On a crisp Autumn day in 1975, Bob Dylan, with his friend Allen Ginsberg in tow, visited the grave of the writer Jack Kerouac. The night before, Dylan had performed a concert at the University of Lowell for his semi-improvised Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Ginsberg, who had been one of Kerouac’s literary contemporaries, became excited when the tour buses reached the city, and decided to meet up with some of Kerouac’s relatives, immersing Dylan’s rag-tag entourage in the lore of Kerouac and the beat generation.
It is a scene that encapsulates the entire mood of The Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the main aim of which was to return to the uniquely American philosophy exemplified by Kerouac’s era-defining book On The Road.
Without the beat generation, the counterculture of the 1960s would not have existed. With its exploration of American politics, drug culture, and eastern philosophy, the literary moment formed the very bedrock of the immense cultural shift that would define the post-war era. The core of the Beat movement was made up of a group of friends, including, amongst others, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S Burroughs. Together they discussed and wrote about politics, art, culture, and spirituality, developing a literary style that inspired the beatnik movement of the 1950s.
At this time, artists like Ginsberg and Kerouac were flocking to Greenwich Village because of the affordable rent on offer. As a result, the district became a melting pot of creativity and the nerve-centre of the blossoming folk-music revival, of which Bob Dylan was a key part. For Dylan, the beat generation was as important as Woody Guthrie.
In an interview in 1985, he described arriving in New York and immediately being drawn to the flourishing sub-culture: “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, bebop crowd, it was all pretty much connected,” he began. “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.” As a result, Dylan absorbed many of the principles of the beat movement into his own music and creating a stage-persona which, in retrospect, seems like a direct reflection of Kerouac’s wandering narrator in On The Road.
But by 1975, Dylan’s career had grown far beyond its humble, Beat origins. His career had exploded in the 1960s, and he was now one of music’s most successful musical exports. For a while, he got swept up in the fame and the arena tours, but after a motorcycle accident, had grown increasingly disillusioned with the music industry. Describing his attitude to the world of live music at that time, Dylan later wrote: “The only thing people talked about was energy this, energy that. I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do something different.” So he devised The Rolling Thunder Revue tour, as a way of giving the middle finger to a bloated and increasingly elitist industry, which seemed to be leaving so many people behind. His approach was to take a step back in time, to return to the principles of the beat generation.
The idea at the centre of The Rolling Thunder Revue tour was to make it a constantly moving, self-promoted and self-contained enterprise with revolving personnel. The musicians would make surprise appearances in all clubs in small towns around the US, selling tickets themselves. It was to capture the spirit of the travelling circus, or, as Robbie Robertson described: “a kind of Gypsy caravan situation…where it was loose and different people could get up and do different things at different times and nothing would be out of place.” Dylan wanted to re-mould himself in the image of Kerouac’s character’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty who, in On The Road, embark on a road trip across America in an attempt to understand the soul of the country.
Kerouac’s book depicts the life of a post-war youth who is profoundly affected by the people he meets and the things he experiences whilst wandering the highways of America. Nothing is planned, and everything is improvised. It was this beautiful chaos that Dylan also wanted to experience, detaching himself from the world of the press conference and the meticulously planned stadium tour.
In essence, he wanted to take music back to the people. Much of the chaos people ascribe to the writing of the Beat movement is down to its unique rhythmic flavour, one defined by a stream-of-consciousness writing style that blends imagery in a duststorm of vibrant language. The writing of the Beat movement celebrated the improvisational nature of jazz music and writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac incorporated the spontaneity of jazz musicians into much of their work. Dylan also attempted to capture that mood, continually reshaping his music throughout the tour and refusing to let it sit in its pre-established mould. Dylan’s bassist at the time, Rob Stoner, once recalled the moment he finally understood Dylan’s desire to smash his songs apart and build them back up again. “We’re up there jamming,” recalled Stoner, “and it turns out what we’re really doing is rehearsing.”
Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour also seemed to live by the anti-capitalist principles of the Beat movement. It’s no surprise that Kerouac named the character he based off Allen Ginsberg in On The Road ‘Carlo Marx’. Many of the Beats were influenced by leftist ideologies, criticising the rampant capitalism of post-war America and interrogating its effects on the American everyman. With The Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan wanted to bypass the cash-hungry major labels and make his concerts as accessible as possible. Dylan was reported to have said: “We’re gonna sell all the tickets ourselves — we’ll print our own tickets — and we’re gonna arrive in town and call up the college radio stations and tell ’em ‘We’re gonna play tonight, announce it on your station,’ and that’s all the publicity we’ll do. We’ll do the show, then pack up and hit some other town. All unannounced,” He went on to conclude: “No one’s gonna make any money off this thing or have any control over us.”
For both the beats and Dylan, money was a destructive influence that held society in a stranglehold and took the soul out of artistry. For the beats, this anti-materialist outlook was one that had been inspired by eastern philosophy. And With the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan attempted to live by the lessons of this philosophy. In leaving the world of material wealth behind, he attempted to liberate himself from its damaging effects.
Looking back, the influence of the beats on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour is almost glaringly obvious. What is less obvious is how successful he was in capturing the spirit of the movement. Whilst the first leg of the tour was a wonderfully chaotic affair, which saw Dylan perform in small clubs around the backwater of America, by the second leg, he had been forced back into the stadium.
Still, with Rolling Thunder, Dylan succeeded in reinvigorating his love of live performance, and he did so by taking a step back in time. He refused to be controlled by the whims of major labels and, in doing so, managed to dismantle the destructive influence of his own fame — taking himself back to an era of innocence and freedom.