The Rolling Thunder Revue was one of Dylan’s most intriguing phases, in my opinion. I loved the tour album Hard Rain from the moment I heard it, although I often felt in the minority on that. It sounded nothing like Dylan —and I’m pretty sure that was the point — with the loose and sloppy rock’n’roll that was so at odds with the Dylan “myth.”
On The Road with Bob Dylan, Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s legendary account of that tour, is one weird, wild ride. Much like the tour, which featured the comings and goings of famous musicians, artists and hangers-ons, the book is always on the edge of spinning out of control. Like a Fellini film, it is dotted with crazy-ass people in crazy-ass situations, and surreal conversations with people like Joan Baez, Bobby Neuwirth, Sam Shepard, the beguiling “sad-eyed lady” Sara Lowndes, and especially Allen Ginsberg, who comes across as the last guy you’d want sitting next to you at a concert.
And the book is definitely more about Rolling Thunder than Dylan, though he’s in the eye of the hurricane. The author is invited by Dylan at the end of a drunken evening in NYC to go on the road and write a book about the tour — and what follows in the 450+ pages is Dylan's “people” and the participants of the tour teasing, torturing and denying access to Sloman, while the author valiantly tries to penetrate the inner circle and get to Dylan himself. Interestingly, the author variously refers to himself in the first and third person throughout the book, as he acquires various nicknames during the tour. Occasionally, he is simply, “the author” but the shapeshifting is positively Dylanesque.
During the course of the tour, the infamous Renaldo and Clara was being filmed — perhaps the zenith of the art is life/life is art zeitgeist of the times — adding to the overall spirit and camaraderie, as well as chaos of the tour. I love the music from this period but the famously-shelved film sounds like it would…well…suck. Except for the live performances, the short clips available on YouTube only confirm my suspicion.
A couple of “conversations” are standouts. One is with guitarist Michael Bloomfield, who dishes on playing and recording with Dylan, and his speed-jive rap is fascinating and not altogether complimentary. Towards the end of the book, Robbie Robertson provides a wonderful narrative of the Band’s growth with Dylan on tour and in the studio. His recollections of those early tours, and especially recording The Basement Tapes and Planet Waves (one of my favorite Dylan albums) are mesmerizing. In between, Joni Mitchell rambles on in several self-absorbed, self-important abstract tangents, until the author finally stops her in her tracks, asking simply, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Right on, Ratso. I was wondering the same thing.
But does our man finally gain access and get “his” man? Well, don’t miss the last twenty pages or so for the answer.
It’s a fun, entertaining read, more like a novel really, and fans of Dylan, particularly during this underrated period, will enjoy it. It is a front row seat to “the confusion and ecstasy and depression and joy and tumult and fury and love and rage and boredom and transcendence of six weeks on the road.”
Just don’t get caught in that seat between Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell.