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Bob Dylan Tour Snowballs: 'It's Not a Nightclub Show'

"It's like commedia dell'arte," says Dylan

Bob Dylan, rolling stone, archive, gospel, electric
Bob Dylan performs on stage circa 1975.
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT — Onstage, he looks like he's having fun, this village cowboy in his feathered Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid hat, in his pancake makeup, in his black leather jacket over a vest over a puffy white shirt. He's singing new lines on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," singing "Mama, wipe the blood off my face." He's even dancing – bouncing at the knees and spiritedly skittering around – to his own music.

Dylan explained his dancing: "It's been in me for a while. As far as I'm concerned, it's just a natural thing."

And his makeup: "People are gonna ask, 'Why is he doing this, why is he doing that?' But there are always people who don't understand. People that are gonna try and make more out of it than it is. The reason I put it on is so you can see my face from far away."

Photos: Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue

From far away . . . That's just what Rosalie Sorrels, folk-singer, songwriter and friend of many of the artists on the Rolling Thunder Revue, was so upset about. She was at the concert in Burlington, Vermont; her old buddy Ramblin' Jack Elliott had arranged for her to see the end of the show from the side of the stage, but she was angry about many of the people she left behind. The 5500-capacity college gym, she said, was oversold, and at $8.50 a head. "There must have been three or four hundred people standing in the back, jammed into the doorways," she said, "and if you weren't 6'4", you just couldn't see. None of us," she went on, "could be seated. And we couldn't hear properly, and that's a rip-off."

In the wings, she was expressing her displeasure – gently, she said – to Elliott.

Well, he reasoned, "we get to more of the people this way, spread all this good music, all these good vibes."

Sorrels interrupted her friend. "Bullshit!" she shouted over the music.

Ramblin' Jack sighed. "All right," he told her, "I want some fuckin' money. I want a boat . . . I've wanted a boat since I was 14 years old."

As Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue passed its two-week mark, other people, at other and larger halls, added their own complaints. At two shows at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, November 13th (one sold out 10,500 seats at the door; the other drew 9500), the sound was pitifully inadequate to reach throughout the vast hall, and since all tickets were the same price ($8.50), those relegated to the back felt cheated. Increasingly, as the Revue picked up musical steam, the pretour talk of a cozy trip through small clubs and halls, and of playing for "the people," was more and more being called into question.

The first 13 shows, in nine cities, brought in an estimated 83,478 customers at $7.50 to $8.50 each. At those prices, the gross for the first 13 shows would be a healthy $641,085.

At the onset of the tour, which began October 30th in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and was expected to run about six weeks in the Northeast, Dylan had talked vaguely of playing clubs and small halls. Thus was born a myth which was fostered by his record label and eagerly spread by the press. Only six days into the tour, the Revue began to double up, presenting two shows in one day for 20,878 in Providence and two shows here before 20,000.

Variety, the show business trade newspaper, jumped on Dylan's case with a long article, headlined "Is Dylan Interested in Money?" When the article was read to members of the tour, Dylan's initial reply was oblique: "I never planned to play in anybody's living room." Joan Baez was more direct: "Oh, tell them to just shove it up their asses."

In a lengthier elaboration, Dylan protested that the entire matter had to do with semantics. "Who ever announced that? We've got 70 people going around that we gotta pay for. We're gonna play anyplace we can but we also have a lot of expenses to meet. We're not gonna go out and play living rooms. It's not a nightclub show, you know. I don't know who said we were gonna play nightclubs. That was never intended to be. But we are gonna play some small theaters, and we have played some small theaters and we're gonna continue to play some. We're just playing the halls. I don't know where we're booked."

Bob Dylan Through The Years

And the man who does know, tour director Lou Kemp, won't say. He lets the tour members themselves know the next booking through a daily newsletter. He and tour promoters Barry Imhoff and Shelly Finkel continue to swear local hall managers to secrecy when their halls are booked for the Revue. In Providence, for example, Civic Center manager Charles Toomey was contacted by Finkel and Imhoff almost a month before the November 4th show and was told that the booking would be immediately canceled if he told anyone Dylan was coming.

In New Haven, Coliseum manager Loris Smith reported a similar situation. He was the only person in town who knew of the booking until nine days before the show, when tickets went on sale and an announcement was made over WPLRFM. With no advertising, the New Haven booking was 1000 seats short of a sellout. Scalpers ended up hawking $8.50 tickets for as little as $4, even though the show in Burlington, Vermont, found scalpers asking – and getting – up to $40 for a $7.50 ticket.

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