Dylanâs wild road trip
The kabuki twins in Rolling Thunder Revue: “Joan Baez and I could sing together in our sleep.”
Dylan’s wild road trip
Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - June 23, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, the Netflix smorgasbord of a documentary about Dylan’s rambunctious 1975 US tour, makes us ask, in these PC times, what are the politics of whiteface?

The singer spends much of the film slathered in white pancake makeup and eyeliner, a kabuki specter onstage with feathered fedora and guitar in hand. Dylan’s mysterioso tour — starting at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts and heading west — turned into a tornado of musicians and characters, but what it really aspired to was joining the circus. “I kinda thought of us as a jug band,” the current-day Dylan reflects on this tour, 40 years past.

Whether he’s facing the microphone alone to reel off (without notes) countless verses of new song Isis, or cooking with a band that includes Roger McGuinn, violinist/muse Scarlet Rivera, Rob Stoner on bass and Mick Ronson in post-Spiders From Mars glam rock mode, this is probably the enigmatic singer’s most lively document of the decade — even when he’s playing retirement homes and bingo halls. (A lot of this footage was salvaged from the little-shown Dylan movie Renaldo and Clara.) Perhaps being in whiteface was a way of disappearing into character; as a much older Bob now tells Scorsese: “People are never more honest than when they’re wearing masks.”

As always, Scorsese unearths some chicanery and street tales (one tour organizer recalls loping across a parking lot with $15,000 in cash in a bag over his shoulder — to pay for what, is left to our imaginations — “You did what you had to do”); elsewhere, teen model Sharon Stone, wearing a KISS T-shirt to accompany her mom to Dylan’s concert, was amazed and impressed by the singer’s knowledge of kabuki. (Dylan at the time was heavily into circus influences: bewitching violinist Rivera, with her trunk of swords, scarves and snakes on tour; and that KISS T-shirt apparently also got his imagination going.)

At over two hours, this is a long, shaggy story indeed, but the side journeys are often interesting, illuminating splinters of light — yet never the full picture — of the artist himself, as much as they illuminate America circa 1975. Sam Shepard and Patti Smith turn up on the periphery. We see Joan Baez slowly growing restless on tour, ending up masquerading as “Bob Dylan” — in twin pancake makeup and fedora — in one of the tour’s many put-ons. We see Allen Ginsberg under the sway of the modern poet, the two of them reciting passages from Mexico City Blues beside Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts. As always, we see shafts of the true Dylan, but never the straight story. Because: how interesting would a straight story of Bob Dylan be, anyway? “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself,” he tells the camera at one point. With this tour, the performer — eyes bulging, stories escaping from his lips at 32 frames per second — continued to extend and confound the myths that had built up around him, and kept on searching.

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