Celebrating Bob Dylan at 70 with Photos from the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue
As the legendary folk-rocker approaches a milestone birthday, there are plenty of tributes to his iconic mid-60s incarnation as the “voice of a generation.” But those seeking insight into the China-touring, Christmas-album-making, Victoria’s Secret–endorsing Bob Dylan of today need look no further than 1975, when he and a motley collection of musicians took a blowtorch to his sacred song canon. As Ken Regan unveils a trove of never-before-seen images at New York City’sMorrison Hotel Gallery, Michael Hogan reflects on Dylan’s audacious refusal to give the people what they want.
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez during the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975.
Seventy isn’t that old anymore. So why is it that Bob Dylan, who reaches that milestone on May 24, seems so positively ancient—a feature of the cultural landscape itself, whose age should be calculated in geological eons, not anything so ephemeral as months and years?
But it’s also because of what wehaven’tseen of Dylan. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dylan chooses not to flaunt his taste in designer apparel and hair care in the pages of celebrity magazines from week to week, opting instead for the life of an itinerant musician, passing from town to town in perpetuity.
Those who choose to look in on the Never-Ending Tour will find that it in no way resembles the polished greatest-hits revues perpetrated by, say, the Rolling Stones, as captured in Martin Scorsese’s fascinatingly grotesque concert filmShine a Light.Dylan re-invents every song every night. The results range from transcendent to downright intolerable, sometimes within the same song, but they are never predictable.
The only constant these days, in fact, is Dylan’s wizened croak—another reason he seems so old beyond his years. The debate over whether his voice is among the best or worst instruments in popular music is bound to rage on, but no one can argue that it had aged considerably by the end of the 1980s. You can hear the strain beginning to show on the Rolling Thunder Revue recordings from 1975, even if you agree with me that his voice never sounded better than it did that year. It’s as if, having discovered his diaphragm at last, he wasted no time using it to rattle the life out of his vocal cords.
There are other ways in which Rolling Thunder prefigures his latter-day troubadour phase. The official recording, released in 2002 after years of bootleg circulation, finds Dylan flexing his powers of re-invention at a dauntingly high level. Disc one opens with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” a bloodless country ditty from 1969’sNashville Skylinethat here assumes epic dimensions, its titular promise/threat so lusty and insistent that one is half-inclined to call the police. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is re-arranged to accentuate its affinity with “Hurricane,” Dylan’s then current ballad of judiciary injustice, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” becomes a jaunty reggae anthem expansive enough to contain all of Dylan’s frustration with a generation that wanted his voice for its own and refused to take no for an answer.
Then, as now, Dylan had to contend with those who couldn’t see the present reality of his performance through the sticky-sweet haze of nostalgia. “Play a protest song,” one fan shouts, but instead of lashing out the way he had nine years earlier (the infamous “Judas” incident), Dylan wisecracks back, “Yeah, here’s one for you,” as he strums the opening chords of “Oh, Sister,” a song with no discernible political application. I like to think he had intended to play “Hurricane” but switched gears at the last minute.
Why did he wear white face paint? Why did he invite every musician he stumbled across to join him onstage? Why did he decide, then of all times, to re-unite with Joan Baez for heartbreakingly gorgeous renditions of “I Shall Be Released” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Perhaps for the same reason he later converted to Christianity, shot a Victoria’s Secret ad, and went to China: because it undermined the myth that he himself so expertly created at the beginning of the 60s.
Because his purpose in life, even after all these years, is to dash expectations—not fulfill them.