and Bob Neuwirth in 1975.
Blank Archives/Getty

New York — It was four o'clock on a brandy-soaked October Thursday morning in Greenwich Village as about 20 friends and assorted hangers-on gathered in the shuttered-to-the-public Other End to hear Bob Dylan and his friends pick a few tunes. They'd been going strong since 2:30 a.m. when David Blue finished his regular set, and by now the bulk of the audience had surrounded Dylan at the piano onstage.

An obviously well-fueled Roger McGuinn kept goading Dylan to sing his new "Joey Gallo" song by breaking into the "Joooey" chorus acapella every chance he got. Allen Ginsberg hunched over the piano, staring intensely, hanging on to his every word. Ronee Blakley, the Nashville neurotic, sidled close to Dylan, sharing his piano stool, playing the high keys and adding vibrant harmonies. Ramblin' Jack Elliott was rambling around in the back looking for some "tee-keela," while Bobby Neuwirth acted as ringmaster, directing this folkie circus. Everyone seemed caught up in some kind of high-energy harmonic hysteria and the drinks flowed faster and faster. Everyone was caught up, that is, but Lou Kemp, Dylan's Minnesota boyhood buddy and all-around factotum, who viewed the proceedings from a stageside seat with a wary eye. "I can't believe this," he told no one in particular. "We've been in town just four days, haven't been to sleep before sunrise, I'm totally wasted and we haven't even started this goddamn tour yet."

This "goddamn tour" is, of course, the "Rolling Thunder Revue," Bob Dylan's traveling band of gypsies, hobos, lonesome guitar stranglers and spiritual green berets. In just four days the tour buses would roll out from the Gramercy Park Hotel, where the "revue" had been holed up, and head up to Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the first stop of a whirlwind blitz of the Northeast, running from four to six weeks.

The tour was conceived at the Other End back in the summer, when Dylan was vibing out the Village street scene and cowriting with Jacques Levy positively New York songs. Like the hymn for "Joey Gallo" and the story of the "Hurricane," a plea for Rubin Carter, the onetime number one contender for the middleweight boxing crown who now languishes in Trenton State Prison, convicted of murder.

The idea behind the tour, Dylan said, was to "play for the people," the people who never get the choice seats at a Dylan concert because they're occupied by flacks and celebrities.

"Bob decided he wanted to do it," said Lou Kemp, "but he didn't have anyone to coordinate it. I came back from Alaska where I have a salmon processing plant, and he asked me to help with the tour. So I hired Barry Imhoff, who'd already left Bill Graham, to be in charge of the technical aspects of the tour." Imhoff, while with Graham, helped coordinate Dylan's 21-city, 39-concert tour early last year. Kemp also accompanied Dylan on numerous stops during that tour.

Both Imhoff and Kemp declined to answer questions about the financial aspects of this tour. While Dylan had mentioned wanting to play mostly "clubs," the initial stops were at halls ranging from 1800 to 3000 in capacity — with ticket prices at a uniform $7.50 — and, in the tour's second week, there were dates at two 12,000-seat auditoriums, in Providence, Rhode Island, and in Springfield, Massachusetts. "We gotta pay the rent, the expenses," Dylan explained. But he said there would be only "one or two" such concerts during the tour.

The Rolling Thunder Revue had also been planned as a spiritual reunion of the early Sixties Kettle of Fish folk crowd, the Dylan/Blue/Neuwirth/ Elliott/Ochs axis.

"Bob's just an ordinary fucking guy," David Blue said, "a great songwriter who got swept up in this whole fame thing and was smart enough to know how to control it, who rode with it and was shrewd, damn shrewd. And now he's just paying everyone back with this tour. It's like a family scene."

But the cast mushroomed, especially since Dylan becomes effusive when he's bar hopping and winds up inviting every bouncer, bartender, juggler or otherwise kindred spirit he meets to come along. Joan Baez was the first addition to the basic Dylan/Elliott/Neuwirth show, followed by Ronee Blakley, on the basis of her strong showing at the Other End jam. Allen Ginsberg came next, with his fog, his natural adrenalin and his harmonium. Roger McGuinn, who was concentrating on a bottle so hard that he didn't hear Dylan the first two times he was invited along, has dropped a few bookings, hopping aboard with his 12-string and banjo. In fact, the only picker who met up with the Thunder crew and didn't get swept up into it was Lou Reed.

Baez's story is typical of the tour additions: "Bob called up and asked what I was doing for the month of November. I had a tour lined up. Usually I'm not working with a dollar sign in front of my face, but this time I was, so I had to give it considerable thought. But I'm bright enough to know what this tour will mean. I didn't trust a lot of it. I said, look, what if Ramblin' Jack decides he wants to live in a freight train for the month of November instead. I've known these guys for a long time and I love them dearly but everybody is slightly unstable. But it's delightful working with Bobby again. He's relatively impossible to follow and that's a challenge, but I need that."

In Dylan's words, the revue is playing in places other than large auditoriums because "the atmosphere in small halls is more conducive to what we do." Still, it seemed natural that the proceedings should be filmed for later distribution, so Dylan called up his old friend Howard Alk, of Eat the Document fame. "That film was a project we did to rescue a bunch of garbage footage that ABC shot on our 1966 tour," Dylan explained. "It was never released because the film didn't have much to do with anybody. The whole thing fell through, but Howard and I, we got together and decided if we ever got the chance again to shoot good footage before we get to the editing room — some things that we can make into a fantastic movie on the screen — we'd do it. There's so much we got here already. Well probably end up making four or five movies, and the public can definitely be into this one."

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