Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Reviewed by Vincent Zangrillo
I’ll tell you my own Bob Dylan story. Or maybe two or three. I can guarantee you that these are the god’s honest truth, 100% puro truth uncut and unspun; that is to say I’m not going to edit it to make me look like anything but what I am, an unabashed Dylan freak, who when I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” when I was 11 years old in my Father’s Vista Cruiser Station Wagon, I reached over and jacked up the volume and told my dad to pull over. He backslapped me so hard the back of my head hit the passenger side window. Fucking noise, he said and pushed the button for WCBS and the Yankee game. You’re just criticizing it because you don’t understand it, I said. Bang, my head bounced off the window again like the red rubber ball on a Duncan’s paddle. I consoled myself when I got home by listening to Rubber Soul. “I’m Looking Through You” was my favorite. I was rubbing the knot on my head when I remembered that I still had some Aurora glue left in the tube that I used to put together my Wolfman model. The back of my head was throbbing, so I sniffed what was left and then in a daze walked past my father who was watching the game. Jim Bouton was pitching. I started whistling “Norwegian Wood”.
Ball four—Phil Rizzuto sounded like he was 2000 light years away. My dad got up from the recliner and planted his size 12 shoe up my ass. I was so pissed, I went back to my room, and out of spite ripped up my 1965 Topps Yankees team card which I loved because it looked like it was shot on a weird 45 degree angle and the team looked like they were floating in space. I hated my old man anyway; he wouldn’t let me grow my hair and if he liked the Yankees, I was going to root for the Mets. And once I was blasting “19th Nervous Breakdown” and he stormed into my room ( I wasn’t allowed to lock the door and it had to be left four inches open, and deliberately scratched my record like some prototype of Kool Herc and then put on a 45 of Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” and played it over and over: That’s Life That’s Life That’s life. Anyhow, I lay down on my bed that day and plotted how I was going to run away from home like Huck Finn, change my name to Vincent Von Go so it wouldn’t sound so Italian, and start my own band and call it Licorice Philosophy. Then Bob Dylan would come to see me.
Ten years later when I was 21, I hitchhiked from SUNY Albany, in the tundra-like winter, to Rochester, starting on the New York State Thruway, to see the Rolling Thunder Revue. I had a friend, named Rennie, who was going to R.P.I who would come down to the concert to meet me, so I knew I had a place to crash. Some local kids were huddled on the corner; when I walked by, one asked me if I wanted to catch a buzz. I loved rhetorical questions so I walked over, keeping one eye out for Rennie. The kids proffered me a joint they were smoking and a sip of Rock ‘n Rye. I was clean because I was not going to have any drugs on me if I got pulled over by a state trooper for hitchhiking on the Thruway. (The New York State Thruway is closed man.) Stupidly, I hadn’t worn gloves and my hand were frozen like lobster claws stuck in a restaurant freezer. I could barely hold the joint, my fingers were all in a knot. One of the locals (definitely not one of the best minds of my generation) asked me If I wanted to buy a tab of mesc for two dollars, guaranteed pure he said. Oh, OK why not. The price was right. I dropped the mesc and took another shot of Rock ‘n Rye. As I was walking away, one of the angel-headed locals slipped the rest of the bottle in my overly thin corduroy jacket. You’re going to need it, he said. Sounded ominous. But what the fuck, that’s life. I walked over to the Rochester Community War Memorial and started to look hard for Rennie; as luck would have it, I caught him on line. He had rolled a couple of joints of Columbian gold and since there was so much security, we walked up a nearby alley and lit up. Suddenly, we got spun around and thrown up against the wall mother fuckers, by two African–Americans, who claimed they were undercover cops. Even though it was barely five, it was already dark, but one of them had a pick in his ‘fro and looked like Fred Hampton, the assassinated Black Panther. The Fred Hampton cat said he needed to search us for drugs. I said fine, but I didn’t do drugs, that I was into T.M. and I could sell him a mantra that would make him feel better than drugs. He literally kicked me against the wall, took the other two Columbian gold joints from Rennie and walked off.
Best pot they’re ever going to smoke, Rennie said. Yeah, I said, hope it makes them paranoid. I was so beat and frozen after the show that I curled up on the floor in the dorm room next to the radiator, while Rennie had sex with his girlfriend Clarissa, whose name I still remember because I was taking a course on the modern novel at Albany, and she had the same first name as Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that I particularly enjoyed because of its intricate deceptions. I fell asleep even though the mesc had been ultra
speedy during the show. I had extricated the rock candy at the bottom of the Rock ’n Rye, and was grinding it with my teeth to stop myself from puking. My stomach felt like it disappeared, with nothing in it but Rock ‘n Rye, mesc and a cold pretzel.
After graduating SUNY Albany, I went back to New York City, I had had enough of the upstate winters. My apartment in New York’s Lower East Side was like a ten-foot cell, and it wasn’t long before I moved on from mesc and pot and hit the harder stuff. But I was still there in October of 1989, when I went to see Dylan at the Beacon theater. A friend of mine’s brother-in-law worked for Local One, the legendary stage hands union, who were completely tough Irish guys, maybe one step above the Westies. Not only did you have to be Irish on both sides, you also had to be related by blood to someone in the union to even get a probationary position. Nothing moved in a New York theater without Local One say so. And no one could fire them. The stage hand’s name Johnny Terrel. In 1969, he had stepped on a Bouncing Betty when on S&D patrol from Hill 937, and got one leg shredded up to the knee. JT, as everyone called him, took me up to the lighting booth to watch the show. The light guys had a couple of cases of Heineken stashed in a garbage can filled with ice.
It was at there that JT told me a strange tale. Apparently when they were setting up that afternoon, (they had the younger guys do the heavy work, while vets like JT with seniority drank beer), these younger guys spotted a vagrant under the stage, some homeless guy in a hoodie. They called JT and asked if they should call the cops or what. JT said, You’re kidding, just get him the fuck out of here. So they’re dragging this skinny cat towards the door, and JT tells me, I’m just about to kick his ass with my one good leg, and his hoodie falls off and it was Bob.
Dylan, I said?
No, Bob Hope. Yeah, it was Dylan.
So what did you do?
What could I do? I dusted him off and gave him a cigarette. I said, Sorry Bob, didn’t recognize you with that hoodie disguise. Bob said, man you must be putting me on. I was meditating.
JT popped another Heiney. Guy thinks he’s Buddha. And he’s got fingernails like Charlie Chan, he added.
So eventually Dylan comes on. I don’t know if it was because the lighting booth was so far from the stage, or because of the Heinekens and Afghani hash the senior Local One guys kept forcing on me, but I couldn’t understand one word he was saying. I didn’t know if he was singing “Like a Rolling Stone” or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Finally, my half-wracked frustration leaped forth. I stuck my head out between the spots. Get the fucking marbles out of your mouth, I screamed.
Twenty years later, 2009. I copped a ticket to Bob Dylan’s minor league stadium tour with Willie Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp at McCoy Stadium where the Pawtucket Red Sox Triple-A team played. I drove up after taking the ferry from Long Island. I thought it would be a good idea to take my four-year old son. It was summer. I felt exuberant. They were going to have fireworks outdoors. What’s there for a kid not to like? I got a hotel on Federal Hill in Providence so I could enjoy some real Italian Food before the show. Then I drove me and the kid up to Pawtucket, a backwater of Providence. It was in an Irish neighborhood with sad wooden houses huddled together and the locals sitting on their front porches. These people were so atavistic they made Whitey Bulger and the “Southies” look like Plato and his students at the Lyceum. I was scared, but I tried not to transmit it to the kid. I had to park about a half a mile away, but it was July and the show didn’t start until dark. And with Old Willie and John Cougar and the boys, Dylan wasn’t coming on ‘till 10:00, which meant the fireworks weren’t going to happen until midnight. No matter how many hot dogs I shoved down his throat, the kid wasn’t having it. At 9:30 with Dylan’s crew setting up, he was crying and hanging on to my leg like a little monster. The wailing got so loud that the other concert goers looked alarmed. One woman, obviously a mom, actually bent down to tie the laces of my shoes. It made me a little uneasy. So you don’t trip, she said, when you go down the stairs, break your neck and crush the kid. He’s had enough, she told me. Take him home. I carried him the half mile to the car.
What I didn’t say about my son, is that having no idea how to parent, when he was two, instead of singing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” I sang him “Subterranean Homesick Blues” over and over, really emphasizing the “look out kid” part. I must’ve sung it to him a million times. The kid’s 14 now, looks like Rimbaud with long hair and has an IQ of 160. Listens to Schoenberg instead of playing Fortnite; can play Muddy Waters’ (whom I loved ever since I saw him at the Bottom Line) “Mannish Boy” on guitar, inserting Keith Richards open-G-tuning blues licks; and reads Sam Shepard and writes absurdist plays about kids falling into bottomless pits. He keeps a Tarantula as a pet. Says he can commune with the dead.
Coincidence or nurture over nature?
Wait. He’s also moody, sullen and has said basically twelve words to me this year. I mean the same twelve words over and over.
I need food.
Pick me up.
Close my door.
All the way.
He’s prone to fits of anger and threatens to fire me as a dad.
When he gets home from school, I ask him how it was, and he says How was what? and marches into his room and slams the door.
Again coincidence? If you think so.
Oh yeah, I had tickets to see Bob outdoors at Forest Hills in 2016, 51 years after he went electric there, and 51 years after I got smacked by my old man for turning up the volume on “Like a Rolling Stone,” but they were predicting bad thunder storms rolling by, and you didn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the winds were going to blow over the old tennis stadium that night-so we ate the tickets, and I’m speaking truth.
But by all means watch Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan story by Martin Scorsese, now streaming on Netflix. The concert footage is super-plastic fantastic and Signore Scorsese makes it more enjoyable lying in bed watching it, than actually being there, with a stomach full of Rock ‘n Rye and a head full of speedy mesc.