Thursday, February 23, 2012

Several Species of Reconstruction: Hard Rain

Memories of a Wet Day - May 23, 1976

Thirty-six years ago, let’s see that would have made me 17 years old - a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver. I heard on the radio (KFML? KAZY? KBCO?) that something called the Rolling Thunder Review which featured Bob Dylan would be playing at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins. Weird. Why Fort Collins? Why was Dylan playing with other people? One has to remember that in 1976, there was no internet, no instant access to information; making a long-distance call was a big, expensive deal and the next issue of Rolling Stone might be two months away from your local store. Yes, there was still some mystery and searching left in the world. It made experiences much fuller when you didn’t know what to expect. Somehow my best friend Joel Berk and I talked our parents into letting us go. It was a Sunday, and we had school (not just school, but finals) the next day. Unbelievably, Joel’s parents gave us the use of their Cadillac (Joel’s dad was a doctor) to set out on the adventure of our lives. Part of the selling point to my parents was that the show started at noon, and thus would have to be over by nightfall - so we would be home at a reasonable hour.
The day arrived and we set off at about 8:00 a.m. not knowing how long it would take us to get to Fort Collins. About an hour and a half later we pulled into Fort Collins, which in 1976 was a pretty sleepy, rural college town. It was Boulder’s hayseed cousin. Kinda dumb, kinda bucktoothed, but beautiful and alluring just the same. We drove around aimlessly for a while until we found a sign pointing to Hughes Stadium. Have I mentioned the weather yet? Completely cloudy! But in that very threatening high-altitude, not gray but green way. We sort of knew we were in for something. We got to the stadium at about 10:00 a.m. and were allowed in with very little security and no lines. Hughes Stadium was pretty small and plain compared to Mile High Stadium or Folsom Field. It was now sprinkling a light rain as we headed onto the field, which was already starting to turn muddy. We decided we would go to the sloping grassy area at the back of the field, looking straight at the stage. We hunkered down while it steadily rained… harder and harder. Around 11:00 the sound system burst to life with The Beatles. Some genius took pity on us and put on the Red Album (1962-1966). I can’t adequately describe how wonderful this was. Up until this point there were maybe a thousand or two people in the stadium, wondering what the hell they were doing there, standing in the rain. Now we had a purpose, a reason to live! God bless The Beatles. People started streaming in and in the next hour or so the stadium filled up with 1976-style Colorado hippies. It wasn’t full, but by 12:30 there must have been at least ten thousand people in the rain.
The stage was obscured by a white canvas curtain festooned with Dylan paintings (which we didn’t know at the time, they just seemed like funny, whimsical, childlike drawings). Suddenly, the Beatles stopped and the curtain rose to a group of bandana wearing musicians. I honestly don’t remember the exact order that things happened, but I do clearly remember that for the next 5 or 6 hours there was a (in my memory) non-stop parade of people on stage. I distinctly remember Kinky Friedman’s set early in the afternoon being outrageously funny and naughty, and the band played a weird, loping countrified rock and roll that would lurch with woozy, ragged harmonies. T-Bone Burnett and Bobby Neuwirth were clearly at the helm, but Mick Ronson’s wild lead guitar took center stage weaving in and out of pedal steel by David Mansfield and Rob Stoner’s overwhelming bass playing. Perhaps the most alluring figure was Scarlet Rivera in a colorful headscarf sawing out these totally memorable violin lines. The band ran through lots of songs with someone different taking lead vocal each time. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot made an appearance and I remember Allen Ginsberg addressing the crowd at some point, but my memory comes into far clearer focus when Dylan finally strolled on stage with a white Arab headscarf on.
The rain hadn’t stopped - not for one second - and the crowd looked like drowned rats. Dylan had an acoustic guitar on and he played a perfect, solo version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Honestly, I could have gone home right then. It was exactly what I wanted from Dylan. I had seen him with The Band in ’74 and it was great, but it was oddly unemotional. I found it hard to connect to the songs. Maybe it was just me, but this, this was IT: Dylan, alone onstage in the rain, playing one of his greatest songs to a bunch of drowned rats. He followed with another solo acoustic performance, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” again letter perfect. Then, responding to someone in the crowd he said “What rain? Fuck the rain” as the rest of the band joined him onstage for a song I didn’t know about “one of our heroes.” The song was “(Where Did) Vincent Van Gogh.” The band was playing that drunken country punk again, except this time they were backing Dylan on an outrageous, wailing version of “Maggie’s Farm.” It kept going, building in intensity as the rain poured and the afternoon wore on. The set reached an amazing highlight when Dylan delivered a devastating, almost proto-metal version of his mysterious love song “Isis.” The band leaves the stage, and out walks Joan Baez, who completely blows everyone’s mind by joining Dylan for a near-perfect rendition of “Blowin’ in The Wind.” Is this real? Is that Bob and Joan onstage together after all these years, cheek to cheek singing “Blowin’” and strumming their acoustic guitars in unison. Yes, and now they are playing the old folk song “Railroad Boy.” The band is back with them and they are just ripping through songs I barely recognize. Some of the old stuff was done with acoustic reverence, but the electric stuff is crackling with energy and totally rearranged. “Shelter From The Storm” has become a total barnstormer, and “Oh Sister” hits like a sledgehammer. Dylan departs the stage.
It is probably about 2 or 3 in the afternoon and the clouds are going nowhere - it is still raining like hell. There is a short break, and the music starts up again. The band is playing more songs I don’t know, and for a while they back Joan for a short set that really got the crowd going. I think she played “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and, surprisingly, her bittersweet love song to Dylan “Diamonds and Rust.” The curtain comes down and there is another short break. The curtain rises again and Dylan is again alone on stage. He plays “I Want You” and it stands in my memory as one of my favorite songs of the day. More wildly imagined band arrangements follow; “Tangled Up In Blue,” “You’re A Big Girl Now,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is made a high-spirited country duet with Joan. Somewhere in there, Roger McGuinn takes center stage and provides another highlight of the day, playing his menacing “Cardiff Rose” and miraculously making the rain stop for a couple of minutes during his Byrds classic “Chestnut Mare.” Dylan returns and the light is getting dim. Night approaches and the audience is soaked and exhausted. The band cranks into what is to be the final stretch of the show. “Lay Lady Lay” is completely reformed into a screaming rocker. It was always one of my least favorite Dylan songs, but this arrangement made it more interesting to me. As the temperature drops, Joel and I decide to get up close to the stage for the finale of the show. The band plays a completely ominous obscurity from Planet Waves, “Going Going Gone” and then lurches into “Idiot Wind” which is delivered with such force and venom towards his soon to be ex-wife Sara (who it turns out was backstage with his mother and kids to surprise him for his birthday) that it was downright scary. Dylan is ferocious - he seems like a man possessed as he screams out the lyrics. As the show climaxes Dylan leads the band through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” letting McGuinn take a verse. The band leaves the stage and the curtain falls once again. It rises on the obvious encore “A Hard-Rain’s-A-Gonna-Fall” which had the audience singing along in miserable solidarity. And then, it was over. We were left in the stadium klieg lights with our breath forming clouds in the air. We looked at each other and realized we had hardly spoken for the last 5 hours. We had been baptized by rock and roll - in a very real sense.
My throat hurt and the drive back seemed like it took forever. I was numb for the next few days. I got a C on a really important final. We really didn’t know what to make of our experience. In a very real way, this was my Woodstock, or whatever thing it is that acts as the turning point in your life. I knew after that experience that I could hang with the big boys in the concert world. If you made it through this show, you could make it through anything. This concert has never left me. The fact that Dylan released part of it as the live document of the tour (the album and TV special Hard Rain) kept it in front of me. I later sought out recordings of every show I could find of The Rolling Thunder Review, and it has become something of an obsession. The show still stands as my favorite concert experience. The adversity of the rain, the innocence of my expectations, and the gigantic reality of the show itself truly make it the stuff of legend. It was not a typical Dylan show for the time though. The songs, the arrangements, the weird, druggy energy made this such an anomaly at that point of Dylan’s career. I thought it was magic, but I often wonder how someone who wasn’t there would have heard it.

I’ve listened to Hard Rain more than any other Bob Dylan record – by far. In fact, I’ve listened to it more than almost any other record, period. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s my all-time favorite live album, above even the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! and the Dead’s Europe ’72. It’s that good, and it rocks my soul every time.
            I should probably qualify my statements. I love Dylan, but I’m not a fanatic, at least not yet. I have nine of his records in my collection, more than I have by most other artists. But considering that he’s released 70 or so, and that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bootlegs on top of that, my Dylan cache is hardly definitive. Most of my nine albums are iconic works from the 60s – The Times They Are a’Changin, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding. I’m trepidatious about exploring his later works because there are so many and they’re so wide ranging. Choosing one feels a little too much like gambling; I’m still such a Dylan neophyte that when I buy a Dylan record I want it to sound like DYLAN, the paragon of the 60s. So it’s kind of funny that the Dylan record I most love is one that shatters the Dylan mold, and one that was panned by critics.
Hard Rain is a real scorcher of a rock record. It’s not hard rock per se, though the guitars are loud and grungy and the drums are fast furious at times. It’s got a raw, lost-in-the-70s rock-and-roll feel to it that demands high-volume listening. It’s full of emotion and energy, most of which emanates from Dylan’s voice: he really belts it out. Quieter standards like “Lay Lady Lay,” “One Too Many Mornings” and “I Threw It All Away” become anguished cries, while more up-tempo numbers like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” are played at near-punk speeds, with Dylan bellowing every line at full blast. It’s like he’s pissed off, but not so pissed that he can’t find the beauty of the melody and the nuance of sentiment in the words. Likewise, his band seems to be playing with reckless abandon, like garage buddies who are deep into their second case of beer. But here too everyone’s hitting all the notes they need to hit in order to not only maintain the songs’ integrity but to squeeze from them a deeper meaning than can be found in their original versions. And there are moments on the record when the band’s ruckus and Dylan’s blaring vocals reach such heights that they have no option but to collapse in on one another, fall to silence, and pick up the song again. Like in “You’re a Big Girl Now,” when he wails, “I'm going out of my mind, with a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to my heart!” and pauses for a long moment before muttering, “Ever since we've been apart.” And “Oh Sister,” when his voice escalates through, “We grew up together, from the cradle to the grave,” until he’s practically screaming when he sings, “We died and were reborn, and then mysteriously saved!” And the band stops, a guitar breaks the silence, the drums and bass join in, and Dylan begins again with his heartbreaking poetry: “Oh sister when I come to knock on your door, don't turn away you'll create sorrow. Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore. You may not see me tomorrow.”
Hard Rain is full of solar-plexus-socking moments like that, and it begs to be heard and felt again and again. True, it doesn’t fit the archetype that critics and connoisseurs have conjured around Dylan. But damn, it’s kick ass rock and roll.

- Paul Epstein / Joe Miller


Anonymous said...

Great read. Have always loved "Hard Rain!"

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this evocative account of a show which has always exerted a real fascination over me. I share your love of the album - think it’s generally very under-appreciated and one of his greatest achievements. Such emotional intensity and honesty, and so unlike the very different but also wonderful RTR 1, which seems to me all about the theatricality, which here has been all but stripped away.

It was the album that sold me on Dylan – I was thirteen in 77 when I started to listen to it here in the UK and though too young to understand much of the substance, the sound and power and ferocious energy of the music and singing had me hooked and have never let go. It struck me then, and still now, that what was being played was the sound of America – almost in some symphonic way: that Dylan was thinking and playing on this gigantic, epic, national scale as well as a deeply personal one. This conjunction also seems to be at the heart of the album’s centerpiece Idiot Wind.

I don’t know exactly how else to explain this impression, except to say that the grungy guitars, bar room piano and pedal steel combined with his howling vocal – especially on that climactic song - felt like America writ large to me, here on the other side of the Atlantic . Not official America of course, but the truth, from the folk culture, Woody Guthrie style. Of course the bi-centennial would have been on his and everyone else’s mind too that summer .

When Dylan reappeared next in ‘78 he was attempting another epic, though very different, synthesis of musical styles – global maybe rather than American (to suit the nature of the tour perhaps) including soul gospel reggae, even cod oriental (Maggie’s Farm). This was when I first saw him live, here in London’s Earl’s Court, and you can imagine how surprised and (at the time) disappointed I was - with Hard Rain’s punkish rawness still ringing in my ears – to see this slick, sax led entertainment: although with hindsight and bootlegs I’ve since come to appreciate the enormous range and beauty of what he achieved that year.

Anyhow thanks again for sharing your Fort Collins experience with us. I used to stare at the audience faces on the album’s rear sleeve photo in awe and envy at what they were witnessing and wondered if they knew.

Mudfish said...

I must agree with the sentiments expressed here. Hard Rain is one of my overall favorite Bob records. A fantastic, on the edge, gun to his head performance document, the likes of which we'll never see again.

Fingers said...

My brother... done wore out my copy of Hard Rain too and Rolling Thunder is my shit. Normally I hate airports but last time I flew I had a TSA mans refer to Bob as the highest level of human achievement after seeing my Rolling Thunder t. Made my day. Have you read Sam Shepherds Rolling Thunder Logbook... interesting insight into the '75 leg of the tour, entertaining read. Great post and remember, you can't lose too too much when your gamblin with Bob Dylan

Anonymous said...

I too, loved that album when it came out, and grew more obsessed with the whole RTR for many years afterwards.
Well done.
Really enjoyed reading this, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your brilliantly told story of Hard Rain, the concert and the record. You lucky ducks!! This was my first Bob Dylan record, to be forever cherished. For me it ended the childhood fancy and fantasy of David Cassidy and just pre-dated The Sex Pistols and X-Ray Spex. A baptism and a revelation that has continued through all these're in for the experience of a lifetime when you pick up some more of his other albums! 'Time Out Of Mind' and 'Together Through Life' are loud and proud too! All the songs shine best on the stage though, whatever the weather. "Forgetful Heart" from 'Together Through Life' to the stage is a particular revelation at the moment. Grace.

fair said...

great story, i've always liked hardrain so much, from the excelent opening maggies farm, video is superb!