Changing Power Structures and Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue

This article is the seventh piece of a weekly series on Bob Dylan.  The previous one is here: Philosophy of Time and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks

Power can be centralised or dispersed.  In this essay, we call the former dictatorship and the latter egalitarianism.  Dylan is usually dictatorial — people who listen to Dylan usually do not know who the band is.  Dylan can switch his drummer or add a guitarist for fun. This is a power over his team that Axl Rose does not have — even up till today, people are still talking about Guns ’N Roses reunion, whereas literally nobody cares for the fact that Dylan’s ex-lead guitarist and concert musical director, the legendary G. E. Smith, is heading the 2012 and 2016 Republican National Convention celebrations, and probably the one in 2020, too.


In the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, however, it was pretty clear that Dylan’s performances started out much more egalitarian.  As Johnathan Cullen once remarked, for the good actor, every play is a story written for himself — violinist Scarlet Rivera certainly does this.  Her presence is so prominent that, if not for that the vocals have higher volume than violin due to mixing, we can very well take songs like Sara as a violin piece accompanied by vocals, bass, and drum.  When I listen to Just Like a Woman, I can see McGuinn’s thoughts and feelings on stage as much I hear Dylan’s voice.


Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Joni Mitchell are not the only personalities present in those pieces, even the audiences are louder.  In a big concert, we only hear clapping and cheering in unison — unless you include the occasional hysterical screams from the crazy people — but the covers recorded in the smaller-sized auditorium do include the voices of the people sitting in the audience seats.  The distinct features of the pieces coming from the Rolling Thunder Revue recordings, therefore, can be termed as egalitarianism.


How can this possibly end, then?  As an imagery, we can say that, this is a coming together of culturally distinct musicians, placed on different geographic locations on stage, performing to audiences from various towns.  The effect of this coming together is a convergence and emergence, and there is only one way that this may possibly end.  


This is a sequence of moves that had been accumulated and built up over the course of the two years.  The final show therefore acquired the significance of a nation-wide intake of sentiments. At the iconic Madison Square Garden, (a place with no identity of its own other than its significant place in the country), the storyline pushes us to expect a climactic ending.  And sure enough, the story proceeded just as planned — it ended with a bang, Ali, and all those public skits.  


The idea is that of a water-fall.  One first starts with small water-drops and builds up potential energies, and then waits till that single eventful occurence that takes over the situation completely.


At this stage, the performative and theatrical selves have taken over Dylan’s feeling and thinking selves, and maybe that’s why he seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself during his shows.



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