On the Road With Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Rolling Thunder Revue

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Joan Baez's denunciation of class segregation aboard the Rolling Thunder Revue has appeared in the troupe's internal newspaper. Her sketch of some nameless star, lying on the ground with blood pouring out of his head, was not printed and has disappeared. But the accusatory text reads:

"We strongly suggest that the security people, the bus drivers and the crew be treated more like human beings and less like bastard children because without them one of the principals might be left dead in the wake of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

"[Signed], Joan Baez and a large supporting cast."

Did it work? I ask.

"Well," says the ceaseless strategist of nonviolent direct action, "things kind of came together a bit after that. A lot of people, each in his or her own way, began committing small acts of civil disobedience — like taking the bus driver to their table. So the tone has changed and the segregation has lessened." Some people, I am buoyed to see, are still overcoming.

The tour is old enough for retrospection.

"When you got that call from Bob," an old acquaintance visiting Joan backstage says, "I suppose you got on the plane without even knowing what you were going to get paid."

Joan looks at the questioner as if the latter has just asked if the tooth fairy has gotten over its cold. "When I got that call," Joan says, "I had already planned my fall tour. So I told the people dealing with the money that although it seemed like fun, they'd have to make it worth my while to change my plans. Well, after my lawyers got involved and we worked out a contract, a very detailed contract, they made it worth my while. Sure, I'm glad I came. This tour has integrity. And that's because of Bob."

"Tell me," the acquaintance asks, "what are his children like?"

Joan hoots. "I've never seen any of them. They're like mythology. It does gather around him, mythology. And he certainly helps it gather. Mythology and confusion. Like some of the songs. I know who 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' is, no matter who he says it is."

"But at least we all know who 'Sara' is," the visitor observes.

"Dylan says," Ginsberg has overheard, "that song is about Sarah in the Bible." And Ginsberg laughs.

Bob Dylan's Greatest Collaborations

Mythology has become palpable. Sara Lowndes Dylan has joined the Rolling Thunder Revue, and with her are several Dylan children and a nanny. Allen Ginsberg is impressed. "Sara is very intelligent, very funny and I would say queenly. She's sort of aristocratic looking, like an old-time New York young Jewish lady who's been around a lot in the theater, which she has been. Sara and Joan," Ginsberg chuckles, "have had time to compare notes on Dylan."

"No, I had never known her before," Joan says of Sara, "and yes, we have been comparing notes, and that is all I'm going to tell you about that. But I will say that for me, Sara is the most interesting female on this tour. Why? Because she's not a bore. That's the best thing I can say about anybody."

Sara Lowndes Dylan has become part of the Rolling Thunder Revue Acting Company, adding her skills and fantasies to what Allen Ginsberg estimates to be more than 100 hours of film already in the can for the giant kaleidoscope being shot by Lombard Street Films, which is being financed — I am told for nonattribution by those close to Zeus — by Dylan himself. At least five or so complete concerts have been preserved and some special numbers, such as "Isis," have been filmed more times than that. And there have been scores of scenes enacted by diversely mixed members of the troupe. Sara Dylan, for instance, has now portrayed a madam in a bordello in which one of the nubile employees is enacted by Joan Baez in a brazen French accent.

Joan, at first rather standoffish about what she had earlier regarded as a huge mess of a home movie, has now become more involved. In another scene, for instance, she and Dylan are in a bar and the bartender is Arlo Guthrie. "My God, she has a lot of energy," says cinéaste Allen Ginsberg. "And what a marvelous mime."

Also intermittently involved are members of the band, virtuosic David Mansfield among them. As an educational insert in the bordello sequence, Allen Ginsberg is seen in his business suit, taking Mansfield (playing a chaste 14-year-old) to lose his cherry, as Ginsberg puts it in the old-time vernacular. This being, in part, a musical, Mansfield of course has his violin along.

Like many of the scenes in this gargantuan movie — which will purportedly be cut and edited in the spring by Dylan and Howard Alk, who worked with Dylan on Eat the Document — the bordello section started as quite something else. Ginsberg had suggested a scene involving a number of women in the troupe, in part because he is much taken with the notion that the dominant theme in the Rolling Thunder Revue is respect for the "mother goddess, eternal woman, earth woman principle." He points to the songs in the show, such as "Isis" and "Sara," and notes as well that Sara Dylan has diligently researched this theme in such works as Robert Graves's The White Goddess.

The women having assembled, there was much discussion as to the roles they would play — perhaps the graces or the goddesses of the nine muses. Somehow, however, as Sara Lowndes Dylan said, "After all that talk about goddesses, we wound up being whores."

"Nonetheless," says Allen, "Sara, as the madam, did talk about Flaubert."

Dylan is consumed by this film. He conceives a good many of the situations, advises on the transmutation of others, does some of the directing, peers into the camera and works, picking up technique, with the film crew.

One day after much shooting, Ginsberg, wondering how Dylan keeps track of the direction of all this footage, asks him. Dylan wishes he hadn't.

"I've lost the thread," Dylan, with some bewilderment, admits to Ginsberg.

A couple of days later, Ginsberg asks Dylan if the thread has been relocated. The singing filmmaker nods affirmatively.

"So what is the thread of the film?" the poet asks.

"Truth and beauty," says his ever-precise friend.

Along with the Dylan children and their nanny, Joan Baez's six-year-old son, Gabriel, is now on hand, together with Joan's mother and a nursemaid for Gabriel. What would Kerouac have made of this way of doing the road?

Also suddenly, triumphantly materialized — a climactic reaffirmation of the eternal-woman principle — is Bob Dylan's mother, Beatty Zimmerman.

"A regular chicken soup Jewish mother," Allen Ginsberg says approvingly. "With a lot of spirit."

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