Then Ali, who did not seem to be as quick-witted as he ordinarily is in public, trotted out a middle-aged man whom he introduced as "a next president of the United States." Astoundingly, Ali and his guest drew a resounding chorus of boos from throughout the hall. His guest was a man named John Jay Hooker Jr. Hooker, fight fans will recall, was the first name that Ali mentioned in the ring after he last defeated Joe Frazier. Hooker's past, briefly, is this: he is 45, chairman of the board of the STP Corporation (having replaced Andy Granatelli), was once connected with the unsuccessful Minnie Pearl fried chicken franchises and has unofficially announced in Nashville that he will run for the U.S. Senate from Tennessee in 1976.
The booing continued as Ali introduced some other political figures and remained unabated even when he noted the presence of Carter's wife Selma and his daughter Theodora. For perhaps a minute Hooker struggled to have his remarks about "peace and justice" heard over the noise but he was almost completely inaudible. He and Ali then backed off the stage, with Ali not even saying good night.
Clearly, the Dylan troupe was surprised. Ali had not mentioned Hooker before taking the stage and Dylan was reportedly furious with Ali's actions. Dylan's only onstage remark came later, when he dedicated "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" (on which Robbie Robertson played some brilliant lead guitar) to Albert Grossman, "who is not running for president." But some revue members took to calling Ali "the Chump," and Neuwirth remarked, "I don't want to have to follow that"; he then introduced Ramblin' Jack Elliott's light, yodely set.
At exactly 9:57, a diminutive figure in droopy jeans and a long-sleeved white-on-white shirt with black cuff links, a black leather vest and a hat garlanded with yellow daisies and feathers walked onto the stage to sing "When I Paint My Masterpiece" with Neuwirth and Guam. It was Dylan.
Dylan could not have sung better. He did 21 acoustic and electric songs during various segments of the show and ranged from Merle Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon" to "It Ain't Me Babe" to "Isis." He was hoarse but made that hoarseness work for him. He turned "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" into a stunning electric rocker marked by a breathless, staccato vocal delivery that in many ways was more powerful than "Hurricane." In his whiteface and flowers, Dylan was so much more animated and intense than he had been on the Band tour that it seemed he was embarking on a new career, built on a solid repertoire of reinterpretations of older songs and a set of powerful new ones. Later in the week, Dylan mentioned that he wanted to take Rolling Thunder to the Midwest in April.
Still, of all the Rolling Thunder crew, Joan Baez was the most outspoken, the one calling for the prisons to be razed to the ground. She also ran onstage in a blond wig and hot pants, posing as a faceless groupie until she was carted off by security guards. She opened the second half of the show as a Dylan lookalike, complete down to a Dylan wig, and joined him in a set highlighted by an oddly nostalgic "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Curiously, during Dylan's "Hurricane," a dark-haired woman did a go-go dance in the far reaches of stage left, shaking and tossing her head in time to the music. It was Joan Baez.
Baez also did her own set, soloing on "Diamonds and Rust," "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Billy Rose" and "Joe Hill." After that, she turned the microphone over to Roberta Flack, who introduced "Twenty-Fifth of December" as "a song that might be sung by any lady whose old man is away or incarcerated." She also sang "Why Don't You Move In with Me?'" and then introduced Coretta King, who received a standing ovation consistent with her place in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Flack closed her part of the show by doing a song with Gwendolyn Guthrie, who wrote "Supernatural Thing."
Then it was back to Baez, who hugged Flack and introduced Roger McGuinn. McGuinn revived the crowd's flagging energy with "Eight Miles High" and "Chestnut Mare" and, with Baez, did a version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" that drew as much applause as anything by Dylan.
Before Dylan performed "Hurricane," a rumor spread through the crowd that WNEW-TV had announced Carter would be granted executive clemency before Christmas. The office of Governor Brendan T. Byrne of New Jersey later denied the report, but the benefit did its work in one sense, raising nearly $100,000 on Carter's behalf and leading Carter to say that the show "was almost a vindication." Even so, during the singing of "Hurricane," at least one sceptic was heard to say, "I'm sure Carter's innocent, like Dylan's song says. But what if Dylan's wrong?"
Dylan himself seemed unconcerned by this possibility. He dedicated the song to "a beautiful man who should never have been in prison" and spit out the key chorus in the song:
Here comes the story of
The man the authorities
came to blame
For something that he
never done . . .
Dylan said later that the benefit was "one of the greatest nights of my life." Judging from the spirit they poured into a rousing finale version of "This Land Is Your Land," the Rolling Thunder Revue, Richie Havens, Coretta King and the others seemed to agree. Ginsberg had written a new verse to the song, but tonight it was Neuwirth's words that they chose to add, a stanza that touched on both the revue's travels and the campaign to free Rubin Carter:
I've been rocked, I've been rolled
I've been hot, I've been cold
'Til we finally rolled into Plymouth Plantation
I stood on a stone where they founded a nation
This story is from the January 15th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.
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