- 13 Jun 19
Who was that masked man?
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” - Oscar Wilde
“When someone’s wearing a mask they’re gonna tell you the truth” - Bob Dylan
All you need to know is revealed in the first few bars. A hokey old magic trick from early cinema where a woman is patently not made to disappear and then the titles – Conjuring The Rolling Thunder Revue, A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The words to note are "conjuring" and "story". Has Bob Dylan ever told the truth about anything since he arrived in New York City in 1961 and put on his first mask, claiming an already questionable backstory? Jump to 2019 and in his first on-camera interview in years Dylan claims he doesn’t have a clue about Rolling Thunder. “It’s about nothing” he grins. “It happened so long ago I wasn’t even born. So what do you wanna know?” Go off to the kitchen and get a grain of salt, you’re gonna need it. “Life is about creating yourself” Dylan was never a real person, he’s the greatest creation of one of popular music’s very few actual geniuses, the best trick he ever pulled.
Where was America in 1975 when even the president, who sometimes must have to stand naked, had been found out to be full of shit? Truth was out the window for a country coming to terms with the deep wound of Vietnam, a country proven for the first time, as it celebrated it’s bicentenary, to be fallible. Where was Dylan in 1975? Others might argue for the wild mercury of 65/66 but I’ll go bail for this period as Dylan’s peak as an artist. Blood On The Tracks came out in January (They’re not personal stories, they’re based on some of Chekov’s work. They are in their arse) and he had the songs of another masterpiece, Desire, which would see release in the middle of the tour, floating around his head. As for touring, 1974’s The Band accompanied jaunt had been a huge success. Promoter Bill Graham claimed there were over twelve million applications for the half a million seats available. Dylan, however, claimed he hated every minute of it. Accordingly, in 1975, he wanted to do something a little different, taking a bunch of friends, kooks, and hangers-on out across this new, battered America, a “commedia dell’arte” as he says himself, playing small (ish) venues, against advice, for the sheer hell of it.
Scorsese, who had already made what most of us thought was the definitive Dylan movie in No Direction Home, takes what’s available and weaves what might be termed magic realism in cinematic form, a “Bob Dylan story.” The footage was mostly shot for Dylan’s own quickly withdrawn Renaldo and Clara movie, with its original running time of nearly four hours. So this is a movie about a movie, as well as a document of a tour. But what kind of tour hires someone like Sam Shepherd to help out with the dialogue? Dylan’s film was influenced by Marcel Carné’s 1945 epic Les Enfants du Paradis, a story set in the theatrical demi-monde of 19th century Paris where the theatre audience are as much part of the film as the actors, and those actors are in whiteface, cutting between the stage and what goes on behind it. But is this really where he got the whiteface make-up from? Sharon Stone, yes, that Sharon Stone, turns up to tell her story about joining the tour as a young fan at Dylan’s request after he spotted her in a Kiss t-shirt. Dylan had been aware of the shock rockers, mad as a box of frogs violinist Scarlet Rivera took him to see them play and he filed away their make-up ideas. If this all seems too fantastic, that’s because it is. Sharon Stone is an actress, which is what she’s doing here. She simply wasn’t there. In another scene she tells of how Bob played ‘Just Like A Woman’, claiming he wrote it for her, and she wells up at the memory before laughing about being told the song was already ten years old. It’s a good story, but that’s all it is, a story. And Bob Dylan was influenced by Kiss? Come on! The French arse numbing movie seems a better fit.
That’s not all of course. Stefan van Dorp, the whiney film maker who claims – “I’m the one who made this” - to have shot all the original footage? That’s actually performance artist/actor Martin von Haselberg, the husband of Bette Midler, who turns up briefly only to steal Dylan’s hat. Dylan goes into a whole routine about van Dorp sticking his nose in the wrong places and eating all the food, with only a hint of a grin. Jim Gianopulos, the long suffering promoter who moans how the tour could have made money if Dylan had any sense is actually the CEO of Paramount pictures, and as for congressman Jack Tanner who through his connection with Jimmy Carter gains access to the show in Niagara falls? Another red herring.
What is real? When Dylan puts on the mask, he tells you the truth. The live perfomances in the movie are perhaps the strongest that Dylan ever captured to what we used to call tape. A beautiful solo version of ‘Simple Twist of Faith’, ‘I Shall be Released’ with Joan Baez, who’s very much in on the gag, and what is ‘Isis’ if not the greatest movie Humphrey Bogart never starred in, and ‘Romance In Durango’ if not the screenplay Peckinpah should have shot? Movies within movies within movies. Perhaps the most honest section deals with Dylan’s campaigning for the release of Rubin Carter, the boxer “stuck in a prison cell but one time he could have been the champion of the world” documented in the monumental ‘Hurricane’. Dylan arrives at CBS records to demand the record be rushed release and then plays the song in the Clinton Correctional facility. At one point an audience member jokingly howls out "Do a protest song" 'Hurricane' might be his best one. The performances match those from No Direction Home or Don’t Look Back, and that is no small praise.
And it’s not just Dylan either, it’s thrilling to see a very young Patti Smith rabbiting on about the archer in love with his sister and Joni Mitchell, who joined the tour, wipes the floor with everyone by playing ‘Coyote’ backstage. Allen Ginsberg drifts in and out, shocking the women of Middle America with his graphic verse, taking Dylan to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave. The lack of fear in his performance is humbling. Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman, hustling for Rolling Stone, doesn’t come across too well, but then the journalist is always the asshole.
At the centre of it all is the great unknowable. The man behind the masks. Mick Ronson, Bowie’s right hand man in the Spiders, plays guitar but never gets close “Bob never spoke to me”. Joan Baez, a woman who possibly knows Dylan as well as anyone else, puts on his make-up and his hat and is stunned and a little scared by the way people treat her when they think she’s Bob, but no one can ever really know what it is to be Dylan but the man himself, and he’s still keeping his cards close to his chest. Here, he pulls back the curtain, just to reveal another curtain.
It’s an entertainment, a tall-tale, another chapter, another story - and one of the best rock n’ roll movies you’ll ever see.