by Michael Goldberg
Monday, December 9, 2002
More Treasure From Dylan's Vaults
At long last we get to hear the 24-track recordings from the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue.
Recently The New York Times ran an article about vintage jeans, and the high-end "new vintage" market. In case you missed it, we're talking about authentic jeans from the past that have sold, in some instances, for tens of thousands of dollars, and brand-new jeans, made to look and feel like worn vintage jeans, that sell for as much as 500 dollars a pair.
Japan was the first big market for real vintage jeans. "There's so much plastic in Japan," clothes designer Rogan Gregory said. "People were starving for the real thing." Gregory added that in the U.S., "People spend too much time in sterile environments. They get up, go to the gym and the office, and they move from one air-conditioned room to another. People are into the authenticity of vintage jeans because they don't want to look like they spend all day at a computer."
This may account for the interest in retro-punk and garage sounds during the past two years music that feels authentic, hand-made. And it may bode well for a real vintage recording, the just-released Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, volume five of Dylan's official "bootleg series."
When punk arrived in 1975 on the shoulders of Patti Smith, The Ramones and others experimenting with back-to-basics raw sounds, conventional wisdom had it that the first half of the '70s were a musical abyss, a time when rock had reached a nadir epitomized by the soulless sounds of the Doobie Brothers and the excesses of Rock Stars such as Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger.
In fact, this was mostly hogwash, and not just because between '70 and '75 we saw the release of brilliant works by dozens of artists including the New York Dolls, Nick Drake, Roxy Music, The Stooges, Little Feat, Brian Eno, Ry Cooder, Alice Cooper, Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman, Big Star, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, The Raspberries, John Martyn, the Flamin' Groovies, Richard and Linda Thompson, The Dictators, Tom Waits, and on and on. Even the Rolling Stones delivered some memorable recordings during that period, including what may be their greatest album, Exile on Main Street, in 1972.
Live 1975 provides further evidence that rock had not reached a dead end during the early-to-mid '70s. This two-CD set is drawn from 24-track recordings of Rolling Thunder Revue performances in four North American cities, three in Massachusetts (Worcester, Boston, Cambridge) and one in Montreal, Canada.
This new Dylan album of old recordings is a revelation for those of us who didn't attend one of the Rolling Thunder Revue shows and for those craving something authentic, this is truly the real thing.
Dylan was, arguably, at the top of his form as a live performer in 1975. His voice, which, at least on the basis of his most recent album, Love and Theft, is pretty much shot (although if he could get the frog out of his throat, he could likely still deliver decent vocal tracks), was extraordinary in the mid '70s. With a broad emotional range, he could make you believe his most sensitive songs, such as "Just Like a Woman" or "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (both included on the Live 1975 set), and stir you with his social/political work, including "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (both transformed from acoustic folk songs to hard-rockin' numbers on the Rolling Thunder tour).
Then, too, in 1975 Dylan was coming off the biggest tour of his career, 1974's arena barnstormer with The Band. The Rolling Thunder Revue, which found Dylan mostly playing intimate theaters, was a reaction. Rather than jet from gig to gig, then perform his greatest hits backed by the guys he'd toured with in the mid-'60s, he put together a rag-tag crew of musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and oddball characters, loaded them up in a couple of buses and hit the road.
On board were '60s folkies Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Dylan's sometime girlfriend Joan Baez, the then-young guitarist T Bone Burnett, former Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ronson, actress/singer Ronee Blakley, violinist Scarlet Rivera, his old buddy/guitarist Bobby Neuwirth, former Byrds leader/guitarist Roger McGuinn, poet Allen Ginsberg and playwright Sam Shepard, among others.
Dylan had decided he was going to make a movie (although there was no script), and he figured that the cast of the Rolling Thunder Revue could improvise as the tour made its way along the East Coast. Whatever went on behind the scenes, what took place on stage was certainly as exciting as the '74 tour with The Band. I'd argue more exciting.
And then there is the material that was at his disposal, a repertoire that included dozens of masterpieces. He had a decade and a half of studio recordings behind him, which include (arguably) 10 of the best folk, folk-rock and or just plain rock albums ever made.
The new album shows just what an amazing 15-year run Dylan had experienced. There's early-'60s folk material, including "Blowin' in the Wind" and "It Ain't Me, Babe"; such mid-'60s classics as "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"; countrified numbers from the late '60s and early '70s, including "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and "I Shall Be Released"; and such then-recent songs as "Tangled Up in Blue," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)." While some of his "hits" were certainly in the mix, the sets were filled with plenty of less popular but nonetheless brilliant examples of Dylan's songwriting talent.
Four songs here "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mama, You Been on My Mind," "I Shall Be Released" and the 18th century British folk song "The Water Is Wide" are duets with Joan Baez, and it is wonderful to finally hear them sing together. Their voices his rough, like that of an old mountain man, hers smooth, almost operatic add depth to a song, "Blowin' in the Wind," that, until now, I've always felt was a bit hokey. Even more breathtaking are their treatments of "The Water Is Wide," a beautiful love song, and the Dylan classic "I Shall Be Released," performed here as a country song with steel guitar ornamentation.
More than a quarter century after it was recorded, this album has the feel of a natural "folk" artifact. Even the "rock" numbers feel organic. This is imperfect music performed entirely by humans. No drum machines. No samples. Sometimes the harmonies don't quite mesh or the rhythm isn't exactly "on," or Dylan's phrasing is a bit rushed. No matter. These recordings contain great music played by talented musicians in real time, before a live audience that cared. Sometimes, nothing else will do.