Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How the Rolling Thunder Revue Was Different from Any Other Dylan Road Tour

Ok, let's face it. There was never anything quite like the Rolling Thunder Revue (RTR) before or since. A cross between a traveling three-ring circus and a true magical mystery tour, the RTR produced a robust quantity of music and memories for everyone who was part of it and all who experienced it.

With the release of Martin Scorsese's film on the RTR this week, much has been written about it already. Anticipation had been exceedingly high and, like the Tour itself, its apparently a film as unusual as the spirit of the RTR. Fake interviews with people who weren't there, as if they had been? Is this a cross between Zelig and Magical Realism?

While the atmosphere is heated, it seems a good time to add two cents' worth of additional insight from an angle not being fully noted. Much has already been made of the return of Joan Baez after a ten year hiatus. Their performances together were electric, as the film reveals.

The madcap manner in which the tour unfolded has also been remarked upon, including the small venues that enabled a far more intimate experience for the audiences who gathered to see and experience this adventure.

A third feature of this road show was how comprehensively it was filmed. For this reason Martin Scorsese had more than enough material to work with -- maybe too much, though some would say there's never too much Bob--as he reviewed, edited and assembled this production. No, he was not there to direct cameramen during the tour as with The Last Waltz, but he did have a clear line of sight on what was possible to achieve with more than 100 hours of film footage.

Designed by Louis Kemp, official luggage tag of the RTR.
A fourth feature of the RTR that is most unusual is how it varied in who the players were depending on when or where you saw it. When you buy tickets to a concert that is part of an ongoing tour, you pretty much expect the band today to be the same as what audiences saw in Toronto last week. But no, this traveling circus had different musicians and different setlists throughout. (Of course Dylan went on to make this a signature feature of his shows in later years, mixing up setlists, tempos and even lyrics at times.)

A fifth feature of this tour was the flavor a young Scarlet Rivera brought to the mix. Her sizzling violin was something altogether new, like a special seasoning or secret sauce on a meal at a high class Michelin-star restaurant. That Dylan discovered her almost by accident in Greenwich Village--Scarlet calls it fate--and inserted her into the mix that produced his deceptively powerful album Desire, is a much longer tale, a portion of which you can read here from the mouth of Scarlet herself.

Herzl Camp in Wisconsin. Bobby Zimmerman flanked
left and right by buddies Larry Kegan and Louis Kemp.
Sixth,  I've not seen anyone note that two friends from Bob's Camp Herzl days were there for a portion of the tour. I think it says a lot about Dylan's character that is not often remarked upon. His early friendships weren't discarded when destiny swept him up to lofty heights on fame's wheezy waxen wings.

This seems unusual. Bob was 12 when they met. Enduring friendships developed. 22 years later Louis Kemp became producer/organizer of the Rolling Thunder Revue, playing an instrumental role on several levels. (Eight years later Bob would be best man at Louis' wedding here in Duluth.)

Louis Kemp (R) with Scarlet Rivera
Young Larry Kegan and Bob--Herzl Camp days.
Another of Bob's close friends from camp, Larry Kegan, also participated in the first week of the RTR beginning in Massachusetts. At age 16 Larry had been hurt  in a diving accident, which left him in a wheelchair for life. Music was an important component of his life, and Larry was a valued friend so that Dylan invited Larry to attend Bob's shows for a week at a time several times a year for the next 15 years.

Thus it was that Gene LaFond, who was a good friend of Larry's who also performed with him, had the privilege of being there for the first half dozen shows of the RTR beginning in Worcester, Mass. Gene drove the handicap van with Larry in the back. Bob rode back there for one section of the trip and they were all singing together.

How he got to be there at the launch of the RTR carnival went like this. "Larry Kegan, Bob's good friend, told me, 'There's this circus going on out there. Let's go,'" LaFond told me this week. "It was the first time I met Bob."

Gene sketched out details about how "the film crew was rolling constantly. Costumes every night... and a wide range of incredible talent. It was magical," he said. "They were having so much fun doing it. It was just exciting. They were really having a good time and it showed."

As a result of this experience on the tour "Rambling Jack and Scarlet became friends of mine over the years since," LaFond said.

If you follow through and acquire the full set of CDs from the RTR, you'll hear Larry singing "Your Cheating Heart" with Bob on disc 14, track 8.

LaFond shared how the RTR went from town to town  invading small venues. He also described his own experience. "It was incredible... Meeting everybody backstage... we (Larry and I) had access to everyone and everything. The people were so nice to us. People didn't know who we were but they knew we were Bob's friends and were really nice to us."

As for Louis, there were a lot of moving parts to manage. "That's where I met him," Gene says, "I didn't see him all too much, he had a lot on his plate. But I've known him over the years."

The past few years Louis has been assembling his own account of the lifelong friendship he's had with Bob. The soon to be published Dylan & Me will have a lot of Dylan fans sifting for new insights and stories. The RTR will be a portion of it.

Related Links
Rolling Stone story about Louis Kemp's book Dylan & Me. 
Randy Lewis in LA Times: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A user’s guide
Reuters story about the Scorsese film, by Alex Dobuzinskis

This brief blog entry could easily have been titled, "Five Reasons RTR Was Different from Any Other Road Show Ever" but then... if

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