Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook

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.’

Ruby Reads (12): Ladybird, Alison Lester & Dylan

On the weekend I went to a family gathering – not a reunion, but a first-time gathering of the descendants of three Shaw brothers who came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1860s and 70s. The event itself was fun and interesting, with at least one revelation that led to much hilarity, but what’s relevant to this blog is that I stayed with a niece, mother of two small girls. Here’s a) a book I read while stickybeaking on her bookshelves, and b) two books that were requested at bedtime. You’ll be able to tell which is which.

Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris, How it Works: The Mum (Michael Joseph 2016)

This is one of those books that sit on the front counters of bookshops inviting you to buy them as gifts. It’s a parody of a Little Golden Book (or Ladybird Book in the US UK (see Robert Day’s comment) edition as pictured here), using illustrations from 1960s children’s books and affecting a childlike tone in the text, but with an adult sting in the tail. This one is funny rather than cynical, wry rather than bitter. My niece’s favourite page is the one where the mum has an interview for a job but can’t get the theme tune from The Octonauts out of her head. Mine is the last page, where the mum rides her bike to work after an exhausting night and when she hears other mothers speak of their children’s exemplary behaviour is fortunately too tired to kill them.

At the end, there’s a sweet acknowledgement of the pleasure the authors derived from the original books, which reads as a sincere tribute rather than a legal requirement. The artists are listed, but I didn’t make a note of their names.

Alison Lester, Are We There Yet? (Viking 2005)

A family of five go on a trip around Australia in 32 pages. The refrain ‘Are we there yet?’ is irregular enough not to be annoying, but frequent enough that my seven year old great-niece could join me in saying it each time.

Regular readers will know that my main contact with children’s books these days is thanks to my 18 month old granddaughter. This book is a reminder of past reading pleasures and a sweet harbinger of things to come. Alison Lester’s images are completely beguiling.

Bob Dylan (lyrics), Jim Arnosky (images), Man Gave Names to All the Animals (Sterling 1999)

This is a rare thing, a picture book with Bob Dylan lyrics as the text. The song is from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming, from BD’s born-again Christian era. It was hard to tell if my young relatives (who were not only sleepy but also slightly anxious at being read to by a virtual stranger) enjoyed it very much. But the illustrations are gorgeous, every page crowded with splendid animals, many more than are mentioned in the song. The book comes with a CD attached – our copy was from the library, and the CD-less.

I may be a feminist Climate Crisis prig, but front and centre for me was the title’s erasure of female humans and its assertion of human separateness from ‘all the animals’, both of which made it hard for me to love the book or the song.

Are We There Yet? is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Richard F Thomas, Why Dylan Matters

Richard F Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (Dey Street 2017)

I’ve been a Dylan fan for five decades. I remember playing John Wesley Harding on repeat in the late 60s, and sitting hunched over a tiny radio in the dead of night hearing a bootleg ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ for the first time. I wrote a piece for my college magazine about ‘Dear Landlord’. Occasionally these days when I’m need of a pick-me-up, I’ll play ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on full volume. ‘Mississippi’ speaks directly to my heart. I even love Dylan’s recent versions of ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘I Was a Fool to Love You’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and all. But a couple of hours spent with Dylanologist/garbologist A J Weberman‘s ridiculously obsessive analyses of Dylan’s lyrics in my early 20s cured me of any pressing desire to read about his work, or to do any kind of close reading of his lyrics. I was all too happy to accept Dylan’s own implication in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One that he was often more interested in rhyme than meaning.

It was the title of this book that grabbed me. It’s all well and good to be a fan, but does Dylan matter, and if so, why?

Sadly, though Why Dylan Matters taught me a lot about Dylan’s life and his songs, it just doesn’t answer its own question. It would have been more accurate to use Mary Beard’s cover blurb quote as a title: ‘At last an expert classicist gets to grips with Bob Dylan’. But I guess that’s just not catchy.

Richard F Thomas is a bona fide classicist. He is a professor at Yale, and has written extensively about Virgil, Horace, Tacitus and Ovid. He is also a self-described Dylanologist (though not, thankfully, a garbologist), who attends three or more Dylan concerts annually and teaches a semester course on Dylan to first year students every four years.

He takes us through Dylan’s early exposure to classical literature – he was a member of the Latin Club at the Hibbing High School, and played a Roman soldier in a school theatrical production, and probably went to Hollywood movies set in Ancient Rome. Then he walks us through Dylan’s career, arguing that intertextuality is a significant feature of his works, arguing strenuously (and, given that Dylan started out as a folk singer, unnecessarily) that his stealing of phrases from other sources is not plagiarism, but adds richness and depth to his songs.

Leaving aside Dylan’s use of motifs and turns of phrase from the folk tradition (as Thomas largely does), it’s interesting to learn that he is a serial ‘stealer’ from literary sources: Rimbaud, US Confederate poet Henry Timrod, and – bringing Thomas’s two fields of study together – Ovid (the Tristia), Virgil (from whom whole sentences appear), and finally, in Tempest, Homer. My understanding of the personas he takes on, especially in the last four albums that he wrote, has been greatly enriched. Thomas talks about these personas as ‘transfigurations’.

Sadly, I often found the book’s combination of fannish speculation and scholarly attention to detail irritating. The playlists at his concerts and what I have previously taken to be stoned utterances in interviews are scrutinised for what they reveal of deep artistic intentions. At times there’s an almost stalkerish enthusiasm. The album Tempest is never mentioned without being described as a masterpiece, and we are told several times that Dylan’s wife Sara was a former Playboy Bunny.

I’m glad I persevered to the end, because the final chapter, dealing with the Nobel Prize, gives a lovely account of Patti Smith’s performance of ‘Hard Rain’, of the way that song has transcended the circumstances of its composition to remain powerfully of the present moment, and of Dylan’s acceptance speech.

But I’ve renewed my resolve to avoid books about Dylan, and just let the songs to their work on me.

The Poetry Train

Australian Poetry Ltd, the recently formed peak industrial body for Australian poets, has declared this to be National Poetry Week. I’ve been too preoccupied with fighting off a virus and feeling sorry for myself to pay much attention, though my impression is that NPW hasn’t been quite as big as the State of Origin week. Some days have had a theme word – one day Read, another Write, and today Buy. I dutifully rose from my tissue-bedecked bed, caught the bus to Gleebooks and bought two slim volumes. But, I hear you protest, surely you could find something more interesting than a trip to a bookshop to get out of the house for? You’re right. There was also the Poets’ Train.

From the CountryLink website:

To celebrate National Poetry Week and the joys of train travel, a group of Canberra poets are catching the train to Sydney to join forces with like-minded bards for an exciting program of social and literary events.

Those events included composing poems during the train journey today for later publication in a chapbook, a dinner and a poetry slam. The thing that caught my attention was a poetry recital on arrival at Central Station this afternoon ‘with media attending’. Gleebooks was just a stop on the way.

The country trains concourse at Sydney’s Central is a lovely space, full of light and air. As I came through the main entrance the first thing I saw was a group of about twenty people, significantly more warmly dressed than called for by the Sydney spring weather, looking like a small choir with a conductor standing in front of them. It was Train Poets, and one of them was reading to the rest. A woman who turned out to be Poets Train Coordinator, Fiona McIlroy, gestured a welcome, and I became, as far as I could tell, the only member of the public to join the audience. There was a young man taking photos – presumably he was the attending media, and if I find any pics on line I’ll add a link to them.

And you know, it was fun. Poems were read that were variously witty, comic, fanciful, and elegant, and most hot from the oven. I chatted to the people closest to me, who said that the train poets had sat working away at their notebooks, taking a break every hour (it’s roughly a four hour trip) to read the work so far. As a result, at the reading I was privileged to attend, they had already established a palpable sense of communal bardship. Contemporary poetry is often criticised as being a matter of poets writing poetry that is read only by other poets. Even if that description were accurate, if it signified the kind of warmth, generosity, mutual appreciation that featured in this event it wouldn’t be an entirely bad thing. No one seemed disappointed at the absence of TV cameras. It was culture without commodification, and I look forward to the chapbook.

I doubt if I’ll get to the slam tomorrow night, as I’m not taking my germs out after dark, but if you’re in Sydney you could do a lot worse than head for The Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe, at 7 pm.

To cap off my participation in National Poetry Week, there was an email waiting for me when I got home to say that my pre-ordered copy of Bob Dylan’s Tempest, official launch date Tuesday 11 September, was ready to be downloaded. So I’ve been typing this up, home alone on a Friday night, listening to croaky Bob, ‘It’s soon after midnight, and I don’t want no-body but you.’

Happy National Poetry Week!

Added on 1 October: Fiona McIlroy reports on the Poets’ Train at the Australian Poetry website, with photos and the text of one of the poems.

’Tis the season

The nursing home, which is run by a church organisation, has a number of celebratory events at this time of year. Last Tuesday was carols evening, attended by residents from all the organisation’s nursing homes in the region. The home’s vast garage is hung with tinsel; there’s a gigantic throne for when Santa makes an appearance, and a number of life-sized Santa statues. A troupe of school children sing carols (some of the same ones that have been piped in from a CD player as the masses assemble. A chaplain (or ‘Director of Pastoral Services’) gives a brief talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, which apparently is that her allocated time is far too short. There’s ice cream and cupcakes and softdrink. Mollie joined in the applause and waved her cup of lemonade in time to the singing, and that makes the event a success. Personally I’d rather have teeth pulled, or even listen to Bob Dylan’s latest album.

On the weekend it was the residents’ Christmas party: more softdrinks and carols, though this time sung by a crooner with a finely developed sense of his audience, and mingled with other less single-minded tunes. There were lots of visiting relatives, including young ones, and a genuinely convivial mood. The dining room was cheerfully alive.

And yesterday morning Penny decided we should experiment with taking Mollie out. She’s been pretty much living a wheelchair for a couple of months now, which has its own disadvantages, but paradoxically creates opportunities for greater mobility. When Mollie used a walker, her progress was so painful that to walk any further than the small outside garden would have been an ordeal. Yesterday, we dared to wheel her out – through the front doors into the astonishingly bright sunlight, down the short street with its occasional rose pushing through a cast-iron fence, across Balmain Road, and to the ultra-cool DiVi Cafe, where Mollie drank a cup of not-too-hot hot chocolate and watched a number of small children playing on playground equipment. She smiled and nodded (language has pretty much deserted her) and I realised that the simple, basic pleasure of being around small children is something that nursing-home residents have very little of. Those couple of minutes sitting in the sun, feeling the light breeze, sipping a lukewarm milky drink and watching a little girl play on a slide and a little boy try to give his father a fright had an awful lot of joy in them.

Bob does Will

In my last two years of high school we studied Macbeth. I don’t think we actually saw a performance, but taking the copies of the bowdlerised edition our school had in stock and laboriously reinscribing the rude bits at Brother Claudius’s dictation, we read the text through collectively, stopping for discussion and explication, three times. All three times, when we reached the line about fortune showing ‘like a rebel’s whore’, one of my fellow students, a pious young man named Geoffrey, asked, ‘What’s a whore, Brother?’  and poor Brother Claudius’s answers had to get more explicit each time: a loose woman, a woman of poor morals, a prostitute, and eventually a woman who commit sins of impurity in return for money.

Apart from Geoffrey’s enlightenment about the shocking ways of the world, the main result of this approach to the play was that we got to know slabs of it off by heart — a line here and there, and one or two soliloquies: ‘Is this a dagger I see before me’ and of course ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’. To this day I love to recite the latter in a singsong rhythm, enjoying the feel of the words and not caring too much at all for the meaning.

Here, as a reward for reading that preamble, is Bob Dylan reciting the soliloquy, lifted from his Theme Time Radio Hour broadcast, number 24 of the first season.

I’m assuming that uploading a small clip like this is OK with those that control the rights.

Disillusioned with Dylan (a little)

I’m having a lovely time these days listening sporadically to Bob Dylan’s Themetime Radio Hour. He plays a marvellous range of music, from the full version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to totally esoteric blues, with lots of banjo in between, and gives good gravel-voiced DJ spiel, full of biographical snippets about the singers and songwriters he features.

But just now, listening to the program ‘Musical Map‘, I had the uneasy feeling that there was some clay in his cowboy boots. He played a song by one Hank Snow, which he described as Hank Snow’s signature song. It was ‘I’ve been everywhere, man’, a charming patter song consisting mainly of a string of US place names. No mention of a writer, just the fascinating information that Hank Snow was the man who introduced Elvis Presley’s first stint at the Old Oprey.

Bob, just in case you’re reading this, the writer of that song could have done with a mention. He was Geoff Mack. And before it was Hank Snow’s signature song, it made Lucky Starr a household name in his home country. But both of them were Australians. Not worth a moment’s notice. Apparently. Hmph!