Backstage at the Rolling Thunder Revue, Allen Ginsberg (who has just dedicated his book of First Blues to “Minstrel Guruji Bob Dylan“) asks the convener of these revels, these winds of the old days, “Are you getting any pleasure out of this, Bob?”
The convener, who can use words as if they were fun-house mirrors when he’s pressed, fingers his gray cowboy hat and looks at the poet. The first he had ever heard of Allen Ginsberg and the kind of people he hung out with was in Time around 1958 while he was still a kid in Minnesota. (“I’m Allen Ginsberg and I’m crazy.” “My name is Peter Orlovsky and I’m crazy as a daisy.” “My name is Gregory Corso and I’m not crazy at all.” That had broken up the kid in Minnesota.)
Now, here on the road with this hooting, rocking carnival of time present and time past, both perhaps present in time future, is Allen, who has survived serene and curious, in a business suit.
“Pleasure?” Dylan finds the word without taste, without succulence. “Pleasure? I never seek pleasure. There was a time years ago when I sought a lot of pleasure because I’d had a lot of pain. But I found there was a subtle relationship between pleasure and pain. I mean, they were on the same plane. So now I do what I have to do without looking for pleasure from it.”
“He is putting you on,” said a friend to whom Ginsberg, later in the tour, had described Dylan’s exorcism of the pursuit of pleasure.
“No,” Ginsberg said firmly. “Bob’s attitude is very similar to the Buddhist view of nonattachment. The belief that seeking pleasure, clinging to pleasure, evokes pain. It stunned me when Bob said that. It meant that he’s reached a philosophical level very few come close to. And it’s a long-range, practical, workable, philosophical level. Bob has grown an awful lot. He’s alchemized a lot of the hangups of his past. Like his insecurity, which has now become,” Ginsberg laughs, “an acceptance of and an ability to work with continuous change.”
On the other hand, a musician in Minstrel Guruji’s band tells of an epiphany early in the tour:
“Joan and Bob are doing a duet. I forget the name of it, it’s one of his old tunes. She’s really moving. I mean dancing. She starts doing the Charleston and the audience is digging it and we’re digging it. Dylan though, he’s plunking his guitar, moving his eyes around quick, like he does, looking at Joanie, looking at us, looking at the audience. Like, ‘What the hell is she doing that’s going over so damn big?’ It’s over, and Joan walks offstage, grinning, sees a friend in the wings, and says to him, ‘You won’t be hearing that number again from this little old duo on this tour.’ And laughs because neither the friends nor the others standing there can figure out what she’s talking about. But she’s right. Bob’s never called for that tune since. He couldn’t stand the competition. Big as he is, in some ways he’s still a kid scrabbling for his turf.”
“Not true,” says Joan Baez of the kid characterization. “Or, not as true as it used to be.” She had once described Dylan as “a huge ego bubble, frantic and lost, so wrapped up in ego, he couldn’t have seen more than four feet in front of him.” But now, “Bob has learned how to share,” Joan told me one night after a three-and-a-half-hour show in Waterbury, Connecticut, at an old rococo movie theater that reminded me of Depression nights as a boy when we would go to just such a place to feel good anyhow and come home with some dishes besides. No dishes this time, but the most mellow feelings I’ve had from a concert since the Duke Ellington band on an exceptionally good night. The kicks were from the genuine mutual grooving of the music makers; but it was Dylan, as shaper of the thunder, who was responsible for lifting the audience and keeping it gliding.
A bounteous dispenser of thunder was Dylan this time around. At least three and a half hours every night, sometimes longer. (The first concert in Toronto, one of the tour’s more exalted evenings, ran close to five hours.) And yet always, or nearly always, the pacing, though relaxed, didn’t go slack.
The right mix of a backup band, driving strong but sinuously so it never sounded like an assault. If you could keep T-Bone Burnett, Steve Soles, Howie Wyeth, Mick Ronson, Luther Rix and David Mansfield together — I was thinking as a once and former A&R man — you could have one hell of a house insurance band. Especially with Mansfield, 19 and the kind of natural whom conservatory students prone to neurasthenia should never be allowed to hear or see. Mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, violin — Mansfield makes them all sing, for God’s sake, as if he were the sorcerer, not the apprentice he looks like.
Up front Rob Stoner, who doesn’t get in the way, and the authentically raffish Bob Neuwirth who may, he says, be in the movies soon. Finally a Rhett Butler for our time. Put another way, I think you have to see Neuwirth to remember his singing.
Then the substars. Ronee Blakley, who earnestly needs direction, as her albums and her musical aimlessness on this tour rather painfully indicate. Roger McGuinn, who has become a large, jolly, historic rocker, almost right for a Christmas mime show. And surprisingly, most impressive of all in the second line some nights, Jack Elliott. With his rambling white cowboy hat and folk collector’s glasses, Jack is real serious, however idiosyncratic, and on this tour quite moving in his seriousness. Watching and feeling what “Pretty Boy Floyd,” let’s say, still means to him, I started thinking of Cisco Houston. Not that they sang alike, Cisco being more of an original, but they trained a lot of memories. And Jack is still spreading seeds.
All the way up front, Joan Baez and, as she calls him, The Kid. Her voice has lowered and so the bodiless sound of medieval caroling in a cathedral is also gone. But now there is more warmth and flesh and survivor’s humor (“Love is a pain in the ass”); and still that surging vibrato which is so strong that when Joan sings a cappella, the vibrato becomes her rolling rhythm section.
In her duets with Dylan, Joan, most of the time, is a secondary strand. She could overpower him because her timbre penetrates deeper and because she is more resourceful with her voice than he is, but Joan is content to orchestrate Dylan. And Dylan — less coiled, even dancing from time to time — cannot ever be called relaxed but now is so in charge that even he believes he’s in charge. His singing, therefore, is more authoritative than ever before. That is, the anxiety in his delivery has to do with the story he’s telling rather than with the way he’s telling it.
It feels good to him, this tour. The itch was there last summer. One liquid night, if you believe Bob Neuwirth: “Me and Bob and Ramblin’ Jack decided we were going to go out and tour in a station wagon, go out and play Poughkeepsie. That didn’t turn out to be possible. So we did this instead. And this ain’t no Elton John show, you know. This ain’t no fucking one-fourth of the Beatles show or nothing like that. This show, we got it all, man. Between us we got it all. And it just gets better and better and better.”
The feeling is good,” Joan handed me her glass of wine, “because everybody has some room onstage. Bob made sure of that. He didn’t have to and I argued against it. I thought it would slow things up. But Bob insisted. He said the guys in the band have to work day and night, and so each of them ought to get some attention. Not that, as you saw, Bob has sworn off attention for himself.”
He no longer seeks pleasure, he says. But what of the pleasure of attention? Why, that comes, it just comes.
Blood on the Tracks has been released and Allen Ginsberg, listening close, is moved to write the poet about a rhyme in “Idiot Wind”: “idiot wind blowing like a circle around my skull from the Grand Coulee dam to the Capitol.”
It’s an amazing rhyme, Ginsberg writes, an amazing image, a national image, like in Hart Crane’s unfinished epic of America, The Bridge.
The other poet is delighted to get the letter. No one else, Dylan writes Ginsberg, had noticed that rhyme, a rhyme which is very dear to Dylan.
Ginsberg’s tribute to that rhyme is one of the reasons he is here with Bob and Joan and the rest of the merry motley. It was, says Allen, “one of the little sparks of intelligence that passed between Bob and me and that led him to invite me on the tour.”
Joan, in faded jeans and multicolored, boldly striped cotton shirt, is talking with amused affection about Dylan, about the tour, about herself. The Ghost of Johanna still marvels at the sparks that never cease coming from this “savage gift on a wayward bus.” Throughout the tour, although Lord knows she knew his numbers well, Joan would slip into the audience to hear Dylan’s sets or, if she were weary, she’d sit down backstage to listen.
“Bob has so powerful an effect on so many lives,” Joan says. She has been saying this for some 13 years; and at the beginning, before his pop beatification, she pushed mightily to press that savage gift on those who had come to pay homage only to her. Dylan was the “mystery guest” unveiled at her concerts, lurching onstage to break the spell of high-born doom across the seas in someone else’s history as he rasped about freak shows right outside.
“I’m still deeply affected by his songs,” Joan says. And by him? “Well, of course, there’s that presence of his. I’ve seen nothing like it except in Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando and Stevie Wonder. Bob walks into a room and every eye in the place is on him. There are eyes on Bob even when he’s hiding. All that has probably not been easy for him.” She says this entirely without her usual irony.
Sometimes,” Dylan says to me on the phone in 1966, “I have the feeling that other people want my soul. If I say to them, ‘I don’t have a soul,’ they say, ‘I know that. You don’t have to tell me that. Not me. How dumb do you think I am? I’m your friend.” What can I say except that I’m sorry and feel bad? I guess maybe feeling bad and paranoia are the same thing.”
Onstage, all during the Rolling Thunder Revue, Joan had put her arm around Dylan’s shoulders, wiped the sweat off his forehead, kissed his cheek, and looked into his eyes, giving rise to a frisson of voyeurism among those in the audience who yearn for Diamonds & Rust to have a sequel, several sequels, for where else these days can you find that old-time mysterious rhapsody in the romances of the famous? “It’s on again,” a woman behind me whispers eagerly as Dylan and Baez intertwine in close harmony onstage. “It’s on again.”
Later I ask the question and Joan laughs. “This is a musical tour for me. Actually, I don’t see much of Bob at all. He spends most of his time on that movie he’s making. The movie needs a director. The sense I get of it so far is that that movie is a giant mess of a home movie.”
Joan, sitting back on the couch, as spontaneously straightforward as Dylan is cabalistically convoluted. And as he figures in who knows how many sexual fantasies of how many genders, so she is erotic, still freshly erotic, but probably stars in somewhat straighter fantasies. But who knows?
And she is funny, especially in self-defense. As on the day she showed up for her first rehearsal for the Rolling Thunder Revue.
“I’d like to hear that song off your new album,” Dylan asks the once and former girl on the half-shell. “You know, ‘Diamonds & Rust.’ “
“You want me to do that on the show?” Joanie looks at him in solemn question.
“Yeah.” There is a distinct collector’s gleam in Dylan’s eyes. “Yeah, I do.”
“You mean,” the ex-madonna grabs Dylan by the chin and looks him in the eye, “that song I wrote about my ex-husband.”
Dylan has been aced. “I have to keep him spinning,” Joan says of the rout, “in order to keep my balance.”
“Those duets,” Joan says of what she’s sometimes been thinking while also wiping Dylan’s brow and looking into his eyes, “are a hazard. It’s hard singing with him because he’s so devilish. There are times when I don’t know what song he’s plucking on that guitar until he starts singing. And he can be tricky. On one song, we’d been doing two choruses all along the tour but one night, just as I’m about to belt the second chorus, the song was all over. Done! Thanks a lot. Bob had worked out the new short ending with the band and hadn’t told me. Oh, he’s a lot of fun onstage.”
Curtain! The second half of the nonpareil Rolling Thunder What-Might-Have-Been-and-What-Has-Been-Point-to-One-End-Which-Is-Always-Present Revue is about to start!
Under the cowboy hat, the klezmer, the Jewish hobo musician with roots — roots by the centuries — turns to the sad-eyed lady from Chavez country. That lady who, he used to say, “proved t’ me that boys still grow.” Dylan looks up at Baez and says, “Don’t upstage me.”
She smiles her luminous smile and says, “I’m going to use everything I have to do just that.”
I‘m back from goose hunting in Maryland,” [said President Ford.] He was disappointed at only bagging one goose in six hours. Shifting to the subject of country music, “Joan Baez really grabs me,” Ford admitted. Party host Senator William Brock (R-Tenn.) agreed. “I wish I could get her to campaign for me . . . at least in some areas,” said the senator.
— Women’s Wear Daily, November 19th, 1975
The campaigner is still very fond of the klezmer. “I used to be too hard on him. I used to be too hard on a lot of people.” Baez grins, sipping wine. “Well, I’m not as stiff as I used to be. I’ve lightened up on people. I don’t expect Bob to champion my causes anymore. I’ve learned he’s not an activist, which does not mean he doesn’t care about people. If that were so, he wouldn’t have written ‘Hurricane.’ “
Having shrived Dylan of her moral burden (“Singer or savior it was his to choose/Which of us know what was his to lose”), what does she want for him now?
“I’d like to see him keep making music, keep creating. Why, I would like him to be happy.”
It all depends, of course. Or, as Jane Ace once said to Goodman Ace, “If it makes him happy to be happy, then let him be happy.”
And what does she want for herself?
Joan Baez speaks to the wall. “There must be something I can do with my life that will be worthwhile.”
You talk, I say, as if you’ve been a sybarite or a government official up to now.
“Oh, I’ve already done a fair amount of things; but in terms of what has to be done, how do you measure what you still ought to be doing? And maybe what I did wasn’t done as efficiently as it could have been. Screaming at people may not be the most efficient way. I’m going to stay back a little from now on. I’m learning how to listen to people instead of preaching at them so much. And learning to listen to myself again. I’m 30,000 words into a book, an extension of Daybreak. And the songs. I’m going to write more personal songs. If they come. I go through some very long dry periods. But it’s fun when it happens.”
She likes to laugh, always has, though in the past, as she knows, she has sometimes come on like Carry Nation, wielding her ax, with, as they used to say, an “achingly pure soprano.”
At the start of rehearsals for a television show in 1960, she announces what songs she will not sing; with whom else she will appear in her section of the program (no one); the amount of time she will need; the kinds of sets behind her she will not permit. She is not negotiating. She is stating irreducible demands and looking toward the door.
The producer, Robert Herridge, a prideful maverick and wildly ecumenical intellectual who is too honest to last long at CBS, is morose, frustrated. He turns to me, who has brought him this burning bush, and snaps, “The bitch is only 19 years old and she thinks she’s Thomas Mann.”
She also thought that singing wasn’t enough, wasn’t nearly enough, and as the Sixties went on, she went on the stump for tax resistance and draft resistance, went to jail twice for helping block induction centers, marched for civil rights North and South, arguing with Martin Luther King much of the way. (King was proud that black bands were coming out of the “revolution,” pointing out to Joan that “the black keys and the white keys on the piano are out of tune. We have to get them in tune, and this is one way.” And Joan, the still burning bush, pointed a long, graceful finger at him and said, “But the whole fucking orchestra is shot, so what good are black bands going to do?”) And she worked with Cesar Chavez before all the articles and books made it modish to switch table wines and peer at the crates the iceberg lettuce came in.
No other performer came anywhere close to Joan in terms of being continually on the line in those already blurred years. And as the most deeply knowledgeable popular circuit rider for active nonviolence, it was Joan who became a pariah among certain “revolutionaries” pushing holy violence because she insisted early in that self-indulgent game that Tolstoy had been right: “The difference between establishment violence and revolutionary violence is the difference between dog shit and chicken shit.”
As she kept getting braver and as her radical pacifist thinking grew more rigorous, Joan was also growing into a woman who loved falling in love, just as in the old songs, and who kept learning how to move on, just as in the new songs. Nearly 35, the mother of a six-year-old son, she’s still moving on, in a number of directions.
“There are four of me, right?” Joan says. “A mother, a woman, a musician and a politician. For a long time, I always put politics first. When Gabe was born, being a mother and being political took on coequal importance. Music, like before, kept being shoved into the background. And the me that is a woman kept coming and going, depending on whether there was something going on in that part of my life.
“Then,” she goes on, “I went broke, so broke I couldn’t even fly East for a demonstration. I had done a series of political albums which hadn’t sold and so I had to put music up front, I had to stop being part of everybody’s political campaign and I had to go out there and entertain. That was last summer’s concert tour. I was frightened. What would they think, the people who came to hear the political Joan Baez? At first, I was so apprehensive, I’d announce during a concert that I was on vacation. But you know what they thought? They thought I was human. And I liked it too. I found myself dancing during the concerts and I love to dance. I’d never been so spontaneous onstage. The audiences were having fun and so was I.”
So, in the middle of the journey, the newsreel footage of the Sixties having been locked up somewhere, which of the four Baezes is going to be in the forefront now?
“It’s still getting sorted out,” says Joan. “I’m always going to be involved in nonviolence, I still feel very close to Chavez and the farmworkers, and I expect I’ll be working again with Amnesty International. But on the other hand, I want to be with my kid. This is a very important year for him, a kind of transition year to when he starts moving away from as much need as he has now for his mother. I don’t want to mess this year up. And then there’s music. I can see myself getting more involved with the fun of the music, with allowing myself to be a musician for the sake of the music itself.”
And the woman part of Baez?
She grins. “That comes and goes, depending on what happens. No way of knowing what’s going to happen.”
One part of Baez, interlaced with all the others, remains stubbornly intact. “I am,” she says, “your basic camp counselor, I really am.”
All campers are to be treated equally, with justice and fairness for all. Or else.
By the 12th stop on the Rolling Thunder Revue celebration of musical egalitarianism, the camp counselor is furious. She is preparing a pronunciamento and a graphic drawing for the tour’s internal newspaper. She is protesting rank injustice in the heart of all this here cultural freedom.
“They make the security people, the bus drivers and the crew,” the burning bush speaks, “eat at separate places and at separate hours from the rest of us. That is segregation.”
Who is “they” — Lou Kemp?
“I don’t know who it is. But this is going to stop. The drawing I’m putting in shows a pool of blood, and it’s going to say that without these guys who are being segregated, one of us principals might be stranded, to say the least, in the wake of the Rolling Thunder Revue.”
What if your protest is ignored?
“Then a lot of us,” says Joan, “will go eat with the security people, the bus drivers and the crew. There are a lot of possible approaches to this kind of problem.”
Is Bob aware of this segregation?
Joan, customarily spontaneous, customarily candid, weighs her answer. “I don’t know,” she says.
Allen Ginsberg also speaks of protest, but as in a vision. Where once was a time to howl, now is the time to begin the harvest and to give thanks to the harbingers, then and now.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, Arlo Guthrie moves onstage to play and sing with his father’s other son, the hard-wishing, hard-traveling, earnestly self-adopted Jack Elliott. Backstage, the midwestern klezmer (to whom Woody was his “last idol”) watches and listens.
“That’s a strong lineage, Woody’s,” says Allen Ginsberg, “and Woody, of course, was part of an older lineage, that old good-time Wobbly idealism. That’s all still going strong right in this show. Joan sings ‘Joe Hill.’ And ‘Hurricane’ is part of that too, an old classic social protest song.”
Sound the news of injustice and the people will awake. How else can we begin?
“And look how we end,” says Walt Whitman’s friend.
The end, a reasonably jubilant “This Land Is Your Land,” everybody onstage, even Ginsberg-the-keeper-of-the-vision making silvery his finger cymbals, as Joan soars and swoops from the mountains to the prairies and Dylan, smiling, stands his ground, and all the rest move to the hearty beat of the American Upanishad.
“There was a kind of vision of community in the Sixties,” Ginsberg says after the show, “and many people thought that once they’d had the vision, everything was solved. But as Jack Kerouac once said, ‘Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.’ Another thing going on in the Sixties was just people digging each other, digging each other’s texture and character, hanging out. You can’t do that fast either. You know, there was a lot of hanging out in the Fifties too, in Kerouac.”
Dylan had been braced and shaped, in part, way back then, by Kerouac. Doctor Sax, On the Road, Mexico City Blues. The day after the Rolling Thunder Revue came to Lowell, Dylan, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky visited Kerouac’s grave. Ginsberg had brought a copy of Mexico City Blues and Dylan read a poem from it. The three then sat on the grave, Dylan picking up Ginsberg’s harmonium and making up a tune. When Dylan pulled out his guitar, Ginsberg began to improvise a long, slow, 12-bar blues about Kerouac sitting up in the clouds looking down on these kindly wanderers putting music to his grave. Dylan is much moved, much involved, a state of introspection closely captured by the camera crew that has also come along.
Before Lowell, before Boston, before Plymouth, the day the Dharma Carnival was to leave New York, Allen Ginsberg meets Muriel Rukeyser on the street. This soft-voiced, slow-speaking, hugely honest poet, who of late has been in South Korea trying to stop the terminal silencing of an antideath poet there, is glad to see Ginsberg. She admires people with visions. She asks where he’s going.
“I’m going on the bus,” Ginsberg says cheerily. “It’s a minstrel show!”
“But it’s more than a minstrel show, isn’t it?” she asks me the next day.
“It is a signal to the country,” Ginsberg tells me on the road. “What happened in the San Francisco renaissance in the mid-Fifties was one of those signals that characterize the rise of a generation’s poetic consciousness and its sense of social rebellion. And that happened in the very midst of McCarthyism. Then, in the mid-Sixties, the peace marches and the rise of rock — the Beatles and things like that — were among the signals for a further rising of consciousness, a wider sense of community. Now, the Rolling Thunder Revue will be one of the signal gestures characterizing the working cultural community that will make the Seventies.”
I would like to truly believe, I tell the poet, but where, except in wish, is the basis for such joyous tidings in a time of torpor?
“Have you read Dave Dellinger’s book, More Power than We Knew?” The poet must resort to prose. “Dellinger shows that many of the demands that the youth generation or the left or the movement made in the Sixties have actually been met. Congress did cut off funds for the Vietnam war and who would have thought that possible in the mid-Sixties? Then there were all the protests about the police state, and a police state paranoia to go with them. Now a great deal of that has been confirmed and exposed in public investigations. Not that everything has been all cleaned up but the work of the Sixties did bear some fruit. It never was in vain.
“So now, it’s time for America to get its shit together,” the poet says idiomatically. “It’s time to get back to work or keep on working, depending on who you are, because the work that went before has been good, even though people got discouraged. It’s been as good as you can expect, considering what it takes to walk on water or reverse the machine age or deal with overpopulation or capitalism. Rolling Thunder, with its sense of community, is saying we should all get our act together. And do it properly and well.” The poet, bouncing his vision, laughs. “Once you have a view of the right path, then you have to travel that path.”
That means Dylan’s getting his act together too?
“Having gone through his changes in the Sixties and Seventies, just like everybody else,” Ginsberg says, “Bob now has his powers together. On the show, he has all the different kinds of art he has practiced — protest, improvisation, surrealist invention, electric rock & roll, solitary acoustic guitars strumming, duet work with Joan and with other people. All these different practices have now ripened and are usable in one single show, just as there is also room for Mick Ronson and his very English kind of space-music rock, Joan and her sort of refined balladry and Roger McGuinn with his West Coast-style rock. All of these different styles turn out to be usable now.“
“Do you know what Dylan is talking about doing?” a principal of the tour says to me. “Don’t use my name, but he might start a newspaper! That blows my mind. It’ll be like a community newspaper, but for a community all over the country.”
I wonder who is going to be the music critic and, in particular, who is going to write about Dylan’s records. Blind Boy Grunt?
“I am not able to tell you any details,” says Allen Ginsberg, “but this tour may not end as all other tours have. There is some desire among us to have a kind of permanent community and Dylan is stepping very, very slowly to find out if that can work. Recordings would be one way and there may be other ways. One must proceed slowly and soberly — unlike the Beatles when they tried to expand their sense of community. Remember John Lennon trying to put together that whole Apple enterprise as a sort of umbrella organization for all kinds of collective work? But he didn’t have the right personnel and so it wasn’t done soberly and practically enough. This would be. Keep watching. The thing is to keep the Rolling Thunder spirit alive.”
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.
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.”
Seated at the back of the stage, Beatty Zimmerman is pulled up and onto stage center and begins to dance and wave to the audience, none of whom, she is sure, knows who she is.
It is getting near the start of the second chorus and Joan Baez, chronically gracious, pulls Mrs. Zimmerman toward the lead mike, the principals’ mike. “All of a sudden,” Joan says, “Dylan kicks me in the ass. Gently. It was his way of saying, ‘I think I’d rather sing this chorus than have my mother do it.’ So I had to gracefully Charleston Mrs. Zimmerman back a few steps and then leap to the mike and sing with Bob.”
And there, back a few steps, is Mrs. Zimmerman, arms flailing, dancing to Woody’s song and the music of Woody’s children and the music of her own child, of all things. The first time she’s ever been onstage with that child.
“Sara, Joan, his children, his mother,” Alien Ginsberg meditates, “he’s getting all his mysteries unraveled.”
Not quite. Not yet. Earlier in the tour, listening to him as he chants what I took — wrongly, it turns out — to be kaddish for “Sara,” there is that mysterious, demonic force, in and beyond the words, that will last a long while beyond the tour. That cracking, shaking energy which reminds me of another klezmer on the roof, another Tateh in ragtime, Lenny Bruce. But Lenny, who certainly had his act together, never learned how to get his defenses together. Dylan, on the other hand, has developed a vocation for self-protection. If he has a mania, it is for survival. (“I’m still gonna be around when everybody gets their heads straight.”) And part of the way of survival is keeping some of his mysteries damn well raveled.
One morning, as the caravan is about to break camp, a rock musician says, “You know what makes him different. He sees the end of things. The rest of us, we’re into something, it’s as if it’s going to last forever. Dylan, he’s in just as deep, but he knows it’s not going to last.”
I am mumbling about a stiff singer who phrases, however authoritatively, like a seal and plays nothing guitar on the side. Why, then, do I once again (unlike the ’74 tour) find him powerful? “It doesn’t matter whether he’s musical at all,” I am instructed by Mar-got Hentoff, a writer on these matters. “He has in his voice that sense of the fragility of all things, that sense of mortality which everybody tries to avoid acknowledging but is drawn toward when they hear it. He’s got it and nobody else has.”
It was my wife (quoted in a New York Times epitaph I had written of the ’74 tour) who had greatly annoyed Dylan, a friend of his told me. “He’s not ‘The Kid’ anymore,” she had said in print, “so what can he be now?”
A year later, having come upon the Rolling Thunder Revue, she has an answer: “a grown-up. Maybe a suspicious, secretive, irritating grown-up. But no longer a kid. He’s lost that. And now, as he grows older, he’ll get still more powerful because he’ll reach the further knowledge that there is no way out of loss, and so he’ll have a new truth to talk about.”
Late one night, at the Other End, before the trail boss was quite ready to get the wagon train going, Dylan and Bob Neuwirth and the rest of the gang are elevating their discourse.
“Hey, poet, sing me a poem!” one of them yells to Dylan.
“Okay, poet,” says the Minstrel Guruji.
Delighted, Allen Ginsberg is saying, “It’s like in a Dostoevsky novel, the way they’ve taken to calling each other ‘poet.’ It’s no more ‘Okay, cowboy.’ It’s ‘Okay, poet.’ They’re using ‘poet’ as an honorific, practical thing, and that means they’ve grown old enough to see that poetry is tough, that it’s a lasting practice bearing fruit over decades.
“Dylan has become much more conscious of himself as a poet,” Ginsberg adds. “I’ve watched him grow in that direction. Back in 1968, he was talking poetics with me, telling me how he was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something. He wasn’t just making up a line to go with a rhyme anymore; each line had to advance the story, bring the song forward. And from that time came some of the stuff he did with the Band — like ‘I Shall Be Released,’ and some of his strong laconic ballads like ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.’ There was to be no wasted language, no wasted breath. All the imagery was to be functional rather than ornamental. And he’s kept growing from there.
“Like he’s been reading Joseph Conrad recently. Victory in particular. I found out when we were talking about the narrative quality of some of the newer songs — ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’ and ‘Isis.’ Bob related the way those songs developed to what he’d been learning about narrative and about characterization from Conrad. The way characterization and mood shape narrative. Now he’s asking about H. P. Lovecraft. I wonder what that’s going to lead to?”
It is near the end. In Toronto, Joan Baez is backstage. Onstage, Dylan is beginning his acoustic set. A member of Gordon Lightfoot’s band begins to move some equipment. Baez glares at him and he stops.
“The jerk didn’t know any better,” she says later, “but I didn’t want to miss a note. I didn’t want to miss a word. Even after all these shows, the genius of The Kid was still holding it all together. I’d heard it all, every night, and here I’m sitting again as close to him as I can get. And not only me. You look around and you see every member of the band and the guys in the crew listening too.”
What is it? What is it he has? I ask.
“It’s the power,” Joan says. “It’s the power.”
Oh, I’m hurtin‘.” It is the next morning. Bob Neuwirth groans and coughs in a most alarming manner. “This is a rolling writers’ show,” Neuwirth manages to say. “Nobody on this tour who isn’t a writer. Oh, I’m really hurtin‘. Even the equipment guys, the bus drivers, they’re all jotting things down. It’s a goddamn rolling writers’ convention. Oh my God, I can’t even cough. It’s going to be such a drag when this tour is over.”
Joan Baez, mildly sympathetic when she’s not laughing, says to the audibly aching Neuwirth, “Do let me describe what happened to you last night. Everybody has his own way of dealing with anxieties,” she explains to me, “and his way was to get himself black and blue. He got very, very drunk and ornery and for an hour and a half four very large security guards were wrestling him in the hall because they didn’t want him to leave the hotel and go wreck Gordon Lightfoot’s house where we were having a party. Well, he got there anyhow and he did wreck the house just a little. But everybody had a grand time, and now Neuwirth feels fine too, except he can’t walk very well.
“You see, it’s going to be rough for all of us when this is over. And Neuwirth’s way of handling that was to have an early blowout. God, it’s depressing at the end.”
At the beginning, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Elliott Adnopoz (long since transubstantiated into his vision, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) sees an old friend, the replica of the Mayflower, on whose rigging he, an expert sailor, had actually worked years before. Climbing to the top of the mizzenmast, Elliott explodes with a long, joyous, “Ahoy!” and waves to the Minnesota poet in the cowboy hat below as Allen Ginsberg proclaims, “We have, once again, embarked on a voyage to reclaim America.”
At least it is steady work, especially for a minstrel.