On the Road with Bob Dylan

Dylan releases these days are co-ordinated. Just as the success of 1974's Blood on the Tracks allowed him to release 1966's Basement Tapes, following Love & Theft we expect the imminent release of The Bootleg Series vol 5: The Rolling Thunder Revue. This book, originally published in 1978, documents that tour. Following Blood on the Tracks Dylan picked up a violinist in the East Village and made the hastily recorded Desire album. He hung around the places where he had worked a living as an aspiring folkie and got together a travelling troupe for a tour.

The bootlegs of The Rolling Thunder Revue are peppered with references to 'Our favourite reporter, Larry' and Dylan seems to like the reporter, as do several of the revue. Dylan probably likes him because he is New York, cocky, unafraid to laugh at himself or be laughed at and stands up to him. And he wins respect for his perseverance.

Which is just as well. In a bid to remove Sloman from the tour, tour manager Lou Kemp apparently invited playwright Sam Shepherd to write 'the book' of the tour, but he soon got frustrated and left. On the Road... is far more substantial than Sam Shepherd's Rolling Thunder Logbook. Instead we get a description of Sloman's Job-like perseverance (and recriminations) in the face of massive hurdles: indifference, ridicule, paranoia, poverty, mind-games. Add to that the fact that journalists are a Dylan pet hate. Who would want to be surrounded by so many sharp caustic people? The bad stuff on this legendary tour is as petty as any office.

When Joan Baez coins his nickname - 'Ratso' (a reference to Dustin Hoffman's character in Midnight Cowboy) - Sloman takes the thought that if they talk about you you're in and clings to it for dear life. As a narrative device it is a masterstroke. Once in, he runs with it like a novel.

The Kerouac reference in the title is pointed. Not only due to the company of Allen Ginsberg, a visit to Kerouac's grave, and an interview with a pub owner whose premises Jack used to frequent, Ratso's sleepless desire to find action is contagious and makes you want to read the book in one sitting. He manages to grab every last chance he has, attempting to penetrate the inner circle of performers whose bus is dubbed 'Gettaux'.

One aspect that dates the book is the word 'nigger' bandied around by performers. However, in the milieu of general obscenity it passes as harmless parlance.

A 'documentarist', he has a tape recorder on all the time. His are conversations rather than interviews, and he captures the concerns of several key people. They have different worries - Kinky Friedman's concern is with autonomy. Members of the film-crew voice reservations about Dylan's film-in-progress Renaldo and Clara and revue members have meltdowns. He also captures their mannerisms ('Ratso got Bob right' writes Friedman in a typically entertaining introduction). Sara Dylan's habit of saying 'love' at the end of sentences becomes massively endearing in the paranoid environment he inhabits. As does the late Beattie Zimmerman, Dylan's mother, who seems wonderfully spirited with her feet firmly on the ground, while the enthusiastic analysis of young fans in diners is as informed in its way as Ginsberg's commentary: 'He reminds me of some rabbi, some negun'.

Dylan appears as an oracle, while also pleased to receive information. He is switched on by the autobiography of Hurricane Carter, interpretations of the phrase Rolling Thunder and even the logic of chartering private planes. One remembers the descriptions of Dylan kicking the floor to summon power from the Earth and his aged, timeless hands in Sam Shepherd's book. Sloman's picture is more human, not least in his suspicion that Carter is a conman halfway through. Many unreleased scenes which never made the final movie are included here; some sound interesting, some amateur. There is also the thrill of seeing Joni Mitchell compose her great song 'Coyote', and her gushing meeting with an old friend.

The scene that sticks with me from The Rolling Thunder tour is also from Sam Shepherd's book. Dylan, having heard Hurricane Carter is set to be released drives the tourbus into the night. Abruptly he stops and gets out by some fields, running into the night, awash with amazement at what has been achieved by his strength of will.

In 1976 Dylan was anxious of over-exposure. Following the commercial failure of Renaldo and Clara, however, the only available record of Rolling Thunder performances was the unrepresentative Hard Rain album. It has a black and white cover, while Rolling Thunder was the most highly coloured, subtle, nuanced show ever, prompting comparison with Dylan's description of his songs in 1966: 'That thin, that wild mercury sound ... metallic and bright gold'.

With great pictures and new introduction by Kinky Friedman (whose detective books feature Ratso and himself) remarking on the deaths of many of the troupe, it is great to have this, and the music, back in the public domain.

© 2002 Matt Bryden

On the Road with Bob Dylan, Larry 'Ratso' Sloman, Helter Skelter publishing, 12.99