You will not die, it's not poison
I'm listening to Bob Dylan's newest release, Live 1975. This CD/DVD collection is culled from his Rolling Thunder Tour of 1975. This tour consisted of Dylan, Joan Baez and a travelling troupe of musicians that included guitarist Mick Ronson, folk guitarist Bobby Neuwirth, guitarist T Bone Burnett, violinist Scarlet Rivera, bassist Rob Stoner, and a few others who came and went over the course of the tour. Allen Ginsberg lent his presence, poetry, wit, and hand cymbals to several of the shows, as well. It was a cultural phenomenon in its day.
Dylan was getting ready to release the Desire album, which included the anthem "Hurricane." For those who don't know, this song was an impassioned call to release the boxer Hurricane Carter, who had been falsely imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. It was another song in Dylan's series of songs about Black people who had been denied their humanity thanks to America's bloody legacy of racism. Three other songs in this vein that come quickly to mind are "Emmett Till", "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", and "George Jackson."
The tour was not just another rock band on the road. It was a travelling circus with a purpose - that purpose was to free Hurricane Carter and, by doing so, remind the rock and roll nation that racism had not disappeared. Indeed, it was as bad as it ever was. The only difference was that it was harder to see now that America's legal apartheid had lost its sanction, thanks to the civil rights and black liberation struggles of the previous twenty years.
The other role this tour would play would be to remind the rock and roll nation that our music was more than just a goodtime sound - it was our talking drum, the way our message reached each other and the powers that be. Free Hurricane! Free our minds! Free our country! That's what the civil rights movement was all about.
Unfortunately, that movement itself was in disarray. Many of its most militant and identifiable individuals and groups had been murdered or jailed - Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, to name two. Others had lost their way via drugs, drink, and despair. Others had succumbed to the many temptations that capitalism offers. Some were just plain tired.
Still others had rendered themselves virtually irrelevant by picking up the gun or the bomb and going underground, occasionally making a small noise by blowing up part of a building or by robbing a bank. Those who were left and were still thinking politically were joining communist sects that seemed to spring up weekly, like mushrooms after a rain. It was a dismal time in terms of the revolution.
Culturally, the momentum had been lost. The Rolling Stones and their imitators were either capitalist clowns or trying hard to be. The Grateful Dead had ended the first round of their thirty year countercultural journey, and not even the Deadheads knew what lay ahead for them. The rock promoters were the rising stars in the scene. In fact, it was no longer a scene; it was an industry. Like it does to everything, capitalism had commodified the counterculture. It had become something you went to a head shop to buy. Even the food co-ops were closing down because of competition from health food stores that operated for profit and because their clientele was choosing to shop at Safeway.
So, Dylan hit the road. By doing so, he made rock and roll relevant again. The songs were more than tales of vanity, lust, and hedonistic pleasure, and the performers were on a mission of truth. For those who can remember, truth was in pretty short supply in 1975. Richard Nixon had left the White House in ignominy only a few months before. Gerald Ford, America's first president who had not even gone through the charade of an election, sat in his place. The war in Vietnam, which had been started on a series of lies and mistruths, had ended in May 1975 with a victory for the Vietnamese. Already, that victory was being rewritten. Somebody who was unafraid to speak (or sing in this case) the truth was sorely needed. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue fit the bill.
Two weeks before the Dylan 1975 CD was released, The Other Ones began their Fall tour. For those who don't know, The Other Ones are the Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia, and with new members Rob Barraco and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards and Jimmy Herring on lead guitar. They play many of the same songs and naturally approach the music as the Dead did - long, extended jazzy, blues jams and incredibly danceable rhythms. The guitar snakes its way amongst the rhythms, like a six-foot black snake in the Eastern woods of North America. The bass playing makes the musical ground underneath those guitar runs pulsate like the desert heat on a lonesome stretch of interstate.
I found myself at this band's November 16th show in Albany, New York. Like everyone else, I had no idea what to expect, but I was hoping for the best. That's what I got. Musically, the show was far above expectations. The blues tune "Cold, Rain and Snow" opened the first set while I waited outside to get in. From there, the music just continued to improve. The band mixed Dead tunes with blues and folk standards, never missing a beat. From the surreal "Crazy Fingers" off the Dead's 1975 album Blues for Allah to Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster", almost everyone in the sold-out hall danced their asses off.
I looked around during the intermission. Audience members smiled and smoked lots of weed. After all, it's harvest time in the Northeast. A pretty young woman near where I was standing was with a group of her friends, one of whom had a baby who was wearing earplugs and giggling. Mama and her friend both wore t-shirts that said "Make Love Not War." Their male friends' t-shirts were more direct - both stated "Fuck War" in bold red and black letters. As I looked around more I saw more peace buttons and antiwar slogans adorning the audience members then I had seen since I was in DC on April 20, 2002 for the big antiwar march that Saturday. There is something happening here. I hope Mr Jones (oops, I mean Mr Bush) takes notice.
The second set began with "Scarlet Begonias" from Mars Hotel - not a political song, by any means, but very danceable. Of course, the Dead (and The Other Ones) don't write many political songs. They choose, instead, to help the audience create a world where the politics are of joy. That doesn't mean they weren't political - they played more benefits for more varied causes than any other rock band during their heyday. From the Black Panthers to the ACLU to the Berkeley Food Bank to the defence fund for those arrested during the 1969 People's Park insurrection, the Dead put their money where their heart was.
I left the show feeling better about the world than I did when I went in. The last time I felt that way after a rock concert was when I saw Bob Dylan and his Band at Madison Square Garden in November 2001. These two groups do more than play music. They carry on the cultural traditions of the real American culture - the culture of the inner city and the tenant farmers' shacks, the bohemian urban enclaves and the green hills of Vermont and Virginia, the farmworkers' lean-tos and the hobo's open highway, Desolation Row and Shakedown Street.
Commercialism is alien to the condition this music creates, despite commercialism's continuing attempts to form the music into its image. Why? Because commercialism shrinks the consciousness. This music expands it.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground (Verso: 1997), and lives at Burlington, VT. This article is reproduced with the author's kind permission from Counterpunch, 14 December 2002.