Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue Comes to the Buffalo Bills

Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, as sated readers are surely aware by now, rapidly turned into this fall's major musical spectacle, even though it's been limited to 21 cities in the Northeast

Bob Dylan
Keith Baugh/Redferns
Bob Dylan
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As we were going to press, the Revue was finishing its last scheduled shows in Toronto, December 1st and 2nd, and Montreal on the 4th. There still remained the tantalizing possibility of a West Coast tour after the Madison Square Garden benefit December 8th to raise money for imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. George Lois, the executive director of the Hurricane Carter Defense Committee who arranged the Carter benefit, said that Dylan originally "wanted to disband the Revue after December 5th. But he thought it important to convince the Revue to stay together for this benefit – a 'Protest Emergency Benefit' – to politically protest the fact that Carter remains in prison and to raise money for his legal defense. The committee also wants to do something in [New Jersey] Governor Byrne's backyard. There are lots of people in Newark who want to have a benefit there. Dylan is doing the Garden benefit because Rubin can use the support even though such a big hall goes against everything Dylan has talked about."

Besides Dylan and the Revue, Muhammad Ali and Roberta Flack had agreed to appear, Lois said. He had also sought to book Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, but both had prior commitments.

Meanwhile, as the Revue rolled on through Massachusetts and Connecticut en route to Canada, there remained audience complaints that the sound system couldn't fill the big halls. Otherwise, the show was praised as being near flawless. Dylan, with his silk scarves and big hat and melting whiteface, continued to draw tumultuous ovations for the mere act of whipping out his harmonica. He was doing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" as a waltz, "It Ain't Me Babe" as a cha-cha, and even added "From a Buick 6" to the repertoire. Joan Baez decided to try an a cappella version of "Do Right Woman," and Jack Elliott, in huge chaps, added a superb talking blues, "912 Greens." Joni Mitchell, who joined the tour in New Haven, stayed with it, and she and Ronee Blakley forsook their denims for elegant black dresses. At the Harvard Square Theater, Mitchell stood coolly to one side, smoking a cigarette, while Allen Ginsberg tapped his finger cymbals together and the cast gathered to sing the finale. "This Land Is Your Land." Observers also noted the intense interplay between Dylan and violinist Scarlet Rivera during "Isis," which began to draw more applause than "Hurricane."

In short, the tour grew less to resemble standard concert format and began to take on the overtones of a variety show: entertainment on a grand scale. So, we figured, who better to report on such an undertaking than so active a participant in America's grandest form of entertainment: professional football. After all, who is really more popular: Buffalo Bills star O.J. Simpson or Rolling Thunder ringleader Bob Dylan? Accordingly, we called on Buffalo Bills defensive end Pat Toomay who, coincidentally, took teammate O.J. Simpson and went off to Niagara Falls on November 15th to file this report:

NIAGARA FALLS—Certainly, keen anticipation is a noted breeder of disappointment. I recall a play in a pro game involving the Pittsburgh Steelers. An obscure wide receiver, loping down the field in his specified pass pattern, suddenly found himself wide open. The ball fluttered out to him. He caught it. He turned north with the football and suddenly there was the end zone, the corner flags, the goal posts. He sprinted. He made it!

He raised the ball over his head and, with a national television audience watching, slammed the ball into the artificial turf. Except . . . Except that he had mistaken the five-yard line for the beginning of the end zone. He had spiked the ball in the open field. He was the goat, Too bad.

Photos: Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue

So, when first word of the Rolling Thunder Revue came drifting out of Plymouth, Massachusetts, I was determined not to get too excited. I would go, but for the sake of support and to ensure the presence of an uncluttered mind, one void of any Dylan-Baez major musical event prejudices, I asked one Orenthal James Simpson if he would be interested in seeing Bob Dylan perform. We were all lolling about in the Buffalo Bills' training room at the time.

"I can get into some white music," Juice answered jocularly. "But if it snows, count me out. I cannot handle snow."

"You've got to be kidding!" hollered Ahmad Rashad, Juice's flankerback friend, above the slosh of a churning whirlpool bath. "This is Dylan, Juice. We've got to go."

"Okay," O.J. relented, "but if it snows . . . "

I next approached Halvor Hagen, 6'5", 260-pound Norwegian – an offensive tackle. I sketched in the details for the projected event.

"Great," Hagen said. "I've never been to a concert."

Today is Thursday, November 13th. The show is Saturday. If nothing else happens, I will at least have the opportunity to rekindle a friendship with T-Bone Burnett, a 6'3", incredibly lean Los Angelized Texas songwriter who is one of two lead guitarists with Guam, the backup band.

But no matter. The package is nearly irresistible – Dylan, Baez, Roger McGuinn, Bobby Neuwirth, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and now – flash! – Joni Mitchell. It sounds like it might be a fucking circus – golden protest on wheels, so to speak. Reliving the fury of the Sixties – Dylan, Baez, even Ginsberg. An album to follow? How long can so many fragile artistic temperaments cohabitate? And another thing – who makes out? The numbers don't make any sense. Multiply small halls by moderately prieed tickets, subtract high-priced talent and the bottom line shows up a flat minus. Provocative.

Photos: Bob Dylan Captured at Home and on the Scene

Saturday, November 15th. Niagara Falls. We missed the first 20 minutes of the 4 p.m. show. It didn't snow. However, O.J. was waylaid by his persistent public, first at Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, then at the convention center itself.

"Juice," Halvor smiled, "remind me not to go anywhere with you again."

"I know," O.J. said. "I've got to stay away from large crowds. Trouble is, I love it."

The show was superb. Dylan himself, sartorially funky and supercharged, was all over the stage, advancing to the microphone to sing, then off to hear the lead break, then back for another verse, his eyes darting like pinballs beneath the brim of his hat. A scarf hurled from the audience momentarily startled Dylan. He examined the rag, found it wanting and tossed it back into the crowd.

The sound, according to these untrained ears, was excellent. Nary a microsecond of feedback or distortion. The energy bled directly to the audience. The stage was set for a rousing finale. When Dylan appeared for the final time, the audience was feverish and primed. He gave them precisely what they wanted: "Just like a Woman." "Like a Rolling Stone," "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Hurricane," the story of Rubin Carter. "That song is great," Juice said. "I'm gonna tape that bitch."

As we made our way backstage. I wondered out loud if anyone had thought about what we would say to Dylan if perchance we met him. Juice allowed as how he had blown the last situation he was in that required an inspired response. O.J. and Bob Chandler had journeyed out to Attica Prison to visit with some of the hardcore who reside there. "Some of these guys have been in stir for ten years," Simpson told Chandler. "Whatever happens, don't let me walk in there and say, 'What's happenin'?'"

They arrived at the prison and strolled into the cellblock. O.J. was introduced to an inmate. "What's happenin'?" O.J. asked. "Jesus Christ," Chandler sighed.

We went in to meet Dylan cold.

The dressing room was dominated by a long buffet table laden with assorted fruits and cheeses. There were garbage cans packed with ice, beer and soft drinks. Dylan turned as we walked in. For the second time that afternoon. he seemed startled – probably at the sheer physical size of our contingent. He shook hands all around; we congratulated him on an excellent performance. For a moment, there was an embarrassing wash of silence. But then T-Bone sauntered in with a bottle of tequila and we finally struck some common ground. A sound and camera crew materialized and found O.J. and Joan Baez chatting amicably in a corner. For posterity, Joan asked O.J. if ballplayers spent the evening before games fucking. "You know," she said, "to get loose." O.J., for the first time ever, was speechless.

Photos: Bob Dylan Hanging With Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and More

Dylan had disappeared. Joni Mitchell said something about "a certain warp."

Dinner followed in a nearby pub. Dylan sat off to one side with Sara. On his way out, he stopped at our table. "Neuwirth tells me," he said, "that you're going to see Dolly Parton. Do you think she'd come up and pick? For the show or later at the hotel?" We didn't know. He said bye and was off for the 9 p.m. show.

"My God," Halvor said to Neuwirth, "you're going through the whole show again?"

"We've got to have petrol for the bus," Neuwirth chuckled.

"Besides that," T-Bone added, "we're having one hell of a time."

So did we.

This story is from the January 1st, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 203: January 1, 1976
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