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Rolling Thunder

A few weeks ago, the new Martin Scorsese documentary Rolling Thunder Revue debuted on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s about Bob Dylan and (surprise) the Rolling Thunder Revue, the all-star folk music concert – slash – theatrical tour which Dylan headlined throughout 1975. It also presents Dylan and his peers at a strange crossroads – their popularity is at an apex, but with the Vietnam War they'd protested at an end, and the ideals of the sixties fallen into an exhausted malaise, they’re not entirely sure how to proceed. And so it tells the story of how Dylan tried to push forward by reaching back into the past, creating an experience that was part vaudeville and part medicine show, and generally getting really weird.

Except, it doesn’t actually tell that story. At least, not in the way we usually expect a “documentary” to work. From out of the hours of archival footage – featuring the strongest footage I’ve ever seen of Dylan, compelling whatever you think of his voice or his songs – it builds a largely fictionalized story of what happened. It creates a fictional documentary filmmaker for the aforementioned archival footage, who complains at length about how he was treated. It inserts fictionalized characters and anecdotes throughout. By the end of it, Michael Murphy is appearing in character as Jack Tanner, the Congressman and presidential candidate he played in the Robert Altman miniseries Tanner ’88. It’s essentially a mockumentary built out of real documentary footage by the people who actually lived the story – which is exactly the sort of irreverent gamesmanship Dylan is known for, and which fits the subject thematically. It’s just aggravating as hell for anybody interested in the topic who was hoping for any verifiable, actual, true stories about these characters.

That’s why I’m here, Gentle Reader.

Roger McGuinn, famed guitarist of The Byrds, features throughout Rolling Thunder Revue as a solo artist on that tour. And every once in a while, you catch a glimpse of a bearded, denim-clad gentleman identified as Jacques Levy. Jacques Levy was the director of the actual Rolling Thunder Revue – which, as I mentioned above, had a large theatrical component. (The Scorsese documentary soft-pedals this element, but you can briefly glimpse some strange pageantry going on when nobody’s singing.) Levy was a fixture of the early Off-Broadway scene, famed for staging the early plays of Sam Shepard. (Wondering how Shepard wound up getting involved in the Rolling Thunder Revue? Now you know.) He went on to direct Oh! Calcutta, for those of you for whom that reference means something. (Ya pervs.) And some years prior to Rolling Thunder, he had worked with McGuinn on a prospective theatrical project that never came to fruition. As per the Wikipedia entry for (Untitled), a 1970 album by the Byrds:

"The studio album mostly consisted of newly written, self-penned material, including a number of songs that had been composed...for a planned country rock musical that the pair were developing.  The production was to have been based on Henrk Ibsen's Peer Gynt and staged under the title of Gene Tryp (an anagram of Ibsen's play), but plans for the musical fell through."

Except…that isn’t true either. Or at least, it’s not the full story. Because while no play by the name of Gene Tryp ever received a professional staging, this material – this folk rock Wild West adaptation of Peer Gynt with songs by The Byrds – did indeed see the light of day.

I know. I was there.

You see, in my senior year of college, Jacques Levy was hired to take over as the head of our drama department. (The search committee must have been big Rolling Thunder fans.) And as the first act of his tenure, he reached into the bottom of his proverbial trunk and pulled out the script, now rechristened Just a Season. He called up his old friend McGuinn, who came to our campus and led the pit band for the show. The other musicians were the campus’ resident hard rock band; it was always a delight to watch them having an absolute blast jamming with a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

The rest of the cast, of course, was performing in a folk rock Wild West adaptation of Peer Gynt with songs by The Byrds. In which the leading role of Peer Gynt was shared by five actors. It was a Brechtian device, you see. (Pro tip: if you’re a director and you want to put something completely bizarre and inexplicable on stage, just call it Brechtian. It’s pure carte blanche.)

The Peer Gynt who tried his hand at politics? (In a scene roughly corresponding to Act IV of Ibsen’s original, if you want to get pedantic?) That was me. The Byrds song "I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician," from (Untitled)’s follow-up Byrdmaniax? Only one person has ever performed that song in its original theatrical context. And you, Gentle Reader, are reading his blog post right now.

How much of the spirit of this then-mothballed project found its way into the Rolling Thunder Revue? Was it a good or bad thing if it did? And I was only there for the first year of Levy’s tenure at Colgate University (where he taught until he passed away in 2004) – what other stories are there to be told from that time? Alas, what I’ve written here is as much of the truth as I’m personally able to vouch for. It remains for some other humble scribe to continue the story.

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