Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese – What Happened?

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Image taken from the internet, likely copyrighted. 

I should have known…

I was never a big Dustin Hoffman fan and I certainly had no desire to see his movie, Tootsie. Someone invariably drug me to the movie and in retrospect I’m glad I saw it for one and only one reason, comedy legend Bill Murray. Apparently Hoffman met Murray at a party and invited him to be in the movie. When Murray agreed, they had to change the script and create a new character for him to play in order to write him into the story. In the movie, he plays struggling actor Hoffman’s struggling playwright roommate. I assume the script looked something like this:

ANY OTHER CHARACTER: “Blah, blah blah”

BILL MURRAY: Ad-lib something hysterical.

In the movie, Hoffman and Murray (the roommates) have a big party. There’s a scene where Murray is drinking and talking to a table full of people. He says, “When someone sees one of my plays, I don’t want them to come up to me afterward and say, “I saw your play and I was moved, I saw your play and I loved it.” I want them to say, “I saw your play. What happened?”

With that as a backdrop, after finally completing all 2 hours and 16 minutes of this “documentary,” all I can say is… wait, what happened? Scorsese is of course a brilliant director of full length films. He also has his rock and roll film bona fides. He filmed the Band’s The Last Waltz which is one of the best concert movies ever. He’s even done a nice job before on Dylan on No Direction Home, which also had a soundtrack that ended up a volume in Dylan’s long running Bootleg series. Admittedly, he looks like a clown in the Stones’ concert film he did, Shine a Light, running around like an idiot begging for a set list…but I try to forget that part of the movie.

I tuned into this thing expecting a straight up documentary. The Rolling Thunder Revue has always had a bit of a mythical quality to it. Dylan was coming off the critical and commercial success of Blood On The Tracks. That album clearly documents the beginning of the end of his first marriage to Sara Dylan. His last tour had been the big extravaganza in 1974 with the Band. For reasons unclear, Dylan retreated to his old stomping grounds in New York, in the Village and gathered a bunch of friends at Gerde’s, a folk music bar. Loose jam sessions ensued. He invited Jacques Levy to write some songs that eventually became the acclaimed album Desire. 

Dylan decided to take his group of friends, who had been jamming in the Village, out on the road, in the style of an old folky hootenanny. They did one leg before Desire and one after. The idea was to play smaller venues for people who typically couldn’t afford “good seats” in arenas. Dylan wanted to get more intimate and close to his audience. He took a host of people with him – Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, poet Allen Ginsberg, Ronnie Hawkins (who Dylan stole the Band from), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot amongst others. Patti Smith declined to join but on the second leg it looks like Joni Mitchell joined. It sounds like a great party… if I hadn’t been in grade school, I’d have loved to ride along but I digress. The show really was a Revue, but Dylan was clearly the draw.

I think the reason this period of Dylan’s career has such a mystique is a) it was during a period when he created what many describe as his final masterpiece, Desire and b) it was never really appropriately documented except for the rather slip shod live album, Hard Rain. Although I would argue that Volume 5 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, which cobbled together various performances from the Rolling Thunder Revue shed an all new light on the proceedings. He also recently released a 14 CD box set from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour featuring everything from rehearsals to complete concerts. It appears this Scorsese release was timed to accompany and call attention to the box set. I love Dylan, and I love his bootleg series, but 14 discs is too much even for this Dylan-phile.

I teed this opus up last weekend and again I expected something along the lines of No Direction Home. I should have known during the opening credits I was not going to get what I expected when I saw the subtitle, “A Bob Dylan Story.” All of the current interview segments in this thing are fictional. I thought I was seeing a revelation when actress Sharon Stone comes on and says she met Dylan on the tour as a 19 year old and he hit on her with the song “Just Like a Woman” only to find out she was never on the tour…she was also only 17 when the tour occurred. Dylan claims he doesn’t remember anything about Rolling Thunder. There’s an actor who plays a fictional director who filmed the tour… actually Dylan directed all of the footage in this thing back in the 70s for a movie Renaldo and Clara. Most of this film is outtakes from that footage. At the end there’s a fictional Congressman (played by a guy who played a fictional Congressman on TV) who claims Jimmy Carter was a Rolling Thunder Revue/Dylan fan and hooked him up with tickets for a Niagra Falls show. Sigh.

I had really only one burning question about the Rolling Thunder Revue. What the hell was Mick Ronson, who had just been let go as David Bowie’s guitarist in the Spiders From Mars, doing on this tour? No one has ever answered that question to my satisfaction. Alas, this documentary never touches on that subject. There is a lot of live, concert footage in this movie. Dylan appears in the iconic cowboy hat with flowers strewn all over it, with white face paint on. I have to admit he rocks a really good scarf game. I said to the Rock Chick, while watching one of the live shots, “Do you think I can pull off that scarf look?” I’m still waiting for an answer.

What I like most about the live concert footage, is it shows what command Dylan has on stage with his band. He can stop or start a musician with a glance. I hadn’t seen that much control on stage with a band since James Brown. He’s got around 15 people on stage, so that’s quite a feat. One of the unsung heroes of this period in Dylan’s career was the space alien-violinist Scarlett Rivera. She comes across in this documentary as someone who likely sleeps in a coffin, but her violin is front and center. She stands to Dylan’s right on stage, and she’s pretty amazing. I love every moment that Joan Baez is on screen. Whether she’s dancing a “boogaloo” on stage or being interviewed about “Dylan,” she’s great. She was indeed, at one time, his equal (and a former lover).

There are a few live scenes that I really enjoyed. In one they perform in what looks like a lady’s mahjong tournament. Ginsberg uses the word vagina on stage in front of a group of grandmothers. Old ladies dancing around to Dylan… surreal. There’s also a cool sequence where Dylan plays “Ira Hayes” (made famous by Johnny Cash) at an Indian Reservation. It’s interesting in a, what the hell was going on in the 70s, kind of a way.

There have always been two Bob Dylans. The real one, and the one he presents to the public. Since he was dubbed the “Voice Of His Generation” he’s done everything he can to deconstruct and manipulate that public persona. He takes every chance he can get to change people’s perception of every stage of his career and that’s what this “documentary” is all about. Maybe he was just having a laugh, and didn’t want to play it straight here. Who knows, it’s Dylan.

If you’re a Dylan fan, and you’ve never seen footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue this is a must see. Just ignore the fictional interview segments. Do not approach this film thinking it’s going to shed any new light on Dylan or the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Have a Happy Independence Day for our US readers and remember… sparklers are really hot and can burn you. Never hold a firecracker in your hand, you want to get through this weekend with all 10 fingers.

Cheers!

 

 

 

Review: Netflix “DocuSeries” ‘Remastered’ – Interesting But Uneven

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Winter has been a bear this year. Between snow and ice storms, I rarely leave the house. The Rock Chick and I joined a gym… no, it wasn’t a New Year’s Resolution, we moved and were forced to find  new place to work out. I can’t even get over to this new place due to inclement weather… well that and utter sloth, but I’ll blame the weather. I find myself with intense cabin fever these days so I end up watching a ton of TV. And with the football season ending recently, and badly, there’s really nothing that holds my interest.

Recently I flipped over to Netflix. Mind you, I only found out recently that the slang term “Netflix and chill” was a euphemism for hooking up, so I’m hopelessly non hip. I always thought Netflix and chill meant, well, watching Netflix and relaxing. A few months ago, I came across what I thought was a one-off documentary about Bob Marley, entitled ‘Who Shot The Sheriff? A Bob Marley Story.’ We’re huge Bob Marley fans here at the house (Humor: Bob Marley’s “Legend” and the Confessions of the Evil Stepdad). I already knew a lot about Bob Marley and had hoped this ReMastered would shed some new light on his story. The entire focus of the show was on the December 1976 assassination attempt on Marley. He was set to play a concert for Jamaican unity, ‘Smile Jamaica,’ and was caught between two different, warring political factions. The result was Marley relocating to London for a number of years. The focus of the documentary was that narrow – it was all about the assassination attempt. If you’re looking for a deep dive into Marley and his life/career, this is not the place to start. I thought the documentary was interesting if a little repetitive.

It wasn’t until this latest cold spell had me trapped inside that I realized the Marley ReMastered wasn’t a stand alone effort, it was one in a series of documentaries. They’ve come out with a number of them since I caught ‘Who Shot The Sheriff.’ Each of the documentaries is centered around one artist and like the Marley episode, something in that artist’s career that is tied to politics. It’s an interesting point of view. Many of the artists covered had strong ties to politics, Marley the “Soul Rebel” maybe most of all. The series has covered Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Grand Master Jay, and someone from Chile named Victor Jara who they describe as the Chilean Bob Dylan. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t watch the one on Jara, although I intend to, and I will probably never watch ‘Who Killed Jam Master Jay.’ I’m sure there’s reasons to care about Jam Master Jay, I just don’t know what they are.

I watched the Sam Cooke episode next, after the Marley episode. I love Sam Cooke. His singing has influenced everyone who came after him – Aretha, Otis Redding, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones. He was a towering talent. Like many soul singers of that era, he got his start singing in church. He went on to join a Gospel group, the Soul Stirrers and later went out on his own as a pop artist. A brilliant man, he quickly figured out the business end and formed his own record label and publishing company… unfortunately he got con artist to the stars Allen Klein involved but I’ll let you watch the show for that story. As most people know, Sam was killed under shady circumstances in a seedy hotel in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Sam had become involved in the Civil Rights movement and was friends with not only Muhammad Ali but Malcolm X. The subject of his episode, ‘The Two Killings of Sam Cooke’ centers around his murder. As became more independent from a business standpoint, which was unheard of for a black man in this times, it was feared he was a danger to the white establishment. He was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” to write the Civil Rights staple, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” That also made him a threat. While I don’t think the FBI or the cops had anything to do with his murder – he got stuck in a shake down that went bad – I do think they didn’t investigate as thoroughly as they should have. This episode is the best one of the three I’ve watched. If you’re only going to spend 1 hour with this series, this is the one to see.

The third one I watched centered on Johnny Cash, the Man In Black. It’s entitled ‘Tricky Dick and the Man In Black.’ Obviously, the Tricky Dick in question is none other than Richard “Dick” Nixon. This was, I must admit, depressing television. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of wooing rural, and yes I’ll say it, red neck voters is kind of what we’re seeing repeated, writ large, in America today. He was basically lying to these people. In the interest of pulling those folks, who he thought loved country music, he invited Johnny Cash to perform at the White House. He wanted Johnny to sing some really right wing-y songs. “Welfare Cadillac” was particularly obnoxious. But Johnny being Johnny, he not only sang what he wanted to, he sang a new song, “What Is Truth,” which I was not familiar with. Again, that song rings true more now than it ever did. It was an interesting episode if a tad dull in spots. This highlights the sad fact that we really haven’t come that far in America…

If you’re like me, and you’ve got cabin fever and are pulling  your hair out with boredom, check out a few of these. Treat it like a smorgasbord and pick and choose carefully. This isn’t going to be revelatory to true fans of these artists, but it’s an interesting chapter in each of their lives.

Stay warm out there everybody.

Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way

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*Image taken from the internet and probably subject to copyright

I’ve been a Springsteen fan for as long as I’ve been a rock and roll fan. The first LP I bought of his was The River, a double-album which at the time was a huge financial commitment on my part… there are only so many lawns you can mow or tables you can bus to feed a vinyl habit when you’re in high school. That album quickly led me backwards in his catalog, through Darkness On The Edge of Town to Born To Run to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (which is frankly my favorite of his albums). Since that time I have been on this journey with him. He likes to describe his body of work as a dialogue between an artist and his fans. When I heard he was taking a 1-man show to Broadway, I thought it was a natural progression of that very conversation.

Springsteen On Broadway is indeed just that – a dialogue. One might describe it as a recap of the entire dialogue we, his fans and Bruce have been having all along. I had really wanted to try and get tickets and fly to New York to see the show live, like my friend Judy did (name changed to protect the guilty). But like most people, watching the Netflix special was how I got to see the show. I am sure the opportunity to see this show live, in the intimate Walter Kerr Theater would have completely changed the experience. I finally caught it on Netflix yesterday and I was deeply moved. I will admit freely, that despite being a huge fan, I never did read Springsteen’s highly acclaimed autobiography fittingly named, Born To Run. Unfortunately, rock autobiography has been destroyed for me forever by Keith Richards’ Life. I didn’t need to read Keef comparing dick size with Mick.

Despite my not reading the autobiography, I realized right away it was the source material for much of the show. But that was probably because I’m a huge fan. I’m not sure a casual Springsteen fan can connect with this performance without reading his autobiography. Springsteen writes in such an epic, poetic style that it’s no wonder his story was a perfect fit for the stage. There’s a theatrical nature to all things Springsteen. And like all things Springsteen, On Broadway was long – two and half hours long. After seeing the show, I wondered to myself how often I would return to the soundtrack to listen again. I’m glad I saw it and heard it, but like reading a book, I’m not sure I’d go back to it, and again, I’m HUGE Bruce fan. For once I might have to actually say, this Bruce Springsteen performance may be only for the true fans. And there are plenty of us out here.

Over the years Springsteen’s legend has grown so huge – as a performer, writer, activist, it’s nice to see him cut loose and spend a little time debunking the legend. He begins by explaining that he’s from a boardwalk town, where everything is based on a little magic and deceit. Despite being considered the champion of the working man, he’s never “held an honest job.” He’s never worked in a factory. To the Rock Chick’s great amusement, despite being known as the foremost writer of car songs, he couldn’t drive a car until he was in his 20s. He expresses a host of emotions as he tells the stories he chose and it’s quite a ride. I was happy to hear Springsteen cuss, which I think was also meant to undercut some of the “Saint of Rock N Roll” legend. Then there are times when Bruce goes into, what I describe as “The Reverend of Rock n Roll” act which also made me feel a little like Bruce was playing a character named Bruce Springsteen.

For the true Springsteen fans, there are a host of stories that touch on all the important points of his story. Each story (and some are quite long and revealing) is accompanied by a song and they compliment each other very well. To be clear, the songs are there to compliment the dialogue and not the other way around. He starts off, of course, with “Growing Up” and a story about Elvis and his first guitar. It’s clear, like most of us, Elvis had a big impact on Bruce. Looming even larger was Springsteen’s father and the relationship between them. The most moving pieces of this show were about Bruce and his dad. I was pleased to hear him play “The Wish,” a song about his mother. It’s a deep cut off Tracks. It’s wonderful that his catalog has a song for almost everything he’s been through. His real life completely informs his art which is probably why the legend has grown.

The performance here of Born In the USA is stunning. It follows Bruce talking about Vietnam and how it affected his generation and more personally some of his friends and Jersey idols. He spoke of meeting Ron Kovic and reading his book, ‘Born On the Fourth of July’ and what an effect it had on him. I think that was probably the birth of Springsteen the activist. When he speaks of Clarence Clemons and everything that friendship meant to him I got tears in my eyes. I love the version of “10th Avenue Freeze Out” that he plays in tribute.

Patti Scialfa Springsteen comes out and sings a couple of the most personal songs, (love songs naturally), “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” Both of those performances were definite highlights. They are not only married, they harmonize spectacularly. “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Land of Hope And Dreams” are two of the more political moments and Springsteen handled them both deftly – both the songs and the things he said prior.

From Elvis, to his dad, to his mother, to Clarence, to Vietnam, to being a parent, to our current political situation, Springsteen covers it all. He does so with at times good humor and other times deep, sorrowful feeling. This was a great performance and I really regret not making it to Broadway to see it in person. I will say, this one is just for us in the cult of Springsteen.

Life is a long ride… Turn up the radio and try to be good to each other.