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Dylan’s traveling reunion is rolling our way Print-ready version

by Peter Goddard
Toronto Star
November 29, 1975
Original article: PDF

WATERVILLE, Maine

THE maid didn't like it. No sir. These people slept late. They burned candles in their rooms. They didn't take anything seriously. And their kids. Lord, they were bouncing around the motel like rubber balls.

"Yaaaa," a sandy-haired boy shouted as he careered down the hall.

"I'll tell you one thing," the maid grumbled as she slowly bent over another bed. "If that kid does that one more time, I'll tell his dad."

Venting energy

At that particular moment that would have been impossible. While several of his six children were venting their mid-morning energy, Bob Dylan was asleep.

And Rolling Thunder Revue, his wandering folkie caravan, which had pulled out of New York two months ago and is heading for Maple Leaf Gardens for shows Monday and Tuesday nights, had stopped rolling - temporarily.

"It's like a family thing," said Louis Kemp, an old Dylan friend from Minnesota who had come down from Alaska to help out. "It's just folks travelling around making music."

Right. Just folks.

There was Joni Mitchell, looking even paler in the waxen pre-noon sun, scribbling in her note pad in the Howard Johnson's restaurant. Joan Baez's mother, at the next table, sipped coffee. Dylan's wife, Sarah, introduced her children to friends.

And out in the hall rambled Jack Elliott. Although he grew up in Brooklyn, where he was born Elliott Adnopoz, in any place west or south of New York he looks like the last of the old-time gun slingers.

"Man, but isn't this the best tour ever?" he asked of no one in particular. He was about to go out shopping, had just changed his mind and was thinking about changing his mind again. "Years ago, I used to tour in my car, with maybe another friend. Recently, I've had to fly. I hate planes. Hate airports, too. So, this tour gets us all back on the road. It's something like Kerouac. And I could drive forever with these people. Why I go back almost 20 years with most of 'em."

The tour is a reunion of sorts, and, perhaps, a bit of a revival for those who were central to the early '60s moveable folk feast centred in Greenwich Village, New York, and in Cambridge, Mass.

But everyone on the tour agreed you have to go back only to last summer in New York to find the moment this thunder started rolling. Both Elliott and Bob Neuwirth, an old Dylan buddy, were in town performing. Dylan, just returned from California, was hanging out in the village, writing new songs, planning a new album and dropping in at the Other End. Something was in the air.

Less clear

The exact reasons for the tour are less clear.

Dylan said he saw it was a chance "to play for the people." To Elliott, it was all more casual, with "everyone having such a good time playin' with everyone else that Bob said, 'wouldn't it be fun to take this on the road.' "

Neuwirth, who met Dylan at the very beginning, when Neuwirth was only playing guitar to support himself as an artist in Boston, sees it all in more portentious [sic] terms.

"It was a strange time in the village this summer," he explained. "New York seemed empty, strangely empty. And it was a strange time in the world."

He tapped his whiskey glass on the motel's bar. While most were just finishing breakfast, it was already mid-afternoon, and Neuwirth and Dylan had already been out shooting a scene for the film being done about the tour.

Dylan, talking excitedly just outside the bar, was happy with the results. In the scene, Neuwirth had been driving a pick-up and had stopped for an anonymous hitchhiker, who turns out to be Dylan. The two try to scare each other as only two strangers can on a deserted back road in Maine. It was, as Neuwirth likes to say, "very existential."

The film is important to Dylan and the others. For them it won't be just a recording of the tour: It will be about what the tour means.

"None of us ever picked up a guitar to make a lot of money," Neuwirth went on. "We were artists. But now - NOW! (he pounds his fist on the bar) - art doesn't matter. There's a whole generation which makes music only to make a million.

"And to make money you need middle men and other jerks who turn out T-shirts and stuff. There are no middle-men here. This is the artists' tour. We don't tell anybody where we're going. Then we only give a few days notice with handbills. Sure, a lot of people don't believe in handbills. But they're the ones who don't buy tickets and don't get to see the show."

Originally, it was just to have been Dylan, Neuwirth and Elliott in a station wagon. But they became nervous about being so vulnerable. So it grew in scope. Now there are two buses, one, called Phydeaux, for the players, the other, nick-named The Ghetto, for the friends, and there's a lime-green camper called Palm Beach, for Dylan.

Small halls

Originally, too, the revue was going to appear only in small halls, like the one with 500 seats in Plymouth, Mass., where they first stopped.

"But there are over 70 people to keep and every so often we've had to play a larger place for the money," said Joan Baez, explaining why the tour has appeared in 12,000-seat auditoriums in Providence, R.I., Springfield, Mass., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., and will be appearing at the even larger Gardens here.

"This thing has just kept growing," said Lou Kemp. "It costs about $150,000 a week just to keep going."

And it could keep growing - if those on the tour would let it.

"Everybody, but everybody, wants to be in on this," said Neuwirth, his voice husky from all the singing he does. "I mean, one night John Prine and Bruce Springsteen showed up just to sit in the audience. That's last year's Dylan and this year's, you know. But I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the biggies - the Neil Youngs."

Joni Mitchell is the only late addition to stay with the tour. "I was only going to do one concert (in Niagara Falls)," she said backstage at the Augusta Civic Centre, 20 miles south of Waterville on Interstate 95. "But it felt so good I asked if I could stay on. And the higher-ups, Joan and Bob, said it was okay, and I stayed.

"I'm enjoying myself. I'm carrying on as if I don't have a care in the world."

But she does: No sooner does the Rolling Thunder tour end than she begins her own. Ronee Blakley, one of the stars of the film Nashville, also starts a tour after this one ends, and Joan Baez has had to keep previous concert committments [sic] by leaving the tour between performances then flying back to rejoin it.

"But just to sing with Bob again is worth it," said Baez. She had flown in from Philadelphia for the Augusta concert and had just finished a nap. "Sure, I'll make less money doing this. But the publicity value alone will make up for that, I guess."

Blakley knows about publicity. Looking a bit bewildered by everything, although she has been with the tour from the start, she explained: "When you're a singer and you're on stage with Bob Dylan, it's really good for your career. It's more than that. It's an honor."

In awe

An honor. Even Jack Elliott, whose records Dylan used to collect and copy years ago, is awed by Dylan.

"This is the first time I've seen Bob in seven years," he said. "We used to be buddies. But I remember trying to visit him in Woodstock about eight years ago and he wouldn't see anybody. I thought maybe he was mad at me or something. Even now we barely talk. He's got so much on his mind."

"This is why he decided to come back to us, to go out on this kind of tour," said Joan Baez, looking dark and elegant in the candlelight of the backstage dressing room.

"He was given a gift, which he kept to himself for a while. Now he's bringing it back to everyone."

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