Return of the Jokerman

This week in lockdown viewing I wanted to take in some music films and I had another shot at watching the Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019) 

I had started watching it when it showed up on my Netflix recommendations list but given up after the first 10 minutes or so. Apart from Dylan wearing eye makeup and whiteface with that incongruous hat it seemed more like a curious rehash of something I’d already seen rather than essential viewing.

I was expecting something more like “No Direction Home” from Marty and it was closer to a Spinal Tap parody but not as good.

Also many years ago – I have a vague memory of seeing parts of Renaldo & Clara at a film festival at the Mission Bay Berkley theatre to see that. The film had been released in various versions from 1978 and was not received very well but I was curious as Dylan himself had been the director.

At that point I’m thinking I should have another look at the Dylan revue because Netflix have taken down their copy of “Mean Streets” which I much prefer to the later “Taxi Driver.’ In ‘Mean Streets (1973)’ the moment we meet the very young Robert De Niro (in his break through) he walks into a bar to the Stones Jumping Jack Flash which has to be the best music video not made for that song.

Scorsese is clearly a music fan from way back and his way of combining a contemporary sound track with visuals was ground breaking in 1973. And in 2020 it is still just brilliant. Watch below. We are Harvey and everyone else in that bar – gobsmacked and in awe of the 30 year old swaggering De Niro character.

Scorsese directed The Last Waltz in 1978 which takes in part of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour with The Band and includes many of the earlier performers from the 1975 sets.

All of which is to say that Scorsese and Dylan have a lot of history and in many ways they are trying to do the same thing. That is to capture lightning in a bottle. Film making is often seen as a way of doing the same things over and over in front of a camera to try and capture the happy accidents as Orson Welles and many others have talked about.

I’m guessing their hypothetical question might have been “How do we use some of that Rolling Thunder Revue material” and make sense of the Renaldo and Clara stuff too. But the serious films have already been made so this version includes some mockumentary like material such as the Sharon Stone clips.

I should say I am ambivalent about Bob. I’d only seen him live once it was on that 1986 tour he did with Tom Petty who blew him out of the water on stage. Only a couple of years ago Graham Reid mentioned that 1986 concert a few times and it does seem that concert was an all time low.

Reid also wrote a fine review of this film ROLLING THUNDER REVUE, A BOB DYLAN STORY, a film by MARTIN SCORSESE: The drifter escapes, again Graham ReidROLLING THUNDER REVUE, A BOB DYLAN STORY, a film by MARTIN SCORSESE: The drifter escapes, again Graham Reid | Jul 8, 2019 | 4 min read

Clearly the concept was that it had to be more about the mythology of the time and some kind of tone poetry exercise. That sense of a circus where all of the players are continuously running off to join the circus they are already part of. Heck – Bob even drives the bus. But in his mind he is a film maker / circus ringmaster looking for magic every night.

I liked seeing the songs from ‘Desire’ which is one of my favourite Dylan albums and hearing some more about that time. It was also good to see Bob enjoying himself and doing a less commercial kind of tour where he could mix it up with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard. There are insights from Joan Baez and others like Joni Mitchell. There is also plenty of dross. There is a reason for the saying “what happens on tour stays on tour.”

What stuck out for me was chatter about masks, makeup and commedia dell’arte at various times. There was a sense of conscious theatricality about that tour and it was all intentional.

My questions is which version of Bob is in the film and the obvious answer has to be the Jokerman persona that pops up quite a few times. Most famously the actual song off 1983’s Infidels album (best live version here.*)

Back then no one knew what that song was about and most of us didn’t really care. I’m pretty sure In 1983 NZ I was more interested in The Dudes, The Police, Bowies “Lets Dance” and “China Girl”, The Human League and Grandmaster Flash at that time.

However it has been a while and one person who did think about the Jokerman character at length was Australian poet Damien Balassone in an essay from 2012 which I just found because with Dylan there is always bound to be others writing about themes.

Balassone writes “Of course much later this self-labelled Trapeze Artist and Song and Dance Man would create his own music-carnival-circus and call it The Rolling Thunder Revue…
Bob Dylan is forever performing in the theatre of divine comedy. It is always a fascinating experience leaving a Dylan concert and keeping an ear out for disgruntled spectators: there will always be some who are acutely disappointed with what they have just witnessed.
my inclination is that all of this is simply Dylan revelling in the role of the Joker once more. And if we look closely at his songs, he has indeed always been a joker….”

The essay is quite long and an extraordinary read if you like that sort of thing. The other sound fragment that caught my ear was part of a poem about multitudes – which I believe was by Walt Whitmanpoem about multitudes – which I believe was by Walt Whitman and may have been referenced by Ginsberg in the movie.

As serendipity would have it -a few days after I watched this Dylan came out with a song I am Multitudes. The consensus behind the meaning of “I contain multitudes” seems to be that we are contradictory and those contradictions may look unreliable but maybe they are some kind of progress after all. This seems to be an apposite starting point for a new Bob Dylan song and of course it is….

What do you think – did you watch this version of the Rolling Thunder tour?

Update: * The back story behind that great version of Jokermanback story behind that great version of Jokerman that was performed on Letterman with Ron Woods Strat and young band the Plugz.