Sunday, July 7, 2019

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story

She's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don't look back.
- She Belongs To Me

Where have you been, my blue-eyed son
and where have you been, my darling young one? 
- A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

I've spent considerable time reading reviews and news items on the new Martin Scorsese/Bob Dylan Netflix film based on Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder tour of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and up into Canada, and have found that most of the journalists and bloggers don't know what to make of it; it fails to fit into their preconceived categories, their tunnel realities, of what they think it should be.  It appears they can't handle or process the cleverly seamless blend of fiction injected into and interwoven with a historical document.  One publication went so far as to call it an anti-documentary.  I disagree, it doesn't seem against documentaries because it blends fact and artifice.  As Dylan scholar Thomas Palaima put it: "Truth to Dylan, to people who really understand, is not factual information, which quickly evaporates. Truth is something that's essential to the human experience."

I consider this story a postmodern film, a work of art intended to provoke thought and emotion like any great art.  It has many of the qualities attributed to postmodern literature including multiple perspectives  and levels of meaning.  The fictional characters create credible additional perspectives giving truthful insights into different facets of this tour despite not being literally factual.  The money man/tour promoter shares his perspective, the seventeen-year-old fan who joins the tour helping with the costumes, the Rolling Stone reporter doing his job and dealing with his corporate editor, the prisoner and subject of a song protesting injustice, the limo driver, a politician,various fans etc., all reflect different angles of this business we call show.  Some of these characters came from a writer's pen, others known to be historically accurate, and you can't tell the difference between the two unless told.  The fictional and factual characters mingle, blend and interweave their stories between each other.

Multiple levels: This film seems almost as much about the United States of America as it does Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder tour.  It begins on Bicentennial Day, July 4, 1976, with footage that has absolutely nothing to do with the tour, which finished over 6 months before, except that they both celebrate America.  In a film that boasts an extremely rich and varied expression of music — not only the concert footage — the rehearsals, impromptu sing-alongs, jams at parties etc., etc, — the first music we hear is The Stars and Stripes Forever from a marching band. The first singing fragment, almost a throw-away, comes from "Uncle Sam" singing a quirky version of The Star Spangled Banner, "dedicated to the future of the Republic, God bless America."  Cut to a solo Dylan singing  Mr. Tambourine Man in concert, then to a Fourth of July parade, marching majorettes displaying a huge Revolutionary era U.S. flag as Dylan sings the line: "Though I know the evening's empire has returned into sand," given a new interpretation especially when considering current events. 

That's followed by an audio, then visual crossfade to Richard Nixon orating a Bicentennial speech, pointing out America's importance in the world, while also implicitly endorsing immigration.  It's hard not to compare his righteous rhetoric, Nixon of all people! with the farce currently going down in Washington, D.C. This marks the first temporal anomaly in the film, another postmodern trait. Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974, a year and a half before the Bicentennial, yet the way this is edited makes you think he's giving the speech, as President, in 1976. "We act not just for ourselves but for all mankind."

This misdirection should come as no surprise.  The film begins with old footage of a stage illusionist making a woman disappear then bringing her back.  It seems part of the film's mission to ontologically shake-up assumptions about exactly what is going on.  Editing and using sound and visuals in this way to create new contexts and factual illusions reminds me strongly of Orson Welle's F is for Fake "documentary" that looked at art forgery through using the techniques of film forgery. Robert Anton Wilson wrote an excellent account of the sleight-of-hand in that film that could give some insight into how Scorsese constructed this Bob Dylan story

Like other postmodern historical documents, the Rolling Thunder story appears as much a comment on the current state of affairs as it does the period it covers.  This seems an incredibly beautiful, hopeful and elegant protest against the current presidential administration; a pièce de résistance.  The President of the United States becomes a subtextual theme without ever mentioning the current pretender.  We are told that Stefan van Dorp, the original film maker of the tour, made a film called The American Presidents, by shooting Madame Tussaud's wax effigies of Presidents; we get creepy footage of the wax presidential figures to accompany the story  Much is made, documented with old recordings, about Dylan's influence on Jimmy Carter.  We see Carter giving a speech where he says, "in Bob Dylan's words, America is busy being born, not busy dying," in what appears a direct rebuke to the current political climate.  At one concert someone yells out: "Bob Dylan for President." Dylan responds, "President of what?"

Paradox appears part and parcel of a postmodern piece and we encounter a great deal here.  On the question of wearing masks onstage, Dylan opines that there should have been more masks in the production because wearing a mask lets you tell the truth.  He's not wearing any visible mask when he says this, is he telling the truth?  More sage advice from Mr. Tambourine Man comes early in the film when he says Life isn't about finding yourself or finding anything, it's about creating yourself."  Near the end, in response to Hurricane Carter always asking what he's searching for, Dylan tells him he's "searching for the Holy Grail, like Sir Galahad."

I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met one woman whose body was burning 
I met a young girl she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man wounded in hatred.
- A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall


After a long segment showing how close President Jimmy Carter is to Bob —he calls up Dylan to get his buddy into a show (another time anomaly)— it cuts to Dylan asking from the stage, "If anyone knows someone with political pull to get this man out of jail."  You have the paradoxical irony of Dylan saying there's absolutely nothing left of the Rolling Thunder Revue,"it's ashes!" in a film that uses a large stock of recorded remnants and personal reminiscences of the tour to create a brilliant political and artistic statement.  The film's promoters bill it as "alchemic," and I fervently agree.  A careful blending of substances to encourage the transformational process.  Thank the Gods of Music and Magic that it didn't literally become ashes.

Confronting paradoxes forces the viewer to think in different ways as opposed to passively accepting everything on a superficial level.  It challenges and provokes interested participants to dig deeper.   Paradox helps to wake up out of conditioned, associative thinking; it forms the basis of a Zen koan. The digging deeper of a working mystic has a musical expression in the song Dark As A Dungeon played at most Rolling Thunder performances. 

Postmodern works demand that the audience engage actively to co-create the experience.  Jaques Levy: "I get asked so many times what is the significance of the 5th day of May (first line of Isis)? I say, make up your own significance." "It's a swirling circus of provocations that illuminates and obfuscates like a Dylan song." - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone magazine.

Another level this film operates on is that of the Bardo and Magick. The very first image shows a sailing schooner in New York Harbor to symbolically indicate embarking upon a voyage;  every scene presenting a different chamber along the way.  Scorsese cuts in a recurring image of Dylan in otherwordly, diffuse sunlight leading a single file of people up a hill while blowing on a bugle; the Hierophant, pied piper, or psychopomp leading the way.  Violinist Scarlet Rivera has a small picture of the Grateful Dead violinist from the cover of the album Blues for Allah taped on her violin. "This is my friend, he keeps me company.  He's playing the dance beyond his limits ... something that most people would say is impossible, but artists like to challenge the impossible."


Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, the tour's poet laureate and resident Holyman, visit Jack Kerouac's grave. "He wrote a lot about being dead," Ginsberg on Kerouac, then they read a poem about Life and Death from Kerouac's Mexico City Blues.  Early in the film Patti Smith delivers a passionate, surrealistic poem touching upon esoteric themes vis-a-vis Dylan's work and their relationship:  "I move in another dimension, I move in another dimension ..."

Playwright Sam Shephard served as the tour's screenwriter.  Dylan:  "Sam, how did you write all those plays? He said, 'man, it's like I commune with the dead.'
Yeah, you'd have to to write plays like that.  So I asked him if he would write the screenplay to the film van Dorp was making." (i.e. this film)

Was that the thunder that I heard?
My head is vibrating I feel a sharp pain
Come sit by me, don't say word
Can it be that I am slain?
                                           - Romance in Durango

When he died I was hoping that it wasn't contagious
But I made up my mind that I had to get on.
                                                                              - Isis

* * * * * * 

Like at least three great masterpieces of postmodern literature, Finnegans Wake, Gravity's Rainbow, and Nabokov's Pale Fire, The Rolling Thunder Revue symbolically references the archetypal Fall from Grace almost immediately in its narrative.  The first scene pans up to show one of the World Trade Center towers from ground level almost right below it, where it would collapse a little more than 35 years later after getting attacked by terrorists.  "Saigon had fallen, people had seemed to have lost their sense of conviction for ... for just about anything." A contemporary Bob Dylan's first interview words about three minutes in.  All of these great works of art have some kind of thread that goes through a labyrinthian journey toward a path of Redemption.  A way out of the pit or prison.  "Maintain the thread of consciousness," the Tibetan Lamas instruct the voyaging souls on their trips through the Underworld.

This symbolism speaks on a macrocosmic scale: the fall of America and hope for recovery on a socio/political level; the fall from Paradise and return to the Garden on a spiritual level. We recognize and apply the Hermetic formula: As above, so below.  On a microcosmic scale, the fall from Grace and hope for Redemption plays out in a song that expressed a prime mission of Dylan's at the time — Hurricane,  a song about freeing the boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter who got framed and unjustly imprisoned for murder.  The fall:

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, "My God, they've killed them all

The hope for redemption:

Now all the criminals in their coats and ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a 10 foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell.

That's the story of the Hurricane
But it won't be over until they clear his name
And give him back the time he's done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a-been
The champion of the world.

                                                         - Hurricane, words by Jacques Levy

This dynamic gets foreshadowed in the title, Rolling Thunder.  At least three different explanations are given in the film concerning the significance of this name and how it came to represent the tour.

I heard the sound of thunder, it roared out a warning
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
                                                                            - A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

We see a segment in the film narrated by Chief Rolling Thunder talking about the injustices done to the American indigenous people: "the worst of all ... they took our way of life."  Dylan says the tour was named after him though former Rolling Stone journalist Ratso Sloman testifies that Dylan chose the name after hearing rolling thunder while ruminating on what to call the tour.  Sloman also points out that Rolling Thunder was the U.S. Army's mission name for the bombing operation of Cambodia, the planes took off from Guam — coincidentally, the name of Dylan's backing band for this tour.

Dylan admits to reading James Joyce.  For the significance I bring to this party, I wish to connect Rolling Thunder with the thunderwords from Finnegans Wake:

"There are ten thunders in the Wake. Each is a cryptogram or codified explanation of the thundering and reverberating consequences of the major technological changes in all human history. When a tribal man hears thunder, he says, 'What did he say that time?', as automatically as we say 'Gesundheit.'" -- Marshall McLuhan

A great John Carpenter film from the mid '80s, Big Trouble in Little China uses the imagery of thunder to roar out warnings.  It's used throughout with great effect - one of the evil sorcerer's sidekicks, known as the Storms, is named Thunder, the other two being Lightening and Rain.  The last lines of the film sum up this imagery:

You just listen to the ole pork chop express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night when the lightning is crashing and the thunder is rolling and the rain coming down in sheets as thick as lead.  Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes and the poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of Heaven shake, yeah Jack Burton just looks at the big ole storm square in the eye and says, "give me your best shot, I can take it." 

Trump America seem one such storm.  The Rolling Thunder Revue appears crucially relevant to the current political and social situation in America and the World. It portrays a history pointing at the present story.  It presents a problem and offers a solution.

* * * * * * 

One scene in particular expresses authentic magical realism: the intro to I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine plays under Richard Nixon's resignation speech, the verse starts immediately after Nixon resigns — making a very powerful wish and intention.  Though only a fragment of the song is used, the expertly editing film sequence presents a montage of President-in-crisis footage; the music fading in and out strikes a resonant gravity's rainbow effect, tragedy juxtaposed against the direction of redemption, the problem thrown in your face against the occult background of a solution.  Listen to the whole song or even just read the lyrics to amp up the effect. If you've ever read William Burroughs on using sound and image to magically project a different reality, a line of flight, then you may appreciate the magical expertise Scorsese puts into play.

Pay attention and follow the sequence of scenes as if they comprise a series communicating a coherent sense of something; a path toward transcending current conditions.  Joni Mitchell teaches her newly recorded song Coyote to Roger McGuinn, Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot in Lightfoot's Toronto apartment: " ...  a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway ..." cut to the band bus driving between two thick lines of snow on a frozen Canadian highway; an impromptu sing-a-long of Love Potion Number 9 by The Searchers breaks out - extremely profound if you listen to the lyrics.  Much earlier in the drama, Patti Smith gives a poetic, impressionistic account of the Great Work to an attentive and receptive Bob Dylan, clearly enraptured in this intimate scene.  More confirmation that this film rightfully gets billed as Alchemic.

After much prompting by Hurricane Carter, Dylan states directly that he's searching for the Holy Grail.  For those who know this subject and Dylan's work, this sounds blatantly obvious, a monumental understatement, yet it's nice to hear him say it.  This search becomes clear listening to his songs repeatedly, but also gets artistically underscored and illustrated by Sharon Stone's part in the film, particularly in the story of the song he says he wrote for her.  Scarlet Rivera gives other examples that reinforce the point.  The Grail comprises the central feature in the Tarot card The Chariot, beautifully illustrated in the Thoth deck.  In a series of short YouTube interviews with Scarlet Rivera by Prism Archive in 2017, in the 4th one, Scarlet talks about how protective Dylan acted toward her and how it seemed like he deliberately lifted her up.  It's worth seeing for an excellent example of the Chariot archetype put into action.

Diving deep, we find a short subtextual thread addressing the Timothy Leary issue.  Leary had a complicated, adversarial attitude toward Dylan in the 70's.  Jesse Walker writes of how Leary directed "pages of bile" against Bob in William F. Buckley's National Review (reprinted in Neuropolitics) going so far as to blame him for Squeaky Fromme's assassination attempt against President Gerald Ford.  That assassination attempt and a close-up of Fromme are in The Rolling Thunder Revue:  A Bob Dylan Story. Leary also made Dylan the protagonist of his book, What Does WoMan Want? and later publicly apologized for his harsh comments.

In one of the more artistic narratives, film maker Stefan van Dorp talks about how important L.S.D. became to him.  We then see an artistic rendition of a profile that looks like Leary at the time.  I thought of him immediately.  Then we get a montage of how psychedelics influenced van Dorp's work beginning with a video of Venus by Shocking Blue.  I consider it a great pop song, but it has nothing to do with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue.  This whole segment seems non sequitur, like taking an unexpected turn in the bardo, until you realize that it provides a context for Bob to dish on his feelings toward Leary.  Not that everything Dylan says about van Dorp necessarily applies to Leary, the viewer gets to exercise their discernment about that.  The van Dorp character shouldn't been seen as only representing Leary, just that it overlaps.  The lyrics for Venus do conceptually resonate with Dylan's search.


Scorsese closes the film with Knockin' On Heavens Door concert footage.  This became the penultimate song in their concerts.  Dylan often improvised with the opening verse:

Mama wash the blood from my face
I can't see through it anymore
I need someone to talk to and a new hiding place
Feel like I'm knockin' on Heaven's door

I suspect McGuinn wrote the second verse, because it's new, not in the original, and he always sings it:

Mama I can hear that thunder roll
Echoing down from God's distant shore
I can hear him calling out for my Soul
I feel I'm knockin' on Heaven's door.

The intensity of the invocation upon the two singers at this point has to be seen to be believed. Where the third verse would go, Scorsese cuts to Allan Ginsberg offering a final prayer that sounds like his version of 'Do what thou wilt' — very inspiring.


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