Bob Dylan is back on the pop culture radar this week, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s mostly truth and partly fiction film, “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” and the simultaneous release of a 14-CD boxed set of live recordings from the 1975 tour documented in the movie.
The film, with some quibbles about the invented passages, has received strong reviews for its illuminating view of Dylan and his tourmates’ performances and interactions. And Dylan obsessives are absorbed in the small variations between the live performances and raving about the previously unheard tracks on the boxed set.
But questions about the releases, and Dylan, naturally arise:
* Is the “Rolling Thunder Revue” boomlet merely yet another wallow in baby boom nostalgia?
* Is it simply additional excessive documentation of the most-written about, and most-often bootlegged artist of the last 60 years?
* Or, less obviously, but more pertinent: Is Dylan still relevant in 2019?
To try to suss the latter, I headed to Pinewood Bowl Saturday to put that question to some of the Lincoln musicians playing the Nebraska Folk & Roots Festival.
“Absolutely," was the instant answer when I posed it to singer/songwriter Andrea Von Kampen, who’d just returned from a cross-country tour. “I still want to sing his songs. I still look to him as a great example, as somebody who found ways to effectively tell stories with his music.”
Dylan’s songwriting, from the 1950s to 2012’s “Tempest,” his last album of original material, is largely what makes him relevant today, said Will Hutchinson, who opened the festival with his band.
“Everybody’s influenced by Dylan, whether they know it or not,” Hutchinson said. “He was the first songwriter to lyrically push the envelope with imagery and poetry. The songs before that told you, not showed you. Dylan’s songwriting changed that.”
For Jack Hotel’s Gunter Voelker, Dylan’s contemporary relevance comes because Dylan is Dylan -- a mysterious, chameleon-like, exploratory and knowing role model.
“Bob Dylan has been the coolest guy in the entire world. He was in his 20s, and he’s not any less cool now," Voelker said. “I think about him fielding interviews in the early days, when he was being saddled with the world, the voice of a generation, and he was deflecting all that. He was a jump ahead of everybody who was asking questions. There’s no question he knew exactly what he was doing at that time and he knows exactly what he’s doing now.”
As for the film, it gets a thumbs-up from Scott Severin, a New York rocker who settled in Nebraska in 2004.
And Severin knows what he’s talking about with the film. He was at Gerde’s Folk City on Oct. 23, 1975, when the Rolling Thunder Revue held what was essentially a dress rehearsal at the legendary Greenwich Village venue -- an evening documented in the first 15 minutes of the movie.
“I was there, hiding in the back,” Severin said. “I was underage at the time."
The footage Scorsese assembled for his documentary was shot to be available for use in “Renaldo and Clara,” a semi-autobiographical film Dylan was making during the Rolling Thunder Revue.
“It was an unmitigated disaster, especially financially,” Severin said. “Bob was trying to keep his marriage together by inviting both his wife, Sara, and his ex-girlfriend, Joan Baez, on the tour together, which may not have been the smartest thing he’s ever done. Interestingly, Baez is in the movie, but Sara is not.”
That selective editing aggravates Severin, as does Scorsese’s creation of a pair of characters -- a German film director who claims to have shot the picture and Sharon Stone playing herself as a teenage Dylan groupie -- “I was there, she was not,” Severin said.
But the nonfictional portion of the movie captures Dylan as he was in 1975, a far different performer than a decade earlier.
“He is animated,” Severin said. “He looks more like David Johansen (of the New York Dolls) or Iggy Pop than a folk singer.”
And it preserves chill-bump inducing musical moments, like a powerfully angry take on “Hurricane” and Joni Mitchell’s dressing room performance of “Coyote” -- a song she wrote about the “affair” she had with playwright Sam Shepard on the tour -- with Dylan and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds joining her on acoustic guitars.
As for the boxed set, Dylan aficionados are digging into the five full Dylan sets, rehearsal recordings and raving about the rare live performances.
Their only complaint: that the set doesn’t include the performances of Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, poet Allen Ginsberg and the others who joined Dylan on the ramble through small venues from Massachusetts to New York 44 years ago.
The boxed set is an easy sell to Dylan aficionados who have snapped up decades of his “Bootleg Series.” (Pro tip here: if you’re looking for Rolling Thunder Revue performances and don’t want to drop $100 on the boxed set, find a copy of the 2-CD “The Bootleg Series Vol 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue” -- it will more than satisfy that need.)
But does anyone other than longtime fans listen to Dylan’s music, either streaming or on vinyl or CD? The answer appears to be yes.
Tuesday, there wasn’t a Dylan album, new or used, to be found in the bins at Lefty’s Records.
“I’ve got a copy of ‘Nashville Skyline,’ I just haven’t put it out yet,” said Lee Greer of Lefty's. “It will be gone quickly.”
Who will buy it?
“Dylan sells well to all ages, it seems,” Greer said. “There are plenty of younger people that appreciate him, too.”
There is one area in which millennials are increasingly shut out from Dylan, Hutchinson said.
“For young people, he’s not accessible any more for live performances,” Hutchinson said. “I can’t afford $200 to see him play.”
Severin, however, has witnessed multiple Dylan performances, from the ‘70s to his June 2016 concert at Pinewood Bowl.
“Bob is relevant because he’s still performing,” Severin said. “There are those who say he’s seriously declined as a live artist. … I saw Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles in the last year of their lives. Each of them was severely diminished as a performing artist. But it was an honor to be on the planet with them.”
And Severin believes the 78-year-old Dylan will continue his Never Ending Tour until he can no longer go on.
“Mr. Dylan is a very religious man,” Severin said. “He doesn’t see it as a job. He sees it as a calling. I think he’s trying to get into heaven. He’s not going to stop.”
In that manner, Dylan will remain relevant until the day he dies. And his influence on generations of songwriters will make him an integral figure in music for decades thereafter.