"Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years"
From Wienerworld, released in UK on 24 April, 2006
Duration 240 minutes


Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years

Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years

a review by John Nye


This is a real fan's-eye view of Dylan during one of the more trickier time periods in his enormous career. The DVD contains no Bob Dylan songs and is a totally unauthorised documentary, but has oodles of in-depth interviews.


With Dylan's constant searching it's hard to try and pin him down and explain his motives for a single event, whether it be for an album or series of concerts. But to try and explain away Dylan over a six year period, is near on impossible. Although this 4-hour DVD has a brave attempt. All manner of key personnel from this period of Dylan's life were searched out for the project, and Director and Producer Joel Gilbert (Bob Dylan 1966 World Tour - The Home Movies, Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1974 - Through the Camera of Barry Feinstein) fires some pretty canny questions at them during the interview segments to flesh out the stories.


Some of the stories on the way are very revealing, and some just make you wish you'd been there. Like the one about the tour plans for the first Rolling Thunder Revue. Or rather the lack of plans. The rag-tag band of folk troubadours that was The Rolling Thunder Revue (and their followers) had no idea where they were going next, literally, during the early days of the tour. They would turn up in a town, unannounced, and play a local small venue. The disbelieving audience would go and see if the rumour was true and be knocked out to be offered tickets to see a Bob Dylan and Friends show in their local small hall. Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Scarlet Rivera, Claudia Levy (Ms Jacques Levy) and Rob Stoner flesh out the tour stories, while Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, in his first interview in 30 years, gives some background.


Here comes the story of the Hurricane... Rubin Carter's interview is particularly revealing. Here's an extract:

"Dylan and I hit it off quite quickly, and quite well. We were both entertainers, he being a troubadour, and me being a prize-fighter. We both had family tragedies. His family were escaping from the Russian Tsar and my family was escaping from segregation. We thought we had an obligation to speak out for our people. That's what Dylan was doing, and that's what I was doing, and so we talked, the first day, for 8, 9, 10 hours. We talked about everything. And I thought that was the end of it.


"I didn't know Bob Dylan was going to write a song. He didn't know he was going to write a song. The next day Bob was back, and we talked another 8, 9, 10 hours. The next day Bob was back again and we talked another 8, 9, 10 hours, and then Bob went away, and I said: 'Okay'.


"A week later he came back, and he had a demo of the "Hurricane", and I listened to it and I said: 'Wow, listen to what this genius has put together'. He took 6 weeks of trial, and many, many years, and put it in that song ... a powerful piece of writing. What Dylan did was to move this case from being totally black, onto the whole world." 

The DVD then moves on to the late 70s with some wonderful interviews, including bassist Rob Stoner, who was band leader for the Rolling Thunder Revue and for part of the 1978 "costume extravaganza" tour, and producer Jerry Wexler, who contributes to The Gospel Years segment of the DVD, and was surprised to find that the content of "Slow Train Coming" was going to be "wall-to-wall Jesus".


The Gospel Years were when Dylan's radical new direction alienated many fans and enraged critics as he preached evangelical messages from the Book of Revelation. Others interviewed to tell this part of the story include backing singer Regina McCrary, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, who gives a first-hand band member's point of view of Dylan on the road and in the studio, songwriter Al Kasha, "Dylanologist" A.J. Weberman, and Dylan's Bible class teacher Pastor Bill Dwyer, a Bob Dylan fan, who describes Dylan's born again transformation. He recalls Dylan coming to class as Dylan, complete with sunglasses, leather jacket and beret. If you want to be anonymous and don't want to look like Dylan, then don't dress like Dylan, he would tell him. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Joel Selvin, who wrote the infamous "Bob Dylan's God-Awful Gospel" review of the first night at Fox Warfield that "poured a bucket of cold water" over ticket sales for future shows, tells of the phone call his wife received from Dylan informing her that her husband had lost his "license to review"!


I was particularly interested in Rob Stoner's account of the rehearsals for the 1978 tour. Here's an extract:

"It was understood that we were rehearsing for a Japanese tour. The promoter had already sent a list of the songs he wanted Dylan to perform. So we worked up arrangements of these songs. Actually I came up with those arrangements, with David Mansfield, and the help of the other musicians. We would try and make the tunes sound as unrecognisable as possible. It was a whole new approach to his music.


"Bob wasn't around for a whole lot of that. He would just leave it to us to come up with stuff. I would do the singing at the rehearsals and Bob would come by at night, after rehearsals, and he and I would listen to the tapes and he would express his approval or disapproval of various arrangements that I was making. Bob had other things to do at the time. He was editing Renaldo and Clara. He needed time to do whatever he was doing and if I could be the surrogate singer and save him the time and effort of showing up to do what is basically the nuts and bolts of getting a band together, why should he waste his time on that when he can waltz in at the last minute and hear the finished product. It's better to keep him enthused and fresh than have him slog through version after version of these songs he didn't particularly want to do in the first place".

There's an awful lot to commend this DVD. It must have been a real labour of love for Joel Gilbert. His interviews are excellent, and he doesn't shrink away even from reading the questions from a page to be sure to get it right. And the questions are probing. Special features on the DVD include Journey to Hibbing, an informative guided tour of the town and it's places of interest, Ramblin' Jack's Early Days, a long conversation with Ramblin' Jack Elliott who tells all, and Photo Gallery 1975-1981.


Highly recommended, but at 4 hours it'll take a whole evening to watch it.


Signs on the windows

The "official" site for the DVD, with lots more information is here.

To win a copy of the "Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years" DVD click over to The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society's Bulletin Board here to enter an on-line competition. Closing date is April 30. [Competition now closed].