Sean Wilentz has a new book entitled Bob Dylan in America which covers some interesting ground not covered by other biographers or in Dylan’s Chronicles. One of the more interesting chapters is on The Rolling Thunder Revue which rolled into towns all over America like a circus troupe performing in mostly old concert halls. Initially, Dylan wanted to make a concert movie in the same spirit as Don’t Look Back, but in the end went with something decidedly more abstract that according to Wilentz alluded to Les Enfants du Paradis. Sam Shepard had been signed onto write the script, but his involvement ended after the 1975 tour, and all we have from Shepard is a logbook.
Dylan went to work himself on the script of Renaldo and Clara, fusing together a crazy patchwork of acted scenes, with street shots, interviews and concert footage from both the ’75 and ’76 tours that when finally put together added up to nearly 5 hours of film. As Janet Maslin notes in her 1978 review, “Renaldo and Clara holds the attention at least as effectively as it tries the patience.” You probably have to be a Dylan fan to get much enjoyment out of this movie, as he probes his own troubled marriage, as well as hints at his religious conversion and many other aspects of what seemed to be a life out of balance at that point.
A lot of persons could never forgive Dylan for going electric, much less finding evangelical religion in the late 1970s. Most would prefer to hold onto the image D.A. Pennebaker created in Don’t Look Back, which captured his defining 1965 tour, before doing England in 1966. According to Wilentz, Dylan was never fully comfortable with his image, and chose to re-invent himself time and again.
Dylan long had an obsession with Westerns, joking that he and Allen Ginsburg were working on a “cowboy horror movie.” He would finally get his opportunity to be part of a Western in Sam Peckinpah’s memorable Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In addition to writing the soundtrack, which apparently was a studio decision, not Peckinpah’s, he was given a small role in the movie as one of Billy the Kid’s sidekicks. Wilentz points out the irony in this role, as Kristofferson was working as a janitor in the Nashville recording studio where Dylan finished up Blonde on Blonde back in 1967. Now it was Kristofferson who was the star, and Dylan essentially a flunkie.
He culminated the 70s with his appearance on the now classic The Last Waltz, a musical tribute that featured a cavicade of stars saluteing what ostensibly would be The Band’s final performance. Dylan had played with members of the Band for the past two decades. Before they had been known as the Hawks, backing up Ronnie Hawkins. Surprisingly, Wilentz only gives brief mention of these numerous gigs and albums, singling out The Basement Tapes.
His relatively anonymous role in Peckinpah’s movie didn’t dampen Dylan’s passion for film. It probably only further whetted his appetite, leading him to conceive a much broader slice of Americana, if somehwat French influenced, in Renaldo and Clara. Sadly, Dylan never was much of an actor, as witnessed in Hearts of Fire. He was much better on stage, even during the turgid 80s when probably the best thing he recorded was Infidels with Mark Knopfler, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. He seemed to have gotten past his preachy evangelical albums, and was even dabbling with a song Blind Willie McTell, which wouldn’t see the light until much later.
He teamed up with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to create the short-lived Traveling Wilburys that seemed to echo much of the good time lyricism of early rock and roll, which he had pretty much avoided up to that point. He also teamed up with the Grateful Dead for a short while, resulting in the live album, Dylan and The Dead. But, these were more echos of the past than any bold vision of the present, which had characterized his early work.
In the 90s he was feted at the Kennedy Center with a Presidential Honor, joining the ranks of some of his musical heros like Aaron Copland and Pete Seeger. Seems he is relishing his role of “Bogie” next to Lauren Bacall. Recordings were sparse, but Blind Willie McTell surfaced during this decade, which is now regarded as one of his masterworks, and he performed Lone Pilgrim to a new generation on MTV Unplugged, which echoed 19th century America. He even performed before Pope John Paul II at the World Eucharistic Conference in Bologna, Italy.
Dylan appeared to be drifting comfortably into old age, releasing the first of his Bootleg Series, which featured rare recordings including some formative songs from the early 60s. He would follow it up with live recordings of the famous 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall, that essentially launched his career, and the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. But, the old folkie wasn’t through yet. He got another chance to star in a movie. This time Masked and Anonymous, probably his best effort. And, there was the whimsical tribute film, I’m Not There, along with Martin Scorsese towering tribute, No Direction Home. Just to show that Dylan was still here, he released Modern Times, which featured all new songs in a country blues vein.Read less