Sunday, June 20, 2010

Shelter From the Storm - Bob Dylan

By Robin Graeme Smith


I'm sure somewhere out there in Dylan land there is a rock guru who knows more about the big D than Sid but I've certainly never met them. Affable, rangy and polite enough to listen to my contributions to the conversation, what a great dinner party guest he would make. Sid shared his encyclopaedic knowledge but not in that obsessive geeky way that some do. It was a real pleasure to spend a morning with Sid discussing his forthcoming book Shelter From The Storm and of course we strayed into all sorts of esoteric rock corners such as the influences of Gram Parsons on The Byrds and the quality of latter day Oasis albums.

Sid's last book Million Dollar Bash, an exploration of the basement tapes period, was one of the best selling books in the genre when it was published and I'm positive that this book, the second in the trilogy will do as well.

Taking as his subject the 18 months, starting in 1975 when Dylan led a traveling retinue of musicians around America on the two legs of the Rolling Thunder tour, along for the ride were Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, David Blue, Kinky Friedman, T-Bone Burnett, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Sheppard, Mick Ronson, and dozens more musicians, friends, family and hangers-on.

The circus was documented in the film Renaldo and Clara (edited by Dylan), the live album Hard Rain, and a TV concert special of the same name, while in between the two legs of the tour Dylan released the classic Desire album. It is this period of heightened creativity and personal drama that Sid explores.

The subject is certainly something that hasn't been addressed before and Sid has really hit a rich seam here. This 18 month period was extraordinarily productive for Bob, two tours, two albums a four hour album (Renaldo and Clara) and TV specials.

Interviewing many of the tour's participants including musicians Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, Kinky Friedman, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and tour manager Louie Kemp, Sid mixes meticulous musical analysis into a gripping narrative in this definitive account the of Rolling Thunder years, and of course as he has lived the Rock n Roll lifestyle himself (Long Ryders and Coal Porters) he brings an interesting perspective to the genre.

His book really encapsulates his philosophy of 'never talking down to his audience' which is really refreshing. As we discussed, many rock books really are a pastiche of hackneyed clich├ęs that seem to doubt that the readers has more than half a brain cell. This is a must have book for any Dylan fan, particularly if you love a fresh, intelligent approach, with quality writing and amazing insights.

Here's a quick taster from the introduction to the book

"A hero is anyone who walks to his own drum." Bob Dylan

As the Twentieth Century came to a close Time magazine announced it was compiling a list of one hundred names who were The Most Important People of The Twentieth Century. Divided into sections the Artists and Entertainers category wisely included Bob Dylan, writer Jay Cocks referring to Dylan as (a) "Master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation" which, while accurate, is only a portion of his act, a portion of his art. For proof look no further than the other categories Time used, as it isn't difficult to imagine Dylan being included in Leaders and Revolutionaries, Builders and Titans, or Heroes and Icons. For he is all of those.

This book also focuses on a portion of Dylan's act and his art, the period of time roughly dating from summer 1975 and the beginnings of the Rolling Thunder Revue to summer of 1976 when Dylan retreated to edit his Renaldo and Clara film footage with Howard Alk. Yes, this book backs up a bit before summer 1975 at times in order to present the necessary back-story and it slides past summer 1976 at points to complete the tale-telling but it is pretty much the story of a little over a year in a still young man's life.

A year in which the young man appeared on American TV honouring an old friend, recorded a number one studio album of groundbreaking music, toured his native land twice, filmed and began to edit the first motion picture he would direct, campaigned proudly for the release of a man who he felt was wrongly incarcerated, filmed a TV special, junked that one and then filmed a second TV special, edited that second TV special, and released a live album from the second tour of his gypsy circus.

That is one helluva year.

There are books on the first Rolling Thunder Revue tour, two books on Desire, chapter after chapter discussing Renaldo and Clara in Dylan tomes, and a number of books on the Hurricane Carter legal case. However there is only one book which shifts through all the art, all of it, and which digests all the criticism of years hence and which puts the tours, the TV specials, the music, the personalities, the wild movie, the social campaigning and the live album on equal footing and under one roof.

This is a truly interesting book and highly recommended.

Robin Smith runs Rokpool an online rock music archive site that explores rock music history from the last sixty years, and features previously lost, hidden or forgotten articles, pictures, audio, and video, from the greatest and not so great artists that make up our music heritage. Rokpool can be found at

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  1. Very informative article. Sounds as if this is a must read for Dylan fans.

  2. I see Mr Griffin is putting titles on Dylan, akin to Archbishop of Anarchy, Spokesman of a Generation etc. which Dylan, however disingenuously, throws off in grumpy manner in interview (at least as late as 2004). All this while other posters talk about "the pressure" Dylan was "being put under" in the 60s. Let's stop talking in the third person, shall we? The only person who put Dylan under pressure was ultimately himself. Come gather round people - and then, when you have, I will tell you to fuck off because I am really just a song and dance man. Yeah, right. I don't believe in Zimmerman, I just believe in Lenny Bruce ...