How distant the mid-1970s seem now. They were unkempt, hairy, hedonistic, improvisational, analog, inefficient — anything but neatly calculated and Instagram-ready. Post-psychedelic and pre-AIDS, they were a continuation of the idealistic, natural 1960s, yet they were also an immediate precursor to the polymorphous, synthetic, role-playing disco era. The bitterness of Vietnam and Watergate lingered; hippie utopianism was giving way to a more selfish search for individual satisfaction. Things were still scruffy, but not quite so communal.
The Rolling Thunder Revue, concocted by Bob Dylan, was precisely a manifestation of its era. Starting in Plymouth, Mass., where the colonial Pilgrims landed, it wandered the northeastern United States and Canada from fall into winter of 1975: a brief peregrination. In Dylan’s public career, which is now well into its sixth decade, it stands as his most peculiar tour of all.
Two new projects revisit the Rolling Thunder Revue in extensive detail. “The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings” is a 14-CD, 148-track boxed set of music from the tour’s rehearsals and performances, vastly expanding the two dozen songs released on a 2002 collection, “The Bootleg Series Volume 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue.” And on June 12, Netflix premieres “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” It’s a not-quite-documentary that mixes 1975 tour footage (which was shot for the 1978 film “Renaldo and Clara”) and latter-day interviews with Dylan, Joan Baez and other Rolling Thunder participants, along with some fictional characters.
Both the boxed set and the film sprawl proudly and unpredictably, just as the Revue itself did. And both projects traffic in revelation and put-on, sometimes simultaneously. Onstage in 1975, introducing a then-new song called “Isis” that traces improbable adventures, Dylan claimed, “This is a true story. Actually, they’re all true.”
The Revue’s initial plan was to play spur-of-the-moment, out-of-the-way bookings — a Mah-jongg parlor, a Native American reservation — and shows at small halls that were announced on short notice, with printed fliers and radio ads: no internet then. (For a second, more conventional tour in 1976, the Revue outgrew that approach; both the boxed set and film stick to the initial Revue.) The concerts themselves rambled through their multi-performer bills, often stretching to three or four hours, taking on local guests at whim.
Someday there ought to be a reissue of a full-length, single-night Rolling Thunder Revue concert recording, opening acts and all. The new box is not that. It collects only Dylan’s own appearances — rehearsals, five professionally recorded shows and a final disc of rarities and outliers, like the piano-pounding “Simple Twist of Fate” recorded at the Mah-jongg Parlor in Falmouth, Mass.
The Revue presented itself as an informal hootenanny, but it was a self-conscious one. With a film crew in tow, the shows were also intended to provide material for the amorphous “Renaldo and Clara,” a film that ran nearly four hours when it was released in 1978 and met with near-universal derision. With a script credited to Dylan and the playwright Sam Shepard, “Renaldo and Clara” jumbled documentary and staged scenes, and it scrambled identities; Dylan is billed as Renaldo while the rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins plays “Bob Dylan.”
In the movie, in theaters and on Netflix this week, Dylan himself starts to explain, saying that he wanted to do something “in the traditional form of a revue,” before cutting himself off.
“I don’t have a clue,” he says. “It’s about nothing, it’s just something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder — it happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born.”
This unexpected response sets the tone for an unconventional film about an unprecedented tour. The year before, Dylan had returned to the road for the first time in nearly a decade, accompanied by the Band for a series of concerts that broke ticket-sales records but proved musically unsatisfying. In his autobiography, Levon Helm of the Band wrote that the tour “was damn good for our pocketbooks, but it just wasn’t a very passionate trip for any of us.”
Dylan returned to Greenwich Village and started turning up at clubs, seeking out the sense of musical adventure and community that had initially drawn him to New York City. He assembled a new band of young unknowns, recorded what would become the “Desire” album and dreamed up a different way to tour.
Roger McGuinn, formerly of the Byrds, recalled in a recent telephone interview that when Dylan visited him at his Malibu home, “he said he wanted to do something like a circus, but he didn’t elaborate.”
The Rolling Thunder Revue hit the highway, booking halls in New England and Canada a few days in advance and selling its own tickets. Dylan’s boyhood friend Louie Kemp, who made his fortune in the seafood business, served as tour manager, and over 40 days, the top-billed Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Neuwirthand others played 31 shows, some stretching four hours long, in 23 cities. (The tour nominally picked up again in 1976, playing bigger venues in the South and West. The film is accompanied by a 14-CD box set with performances and rehearsals from the first tour.)
“I think the tour was unique in that it tried to expand the conventions of what a music show would be at that time,” Scorsese wrote in an email. “So there were poets, filmmakers, playwrights, and all sorts of different musicians.”
“It was an attempt to bring an exciting experience directly to the people,” he said, adding, “without thinking about the economics, without thinking about what people had done in the past. Just a pure expression of music and joy.”
The team behind the new movie decided that such an unusual expedition required something beyond a linear documentary. Most notably, the film creates several fictional characters. They represent some of the archetypal figures that surround a rock ’n’ roll tour and are included without comment alongside interviews with Rolling Thunder alumni.