Bob Dylan is now famed for is awkward and agitated style and persona. Whether it is on stage or in interview Dylan has a knack of being able to create a spiky atmosphere in a world full of balloons. Many think that this 1976 TV performance of the album Hard Rain on NBC is the beginning of that
Sure, Dylan had been confrontational in interviews before, he’d been even aggressive with the defense of his artistic output in the face of adversity, but this performance was different, this was Bob disrespecting the establishment in a whole new way. This was an answer to a question nobody was asking.
The NBC special, recorded in May but aired in September 1976, was a huge event for the American public and the network, even landing Dylan a spot on the front of the TV Guide, it put Dylan, the former protest songwriter, front and centre for American music and iconography. This would be the performance to cement him as a mega-star, the culmination of the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue, with the debut TV performance of his long-awaited album Hard Rain.
In truth, what transpired is a performance without passion, without fire, and a kind of Frankenstein surgery approach to his most famous songs that would perplex so many of his waiting fans. Dylan, in fact, would only go on to feature 4 tracks on the live album ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘One Too Many Mornings,’ ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Idiot Wind’, would make it on to the recording which was released 10 days before the special aired.
There are lots of theories as to why The Rolling Thunder Revue, which had been steaming across the country with Dylan having seemingly found a new joy in touring, crashed and burned so badly on NBC. Rob Stoner suggested that the band had been hitting the bottle a little too hard and that contributed to the performance’s subdued style. Others suggest Dylan and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Sara, had been arguing for the entire Colorado visit and Dylan was at the end of his respective tether. His performance of ‘Idiot Wind’ being one of the only impassioned tracks and seemingly spat in her direction.
However, some say it was down to Dylan not enjoying the spotlight of being Bob Dylan again, having spent the last months on tour as part of a wider group of musicians (Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield, Gary Burke, Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth, Scarlet Rivera, Luther Rix, Kinky Friedman, Mick Ronson, Steven Soles, Rob Stoner, Howie Wyeth… to nme a few) he was now becoming frustrated with the spotlight, the interviews, the magazines – it had become tiresome again.
Whatever the reason, what remains is an awkward, agitated and almost disrespectful performance. However imperfect this gig may be it is still an integral and important moment for any Dylan fans or indeed sociologists. This performance provides an insight into the mind of a true genius and the continued pressure of a public desperate to consume it all.