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
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty
Bob Dylan performs on stage circa 1975.
By |

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.

The tour's financial setup remains a carefully guarded secret. Finkel and Imhoff continue to deliver a chorus of no comments and local hall managers are told not to talk about the financial arrangements. Lou Kemp will say only that "everybody's on salary [excluding per diem expenses of $20 a person]. We've got 70 people to house, move and take care of. We gotta pay for this film that's being shot and that's costing an arm and a leg. So far Dylan has not seen a penny. He's the only one who hasn't gotten paid yet."

Joan Baez is second-billed only to Dylan on a show that includes Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Bobby Neuwirth and Ronee Blakley. (In New Haven, Joni Mitchell joined up for the two shows, singing several numbers from her new album. The day after she left, Dylan asked: "Is she on the tour? I don't know if she is or not. She just showed up and she got on the bill. There are points in the show where that kind of thing can happen." The week before, in Springfield, Arlo Guthrie performed.) Baez shied away from hard questions about the tour and dwelled instead on the ambiance.

The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan: Dylan, The Stones, Hendrix and More

"I've never seen such a spirit among people," "she said. "You've never been in our bus [called Phydeaux and strictly off-limits to the press] to see what happens. On Phydeaux some nights after a long day and two shows, out comes a little Kahlua and milk and roast beef sandwiches. One night McGuinn took out the 12-string and sang every hit we'd ever known. Then one night Jack Elliott took the guitar and sang every yodeling song that ever existed and everyone yodeled with him. We all sing and sing and sing and laugh until we pass out.

"For us, it makes no difference if we just play for 15 people or 15,000. It's a medicine show. For $7.50 you get an offbeat, underground, weird medicine show. How much am I making? I'm getting a set fee. We settled on a number."

Roger McGuinn, who continues to draw ovations for his "Chestnut Mare" portion of the Revue, is also ebullient: "Man, this is indescribably delicious. This tour is like better than tripping out because it's on the natch. I've been hugging everyone and telling them I love them and it's not bullshit."

Those at the New Haven shows who could hear did not deny that the Revue is one of the more satisfying musical presentations to come down the pike in some time, from Revue band member Mick Ronson doing "Life on Mars" to Joni Mitchell previewing "The Jungle Line" from her album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, to Jack Elliott's "Muleskinner Blues," to Dylan's "Durango" (which he dedicated to Sam Peckinpah) and his and Joan Baez's duet on "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" (dedicated to Gertrude Stein) to Mimi Fariña's surprise appearance. Finally, after three-and-a-half hours, it wound down with Dylan following "Sara" with "Just Like a Woman." The entire cast gathered to sing "This Land Is Your Land" and the house lights went up instantly. Dylan had left the stage during the finale, both hands raised triumphantly over his head, and there were not that many calls for an encore.

Among those applauding were such stalwart fans as Bill Graham, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, who had been asked to do a guest spot on the show but declined. Springsteen had never seen Dylan perform before and said, "I loved it."

From New Haven the show rolled on to Niagara Falls. The itinerary remained a guarded secret but one persistent rumor refused to die: that the Revue would end with a giant benefit in Madison Square Garden for imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter, the subject of Dylan's single release, "Hurricane." The benefit, rumors had it, would be December 8th and would be emceed by Muhammad Ali with appearances by Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Dylan. Dylan's people weren't saying one way or the other. A spokesperson for the Garden said December 8th was tentatively booked for a rally to save New York City. Richard Solomon on the Carter Defense Committee said only that a benefit would be held sometime and that Ali was committed to host it.

Photos: Bob Dylan Captured at Home and on the Scene

"Dylan will be there," insisted a journalist who had talked briefly with him. "Don't be surprised if he becomes politically active."

One indication of Dylan's frame of mind was evident in a private sunrise ceremony held November 5th at a Newport, Rhode Island, beach. Cherokee medicine man Rolling Thunder (who had appeared onstage the night before in Providence, stroking a feather in time to the music) directed the ceremony. Rolling Thunder asked each of the participants, who stood in a circle around a fire, to add their own private prayers. Allen Ginsberg expressed "thanks to those who brought us together and remembrance for those who are not here." Ramblin' Jack Elliott said, "I pray that the spirit that we've generated here extends to everyone we meet on our travels." And Dylan shyly mumbled, "I pray we realize soon we are all of one soul."

This story is from the December 18th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 202: December 8, 1975
x