The problem with the Grateful Dead was a problem of direction. The problem was the space, the jamming, the noodling. The drugs? The Dead were a first-rate DIY San Francisco folk rock band with a fat organ player named Pigpen who sang bluesy lead. They had a brilliant guitar player and two good drummers. But they had a propensity to squander their gifts. With a kind smile they'd putter into the sun, benevolent and ultimately harmless. The Dead wrote nearly a dozen sepia-toned folk songs as good as songs can be. But psychedelic lethargy took precedence over economy and directness, and the Dead finally started to mint money, sometime in the mid- 80s, with a road- show built equally on cowardly escapism and 60s-ish positivity. Sometime in the 80s Bob Dylan hinted to The Dead that he might like to join their ranks. They balked at this, and instead the combination of Dylan and The Dead churned out a horrible studio album
one-off. Dylan stalked off to reunite with, among others, the Brothers Willbury, and eventually with himself.
Bob Dylan was not welcomed into the Dead's ranks I suspect because of what his presence would provide. In addition to yet another lead singing voice, Dylan would prove to be an insecure force that could bring real danger to the comfortable flatulence that the group was resting upon. Dylan is flammable material, and the Grateful Dead, perhaps embarrassed that the once- great icon had stooped so low as to view them with envy, did not want to set anything on fire. As humbled as Dylan had become in the 80s the potential was still there: he'd steal their face if allowed.
Perhaps Dylan's last gasp of artistic relevance for many years came in 1975 when he gathered a restless assembly of musicians to tour The Northeast and Canada just as he's applied the finishing touches to his new record, Desire. The Rolling Thunder Review played town halls, gymnasiums and unscheduled small-town venues. Dylan, gobbed with white face paint, invited friends, family and colleagues such as Leonard Cohen and Allen Ginsburg to join with the group when they played their town.
This set of discs is comprised of various cuts from different shows early in that tour. The songs each ring with rare beauty. Clearly this recording is less historically pertinent then the last official "bootleg" release, the Royal Albert Hall 1966 concert, which documents Dylan's betrayal of the folk audience, his donning of the black leather and his exhortation to the band to "Play fucking loud." But are we historians or are we maniacs? (We are maniacs.) This recording offers much greater listening, more space and more depth than that previous release ever did. That stuff was all anger and cruelty, this one is anger and cruelty with joy and pleasure and composure too. The Albert Hall band was a big hungry rock outfit that steamrolled through the songs, intent on destruction. Here it's 10 years later and the stage is littered with guitars and drums to spare, there are women, there are loaners from the Spiders From Mars standing next to folk stars and ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, the man that wrote a guitar figure for "Mr. Tambourine Man" that made Dylan an early million bucks. The idea here is "more is more," and the idea works.
"Throw my ticket in the wind/Throw my mattress out that door..." speaks the lead cut, "...cause tonight I'll be stayin' here with you..." A gentle closer for Nashville Skyline originally, here the song is torn into by a band of musicians almost fifteen strong: a jolt. Dylan had fought hard against the audience in the early 70s, and before crapping out he had a couple mad ideas left in him- - ideas even that were embracing of the fans and embracing of the "legacy." Remember, the original Dylan comeback was in 1975 and 1976 when Mr. Wild Mercury made 2 records sounding more like him than anything:
If you want someone to marry you, play them the greatest divorce album ever: Blood on the Tracks (1975), because herein the entire process seems archaic and seductive. If you want someone to leave you play the greatest epic of entanglements and treason: Desire (1976), because it sounds deadly and Hollywood and caustic. If you want someone to reneg then play this new release, the Rolling Thunder Revue live album (named for an American Indian man or a military strategy perpetrated on Southeast Asia?) it will make Atticus Finch lie, I swear!
Previously the only legal remnant from this tour was the Hard Rain (1977) live LP. Dylan in eyeliner? Dylan "reinterpreting" his catalog? Look at Hard Rain and After the Flood and the Live Albert Hall release and you'll understand that as the Beatles dealt with the catalog by not ever performing, and as the Stones continue to deal with the catalog by hamming through the years as pigs in tripe, Dylan tore the stuff up and reexamined the pieces, bit by bit and note by note.
Only it doesn't always work--Dylan's incessant pillaging of the library can be so tedious, a chore to hear. But this disc captures a band and a man full of energy, and the payoff is that each idea in the artist's head rings clear as a bell for the audience. Hard Rain was compiled from the end of the tour, after it had lumbered into the Southwest. It's an unhappy record and the spirit is entirely sapped from the group. The reworkings sound like labor for labor's sake.
The great thing about this new recording is that all these songs are heard anew by virtue of their renovation. You can't sing along because you must listen. It's rewarding as it's done well, old songs are given new shape, images are given new colors and
places get new names.
And the band? This pack of thieves rides high up on the hem: Bob was free enough to ride about Manhattan and score red-headed strangers named Scarlet Rivera for the group, the smokinest fiddler alive...shit you ask, I could rock too if Scarlet woulda helped me-she
wouldn't though, my friend, and neither would Mick Ronson. If Desire was the explosion of every bullet on Dylan's belt, the Rolling Thunder Debacle was the bloody ambulance or freight train that carried the remnants through the nation.
Mick Ronson, David Bowie's alert glam wizard is all gypsy notes and 6-string punctuation to Dylan's unschooled grammar slurs-well where has this record been I wonder? And what else is yet to come?
The reckless monster of musicians that chugs along through 22 tracks-- recorded at the outset of this tour-- are phenomenal, and the sound that's captured is as bright and lively as a live album's been. Dylan and cohorts make concrete from plastic and plastic from water and water from wine and... Well, every track breathes with ugly and pretty life. Dylan pronounces and phrases with strength and clarity--like a lepper on steroids.
Why does Joan Baez deign to provide the handsomest of accompaniments to this scoundrel? I mean, McGuinn needs a gig but Joan? She shapes broad chords and lovely harmonies to the singer at central stage. Joan sings 4 duets here and they are madly sweet- she provides the handsome architecture to hold those nasal winds of Dylan. Dylan is so intent on wringing energy from matter that he even renders some deliberate and straight protest songs in perfect form.
Which leaves us at the gates of "Hurricane," which should have been a disaster, should have been the first big mistake should have been shit...I mean Dylan had long since forsaken protest and all that impossible effort, but suddenly he takes on the case of a black man wrongly accused of murder and writes a stormy violin-driven gypsy jump of a song-- how does it work? How does it not just come across as so much self-serving junk? I know not but it works through thick and thin, you'd have to have no sense nor ears to not agree it is a long yarn too.
In part maybe it's the line: "...and to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger/ they had no doubt that he�d pulled the trigger..." Dylan catches subtle dimensions by inverting your anticipations... of course a white man in the tale will assume that Ruben was guilty as sin, but Bob reminds us that guess what this shit is complicated...all the while the band is flamin' at a hundred miles an hour.
If you love Bob Dylan this record will wipe you out-- there's mad country gems laid up against crushing renditions of pall- bearing ballads and honky tonk blooze barn stormers. If you are an interested novice then you should buy Blood on the Tracks, driven by organs and haunted by the most fabulous strings of lines: "They say I shot a man named Greg / And took his wife to Italy / She inherited a million bucks and when she died / it came to me I can't help it / if I'm lucky" Blood on the Tracks is surely one of the 5 greatest albums of the 70s.
If you're not interested in Dylan then you should get Desire which rips out your expectations and throws them into the sun, cauterizes your liver and leaves you feeling strange. It's an eclectic cycle, weighted equally with dirty gems and clean rocks, of course there are some bad songs here, but people who don't like Dylan often like these songs. But either way, if at all interested in music, then you should hear Bootleg series # 5, Live 1975. This is the noise made by a scoundrel fraud on the last leg of his great American ride: enjoy those beamin' black- lined eyes and that feather because tomorrow it's time for the punx. And after them? Well, the Dead did outlived many folks, bless their souls.
1. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
2. It Ain't Me, Babe
3. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
4. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
5. Romance in Durango
7. Mr. Tambourine Man
8. Simple Twist of Fate
9. Blowin' in the Wind
10. Mama, You Been on My Mind
11. I Shall Be Released
12. It's All over Now, Baby Blue
13. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
14. Tangled up in Blue
15. The Water is Wide
16. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train...
17. Oh, Sister
19. One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)
21. Just Like a Woman
22. Knockin' on Heaven's Door