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Music

What Sam Shepard learned about Bob Dylan on the 'Rolling Thunder Revue' tour

@TomTaylorFO

When Bob Dylan was crafting his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, he pictured the wayfaring excursion as a patchwork parade of roving artists, roaming as a multi-talented fleet across the rolling land’s akin to the great Jack Kerouac. During the tour, Sam Shephard was seemingly given the difficult task of penning a Federico Fellini-esque script as they went along.

In truth, documenting the ways of the wild clan was hard enough, let alone converting it into some sort of script. The surreal movie that Dylan had in mind never came to fruition, but the film Renaldo and Clara would soon follow. However, what we are left with is the legendary screenwriter’s logbook of the experience. His documented tale was published two years after the tour in 1977 and contained therein is an unprecedented insight into Dylan at a particularly transitory moment of his career. 

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue was all about exploring America’s artistic past, and while he may have clubbed together a string of stupendous talent in the form of Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, Allen Ginsberg, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Shepard himself among others, this collection was almost a homage to those that had gone before them. Dylan’s folk forever tapped into the timeless traditions of the past and placed his legacy as a footnote in history. This was never more apparent to Shepard than when he was on the road with the near-mystic troubadour. 

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As Shepard wrote: “Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not to the head. It moves us into an area of mystery. Some myths are poisonous to believe in, but others have the capacity for changing something inside us, even if it’s only for a minute or two. Dylan creates a mythic atmosphere out of the land around us. The land we walk on every day and never see until someone shows it to us.” As Dylan said himself: “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.”

Thus, Dylan is forever searching out his niche in the world and he is amorphous enough to be whatever his muse chooses to be. Over the years, he has expressed this himself in his own poetic way, extolling: “All I can do is be me, whoever that is,” and expressing, “I change during the course of a day. I wake up and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”

This was apparent to Shepard even within the short space of the tour. “Dylan has invented himself,” he wrote. “He’s made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in. He gets into you anyway, so why not just take him in? He’s not the first one to have invented himself, but he’s the first one to have invented Dylan.”

During the tour, Shepard would become romantically involved with Joni Mitchell, who has a complex relationship with Dylan and she would later take a differing opinion on the folk forebearer. “Bob is not authentic at all,” she once said. “He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” Adding: “We are like night and day, [Dylan] and I.”

However, there was also a time when Mitchell admitted that Dylan did, in fact, influence her entire career. “There came a point when I heard a Dylan song called ‘Positively Fourth Street’,” Mitchell opined when reflecting on her early songwriting change, “And I thought ‘oh my God, you can write about anything in songs’. It was like a revelation to me”. From that moment on, she dared to be bold, forgo the old folk standards and harness the power of unfettered individual sincerity. 

This is the route that Shepard takes when reflecting on Dylan in his expressionist logbook. He paints the picture of a man in a state of transience, “every second was all about movement” he said. Amid that was Dylan accepting the whims of fate and changing as he saw fit, as he said himself, “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.”

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