On the road with Dylan
Thirty years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard travelled with Bob Dylan and friends across America on the Rolling Thunder Revue. Here are exclusive extracts from his road diary
Friday 04 February 2005
Hundreds of over-the-top Jewish ladies are firmly entrenched in the Seacrest hotel in Falmouth, Massachusetts before we arrive. They are hell-bent on a strange (to a "Mick") Chinese form of dominoes called Mah-Jongg. In fact, it's something comparable to the World Championship Playoffs with money at stake. The fact that superstars are sharing the turf with them is only a side titillation to the ladies. They are obsessed by the game. So imagine their surprise when, late one evening, in the midst of tournament fever, the manager of the hotel announces that there is to be a special poetry reading by "one of America's foremost poets, Mr Allen Ginsberg!" A warm round of fatty applause. He too is of the same faith after all. Allen approaches the podium, brown suit, papers in hand, looking for all the world like a latter-day Whitman with black trimmings instead of gray. He mounts a tall stool and hunches into the microphone. The ladies smile charitably and Allen begins his piece. His long, terrifying, painful
Hundreds of over-the-top Jewish ladies are firmly entrenched in the Seacrest hotel in Falmouth, Massachusetts before we arrive. They are hell-bent on a strange (to a "Mick") Chinese form of dominoes called Mah-Jongg. In fact, it's something comparable to the World Championship Playoffs with money at stake. The fact that superstars are sharing the turf with them is only a side titillation to the ladies. They are obsessed by the game. So imagine their surprise when, late one evening, in the midst of tournament fever, the manager of the hotel announces that there is to be a special poetry reading by "one of America's foremost poets, Mr Allen Ginsberg!" A warm round of fatty applause. He too is of the same faith after all. Allen approaches the podium, brown suit, papers in hand, looking for all the world like a latter-day Whitman with black trimmings instead of gray. He mounts a tall stool and hunches into the microphone. The ladies smile charitably and Allen begins his piece. His long, terrifying, painful prayer to his mother. These are mothers too, but the needle's too close to the vein. The mothers go from patient acquiescence to giggled embarrassment to downright disgust as Allen keeps rolling away at them. His low rumbling sustained vowel sounds becoming more and more dirgelike and persistent. Dylan sits in the background, back against the wall, hat down over his eyes, listening stilly. Since I was raised a Protestant, there's something in the air here that I can't quite touch, but it feels close to being volcanic. Something of generations, of mothers, of being Jewish, of being raised Jewish, of Kaddish, of prayer, of America even, of poets and language, and least of all Dylan, who created in himself a character somehow outside the religion he was born into. Who made a vagabond minstrel in his own skin and now sits facing his very own beginnings. His heritage. And Ginsberg embracing those beginnings so far as to go right through and out the other side into a strange mixture of Eastern mysticism, Hell's Angel meditation, acid, politics, and the music of words. The ladies sit through it. Captured in their own seaside resort. A place they've all come to escape to, and there they are, caught. Allen pounds on. The cameras are weaving in and out of the aisles, creeping up to tables, peering into the matronly faces. Dave Myers, the lead cameraman, is getting a little queasy and turned off by the atmosphere. It's not his style to have the emotional content of a scene so obviously contrived. The women wince as the "cancer" stanzas of the epic grind their way toward the finale. Then it ends and there's a surprising burst of applause. Allen thanks them, steps down, and trots off. Joan Baez is introduced and gets a relieved welcome. She does an a cappella "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that drives the women wild. Dave Mansfield, the genius kid, steps up with his fiddle, looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and impresses everyone with his classical violin technique. His expression never changes. Even when he plays his incomparable slide-guitar riffs with the band, his expression is the same. It's an expression of listening. Intent listening to the inner content of his music. He's an ace musician, for sure. Then comes the blockbuster. Dylan moves up on the platform to the rickety old upright piano used for years for the sole purpose of producing middle-class pablum Big Band sounds of the 30s and 40s. He sits, stabs his bony fingers into the ivory, and begins a pounding version of "Simple Twist of Fate". Here is where it's at. The Master Arsonist. The place is smoking within five minutes. The ladies are jumping and twitching deep within their corsets. The whole piano is shaking and seems on the verge of jumping right off the wooden platforms. Dylan's cowboy heel is driving a hole through the floor. Roger McGuinn appears with guitar, Neuwirth, the whole band joins into it until every molecule of air in the place is bursting. This is Dylan's true magic. Leave aside his lyrical genius and just watch this transformation of energy he carries. A few minutes ago the place was thick with tension and embarrassment, and now he's blown the top right off it, infused the room with a high feeling of life-giving excitement. It's not the energy that drives people off the deep end but the kind that brings courage and hope and above all life pounding into the foreground. If he can do it here, in the dead of Winter, at an off-season resort full of menopause, it's no wonder he can rock the nation.
The band's working through a lazy, back-country tune. You couldn't call it rehearsal, because they're all having too much fun at it. Dylan sits in an old armchair chewing on a liverwurst sandwich and watching them from a distance. He nods his head to the chord changes. Some others are sitting around chewing on food and playing the Pong machine for high stakes. Gary is collecting a bundle and growing in expertise and finger technique, using two hands and spinning ricochet mind-benders off the forecourt, defying even the laws of computers. Suddenly Dylan leaps to his feet, throws down the liverwurst, and sprints straight toward the vacated slide guitar. He straddles the seat, running his tongue over his teeth, picks up the heavy chrome bar, and starts trying to find the right notes and scales to fit the tune. A few heads turn but no one seems to be expecting much. Hawaiian guitar isn't exactly his forte. The band keeps on as Dylan keeps the volume down so as not to destroy the entire progression that the band has going. He bends lower and lower over steel strings as though trying to see right down inside the thing, between the gaps somewhere, like a mechanic about to lift the entire block out of a small foreign car. He keeps at it diligently for about ten minutes; each moment seems to verge on the possibility of him suddenly finding the whole thing in a flash of inspired genius. Instead, he makes a loud exhale, rears backward, turns up the volume, and unleashes a series of random John Cage noises. The band never shows a ripple and moves right into it. Dylan's hand is stroking up and down the length of the strings, the other hand picking at it as though it were a distant bowl of cold chop suey. The Pong game keeps on to the deafening roar of New England jazz-jambalaya-rock'n'roll'n.
Maine is the perfect environment for Rolling Thunder. Everything seems to fit the intentions of the tour except for the lame hotels we get kenneled into. Once outside though, the real feel of land creeps through and even people who live here come into the picture. A blind guy sits at one end of a bar with Dylan at the other, chugging on brandies. They're introduced very slowly and a truly amazing thing takes place. Here's someone who's not out to penetrate Dylan, who's never even seen a picture of him but only heard his music. He stands there looking slightly sidewise over Dylan's shoulder, white eyes with smiling creases at the corners. He's a musician. Dylan's gaze goes into him all the way. They talk about trading cowboy shirts. They talk about seeing and hearing. There's no show of bravado going on because there's one pair of eyes missing. The next night Dylan, from up on stage, dedicates a song to the guy. The audiences in Maine are strictly country. Big kids who've rushed to the concert from dairy farms, just finished milking, cow shit on their boots. These are the first towns where the feeling of Dylan's presence being a rare gift is felt for sure. The concert in Augusta taps some special energy field I haven't seen so far. The band is flying. Dylan playing the instrumentals with his back to the audience in a circle with the other guitars, like an Arapaho rain dance. From high above, in the side bleachers, his mother is watching with the kids. Mrs Baez is up there too. This is really happening. A family event in the heart of the sticks with the world's original superstar tap-dancing to an audience of farmers' kids. Dylan comes off dripping sweat like a rainstorm. Barry Imhoff is waiting faithfully just off stage with an armload of fresh towels. Dylan kisses his mother on the cheek, grabs a towel, and trots off toward the dressing room, guitar neck pointing to the ground. The place is supercharged. Even the Hurricane benefit at the Garden had nothing on these small halls in the depths of a state the government terms a "depressed area". That is, they got no money.
Roger McGuinn explains that it wasn't until the past year or so that he's managed to get over a profound fear of being assassinated on stage. He says he usually felt it coming strongest from the lighting booth in every hall he played in. He'd be singing with The Byrds and all through the song he'd be imagining the hands of the gunman as they polished the barrel with a chamois skin and then the black barrel of the rifle sweeping the width of the stage trying to find the correct angle. Pistols were also within his field of fantasy. One pistol with a silver handle suddenly piercing through the mass of faceless bodies and finding its mark. Sometimes the bullet would find him and he'd go right down, but the crowd would only think he'd fainted, since they couldn't hear the shot. Or the bullet would glance off the guitar and strike some other member of the band. Or sometimes the bullet would miss him altogether. In any case, he's still alive and kicking.
Stuck away in a corner of this neuterized hellhole [the Hospitality Inn] is a small room with a sign on the door saying GAMES ROOM. Everyone has migrated to it like a refuge. Joni Mitchell is cross-legged on the floor, barefoot, writing something in a notebook. She bites her lip and looks over to Rick Danko, who's smashing the shit out of a pinball machine with both kneecaps, then pounding on the sides with both fists. Insane games of air hockey, pucks flying across the room and landing on somebody's pool table. The high spirit of competition has seized us all. We keep getting stuck in motels that are miles from anywhere. Totally isolated with no wheels and not even a drugstore within walking distance. The reasons for this seem to be mostly security, but after a while the "cutoffness" of it starts to take its toll. The concert is given in some kind of a city. The audience gets ripped with energy and bursts into the night streets with it. Then we sneak off in unmarked vehicles, secret-agent style, wind our way through narrow back roads, and find ourselves in another prefabricated wonder resort sometimes sixty miles away from the site of the concert. This constant "strike and retreat" style really starts to work on your psyche after a while. The "world out there" takes on a strange unreality, as though it's all being played in a different ballpark, in another league. You either feel above it or below it or way off to the side of it, but never a part of it. Headlines in the paper seem like messages delivered from outside the walls. Even headlines that feature the people on the tour. There's nothing that reveals the total myth of newspaper journalism more than being inside the world of the subject being written about. This feeling of separateness weasels its way into everything. Even ordering food in a restaurant takes on a different tone from usual, because you're in the company of something that's so public that even the waiters know about it. You find yourself expanding to the smell or arrogant power of deflating to total depression. You begin wishing you could just go back into the kitchen with the waiter and wash a few dishes or even go back home with him and watch color TV with his grandmother. Anything just to get the taste back of "normal everyday life". The Games Room is going off at the deep end. Twenty-dollar bills are being fluttered across the pool tables. Ping-Pong balls crushed into the walls. Bodyguards are pitted against superstars in grim pinball battles. Side bets are being collected. Stud poker is evolving in one corner. Then everything filters away to the elevators. To music. To another marathon night to the break of day.
'The Rolling Thunder Logbook' by Sam Shepard will be published by Sanctuary on 14 March at £13.99 ( www.sanctuarypublishing.com)
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