Sam Shepard, Rolling Thunder Logbook (Penguin 1978)
Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue – 57 concerts in 1975 and 1976 with a huge line-up of talent on and off stage – was a big deal at the time for the Dylan fandom diaspora (you can read the Wikipedian version here).
When a friend who was culling his bookshelves offered me Sam Shepard’s ‘logbook’, I was delighted. I’m a fan of both Dylan and Shepard. (Shepard’s Tooth of Crime at Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre in 1973, directed by John Bell and starring Reg Livermore is a treasured theatrical memory, as is hearing his Oh Calcutta! sketch read aloud at an anti-censorship porn fest a couple of years earlier. Imara Savage’s version of Fool for Love at Belvoir in 2010 was fabulous.) And Martin Scorsese’s ‘documentary’ Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which I saw at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, had revived my old fannish interest .
Sam Shepard was hired to go on the tour as a screenwriter (he’d previously had something to do with the screenplay of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point). Dylan’s plan was for a film – part Les enfants du paradis, part Tirez sur le pianiste – to be made in the course of the tour, with Shepard on board to help with the writing. It’s not a spoiler to say that that film never emerged. Dylan has the sole writing credit on the abysmal Renaldo and Clara (1978), of which I suffered through the two-hour version that reached these shores, and which bears no relation to either of those two great French movies.. But Shepard did write this wonderful fragmented account of the tour, including the frustrated attempts of the film crew to capture chaotic scenes improvised by the musicians.
There are wonderful sketches of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell (though nothing to compare to her moment in the Scorsese movie), and Allen Ginsburg, a benign presence on the tour even though his planned recitations never made it onto the stage, and brilliant descriptions of Dylan and others in performance. Dylan’s underlying idea – forget about the film for now – was to take his music to small venues, to reconnect with his audiences. A concert would happen in a city, then the performers would be whisked away in a convoy to a small motel 60 or so miles away, where they would generally go stir crazy cut off from the rest of the world, and with more than ample supply of alcohol and other recreational drugs.
Shepard brings his playwright’s eye and ear to the locations they visit. Though the tour continued into Canada and then in its second leg to the south and south-west, Shepard and this book stay with it only in the New England leg, and then for one evening for the benefit performance in New York in aid of Rubin Carter, subject of Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’.
It’s a quick read, with a generous supply of photographs. My favourite photo has to be the spread featuring Dylan and Muhammad Ali sitting near each other on a bench, Dylan laughing at something we can’s see and Ali contemplating something in his hand that could be an apple core. (It’s online here.)
My favourite moment in the narrative occurs when Shepard and two members of the film crew visit a Shaker village to scope it out as a possible location. Three bedraggled, anarchic and very stoned children of the seventies are made welcome by calm, disciplined dwellers in a virtuous past:
‘Well, what we’d like to do, if this meets with your approval, is to have Joan and Bob come down with just a few of the others and just sort of look the place over. Just to see if it fits into Bob’s idea of the film.’ The Shaker senior is nodding and smiling and rocking back on his heels as though inwardly laughing his ass off. ‘That’s fine with us. We’d be glad to have them.’ The woman chimes in that she’s like to fix the stars a special home-cooked Shaker meal in exchange for Joan singing a few of her songs.
A visit from Joan Baez and that weird little guy – yes please!
So much happens. Dylan’s mother joins them for a while. Shepard maintains a civil distance and doesn’t offer any physical description. He does observe that she seems to like being there, even when some of the team are behave pretty indecorously.
The book is a great supplement to the Scorsese movie. In its final section, a coda really, we are back in Sam Shepard’s world, at the Manhattan opening of his play Geography of a Horse Dreamer. Dylan attends as a guest, and, having been mostly silent or monosyllabic when not on stage, starts yelling during the climactic moments of the play. The audience, mostly critics, have been deathly silent for most of the play, come to life. ‘It’s a perfect ending,’ Shepard writes. ‘An explosion on the audience to match the one on stage. Shotgun wadding, bursting blood, and Dylan over the edge.’