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

Dylan's famous folkie show hits the road

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

So it came as no shock to show up at a surprise birthday party for Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde's Folk City who gave Dylan his first paid gig in 1960, and be greeted by a fourman film crew who explained their presence to Porco with a cover story of "filming for NET." Word was out on the streets that Dylan just might show up, and before midnight the normally sparse weekday crowd was elbow-to-elbow. Phil Ochs had a head start on everyone and wandered around, drink in hand, lecturing about "the Jewish Mafia" and the strange case of Sonny Liston. Patti Smith shyly slunk into one corner, while Commander Cody showed up with two limos full of shitkickers. Roger McGuinn sat outside in his Sunshine limo, never one to arrive too early. Then, just past 1:00 a.m., a red Cadillac Eldorado pulled up and Dylan strode briskly in, followed closely by Kemp and Neuwirth. They greeted Mrs. Porco, hugged Mike and retreated to a far corner of the club. Then with the inevitable tableside introduction, "Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest star of all, Bobby Dylan," Dylan found his way up to the stage, grabbing Baez on the way for a duet of "Happy Birthday" and "One Too Many Mornings" — but the music stopped abruptly when bassist Rob Stoner's bridge snapped right out of its mooring.

Jack Elliott joined in onstage and Dylan seized the opportunity to shout, "Let's turn the stage over to Ramblin' Jack Elliott," and headed back to the semisolitude of his table. Jack did a hauntingly beautiful ballad, "South Coast Blues"; Bette Midler fell onstage to duet with Buzzy Linhart; Allen Ginsberg sang some poem/songs backed by female guitarist Denise Mercedes. Then Eric Andersen and Patti Smith harmonized a bit. Finally, Neuwirth, looking like some turn-of-the-century Cuban porno star in a black eye-mask and cowboy hat, grabbed the stage and sang a touching "Mercedes Benz" for "someone who couldn't be here with us tonight."

It seemed over but then Phil Ochs, who's been battling some of his own private phantoms recently, performed a moving medley of folk and country, stuff like "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy," "There You Go," "Too Many Parties" and "The Blue and the Gray." Everyone at Dylan's table was standing, gaping at this poignant moment.

Ochs spotted Dylan heading for the bar. "Hey Bobby, come up with me," he shouted. "I'm only going to the bar, Phil," Dylan replied reassuringly. "Well, here's a song of yours that I've always wanted to do," Ochs answered, breaking into a dirge-like "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." But things lightened up when Ochs stumbled off the stage into the waiting arms of David Blue, who, with Kemp and Neuwirth, were part of an ambush designed to retrieve the cowboy hat from Ochs that Dylan had worn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

By the next day, Friday, things were really rolling. A session was planned to re-record "Hurricane" to be released as the tour begins. The idea was born at the Kettle of Fish when Dylan was talking animatedly about Rubin Carter and the need for publicity about his case. He had written "Hurricane" in the summer, recorded it and performed it at the retirement tribute to Columbia Records' John Hammond, taped for the Soundstage PBS-TV show. But that show won't be seen until December. "We gotta get the song out, we gotta get it right out," Dylan had said, slamming his fist on the table.

So Tuesday, Dylan, Kemp and his camera crew, after a filmed scuffle with security guards at the CBS building, barged into the offices of CBS Records president Irwin Segelstein and CBS Records Group president Walter Yetnikoff and demanded rush release of the "Hurricane" single. Late that night Dylan entered Studio E, pre-empting a Janis Ian listening session, with his band — bassist Rob Stoner, drummer Howie Wyeth, violinist Scarlet Rivera, percussionist Luther and backup singers Steve Soles and Ronee Blakley. Four hours later, producer Don DeVito was left with the task of mixing, mastering and getting the story of the "Hurricane" out on the streets, in Dylan's words, "as soon as possible."

The reason for the recutting of "Hurricane" was the subject of some speculation, most of it centering on an allegedly libelous line about a person involved in Carter's arrest. Ken Ehrlich, producer of Soundstage, said he talked with Dylan's attorney about snipping parts of Dylan's taped performance "to avoid libel." The attorney, David Braun, has refused comment. At Columbia Records, Segelstein said only that "it's a very conventional name confusion, he had to correct a lyric. I do not know the details." And DeVito, a Columbia executive who produced the session, said Dylan made changes "just like last year with Blood on the Tracks. He's just totally unpredictable."

After the re-recording session, Dylan reflected on Rubin Carter. "The first time I saw Rubin, I left knowing one thing, that this man's philosophy and my philosophy were running on the same road, and you don't meet too many people like that, that you just kinda know are on the same path as you are, mentally. I never doubted him for a moment. He's just not a killer, not that kind of a man. You're talking about a different type of person. I mean, he's not gonna walk into a bar and start shooting. He's not the guy. I don't know how anybody in their right mind is gonna think he was guilty of something like that."

"Hurricane" is an eight-minute rocker, a scorching defense of Carter and an attack on a system that allows an allegedly innocent man to rot in a cell for nine years. Carter's is the kind of situation that spurred some of Dylan's greatest protest songs years ago. "There's an injustice that's been done and you know that Rubin's gonna get out," Dylan said. "There's no doubt about that, but the fact is that it can happen to anybody. We have to be confronted with that; people from the top to the bottom, they should be aware that it can happen to anybody, at any time."

Rubin Carter, for his part, is thrilled with the song. "I listened to it at first and thought, eh, it was just another song to me," Carter said in his cell at Trenton State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey. "I ain't got no time for music in here. This is not a place to be soothed. But the more I sat there and listened to it and really understood what he was saying, I said, 'Wow, man.' I mean, he took this case, this nine years of whatever, and put it together, wop, like that, and covered every level, every facet of it. I said, 'Man, this cat's a genius. He's giving the people the truth.' And it was inspiring to me. I told myself, 'Rubin, you got to keep pushing, 'cause you must be doing something right, you got all these good people coming to try and help you.'"

More rehearsals followed and on Monday, October 27th, three chartered buses pulled out for Cape Cod. There, the troupe settled into the Seacrest Hotel and ran through three additional days of rehearsal in the hotel's indoor tennis court.

The tour opened October 30th on a cold, damp New England night in Plymouth, advertised only by handbills that included a photo of Dylan and by random radio mentions in Boston. The 1800-seat Plymouth Memorial Auditorium sold out but it took almost 24 hours to do so. But it was evident in the opening moments of the show that this crazy-quilt tour and its music — "the new sound is Plymouth rock," was an often heard comment — was working. It seemed that the pre-tour tensions between Neuwirth's gin-soaked, good-timey camaraderie and musical director Rob Stoner's slick professionalism had been resolved into a balanced mixture of sound.

"Welcome to your living room," Neuwirth announced onstage, and it was true. There was none of the forced ambiance of the last Dylan tour with its sofas and Tiffany lamps onstage. All the tour participants — Elliott, Blakley, McGuinn, Neuwirth, Baez, Dylan — got their moment in the spotlight, in front of the basic band of Mick Ronson, T-Bone Burnette, Stoner and Soles. After Elliott's four-song set, Neuwirth introduced "another old friend" and Dylan ambled onstage in a black leather jacket, jeans and the Pat Garrett hat. The audience gave him a warm welcome, but there was little surprise in the air. Dylan and Neuwirth opened with a slow version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece," Dylan singing harmony and Neuwirth taking the lead.

They harmonized on "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and then Neuwirth left and Dylan brought out violinist Scarlet Rivera to lead the band through "Durango." Then it was Dylan alone to sing "Isis" — no guitar, no accompaniment, just Dylan at the mike gesturing dramatically as he told the story of the goddess. "See you in a few minutes," he said, and went off to a standing ovation.

After a short intermission, the curtain crawled slowly up to the strains of Dylan and Joan Baez singing "The Times They Are a-Changin'." After "Never Let Me Go" (an old Johnny Ace tune) and "I Shall Be Released," Dylan left, patting Baez on the head and leaving her to do a seven-song set. Roger McGuinn took her place for "Chestnut Mare" and then gave the stage back to Dylan for "Mr. Tambourine Man" and, from the next album, "Oh, Sister."

"This is," said Dylan, "a song about Rubin Carter," and behind him a screen slowly whirred to the floor and the band went into "Hurricane," the single that would be released the next day — October 31st. A huge picture of Carter in boxing gear was projected onto the screen and that was the extent of Dylan's comment on the song. "One More Cup of Coffee" was next and then Dylan broke into "Sara," a bittersweet song to his wife:

I'd taken the cure

And had just gotten through

Staying up for days

In the Chelsea Hotel,

Writing 'Sad-Eyed Lady

of the Lowlands' for you

Sara oh Sara

Wherever we travel

We're never a part

Sara oh Sara

Beautiful lady

So dear to my heart*

He wound it up with "Just Like a Woman" and then the entire cast gathered for "This Land Is Your Land," with even Allen Ginsberg joining in. The three-hour show was over, the audience responded with a ten-minute standing ovation. The second Plymouth show, again a sellout, drew a quieter crowd, one almost polite toward its elders onstage. The show was virtually the same except for the substitution of "I Don't Believe You" for "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Mama, You've Been on My Mind" instead of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

From Plymouth, the buses and campers rolled on to North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to Southeastern Massachusetts University. The crowd of 3000 had been prepped. A week before, an advance party, accompanied by the ever present camera crew, descended on the dorms at 10 p.m. to pass out Rolling Thunder handbills.

The night before the buses rolled, Dylan had been sitting in the bar of the Gramercy Park Hotel, sipping Remy Martin. He was asked by someone on the tour why it was called Rolling Thunder. Dylan thought for a minute. "I was just sitting outside my house one day," he finally replied, "thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I look up into the sky and I hear a boom. Then, boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east" — Dylan punched at the air, like a prizefighter — "then I figured that should be the name."

Dylan got another drink and the questioner asked him: "You know what Rolling Thunder means to the Indians?"

"No. What?"

"Speaking truth."

A pause. Dylan shifted his hat and rocked back. "Well, I'm glad to hear that. I'm real glad to hear that, man."

* ©1975 Ram's Horn Music.

This is a story from the December 4, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 201: December 4, 1975