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.”
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.