New York — It was a special night — one marked by a cast that spanned two decades of political dissent and music — when Bob Dylan brought the Rolling Thunder Revue to Madison Square Garden December 8th. The "Night of the Hurricane" benefit concert for imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was the first time Dylan had performed at the Garden since the Chile benefit over a year ago, and the mere announcement of this show had sparked speculation as to the extent of his political activity.
Dylan's transformation remains quixotic: his song "Hurricane" and his commitment to Carter's plight make it plain that this is the same Dylan who wrote "The Ballad of Emmett Till" (about a 14-year-old black youth who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he whistled at a white woman) for CORE before he'd legally changed his name to Bob Dylan. Allen Ginsberg's presence onstage brought to mind the days of Dylan's Village poetry, and Dylan's moving duet with Joan Baez on "The Times They Are A-Changin'" was a graphic reminder of the pre-electric days when the two of them were in the forefront of the folkie protest movement. Twelve years ago, Dylan sat on a stage in Washington and listened to Martin Luther King give his "I Have a Dream" speech; tonight, Coretta King was here with him.
Yet Dylan was also the same mysterious figure who, after JFK's assassination, turned his back on politics and became a rocker. Robbie Robertson was here as the strongest reminder of that period, and the presence of Ronee Blakley, Scarlet Rivera and opening act Guam confirmed the fact that, politics aside, Dylan has spent a good part of the last 15 years making music with his friends and earning a living as a professional musician. Someone asked whether the band's white-face makeup signified rock theatrics or social irony; perhaps it was a synthesis of the two.
In the end, nothing much was revealed — except the undeniable fact that Dylan can still fill the 20,000-seat Garden at a top price of $12.50 for any activity he chooses. This was the last scheduled show of his brief Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and it drew congressmen (Herman Badillo and Edward Koch) and a mayor (Kenneth Gibson of Newark) and movie stars (Dyan Cannon and Candice Bergen) and athletes (Walt Frazier and Joe Frazier). But though it mostly attracted white middle-class youths who came out mainly to see Dylan, it may have been one more step on the road toward freeing Rubin Carter from prison.
The audience had grown restive when the show opened (only 18 minutes late) with the standard Rolling Thunder program. Bobby Neuwirth welcomed everyone to "our living room," and he and the tour band (Guam) kicked it off with a mixed set. Then Mick Ronson, whom Neuwirth introduced as "the man who invented David Bowie," tried out his chops with "Life on Mars?" and drew as much applause as an English C&W guitarist wearing ballet shoes is ever likely to get. Ronee Blakley came out to help Neuwirth sing "Alabama Dark," his song about Hank Williams. Though their voices were like shredded wheat after 31 shows in 40 days, they carried it off well enough. "We've played smaller places," Neuwirth rasped, "but never hipper places."
Neuwirth, himself drawing as much applause as an old-time folkie in outlandish white eye makeup can, took up Janis Joplin's guitar to sing "Mercedes Benz" — only to find his applause exceeded by the reception given the person he next introduced. Joni Mitchell drew what is best called a crouching ovation for the mere fact of walking out with her guitar. She had begged off a scheduled benefit show this same night for Immaculate Heart College in California and had gotten James Taylor to fill in for her there. Her set here, unfortunately, was a soft presentation of her newer, unfamiliar songs ("Shadows and Light," "Edith and the Kingpin," "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" and one as yet untitled composition) and occasioned a mass walking about.
With that, the political part of the evening began. Muhammad Ali strolled up in a black leisure suit and allowed as how he was "so happy. I expect these cheers because I know I'm the greatest." He shushed the cheers and went on: "We are here in support of a boxing friend of mine. You have the connection and the complexion to get the protection." Bemused applause. Ali then embarked on a long and confusing analogy that was meant to explain why Carter deserves a retrial. A man is married, said Ali, and he gets a girl pregnant and tells her to "murder the child," and Carter's judges are causing a great injustice to be born and they want to kill it and we can't let that be done. As numerous people in the crowd muttered about the antiabortion analogy, Ali called Carter's imprisonment "a little Watergate, a miniature Watergate."
In these days, however, when everything is called a little Watergate, his remarks provoked yawns. He was mercifully interrupted by a piped in phone call from Rubin Carter. Ali babbled for a while about how great Carter is and joked about how he had never heard of Bob Dylan.
Carter finally got on: "My brother Bob Dylan wrote a song once that said 'walk upside down in handcuffs, kick my legs to crush it off, say alright I've had enough, what else can you show?'" That's a line from "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and it obviously belied earlier reports that Carter was unfamiliar with Dylan's work.
Ali teased him: "You won't fight me if we get you out, will you?"
Carter chided him: "This is a revolutionary event."
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