Bob Dylan’s 1976 live album Hard Rain is the only real document we have of his infamous Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Dylan devised the tour as a sort of middle finger to corporate America. The singer had grown disillusioned with the world of live music and, after being injured in a motorcycle accident, hadn’t toured for nigh-on eight years. Describing his attitude to the music industry at that time, Dylan wrote: “The only thing people talked about was energy this, energy that.” It was the bloated spectacle of the arena tour which really turned Dylan’s stomach. He went on to add: “I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do something different.”
He imagined the tour would be a return to the days of the travelling medicine show, of circuses and carnivals. He gathered an immense group of musicians, poets, filmmakers and artists to join him on this adventure, one which would see Dylan perform in a variety of incredibly intimate venues across the backwaters of America. However, the tour and subsequent live album, ‘Hard Rain’, were not received well, and 45 years later they are remembered only through the foggiest of lenses.
Dylan himself barely remembers recording Hard Rain, recalling that he was “hardly born yet.” Thanks to Scorsese’s semi-mythological documentary about the first leg of the tour, we know that, in those early days, the tour was filled with enthusiasm, energy and vitality. Patti Smith was there, so were Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg. Unfortunately, by the time of the second leg, which culminated in the recording of Hard Rain, everybody’s enthusiasm for the curious venture had started to wane. Ginsberg had been banned from reading his poetry, band members were clashing on a daily basis, and Dylan seemed to be in a state of suspended animation.
At the time of its release, Hard Rain seemed like the culmination of a tour that had taken the wind out of its performers. Whilst the Rolling Thunder Revue’s early performances had been carnivalesque and enthralling, by the time Hard Rain was recorded, Dylan seemed battered, bruised, and ready to go home. Recorded across two dates, (May 16 in Fort Worth, Texas, and May 23 in Fort Collins, Colo) the nine tracks on Hard Rain failed to capture the public’s imagination.
The critics hated it, mocking Dylan’s vocals on tracks like ‘Maggie’s Farm’, and the general consensus was that the whole thing was poorly recorded, poorly performed, and poorly planned. One does get the sense that the recording isn’t an inaccurate representation of what the tour had been in its early days. The Hard Rain performances were recorded in the very arenas Dylan had wanted to leave behind, and, as a result, tracks like ‘One Too Many Mornings’ feature an underlying resentment, which is only just perceptible in Dylan’s squalling vocals.
But 45 years later, it seems that much of the criticism aimed towards Hard Rain when it was released seems unduly harsh. Whilst the album is a little rough around the edges, that’s where most of its charm comes from.
It is a record that captures a group of musicians who have been through hell and back. Perhaps, because Hard Rain was the only document of the Rolling Thunder Revue, fans had no idea what to expect. Perhaps they didn’t understand that the chaotic and disastrous nature of the tour was sort of the whole point. But thanks to the fifth instalment of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, and the recent Scorcese documentary, we have a much finer understanding of what Dylan was setting out to do.
For him, the tour was an antidote to the clean-cut and meticulously planned stadium tour, one which had eroded his passion for live performance. In Hard Rain, Dylan can be seen attempting to recapture the spirit of live music, by showing us that all live performances are held together by the thinnest of threads and, at any moment, they could fall apart entirely. It is that element of risk that makes live music so exciting and so enthralling. Without it, Dylan seems to say in Hard Rain, we lose something innately human.